Interviews & Profiles

This Is What Happens When You Send a Race Reporter to Interview a Show Jumping Judge

John “JT” Taylor applauds technology, encourages access and name drops The Boss

When Horse Network’s resident race reporter Richard R. Gross pitched an article on the changing whip rules in Thoroughbred racing, we suggested that he speak with a seasoned show jumping judge to look at usage rules in a sport where they’ve long been clearly defined. What followed between him and internationally acclaimed judge John “JT” Taylor was a conversation that veered off course into live streams, language, drugs, and more. Because no matter how diverse the disciplines, when you put two horse people together they inevitably find common ground.

Richard R. Gross: It’s rare to have a master class with a master official, so thank you for your time.

John Taylor: (Laughs) Well, I’m not so sure about the “master” part, but thank you.

RRG: The popularity of show jumping is growing worldwide. Do you have any feelings as to why that might be?

JT: it is getting more accessible because of the live stream. Ten years ago it was a highlight, live or on television. It’s become an everyday affair. Now, you can watch anything anywhere in the world and 95 percent of it is free.

RRG: So, you believe a technological revolution is helping make a traditional sport more popular?

JT: Absolutely. It used to be you saw your local shows and you were lucky if they got on television. Now you can see anything. Yesterday, we were watching something from Sweden. It’s amazing.

RRG: I come from the racing world. But when I grew up near Philadelphia, I recall the Devon Horse Show. Jumping seemed like an “Ivy League” sport to me, a bit from another world.

JT: Yes! I judged it last year. It is old-fashioned and Old World style and hugely popular. People love it. It’s one of those large standing of the traditional events. Women still dress up and wear fancy hats and everyone eats lovely sandwiches with the crust cut off (laughs).

RRG: So, it’s about tradition. I was recently at the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in Paris and it seemed very 19th century, in a good way.

JT: Yes, yes, a very elegant world. It’s something we’re missing. Our Royal [Agricultural] Winter Fair in Toronto, which is our premiere indoor show and the Canadian Championships for most divisions, is like that as well. It’s still black tie at night, ball gowns for the ladies; very elegant, right in the middle of a great city.

John “JT” Taylor received the 2017 Official of the Year Award at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. Photo courtesy of Starting Gate Communications.

Our discussion moved to areas at issue in our respective sports.

RRG: The issue that originally sparked my interest, coming from the racing world, was the controversy regarding the use of what we call whips, commonly known as crops in the equestrian world. But, looking at the FEI (Federation Equestre Internationale) rules, I noticed they are referred to as whips there as well.

JT: The word crop has gone out of fashion…”whips” is definitely in.

RRG: That’s interesting because in racing they now want to stop use of the word whip and start using crop because whip sounds…more harsh.

JT: We’ve gone the other way. Crop was seen as sort of an old-fashioned British term, whip the more modern term.

RRG: I notice that in the FEI guidelines, there are extensive rules about what constitutes abuse using equipment. There are mentions throughout about what constitutes abusing horses. Have those rules evolved over the years?

JT: Yes, for sure it’s evolved over the years to the point where there are rules about how many times you can strike a horse with a whip, no more than three times, and that you cannot hit a horse after you have been eliminated in a competition, since that would indicate a kind of venting of anger. If a competitor does that, they will be severely warned or even fined.

Now, that’s an FEI rule we use in Canada. The U.S. has its own set of rules unless it’s an FEI-sanctioned event. The U.S. works with two sets of rules and their rules are not quite as far-reaching as the FEI or Canadian ones.

RRG: What significant differences are there between the FEI and U.S. rules?

JT: The FEI rules are a little further reaching. The U.S. rules don’t mention you cannot hit a horse after it’s been eliminated. There are differences in how long the whip may be, 30 inches versus 75 centimeters (29.5 inches), you can carry only one whip. In general, the FEI rule is more extensive. The U.S. rule doesn’t mention how many times they can be struck and it doesn’t mention striking them after you’ve been eliminated.

Show jumping judge John “JT” Taylor inspects the course before competition at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. ©Shelley Higgins

RRG: That’s an interesting similarity with the racing world. There are trainers who forbid—and fire jockeys—using the whip because they perceive whipping as punishment. With jockeys, there are different opinions: one is that the whip is basically a guiding mechanism, not one for spurring on a horse. Is that at all controversial in jumping, the use of a whip at all?

JT: Not as much as in racing. Most of the time with riders in the ring, you would see them carry the whip but not use it. A lot of the time in racing from what I see, it’s an aid to go faster to win that race. Very seldom in jumping do you see a whip used as an aid. Perhaps when they need a little encouragement to get over a big wide oxer or something would someone resort to using the whip. You don’t see it used a lot.

RRG: So, from a judge’s point of view, not using a whip is considered a plus.

JT: Yes, well, we’re just doing objective judging; unless it gets into an abusive phase. You watch very closely when someone starts waving their stick around and “keep an eye on that one” to make sure it doesn’t get abusive. And FEI rules say if they break skin, there are…repercussions.

RRG: Are the whips in jumping similar to those used in racing?

