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Smolders’ smashing 2017: “It’s a whole philosophy behind the success”

Tuesday, 23 January 2018
Interview

Photo (c) World of Showjumping Harrie Smolders, who ruled the showjumping circuit in 2017, with Capital Colnardo at home at EuroHorse in Grobbendonk, Belgium. Photo (c) World of Showjumping.

2017 was definitely Harrie Smolders year. The Dutch 37-year-old won the Longines Global Champions Tour overall, as well as being on the victorious Global Champions League team, claimed individual silver at the Europeans, helped Netherlands win the Nations Cup Final in Barcelona – not to forget his Grand Prix win in Chantilly and his World Cup win in Mechelen which all made him finish the year as the second highest ranked rider in the world.

“We had so many highlights last year, it is hard to choose one that means more than the rest,” Harrie says when asked about the most magic moment of 2017. “The European Championships and the Nations Cup Final, those are performances for your own country. It gives a big nationality feeling, you share it with the people from your own country – they feel a part of it too and that makes it so special. In the GCT and the GCL you don’t have that same feeling, but if you can be the best one of the top 30 riders in the world after 15 legs of competition under different circumstances that is something special too. It shows you are the most consistent at the highest level throughout the whole year. It is not just a moment, it is more than that,” Harrie points out.

“But actually, our – and with that I mean EuroHorse and Copernicus’ – biggest achievement last year were not one of these titles on their own – it was that we found a really good balance in how we managed our horses, and that is how we could be so successful in all these different competitions.”

His two top horses Don VHP Z and Emerald both have a big share in the success, but according to Harrie there is a lot more involved in a year like 2017. “It’s a whole philosophy behind the success as well. First of all, you have to know your horses well to manage them correct – it is not a dice you throw and perhaps once you get it right. It might look like Don did a lot of shows last year, but actually he only did twelve – most horses do more. It was just that he was really good at all his shows, because we just try to figure out which rings that work the best for each horse and where to jump them. Then they also need to get time off in between the shows, and a proper rest during winter when it’s quieter.”

"I try to find a concept for each horse"

Photo (c) World of Showjumping "We found a really good balance in how we managed our horses," Harrie tells about the key to his success in 2017. Photo (c) World of Showjumping.

The right management comes with experience, Harrie tells – “But it also has to do with a feel from the rider. You feel when the horse is there, that it is at its peak – what it is ready to do. Of course, it also helps when you have had your horses for a longer period of time – then you have more information to work from. As a rider, you also need to be a combination with your horse – but a combination that needs to grow,” he explains.

“If I get a new horse, I will for the first few months be working on the physics on the horse. During that period of time the results will go down – that is normal. The horse will maybe be a bit sore, maybe a bit confused – but in this period, I only focus on improving the horse and not the results. Then after this is settled, usually after three months or so, I try finding the right connection, the right bit – and so on – and then when I found that I can start figuring out more about the horse at the show. What the horse likes, what it does not like – and from this I try to find a concept for each horse. The horse starts to know me, I start to know the horse. And after a while you find out how much work the horse needs before a competition, how many jumps you should do in the practice ring and what classes are for this horse, does it need a class before a big class – there are so many things, and for each horse these things are different. After all this is figured out, and for sure it can take up to a year, then everything comes together and you are a combination. And then, if the horse has the capability to jump at the highest level, you have a top combination,” Harrie explains about how he works to get the best out of each horse.

For 2017, Harrie and the team around him made a proper plan for what where their goals. “Our first priority last year was the Global Champions League, as my owners Copernicus had a team there and that was the most important for them with their horses. But then, after a few legs into the Global Champions Tour I was leading and then that suddenly got more priority. Then I really wanted to go to the Europeans, because I had the feeling I had a chance there with Don. So, then we sat down with my owners and I said ‘Listen, if I do the Europeans I have to do a few Nations Cups before and then I will have only Emerald for the Globals – it is also possible that I don’t win a medal in Gothenburg, and that I at the same time lose my leading position in the Tour’. I just wanted to make everybody aware of the different scenarios so we agreed on the path, but in the end we were actually paid out double. We got a medal at the Europeans, we won the Nations Cup Final in Barcelona, we won the Tour and the League!” Harrie smiles.

"They let me by patient in what I am doing"

Photo (c) World of Showjumping Harrie with Axel Verlooy, his long-time boss at EuroHorse and a key player in the team's success. Photo (c) World of Showjumping.

Sticking to the same plan without interruptions has also been important for Harrie, and a key factor to his success. “What is also important for me as a rider is to be able to work in peace and quiet. I don’t have to worry when I try different things with the horses, Axel (Verlooy) would not interfere. If something does not work, it does not necessarily mean it was a waste of time – then I know that it does not work, I have more information about the horse. Then I can say: This the horse does not like, and this the horse does like. In a period like I mentioned, where you for example are in the process of working on the horse, if you then have owners pushing for better results – I cannot work like that. Settling everything down takes time, and then you need someone on your side that sees that things are developing and sees through the process you are in. And in these situations, I am lucky because also Axel takes his time. If you try to chase results, but you don’t have everything in the right place – it is not the way. At least not the way I like to do it anyway,” Harrie says. 

“The last few years with Copernicus has also made a difference,” Harrie says. “Here at EuroHorse, we are a dealing stable. I always had good horses from Axel, if one got sold there would be a new one for me. The only reason we could keep Emerald is because of his breeding. With Copernicus involved I could focus even more on the sport, and you see it in the results. Three of my top horses are from them, and then to have two horses like Don and Emerald at the same time also of course makes it all possible. At Copernicus, they are really interested in the sport – they follow their horses. I also see around sometimes, it is not easy with owners – you need the ones with the right distance: They have to let you as the rider do your thing. For me it is all about the path I have in my mind for the horse, my riding and my feeling, and that is what Copernicus and also Axel does for me – they don’t interrupt and they let me by patient in what I am doing. On the other side, I could not ride for owners who would have it another way – I can’t be pushed and I want to follow my feeling and take my time with the horses.”

