A professional show jumper has to navigate a complicated set of obstacles with limited time. That is equally true before the competition starts as the rider, horses and their support staff have to travel to the event and then quickly move to the next one.
A rider often travels around the world nearly every weekend of the year, attending dozens of competitions. The logistical challenges of that are daunting.
There are travel schedules for multiple horses and their support teams to juggle and training to maintain. Grooms come along. The riders themselves do not have much free time as they scramble from one competition to another, popping into a new location midweek and often leaving on a Sunday for the next event.
“It is by no means a 9-to-5 job or one where you can clock out when the day’s over,” said Adrienne Sternlicht, an American rider who was on the gold medal-winning team at the World Equestrian Games last year. “It’s really a lifestyle sport just so far as there’s really no such thing as time off.”
She and other riders from around the world have come to New York for the Longines Masters starting this weekend at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, flying in for less than a week before leaving for the next competition.
Top riders can often compete in about 40 shows per year around the world, each of which are usually held from Wednesday to Sunday. This means the teams are constantly in transit.
“Week in, week out, you pack your bag, go to the airport, travel and stay in a hotel,” said Olivier Philippaerts, a Belgian show jumper who will be bringing his horses H&M Cue Channa 42 and Insolente des Dix Bonniers, both gray mares, to the Masters. “I basically live in a hotel, I get only three days home a week, so I am in a hotel more than I am at home.”
Despite that, some riders said that traveling all over the world and getting to compete at the top level made up for the downsides.
“You get tired, and miss your family, but especially when you’re young, there is no real negative,” said Beat Mändli, a Swiss show jumper who will bring his bay mare Dsarie and his chestnut gelding Galan S to the Masters. “Every day is different, and there is always some new exciting stuff coming up.”
Though riders are constantly traveling, a single horse cannot compete that often. So riders keep strings of horses — like a bench of athletes — that they rotate depending on the event. These strings can often range from five to 10 horses, though usually only two or three are taken to each competition.
“Just because the rider is going to 40 competitions a year doesn’t mean any one horse is going to 40 a year, not even remotely close to that,” said Robert Ridland, the chef d’équipe of the United States team. “It’s a very complicated operation for these riders with all these strings of horses and how to keep them on the road and keep them fresh, rotating the other ones in.”
Though it varies based on each horse’s needs, according to United States Equestrian Federation data compiled by Ridland, the average international grand prix horse competes in about 43 classes, or about 14 shows, per year. This adds another layer of logistics because the horses fly on separate schedules from the riders. And the horses staying home need to be kept in shape.
Carmen Cremers, who handles the travel for Philippaerts and his three brothers, who are also show jumpers, said it can get hectic.
“I basically organize everything for them, staff-wise, journey-wise, entries, hotels, flights, paperwork, accountancy stuff,” she said. “All of it.”
In April alone, Olivier Philippaerts competed at the F.E.I. World Cup Finals in Goteborg, Sweden, and afterward flew home for a layover in Oudsbergen, Belgium. He then headed to Mexico City for the Longines Global Champions Tour, flew to Miami for the next round of the tour and is now in New York for the Masters.
The horses he rode in Mexico and Miami flew home, while his two horses for New York were shipped to meet him at the show.
We try to plan “as far as possible in advance, but we always keep in mind that last-minute changes can come up,” Cremers said.
Such as, if horses have to drop out. They have extras prepared if that happens. “When we apply to a show like New York, where he can take two horses, we make sure that everything is good to go for four horses,” she said.
Shipping horses and riding equipment, as well as maintaining the horses’ health and fitness, also is a big operation.
“Each rider has to have somebody underneath them that is so adept, who are horse people of the highest caliber, but they also have to be very good at organization,” Ridland said.
Those people must work as a tight-knit unit, because they are responsible for the logistics and for the welfare of the horses.
“At any one moment anyone has to be able to pitch in and be knowledgeable about the details and quirks and idiosyncrasies of every animal,” Sternlicht said.
In addition to their competition string, riders also have younger horses training to eventually compete.
“It’s sort of a game of horse management and trying to peak the horses at the right moment and then always have horses coming up that are developing,” Sternlicht said. “There are horses you make short-term plans with and then others that you make longer-term plans with.”
The team in place is essential not only for making sure that the riders and horses get where they need to go and are well taken care of, but also to ensure the rider can focus on the competition.
“I’m always telling them less is better,” Ridland said. “The more that they can delegate to these incredibly talented people in their operation, the more they can focus as athletes on the competition at hand.”
Because show jumping has little margin for error, riders must be able to focus on it completely.
“In our sport, you could, in theory, knock the first jump down and then jump every other jump better than any other horse and rider combination in the class,” Ridland said, but “you’re still not going to win, because you will still be leaving the arena with four faults and there’s no way to erase that.”
“That’s pressure that very few other sports have, so the last thing you need is to have your mind a little bit cluttered when you’re on the field of play,” Ridland added. “Because of all the other logistics that have to go on, you have to be so confident in delegating to people who you can really trust.”