JT: They’re similar. There’s a big custom whip-making business out there; but as far as I know, the whips are fairly similar.

RRG: The other controversial issue in racing is the use of medication. Do you find there is much abuse at all in equestrian sport?

JT: There’s always some of that hovering around. We’re pretty regulated with drug testing, pretty much at every show. People are pretty much aware of what they can and cannot use. U.S. rules are a little more lenient that the FEI rules, which are quite strict.

The biggest issue for everybody is the contamination issue.

There have been positive tests for cocaine. Now, it’s quite unlikely someone would give cocaine to a horse, but if someone (in the barn) has been using cocaine…the tests are so refined: just the slightest thing will test positive. So, everyone is very careful: about sterilizing stables, where the feed comes from, where the hay comes from…not easy to control.

John “JT” Taylor at home in Canada. Photo courtesy of Jump Media

Our conversation moved to money. “Business” is an issue in all sports, and equestrian sports are no exception.

RRG: I noticed in another interview you mention that jumping has becoming more of a “business” as it has become more “popular.” Are those in sync? As it becomes more of a business, it becomes more popular; is popularity in some way “contaminating” the sport?

JT: It’s certainly not as easy a sport to get into as it was when I was a kid riding for sure. Very few what we call “backyard people” who can do it themselves without the help of professionals or a big training barn. The horses are so expensive now and the cost of showing them is so expensive. It makes it more popular because you see a lot of more high profile people doing it. But it’s certainly not as accessible (financially) and that’s certainly one of the issues all of our organizations face, to make it more accessible to the average person. When you have to pay 300K or 400K for your kid’s first pony, well, it’s….phew!

RRG: Because of the exploding cost of Thoroughbreds, syndication has become more popular in racing. Is syndication something that happens in the jumping world?

JT: Some of the big riders may put together syndicates to buy a particular horse, but there are also a lot of very wealthy patrons. Just look down at the list of the people riding at the show: the Springsteens, the Grangers, the Bloombergs…

RRG: The Springsteens? That Springsteen? The Boss?

JT: Yes…Jessica…Bruce and Patti’s daughter. She’s a very competitive contender. She could quite well make the Tokyo team for the States. Michael Bloomberg’s daughter—Georgina—she’s very much a contender. Athina Onnasis. The list could keep going. And those are only the ones whose names we recognize. Others? “Never heard of that one” You Google them and discover they’re worth $40 billion.

Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg, helped team USA to a bronze medal at the 2015 Pan American Games. ©Horse Network/Carley Sparks

Our conversation concluded with advice for both the novice participant in the sport as well as current and novice fans.

RRG: So, the sport attracts big money. If you were to attract people with ordinary money to jumping and other equestrian sports, what would you tell them to look for? How could a novice first become interested in the sport?

JT: For a novice to get in and get interested they have to go a good professional—and that doesn’t always mean the highest end most expensive. There are a lot of good local people. And in both Canada and the U.S., there are a lot of good local level shows, a great way for kids to start, because the top level is becoming less and less affordable. But the local level is growing and pretty healthy.

RRG: …and for the viewer, the casual fan?

JT: That depends on what’s in their area. Watch it online and then get to visit shows in places like Wellington (Florida). It’s probably the biggest horse show in the world. There will be probably 10,000 horses here for the winter season. Wellington is fascinating. Tour the area. There are small farms all around the horse show.

You can invest in the horses. There are barns around the horse show where people can just keep their horse in comfort then just ride it over to the horse show. Wellington is fascinating.

RRG: You split your very busy year between Wellington and judging events worldwide. What events do you most enjoy judging?

JT: I did the last World Championships and the last two World Finals. Those big championships are always a highlight. I judge 45 or more shows every year, pretty much every week. But the Championships are certainly a highlight. I was in Sweden to do the World Cup Finals in 2019. Lots of fun and the best jumping you can see. Those shows are very select, very organized and a pleasure to work. And I do a lot of shows in the U.S. and in Canada.

RRG: Regarding the future of events: What can be done to make them both more accessible and more enjoyable?

JT: That’s an ongoing issue for all our sports’ organizations…how to make it more accessible with the expense being the major factor. The established people can help those local shows and smaller circuits, allow people to get into the sport that way. It’s the best way to encourage people to get into the sport.

RRG: Are those shows available throughout both Canada and the U.S.?

JT: Yes, absolutely. You find local shows grow up around big established shows. Sometimes people will want to go away from a bigger show and appreciate smaller, schooling shows for the more relaxed atmosphere. Those shows are doing well.

The subject of making the sport more accessible is one many, many experts are discussing and I’m not sure they’ve yet come up with a perfect solution, but it’s an issue all (equestrian) sports are grappling with now.

RRG: But you feel the online technology is making it more accessible from a fan’s point of view?

JT: Yes, that side of it has become very slick, very slick. All the big shows now do live streaming, and most of it is free.

RRG: This is a busy time of year for you, so many thanks for taking time to “school” both our more experienced and novice show jumping enthusiasts.

JT: Thanks to you and to your readers as well.