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Gregory Wathelet; “I always tried to take my time with my horses”

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Gregory Wathelet and Riesling du Monselet
Gregory Wathelet pictured together with Riesling du Monselet at his yard close to Liege in Belgium. All photos (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

Gregory Wathelet will never be a man who seeks the showjumping spotlight. But due to his sensational ability to produce one top horse after the other, the spotlight seems to search him out by itself. And when you jump a clear round over a five star Grand Prix track while losing the bridle on your horse – and make it look easy – well, then the superman-stamp seems to suit Wathelet pretty well.

Wathelet will never admit to himself that he is special though. Nor to anyone else. For this is he far to humble, and maybe also too shy. When asked about the bridle-less performance in Paris, he smiles; “I got the impression many thought that was something special. I didn’t think so much though, I just kept going – I mean, I still had the bit. The only thing was that maybe Conrad could have put the leg in the bridle, but that I just thought about after when I saw the pictures and realized the danger of that happening. What impressed me was the horse; he just kept on doing it the same way, and he did not get scared at all!”

With Gregory on the back though, there is little to get scared of. The Belgian rider is definitely one of the best in the world, with a record that shows that he is the man that made some of the best horses this last decade has seen. Lantinus, Cortes ‘C’, Copin van de Broy, Forlap – and now Conrad de Hus – they were all brought to the top of the sport by Wathelet.

Without a big sponsor in his back, Gregory lives from selling what he produces – including the best ones. Lantinus went to Denis Lynch’s sponsor Thomas Strauman, Cortes ‘C’ to Beezie Madden’s sponsor Abigail Wexner and Forlap to Alexander Onischenko – who Wathelet himself used to ride for when flying the Ukrainian flag.

With being used to seeing his best horses going, Gregory always thinks about having something else behind – waiting to fill the shoes of whoever leaves. At the moment this ‘something else’ is no less than thirty horses, with ‘approximately twenty different owners’ as Greg puts it. “And that is a very conscious choice,” he reveals. Because Gregory has experienced losing everything in a matter of a day, and then having nothing. “I was riding for Haras des Hayettes for three and half years, but I lost everything I had built up there in one day. That is what can happen to you with one owner. Then I was lucky to ride for Onischenko for two years, and although there I decided to stop myself the consequences were the same – I had nothing anymore.”

Gregory out flatting Egano van het Slogenhof
Role model! Gregory was out flatting Egano van het Slogenhof when we arrived, and we were happy to see that it was with the helmet on. "I always ride with a helmet, it's like your seat belt in a car," the Belgium rider says.

Going from there, Wathelet wanted to be less vulnerable, “I decided to be open to everybody; have many owners and different owners. I wanted to keep the door open, for all kinds of owners and also for the breeders with younger horses. For me all of them are important, that is how I am. And with this way of working good thing have now come,” Gregory says.

It definitely has. In his stable is the amazing Conrad de Hus – producer of a double clear round in the Nations Cup in Aachen last year as a nine year old, and taking the win with the Belgian team. Then there is the super talented Coree de Hus, now nine – and like Oh d’Eole, Eldorado vh Vijverhof, Egano van het Slogenhof, Zippit and Riesling du Monselet in addition to several others in the making.

Conrad, who Wathelet aims for the 2015 Europeans on, is according to his rider ‘really easy’. “That is also why he could go so quick up in the big classes, and go straight into Aachen and do what he did. He has the scope and he has the quality, there are not many bad things you can say about him,” Greg smiles. “And this year I know him better and he has one more year of experience, so I think 2015 will be a good year for him.”

Conrad had some big shoes to fill last year, when Forlap left Gregory just a few months before the World Championships. But he did it easy. “It’s not just like he came out of nowhere,” Greg laughs. “I said to Kurt (Gravemeier) that my championship horse would be Conrad, because he was the one for this – Forlap I consider more a horse for the Grand Prix classes. So already before Forlap was sold, which I knew he would be at one point because so many were asking for him, everything I did with Conrad was with this in mind – I always had a plan,” Gregory says of his current super star.

“I also have Coree. She is greener, but give her six more months and she will be very good at the end of the year. She has scope, and she is careful – but although she is nine she is more like an eight year old,” Wathelet says of the other talent he has from Haras de Hus.

It was Gregory’s open-door philosophy that brought him Conrad and Coree. “The first horse I got from Haras de Hus was maybe not that special, but I took it because I wanted to work with them. Then I got Banda de Hus and then came Conrad, Coree and now also Oh d’Eole.”

Wathelet’s reputation for producing super stars is surely another factor that has brought him some serious talent. What is the key to his success? “I always tried to take my time with the horses, I never try to get them to where I want in a quick way. If they are good enough, they will become good – not that you rush them and they are broken when they are eight. That’s not how I do it.”

Gregory Wathelet and Oh d'Eole
Gregory and Oh d'Eole - one of the horses he is riding for Haras de Hus.

