By Ellie Kelly
BARCELONA (Reuters) - For a nation famed for its equestrian prowess, the British showjumping team is suffering a crisis.
This week they crashed out of the FEI Nations Cup Final in the first round of the prestigous competition, held in Barcelona.
At the World Equestrian Games last month, they failed to pick up one of six qualifying spots for Tokyo 2020. It was not long ago that the showjumpers won team gold at London 2012.
In Rio 2016, 58-year-old Nick Skelton inspired the nation by winning individual gold at his seventh Olympic attempt.
According to Performance Manager Di Lampard, it is not lack of rider talent but a shortage of good horsepower and the team needs support.
"We have two chances left to qualify for the Olympics. We need sponsors and owners because we have got talent. We can take on the best riders in the world and win medals but we need to be riding similar horses," she told Reuters.
"To do this we need to keep improving British breeding of horses and attract new owners."
Few elite riders own their horses outright, so are reliant on the patronage of owners.
"Our riders are some of the best in the world at producing horses and breeding is strong. But we have to keep hold of the good ones. Events like this (Nations Cup) can be a showcase for horses which makes riders vulnerable," Lampard said on the sidelines of the final.
For decades British Showjumping has been dominated by the same names. Brothers John and Michael Whitaker, for example, have been stalwarts since the 1970s and are still aiming for team selection.
The average age in the British Team at the Rio Games was 53. Despite being a sport where men and women compete together, it was rare for a woman to make the cut.
But Lampard is changing that. The average age in Barcelona was 34 and three of the four riders on the team were women.
“The girls today have ambition. I think it’s a reflection of society,” said Lampard, who before this year was the last woman rider to make a World Championship team in 20 years.
“They have seen the door is wide open for the team and they are taking it.”
In the midst of Nations Cup gloom, Lampard defended her selection of new blood.
“As a team we are in a developing stage. This year has been an opportunity for younger riders to break into the team.
"Yes we were disappointed but those horses weren't targeted for Barcelona and weren’t ready. We are thin on the ground for strong partnerships of horse and rider. You can only pick what you have.”
Lampard was also philosophical about the inevitable criticism from the home front. “Someone has to take the flak and I’m happy to. But I do stay off social media."
(Reporting by Ellie kelly; Editing by Ken Ferris)