IN the lush hills and woodlands of central New Jersey, the top American show-jumping horses and riders gathered last month to compete for a place on the United States Olympic show-jumping team.
Elegantly turned-out equestrians on impeccably coiffed jumpers managed to look perfectly regal despite downpours and seas of red mud. English-accented announcers gave the event a sophisticated tone.
The sky cleared for the main event, and the final Olympic selection trial concluded with the announcement of the show-jumping team that will compete in Barcelona, Spain, next month. (See accompanying story.)
In May, about 50 horse-and-rider combinations entered the first of six selection trials for the show-jumping team. Only the top 15 horses and riders compete in the final three trials.
Several favored competitors fell by the wayside mainly because of injuries to horses or riders. "We may be missing some horses that we should have [on the team]," says Frank Chapot, chef d'equipe (coach) of this year's Olympic show-jumping team. The new, objective selection system in place for this Olympics rules out the possibility of including any horse or rider who can't compete in the trials.
The equestrian disciplines of show jumping, dressage, and three-day eventing have been part of the Olympics since 1912.
Show jumping is second only to soccer as the most popular television sport in England. And the event is gaining popularity in the US. Since the US show-jumping team won the gold in 1984 and the silver in 1988, American spectators have been hearing more about the event.
Mr. Chapot gives several reasons for the increased interest in show jumping. "It's very easy to understand," he says. "It's not judged on style. The horse that jumps the widest, and the highest, and the fastest wins. And it's quite a pretty sport with lots of action."
The fast-paced event requires riders to guide their 1,000-pound mounts over 15 to 20 fences without incurring "faults" for knocking down rails, missing fences, or exceeding the time limit. The horse and rider with the fewest faults comes out on top.
Equestrian events are among the few Olympic sports in which men and women of all ages compete against each other equally. Competitors range in age from 17 to 60.
"What other sport is there where it's really equal?" asks Debbie Shaffner, a show jumper from Ambler, Pa., who made it to the final round of trials.
Equestrians generally excel with experience: Horses may only remain in top form for two or three Olympics, but with new mounts, riders can compete for decades.
An ongoing debate centers around the question of who is really the athlete in equestrian events: the horse or the rider.
"I think they are both athletes," Chapot says. "Maybe the horse a little more," he concedes. "A good horse can carry a bad rider for a short time but not for the long run."
Ms. Shaffner gives the horses more credit. "The horse is definitely the athlete," she says. Eighty-five percent of a show-jumping performance rests with the horse, she estimates. The rider, acting as steward and guardian, makes up the other 15 percent.
"You have to treat horses like an eight-year-old child," Shaffner says. "You help them study for the test, eat right, get rest, train. But it's up to them to do it."
Proven show jumpers are valuable commodities. "There's not a horse in the barn for under $200,000," says Dan Reed, a US Equestrian Team security guard in charge of the show-jumping barn here.
A good jumper has to have "heart," Shaffner says. "They've got to pull from within to give that extra."
DAVID RAPOSA, a show-jumping competitor from Clinton, N.Y., says a good show jumper has to be able to master five-foot jumps easily and consistently. "They have to be careful and brave enough so that no matter what, they clear the fence."
"In this sport, caution doesn't really help," Chapot says. "You have to be aggressive." Momentum is a necessity, but riders must keep control of their horses' pace and stride at all times.
Elaborate courses are professionally designed and changed for every round of competition. Fences range up to six feet in height and can be up to six feet in width (distance through the jump). The first round of this final selection trial had a time limit of 83 seconds for 15 jumps. The second round required 11 jumps in 71 seconds.
"You spend four years for 83 seconds, and you knock four poles down; it's frustrating," says Mr. Raposa, who failed to make the team. The Olympics is the ultimate competition for show jumping. "You don't jump for any money, but it's the Olympics," Raposa says. "It's every kid's dream. ... I'm hoping that four years from now I can come back and do it again."
Now that this year's team is in place, group members will work individually to perfect their performances. They will come together here at the US Equestrian Team's headquarters to work as a group just before departing for Barcelona July 23.
Although Chapot will travel with the team as coach, he plays down his role. "Most of the people who are of this caliber have their own coaches or are coaches themselves," he says. "They don't need anybody to teach them to ride at this point.... My job is to talk strategy and observe, more as an adviser than a coach."
Chapot also plays the role of cheerleader. "Let's jump our way into a medal," he told his freshly announced team at a press conference following the final round of trials here.