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Joe Clee – from childhood dreams, through chutes and ladders to championship rider

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Joe Clee and Diablesse de Muze.
Joe Clee pictured at home in Sint-Katelijne-Waver with Diablesse de Muze - a horse that has a very special place in his heart. All photos (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

There was a time were Joe Clee was at a low-point, took a break from the sport and considered to stop riding. Ten years on, Clee got his breakthrough – jumped his way into the British team ending up doing the 2014 World Championships on the home-made Utamaro d’Ecaussines. Indeed, Clee’s career has been a bit like playing chutes and ladders; climbing up, sliding down and climbing up again. Traveling to Belgium to meet Clee World of Showjumping discovers that it was no lucky dice that helped Clee on the way to the top of the sport though, but pure passion, hard work, incredible owners and a childhood dream.

It is one more factor that needs to be mentioned though. John Whitaker and Milton. “When I was doing the ponies my dream was to ride like John Whitaker,” Clee says as we sit around the kitchen table in the home he and his wife Julie Wauters have created for their family that now counts three kids between six and two. “I actually have got hair you know,” Joe jokes of his quite bald head. “I just cut it down to look like John,” he continues as we can help but burst out in laughter. “It was a very conscious choice not to have hair! No, seriously I was really bitten by the horse-bug as a child in the John/Milton, Michael/Midnight Madness-era so doing showjumping professionally is something I wanted already back then.”

And as little Joe lived in Yorkshire, with him and his sister attending the same pony club as John’s kids Robert and Louise Whitaker – his idol was not far away which made the then 10 year old Clee want it even more. But with limited resources, making the dream reality has been a long journey. 

“As a child me and my sister had some ponies, but we just did local and regional shows. I was not from a family with money, so we would arrive at the show in our small Bedford TK with three ponies shoved in the back while other families came with big horse boxes and expensive ponies. We always had a good time though,” Joe says of how it all started.

Joe Clee and Utamaro d’Ecaussines.
Joe on his World Championship-horse Utamaro d’Ecaussines - who according to Clee "prefers the grass over the mares" - all happy at home before another busy outdoor season starts for them both.

Joe went on to do horses full time when he was 16, leaving school to work in an eventing stable near Oxford where he was for two years. “It was a great education, and I just did dressage work and no shows. I think this was the best thing I could have done when I went from ponies to horses, because I learned to ride properly. When I was riding ponies it was all ‘IIIaahhh’ and trying to get over the jumps as fast as possible, with no style or education. I always wanted to win, and I always went fast,” Clee smiles.

The journey went on to the Brendon Stud, and that is where Joe got introduced to having success in the ring. “At Brendon Stud it was back to winning, and I was able to take what I had learned about dressage work and mix it with getting really good horses that could win – and it kind of revitalized my passion for competing. I never think I beat John back then, but I remember beating Michael once and that was a big thing for me. I think it was only five riders in the class though, and I had the only clear,” Joe laughs. “It was a small prize giving, but I was in front and that was all that counted,” Clee keeps on joking.  

A year and a half later, Joe went to work for Robert Smith for a short period of time but soon returned to the Brendon Stud. Again Clee was lucky to have good horses, and in 2002 he ended up winning the prestigious national Foxhunter Final at the Horse of the Year Show. “It was a big thing for me back then, it was amazing,” Joe remembers. “I was not expecting to win it, as the horse – Unbelievable Darco – was so green. But he jumped incredible, we won – and that was probably my ticket to go abroad.”

The Audi Stables and Stephex Stables are also on the map of where Joe stopped next, but although it gave the British rider nice experiences it was not what he was looking for. “But I got introduced to Belgium, got a little bit of contacts and met my wife – so for this it was a good move,” Joe says. “But then there was a point where I had enough of it all. I felt like I was just bouncing around and could not make it work. So after Stephex I stopped for a month and went to Thailand with my wife, just travelling around. At this point I was considering stopping riding as I found it difficult to keep going,” Clee tells us as he looks back at a time when he tried to work his way up and making a name for himself in the sport.

On the train home from Schiphol airport, Joe got a call. It was Mark van Dijk who asked if Clee was interested in a job with one of his friends; Albert Peffer at Star Horses. “So, after discussing it with Julie I said I would give it one more chance. I was with Albert for three years, which was really good – I made a name for myself in Belgium and won some good classes also producing two really good horses in Avenir and An Sidec.”

Joe Clee and Vedet de Muze.
Joe Clee exercising Vedet de Muze - another horse brought up to the top sport by the British rider.

Clee’s hard work was finally about to pay off. In 2007 he got introduced to his owners Ludwig and Jasmine Criel, who wanted Clee to ride their horses and build up a stable for them. “It was a bit of a risk for me, I had to take a massive step back from doing bigger classes to do young horses again,” Joe explains. “The first two years were quite difficult; to do all the regional shows all over. The first horse we bought was Diablesse, who was four coming five when I got her. But, now looking back at what we made of it – it was worth it.”

Diablesse de Muze is now twelve, and has a very special place in Joe’s heart who is fuzzing around the mare as we make her ready for a little photo shoot in the sunshine. “Diablesse is the princess of the stable,” Joe says as he looks at the chestnut mare that brought him into the spotlight at the end of 2013 when she ended sixth in the World Cup in Mechelen and then in 2014 second in the World Cup in Zürich, sixth in the World Cup in Bordeaux before she was fourth in the Rolex Grand Prix in Den Bosch and placed ninth in the LGCT Grand Prix in Antwerp. Things were looking very good indeed, and Clee was picked to ride the mare on the British Nations Cup team in Rome. That did not go as planned.

