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The Next Generation: Spencer Smith

Tuesday, 08 January 2019
Interview

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson
“This year has for sure been the best of my career," Spencer Smith says. Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

2018 was a big year for Spencer Smith. Recording his best ever results, with impressive appearances on five-star level and winning his first ever Grand Prix – actually, three of them when the account of the year was closed – the 21-year-old American talent made his presence known during his summer months in Europe. Training with the legend that is Eric Lamaze, we sat down with Spencer to learn more about his breakthrough year and how it all came to be.

“This year has for sure been the best of my career. The first Grand Prix I won was in 2018. It was a three-star Grand Prix in Wellington, a ’Saturday Night Under the Lights’. It is a big deal over there,” Spencer begins. “2018 was also the first year I really got to travel in Europe,” he continues. “Eric has been so nice to arrange for me to get to these shows over here. He’s been pushing and fighting for me to get that experience,” Spencer says about his trainer and mentor Eric Lamaze.

The Canadian Olympic Champion needs little introduction. “He is Eric Lamaze. He is a master,” Spencer smiles when we ask him how it is to train with one of the true legends in the sport of showjumping. “It is really cool, to see on a day-to-day basis what it takes to really be at the top level of the sport. And he is so good at managing what shows to go to. There is a lot of thought behind the whole thing that a lot of people don’t even realize,” Spencer explains. “I ride for him and work for him, I ride mostly his horses. I feel really lucky to be connected with him. We do half the year here in Europe and half in Wellington. Next to myself we have a few other riders, about ten staff members and 40-something horses. It is a big operation. I have now seven-eight horses for me to ride,” he tells about the Torrey Pines Stable’s set up.

“Normally if it is an off-week, we are there early in the morning and finish late at night – we just ride all day,” Spencer goes on to explain about his daily life at Torrey Pines.

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson “I am good at not giving up,” Spencer says about which personal qualities have helped him reach his breakthrough year.

Spencer ended up working with Eric as his parents are long-time friends of the Olympic Champion. “Eric sent me some horses to ride and compete with when I was 13-14-years-old. Which of course was super nice. And then two-three years ago he invited me to go to Gijon and jump the five-star show there with a horse he had and then from there on, I stayed with him,” Spencer explains.  

“My whole family is involved in horses,” Spencer tells about his background. “My grandfather is a vet, my other grandfather was a horse dealer and my father is a trainer and a horse dealer. We have a big business in America; we do equitation, jumpers and hunters. I grew up in the horse world.”

When asked about how big of a difference it makes, to have the right connections – Spencer answers: “I think it is huge, actually. I have been lucky enough to be given this situation with Eric and a thing like this does not come to many people. Whenever Eric feels I am ready to do something bigger, I go where he wants me to go. He has the ability to help me and it has made a big difference,” Spencer says.

One thing is to get an opportunity, another is to make good use of it. Spencer has obviously excelled with what has been given to him. “I am good at not giving up,” he smiles. “I can get beaten down, but I can keep looking towards the bigger picture. Staying true to what you believe, and listening to the people around you, to never think you know better – those are the keys to success. Whatever Eric says, I follow like law.”

Lamaze himself is full of praise for his young protégé. “I saw something in Spencer," Lamaze says. "He rode well, and he has been brought up in our sport by true professionals. He had a background in hunters and equitation, and now he’s finding success at the biggest and most competitive show jumping venues in the world." 

“Spencer works hard, listens, and truly wants to be a student of the sport," Lamaze continues. "He is a big part of our business at Torrey Pines and is a huge asset to our team. He deserves everything he has accomplished.”

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson
"It is this horse and this team that brought me into the bigger sport,” Spencer says about his horse Theodore Manciais and the team at Torrey Pines.

With the help of Lamaze, a horse called Theodore Manciais crossed paths with Spencer. The 12-year-old chestnut has made all the difference. “He is a horse Eric and Yann Candele found in France, and they sent me straight to the Masters in Calgary the week they bought him,” Spencer says. “We jumped a 1.60m there and got a ribbon. It just took off from there. This is a horse that really changed my career so far – he won the Grand Prix in Wellington, in Valkenswaard and in Valence. Up until this horse, I never won a Grand Prix. It is this horse and this team that brought me into the bigger sport.”