Harrie is the first one to point out that there is a whole team that has made his success possible. One of the key players has been his long-time groom Alex Tyler-Morris.  “He is very important to me,” Harrie says. “I know that when he is on the road with my horses, I never have to worry – the horses are in the best hands. Alex organizes everything himself, and makes sure everything is running smooth. And he knows the horses, so when I ask him he will give me his opinion and he has good arguments too. I need to be with my head and focus on training and riding, Alex takes care of the rest for the horses.”

As to his horses, his two main men are Don HVP Z and Emerald – can Harrie tell us more about them we ask. “Well, they are both chestnuts, both stallions and both have the same father,” Harrie laughs – not getting away with this kind of micro-answer. “No, in all seriousness – Emerald, he always had the x-factor, he is the popstar of our stable. When we tried him when he was six, we fell in love with him immediately – both Axel and I. We were sure he was special, and the last two years he really lived up to the expectations,” Harrie says. 

"The horse might surprise you”

Photo (c) World of Showjumping “I also believe that both you as a rider, and the horse, need to want to become better every day," Harrie says.

“When Emerald sees a camera he starts to pose, he loves the attention – he knows he is a star. At home, he is a bit lazy, and not really so interested – but once he gets to the show, sees the people and the ring, then he wants to show off and almost gets over-motivated, I have to slow him down sometimes from showing everybody how he can jump 15 cm over the fences. But this he also learned better over the years, and now he uses his energy better than when he was younger,” Harrie tells. “Last year, Don was maybe more in the spotlight than Emerald – but in the busy period during summer Emerald had a big share in what ended as our overall win of the Global Tour and the Global League. He won the LGCT Grand Prix in Chantilly, he was fourth in the Grand Prix in London and sixth in the Grand Prix in Valkenswaard and double clear at all three events in the Global League for the team.”

Don on the other hand, is according to his rider a totally different horse than Emerald. “I got Don when he was ten, and as he was such a big and heavy horse – it took me almost a year to change his physics. He has all the scope from nature’s side, but it was difficult for him to carry his body all the way through the course. It was also difficult to find the right concept with him for me,” Harrie explains. “When you have a horse like Emerald, that you have had since he was young, you get so much more information during their early years – you are already a combination when you get to the higher level. Then you just need the experience. Getting a horse later on, you have to figure out a lot more things in a shorter period of time and this was the challenge with Don. His character is special, he has a big personality. For Don to perform well, he really needs a leader. If he gets the feeling he is the boss, he will take advantage of the situation. With Emerald you can be more level, but Don needs someone more in charge,” Harrie explains.

“What Don showed the last year though… An amazing consistency! His owners counted, and he has had an 80 % clear-round-rate in the 1.60 classes during 2017. Not many other horses can match that at that level. Also, Don is every day exactly the same – and this makes him easy to manage because you know exactly what you will have tomorrow. It is for sure one of his biggest strengths. Then he has an unbelievable overview, and so cool in his mind. All this makes him what he is,” Harrie says.

A real horseman, with patience and an understanding of the horse – that seems to sum up Harrie Smolders. “With the horses I am patient, yes. If I have to stand in line, I am not,” he laughs. “To take my time I learned early on from my dad. He was cautious that I didn’t move too early into one discipline, as he believed I would not develop myself wide enough if I did. So, I really learned to enjoy the dressage work and seeing the progress in the horses,” Harrie says.

Harrie Smolders' 2017 highlights

Winning individual silver at the Europeans in Gothenburg, the Nations Cup Final in Barcelona with the Dutch team, the Longines Global Champions Tour overall as well as the Global Champions League for his team Hamburg Diamonds. 2017 was an exceptional year for Smolders.

“It will not be easy to match last year!”

“I also believe that both you as a rider, and the horse, need to want to become better every day. If the horse has this attitude to want to improve, it might do things you did not expect from it – the horse might surprise you," Harrie continues. 

And one that illustrates just this part of Harrie’s philosophy is Zinius, who won the World Cup in Mechelen at the end of 2017 – helping to shoot Harrie up to rank two in the world as the year came to an end. “Yes, we were a little bit surprised about that,” laughs Harrie. “At the end of the year, I gave Emerald a break as he was collecting. Then I did Doha and Geneva with Don, and then he got a break too. Then it was time to step up for my other horses, so they could get the chance to show what they could do. Zinius was unbelievable over the last months and he was always competitive, but now he is competitive at the highest level too,” Harrie tells. “We got him a year ago, Doron Kuipers rode him before and he already had good results in his life. But, most of the time he was also with Doron and the two of them understood each other very well and it was hard for me in the beginning to get on the same path with him. So, I stepped back, worked with him and tried to get to know him – I tried to change his physics a bit to my riding so I could be more successful with him. So to me, it was not a surprise that it went a bit down with him in the beginning – it was a big change for him and his mind. What really helps him is that he is a horse with a big heart, he is a real fighter – tough on himself too and he never gives up. Zinius is stubborn, and always gives a bit extra!”

With a year like that, what are Harrie’s thoughts on 2018 we ask? “To be more successful is statistically not a good expectation,” Harrie laughs. “It will not be easy to match last year!”

“But, the Global Champions League team will have first priority – like we started last year. We would like to go to Tryon too, for the World Equestrian Games. It is the first chance to qualify for the Olympics. Those are the two main goals, what comes for the rest is extra,” Harrie closes off.

 


Text © World of Showjumping by Jannicke Naustdal // Pictures © World of Showjumping and Stefano Grasso for LGCT/GCL

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