Gregory Wathelet is not as young as we thought as he has reached the age of 32. Not that 32 is old of course, but for some reason when we first opened our eyes for this brilliant rider last year we somehow thought he was younger. Why we assumed so is hard to say because Gregory has done a lot over the years and has been lucky to ride some brilliant horses like Lantinus, now seen with Denis Lynch, and Cortes, one of Beezie Madden’s top horses.
So how did it all start? Gregory explains that he started riding ponies when he was seven or eight years old. He did some national shows and when he was ten his parents bought him a horse that he competed with at some smaller shows. “I liked it and wanted to do more,” Gregory states. So he was lucky enough to get a couple of more horses. Nothing expensive, but horses he could ride some smaller classes on.
As Gregory got older he started to get other people’s horses to ride as well, and at 16 he started competing at some regional shows. “The last year as a junior I started to ride for a horse dealer. I jumped the horses in 1.30-1.40 classes. I did almost everything by myself,” Gregory explains.
For two years Gregory did this besides going to school. As the competitive and talented rider he was - almost all self-taught - people encouraged him to go professional, “but I didn’t really want to,” Gregory surprisingly tells us. ”It is so expensive to start up in this business. You have to buy a horse truck and get good horses,” he continues. “I also liked going to school. After I finished what we in Belgium call the “superior” school I went on taking informatics in college. I tried to do both horses and school, but it was impossible so when I was 19 I decided to stop school and try one year with only horses.” As far as we know he never went back to college!
Gregory left his parents place and rented a bigger stable near Durbuy in Belgium. He bought a truck and with his great riding skills several people gave him horses to ride. At the age of 20 he won the 7 year old Belgian Young Horse Championship, and in 2001 - his last year as a young rider - he won the Belgian Championship and also went to the European Championship.
Gregory kept up his hard work riding up to 15 horses a day - doing it all on his own. “I didn’t train for anyone special. I learned a lot by watching and listening.” His work paid off and in 2002 he got the opportunity to work for Haras des Hayettes which gave him the chance to compete at top level. “I stayed there for four years and build up several horses to a high level. I rode a lot of championships for young horses both in Belgium and in France and in 2005 I also got to ride on the Belgian team.”
Then in 2005 as Gregory was looking for a new place to work he was offered to join Alexander Onischenko and his Ukrainian team. Gregory accepted this, “it was a good opportunity for me to get help from good trainers and ride some big shows.” It was at this same point Gregory was lucky enough to ride Lantinus which was bought as a seven year old. “We were winning everything,” Gregory says with a big smile.
Gregory got to stay in Belgium while working for Onischenko, but when Onischenko ended up being forced to move the horses to Germany due to difficulties with the Belgian government, Gregory eventually quit the team. “This time I wanted to do something on my own and try to build a future,“ Gregory explains. “Even though I was qualified for the Olympics (In 2008) with the Ukrainian team I decided to leave before the Championship as I knew I had to wait two years after changing back to being a Belgian citizen before I could compete for the team again. I didn’t want to wait until after the Olympics as that would have postponed everything even more.
As Gregory started up on his own again he got some good horses, among them Copin van de Broy and Cortes. “Both Copin and Cortes came to me when they were six. Cortes went on to Beezie when he was nine, and Copin left for Marcus Ehning in December, the day after we won the World Cup in Mechelen together,” Gregory says with a little touch of disappointment in his voice. Understandable as he and Copin were headed for the Olympics with the Belgian team. “After I lost the Olympics in 2008 because I choose to quit the Ukrainian team I was excited about getting another chance to try and make an Olympic team,” Gregory fills in.
But as the great rider and person he is, people were looking out for the Belgian rider. Gregory already had a partnership with another sponsor called Citizenguard. “After everything with Copin they wanted to find a new horse for me. Already in January Patrik Spitz’ former ride Cadjanine Z was rented for Gregory to ride as one of the few Belgian owned horses good enough to have a chance of getting ready for the Olympics in August.
The schedule was still tight though. “She was difficult at first. I started her on the Sunshine Tour and at first we weren’t even able to walk straight. I had a lot to prove in four months,” Gregory says with a little laugh. “I rode some small classes in Spain, and then we got the chance to go to Doha for the Global Tour. We went there and she was really good. Maybe I would be able to get her ready before i had thought,” Gregory says. “We changed the original plan and were sent to La Baule. Again she was good. Maybe too good, but of course it was fantastic,“ Gregory keeps on telling us enthusiastically about his new partner.
Because of their great results everybody started asking for the horse which made Gregory’s sponsor wanting to buy the the horse before the Olympics to try and also keep it for him to ride after London. Citizenguard managed to secure the deal in May, and the combination is now on the Belgian long list to the Olympics. We keep our fingers crossed as they in our opinion deserve to be in London.
“The plan now is Aachen. Then the team will be chosen,” Gregory lets us know. And if they make the Olympic team? “The goal is good results with the team. I want to do a good job individually as well, but an individual medal is much more difficult,” Gregory - our new Belgian favorite - finishes off.
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All Photos by Jenny Abrahamsson.