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Karen Polle – conquering a new continent

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
Karen Polle and her top horse With Wings: "He is amazing. I love him so much," she says. Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

The summer of 2017 saw Karen Polle take Europe by storm. Always with a bright smile on her face, riding her little With Wings, Polle jumped straight into the hearts of the European showjumping circuit. World of Showjumping sat down with the 25-year-old rider to learn more about the pressures of competing on another continent, about her one particular riding superstition and of course the love of her life – the horses.

“My first big show in Europe last year was Versailles,” Karen starts. “That was very overwhelming. When I first got there, and people like Simon Delestre and Pedro Venis where stabled in the same aisle with me, I was like ‘Oh my God, I don’t know about this…’,” she laughs. “I am used to competing with a lot of top riders in the US, but when you come over to Europe there are so many more that I don’t really see so much. So, for sure at first I was overwhelmed, and I think I still am – and because of that it was even more special, doing well in Versailles. It showed me that I can do this, I just have to ride well, it has to be a good day for me. I can do this if I work really hard,” she tells. “I think up until now I just never gave up. I had a lot of bad, bad, bad times. But I just kept trying and coming back. I think you need that to get to this level. It is not easy for anyone,” she says about riding on the highest level of the sport.

Born in Tokyo, Japan, Polle’s family moved to New York when she was only six months old and she grew up there. “I started riding when I was 7-years-old,” she tells. “No one in my family rode, so I didn’t really even know the sport existed, I didn’t know what showjumping was. There was a small barn near where we had our country house, and we used to drive by it every weekend. I told my dad I wanted to try riding a pony and I took one lesson and I loved it. I started with going every weekend, and then it was just more and more from there. When I was 13-years-old I started to do equitation and junior jumpers, and when I started to do 1.40-1.45m classes, that was when I knew this was really what I wanted to do. Then in my last junior year, I won the national junior championship in the US and that was like the last bit – I love this sport.”

Having studied economics at Yale University, Polle graduated in 2016 and now rides full time. “I have four horses, so normally when I am at home, I start riding in the morning. Then I work with my grooms to organize the horses. Then I go to the gym 4-5 times per week, usually I do that after riding.  In the winter, I am based in Wellington, Florida, and normally in April I fly the horses over to Europe.”

Polle has trained with the Brazilian legend Rodrigo Pessoa for over a year now and really enjoys it. “I started working with Rodrigo last October, at the LA Masters. He helped me once before when my trainer couldn’t make it, and I really liked him. He obviously is one of the top people of the sport, and I am really happy I have the opportunity to train with him,” she says.

“Rodrigo has done everything so he has a lot of experience, but I also appreciate that he has really helped me gain more opportunities in this sport. He has emphasized for me the importance of being very accurate – to make sure I place the horse exactly where I want, make sure my body is exactly the way it should be. I am still working on that – to really focus on doing everything as accurately as possible, in order to give my horse the best chance of jumping clear.”  

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
"I love horses," Karen Polle says about her favorite part about the sport. Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

At the moment, Polle has four horses. “My top horse is With Wings, he is amazing. I love him so much. I have had him since he was 7-years-old, so a long time now. I started him in the low junior jumpers, which is like 1.20m, and then we moved up together to five-star Grand Prix level. I won my first five-star Grand Prix on him and he is just really, really special to me,” Polle tells us.

With Wings was discovered by chance. “He was owned by a dealer in US, and there was a junior rider showing him – trying to sell him. I was in the right place at the right time and I tried him and I loved him from the first second.”

Other horses that Polle has been competing in Europe are Kino and Little Lord. “Kino I got last February. I like him a lot, he has so much power, so much scope. Wings is very small and Kino is very big, so that was a little bit of an adjustment for me – having to ride a bigger horse. But I really like it, because the jumps look a lot smaller now – which is nice,” Polle laughs about her other mount. “And he is really sweet. At first, I was a little nervous to get Kino because he is so big and so different. But actually he doesn’t ride like a super big horse, because he is very compact and he listens really well. Still, I am quite small and steering him through the turns is something I am working on.”

“Little Lord is small like Wings, and he is so fast. When he’s really going, his tail is just spinning. He is not a Grand Prix horse, he is more like a 1.45m horse and really, really fun to ride,” Polle smiles.

A part of the Rolex Young Riders Academy, Polle has found being a part of the program very beneficial. “We have lessons about all aspects of the sport, and I really like it. You learn things I think everyone should know when you are involved in the sport. No one normally ever really sits you down to teach these things, it is something you need to learn through experience. We have had some basic veterinary lessons, we have heard from a course builder, about the finances on running a stable – all really important stuff,” Polle explains. “We have four sessions per year, and there are ten of us in the group. I am in the US so I am not in Europe as much as the rest, but whenever we have these sessions, we are together all day. At the shows, we cheer each other on.”

Polle’s favorite thing about the sport? “The horses. I love horses. I just like to spend time with them. And I love jumping, it is such a cool feeling! Some of my favourites are Marcus Ehning, he is just amazing. I really admire how smooth he is, how he just goes with the horse and never gets in the way of the horse, always helps the horse do his or her job so well. And he looks like he is not doing anything, but he is doing so much! And I really admire Rodrigo, Scott Brash, Kent Farrington, McLain Ward… there are so many good riders out there.”

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
"I hope that especially with the Olympics coming up, the sport is going to gain a little bit more popularity in Japan," Karen Polle says. Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

Even though living in the US, Polle represents Japan. “I was born in Tokyo, my mom is Japanese and my dad is American. My mom’s whole family is in Japan. I hope that especially with the Olympics coming up, the sport is going to gain a little bit more popularity in Japan. I think more people need to be aware of it. It is such an interesting and amazing sport to watch, I think just a lot of people in Japan don’t know about it. So, I hope we can raise the profile with the Olympics coming up.”

And with the Olympic Games coming up in her home country, Polle has her eyes set for Tokyo 2020. “Of course it is my life goal, it would be a huge dream come true to go. Especially with us being the home team. I have really good horses, so that helps. But I still have a lot to learn, so I am just going to keep working really, really hard with Rodrigo and try to improve as much as possible so when the time comes, hopefully I can perform and be on the team,” she says. “Right now, Tokyo is my main focus. In general, my goal is to become as good as I can. Watching all these riders, I see how much I have to learn and how far I have to go. I just hope one day I can be maybe one tenth of as good as Marcus, that would be something,” she smiles.

Polle is bubbly and always seen with a big smile on her face, but she admits that battling the lows in the sport are something she is still working on. “Well, when I have a bad day, it is really hard on me,” she says. “I don’t really take it very well. That is something I am working on; not getting too hard on myself. To pick myself back up again, I’ve learned that I just have to let it go. You have to learn what you can from each class and then move on. But I guess my biggest motivation is, that first of all I really care about my horses and I want to go back and do it better for them. And then also, if you have a big competition coming up, you want to go and win, that is a big motivator for me as well.”

Polle enjoys all the traveling that comes with the constant competing, and there is one thing she always has with her – or to be more accurate, a pair of them…  ”I have a riding superstition,” she laughs. “I have this lucky pair of boots. I keep taking them to get repaired, but I have to show in them. Rodrigo hates them, because they are so beaten up, but I need them. They are my lucky boots!”

With the lucky boots or not, we think Polle has all the wind needed under her wings to make it to Tokyo!  


Text © World of Showjumping by Nanna Nieminen // Pictures © World of Showjumping by Jenny Abrahamsson

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