Surprisingly though, the Grand Prix victories with Theodore Manciais are not the highlights of 2018 that Spencer would mention – but another chance he was given this past summer. “Getting to ride on the US team,” Spencer says. “It is amazing to win a few Grand Prix classes, and I’ve been lucky to do that – things worked out well. But, to get to ride for the US and wear the red coat is a huge deal when you have grown up in America,” he explains. “If you can accomplish that, it is something really special to hold on to for the rest of your life.”

Rome, the venue where Spencer got to wear the red jacket for the first time, has a special place in his heart. “I got to go to Rome and ride on the team there. It was a huge opportunity for me, so this was for sure my favourite show of the year,” he says. “It was my first Nations Cup, and we came second. It was a good experience. It was McLain, Beezie, Laura Kraut and me on the team – it was cool to get to hang out with the real big players.”

And being one of those big players is something Spencer dreams of. “I would really love to jump at the Olympics with the team. Robert Ridland has been a huge promoter for the younger riders and has been giving us opportunities that we normally would have never had,” he says about the US Chef d’Equipe. “Him putting so many young people in to Nations Cups, it brings more people into the sport and in a serious way. I think he’s done an amazing job for US showjumping and I think we will see the effects of it for a long time.”

The US team gold on home soil in Tryon last September was a clear sign of the effects of Ridland’s plan. “Tryon was such a cool thing, to win at home – and we had a young rider on the team,” Spencer points out. “It shows that Robert’s plan really works. I think we are really a strong country in showjumping. It might be harder to get into the team in the US, but once you’re on it you can always guarantee it is a strong team.”

Being able to compete shoulder to shoulder with some of the biggest names in the sport has given Spencer a whole new boost of motivation. “I am just starting to get into the bigger sport,” he says. “However, that is where I want to be. I want to be a competitor and it motivates me to watch all these riders around me that are so talented and so dedicated. I want to be like them. I want to be like Eric,” he says. “I don’t want to lose any momentum on my climb.” 

Coming from a horse family, Spencer knows that the climb is never really over. “I think the biggest challenge as a rider is to stay on the high level,” he says. “I think many riders can get to the top, and there are many good riders all over Europe and US. But what separates the really great ones is the ability to stay on the top, and never lose their standing. Staying relevant and adapting to the sport as it comes, that’s the real challenge.”

When he is not riding, Spencer attends the University of Miami. “For 2018 I took a semester off to stay here in Europe,” he says. “I have such an opportunity with Eric now, I want to focus on this and do what I can with school.” Spencer’s major is geology, or “rocks and stuff” – according to himself. But horses are what he plans to work with in the future. ”I like working with horses,” he says with no hesitation. ” I think that is really why we all do this sport. It is a really nice thing to get to work with these animals. You really see how much they try for you and how they pull through when you really need them.”

For the winter Spencer heads back home to Wellington, and to his rocks. “I’ll go back to Wellington to do the circuit there, and then I will return to Europe. While I am in Wellington I will do school at night; I’ll drive to Miami after we finish riding. During the season that it is doable.”

As to the future, Spencer is clear. “I’m going wherever Eric goes, for as long as he’ll let me.”

 


 

Bottom Line with Spencer Smith

Spencer prefers it clean and spotless...

“I clean my boots three times a day. My spurs too, and I like to keep them organised. This is the American way – you have to have clean spurs, clean boots and clean tack. It has just been the way my dad made me polish my boots – it sticks with you. I think everyone has their own way. Mine is clean.”

Spencer rides in a hand-me-down saddle...

There is one piece in Spencer’s perfect tack that has taken a beating though. His saddle. “My saddle is an exception. It has an actual hole in it and was once even lit on fire. I have had a lot of saddles, but I have not found any that are as comfortable as this one for me to ride in. It belonged to my dad and I took it one day. It has had a rough life. But I like it a lot! I am afraid I have to change it soon though, I just don’t know what I will change to.”

Spencer has an old man's mind...

Spencer comes across as mature beyond his years. “I have a really good family and they taught me a lot about ideals and respect.”

 

 


 

 

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