“She had four down in the first round. Totally out of character, so we knew that something had to be wrong and right enough she had injured herself. That proved to me how tough she is, even injured she still tried to jump. She is a horse that would jump even if she only had three legs” Clee says. “We decided to give her plenty of time to recover, we could have had her back two months earlier – but we didn’t want to rush her. Now she is back jumping at home, and feels amazing,” Clee smiles.

“There are not so many people that would love Diablesse like I do,” Clee laughs. “She is such a red headed lady. At home she can be really grumpy, and she needs her own space. Diablesse is a mare you have to compromise with, you don’t force anything on her. To ride her classically, well that does not work – but she will do anything for you if you play with her!”

Joe Clee.
All smiles from Joe Clee who had a fantastic 2014!

Diablesse’s injury was a blow for Clee and his team, but it would quickly open the door for another talent in the stable – Utamaro d’Ecaussines. The beautiful eleven year old stallion jumped amazing clear rounds in the Nations Cups in La Baule, Falsterbo and Dublin last year and landed a spot on the British team going to Normandy.

“Utamaro is very different from Diablesse. He is easy, and every day the same – at least at home,” Joe says of the horse he has had since it was five. “At home he prefers the grass over the mares, and is a quiet guy – almost lazy. At the shows he is more alive, and he loves the attention that comes with being in the ring. He can get too enthusiastic sometimes though – wanting to get too quickly to the next jump,” Clee explains.

“Amazing”. That is how Joe describes 2014. “To start the indoor season like that, I had a feeling there was nothing Diablesse could not do. She seemed to be invincible, I was so proud of her. Then Utamaro just took off as well in La Baule. I always knew he was capable – but still I went like ‘Wow! What a horse!’ I would have stayed in his box that night I think,” Joe laughs. “The only regret I have in regards to last year is that Utamaro did too many Nations Cups before the World Equestrian Games, he was a bit empty by the time he got there. But, we had to qualify to stay in Europe Division 1 and I wanted to go to Normandy – and with so many injuries on the British team I had the feeling I had to keep going. By the time we got there we were a bit at the end. If I had had Diablesse, it would have been different and hopefully that will make it much easier this year.”

Just to be planning to do Nations Cups is a new experience for Clee. “It’s nice to be talking about that,” he says. “Last year I was hoping to get on a Nations Cup team and ended up doing the WEG. Now this year I am kind of planning Nations Cups. It’s amazing what difference a year makes. But obviously, you have to keep jumping clear rounds to be picked!”

Joe Clee.
Joe shares his highs and lows with World of Showjumping from the kitchen table in the Clee/Wauters-household.

Next to his own continuously hard work from he was sixteen, the success the now 37-year-old Clee is experiencing is in large thanks to his owners Ludwig and Jasmine Criel. “To have owners like them is amazing. Ludwig and Jasmine are in it for the sport – they wanted me to bring up young horses to compete at top level, and I promised them I could do that. Now that they have horses jumping the big classes, well that is where the value is for them and not necessarily in what they can get for the horses if they are sold – although for sure at some point some of them will be.”

The Criels’ philosophy is all about being patient. “We always buy the horses when they are youngsters. So far, we have been very lucky. The main qualities we have been looking for next to the obvious such as quality and scope – is a good mentality and a big heart. Like with Diablesse, from she was young she wanted to get in the ring and she wanted to do it. If you ask a horse to jump at top level they need to want it themselves. They need to think right when they are in the ring. The horses here are all triers, and all have a big heart,” Joe says. “This is all important to make a top horse, but the key ingredient to success for us is that we can do it slowly here and take our time – we don’t rush things. Ludwig and Jasmine prefer to take their time and build up the horses. It’s hard sometimes to do it this way – almost annoying,” he laughs – “but it’s worth it.”

“Ludwig and Jasmine also stay calm and understand when to win,” Clee continues. “But,” Clee follows up “they invest a lot of time and money in this, and deserve to see their horses on the podium from time to time. It’s all nice to do all this training, preparations and take our time – but ultimately we want to see our horses do well on a high level. So there is some kind of pressure, but good pressure – pressure you need. You need to know that this exists when you go into the ring. If I came out of the ring with two down and people were not disappointed it would not be normal either.”

Although patient, both Clee and the Criels’ like to win. “Like in Gent when I won the two star Grand Prix, I was taken a bit by the atmosphere. Then Ludwig and Jasmine where there to watch and then before I went into the ring my two year old daughter said ‘Papa, go fast – really, really fast’”. Taking the advice from his daughter, Clee went all in.

Because Clee is not only a sports man, but also a family man. When the two eldest kids Katie and Liam is brought home by Clee’s wife Julie from school, he gets all soft as Liam climbs onto his lap – joking that he was hoping to finish the interview before his wife came home so he could lie a little bit more without her revealing the truth about him.

Clee has revealed a few truths already though, one of them being what it took to reach the top. “It has been times where it was really difficult to keep going, but I have always been thinking I was lucky. It was my passion and my hobby, and then to make a job of it – well that is incredible!”


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

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