“I want my horses to be relaxed, I don’t want to fight with them. That is how you get more and more of them; when they are with you and not against you,” he continues. “I spend a lot of time on dressage work, and have a trainer that comes by once a week to look from the ground. The oldest ones I don’t jump much at home, like with Conrad this morning I maybe did twenty small 1.20 jumps before he went off to Lummen. That’s it. When they are in the rhythm, I don’t find it important to jump at home. Sometimes I think I could do a bit more, maybe more exercises – but that’s just not my thing. I like to keep it easy, straight lines – I don’t want to make things complicated with poles and lines everywhere. So I am quite simple with it; if they are good enough they will learn from jumping the easy way. And the good ones, they learn at the show in the end – that’s at least my idea.”

What are the ingredients Greg needs when he starts on his recipe to build up a young horse with the eyes set on the top sport. “They need to be clever, and want to be clear,” Gregory says when asked what he looks for in a horse. “They need to think themselves, and they need quality. It also depends if it is just a horse for me or a horse to sell. For me it does not really matter if the horse is a bit complicated or special, like with Cortes for example. But if you want to sell, they need to be easy to ride and sound.”

“For me the feeling on the horse is extremely important, I can see it and it looks ok – then I sit on it and it can be so much better than what it looks like. Or the other way around,” he laughs.

That’s maybe also why Gregory likes his owners to invest in younger horses that has already been with him for a little while, this was also the case with Cortes ‘C’ and Forlap. “Then it’s easier to know what you have,” he says. “I find it quite hard to tell with the younger horses what they are and not when they are at an early age – especially if you are supposed to just try them once or twice.”

To find them, ride them and build them up. That is what Gregory does. And in a big scale. “I know that sometimes I have too many horses, but that is how I could find the ones that became really good and also have something coming behind those that did the biggest classes and at one point would be sold,” he smiles. “Of course if you lose your top horse it is always a bit more complicated, but with a string behind it means that you are not left with nothing.”

Gregory Wathelet
“I know that sometimes I have too many horses, but that is how I could find the ones that became really good and also have something coming behind those that did the biggest classes and at one point would be sold,” Greg said to World of Showjumping.

And he does have many horses. So many that at one point he did two tours at the same time this winter – ‘but, just for one weekend’ he shoots in. Gregory will also do a Global Tour, and then on Sunday – when other riders are resting in their hotel room – go straight to another show to ride the rest. Like in Paris or Antwerp, on Sunday Greg was already in action again at another show.

Wathelet does not rest. He works. Hard. “With a five star show like the Global it’s only two horses, so if you do only that you develop and build nothing else. So in addition to having my riders to jump the rest, I also try to find a balance and do the two and three star to get all the horses going,” he says.

It’s not only the riding that keeps Gregory busy though. By now he also has a huge business to run. “It’s a lot of office work – but I like the feeling of running a business. It gets late though, I can be in the office until 1 AM – but without a family it kind of goes around. Sometimes it’s a bit too much work, and too little sleep though,” he laughs.

As to his business, Greg describes it as ‘a bit of everything’. The main thing for him is the sport though, and on this he is very clear. “The sport is also why I do everything else such as selling horses and training them. It’s how I can live, because this sport costs money. I don’t want to run a pure dealing stable though, I want people to come to me because the horses perform well at the shows,” he says.

Gregory Wathelet and Eldorado vh Vijverhof
Gregory Wathelet and Eldorado vh Vijverhof pose for the camera.

Although Wathelet’s way of being seems to be a very relaxed one, he can also have periods when he feels the pressure. “When everything is going good, it is fine – but when things don’t really go my way, maybe I win less prize money or sell less horses well then it is a bit more stressful. In periods like this I try not to change things though,” he says. Because Gregory has learned to believe in what he is doing – the hard way. “When I started on my own, it was quite difficult. I wanted to run my business in a proper way, but this costs a lot of money and the bills kept pouring in. Then after the third year I had a difficult time, the costs where running and in the end I had to ask for help. In the middle of all this I thought about quitting and going to work for somebody else, but then I decided to fight for what I do and the way I do it instead. Then, Cortes was sold and things solved itself and I could breathe again,” Greg says looking back.

And from there on, things have gone well. That is if you can say that selling your top horses is a good thing. It seems Wathelet has gotten pretty used to that though, and his attention is turned more towards the fact that he considers himself lucky to always have good ones coming up and waiting for their turn. “I am not normally close with my horses, I don’t have that much time to spend with them,” he says matter-of-factly.

There are a few exceptions though. Like Forlap. “I cannot explain why. I had the same with Cruising Z, who we lost due to colic. I guess they both were fighting for me, they gave me so much. With Forlap I would go to see him every morning, spend five-ten minutes with him – it is not something I normally do,” he smiles. “I miss him. Still now at the shows I always go to see him in his box.”

Who is the next super star in the stable waiting behind? “There are a lot of good younger ones, but I cannot say that anybody is as special as Forlap or Cortes for example,” he smiles adding:

“Only time will tell.”


Photos by Jenny Abrahamsson / text by Jannicke Naustdal - copyright © 2015.

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