Next weekend, “the grand clam of indoor showjumping” trots into town, as AsiaWorld-Expo hosts the Longines Masters equestrian extravaganza.
The series kicked off in Los Angeles last September, moved to Paris for the second leg in December, and culminates here, in Hong Kong, with the third and final stage. In October, at the Sports Industry Awards Asia 2016, held in Bangkok, the Longines Masters of Hong Kong won gold, for “best live experience at a professional sporting event”.
As the horses gallop at high speed, spin around hairpin turns and soar over fences, their riders – the best showjumpers in the world – will compete for prizes worth US$670,000.
Post Magazine met members of the showjumping community, and asked them to share their horsey stories and pony tales. Saddle up!
Jacqueline Lai Jing-man, 25, is Hong Kong’s top-ranked professional showjumper. She’s competing in the Longines Masters for the second year running.
“I grew up in Pok Fu Lam and attended the Chinese International School. When I was 10 years old I rode a horse for the first time, at Lei Yue Mun Public Riding School, and I absolutely loved it – I was hooked on the spot.
“Two years later, I liveried a horse at Beas River Equestrian Centre, in Sheung Shui, which provides a home for retired racehorses. My horse was a cheeky chestnut called Strikeout. My parents were super supportive. We drove there after school, every day, and all through the school holidays, to exercise and groom him. There was a great community of other horse-mad kids there, so there was never a minute of boredom.
“On graduating from school, in 2009, I won a place at the University of Southern California, but I wanted to pursue showjumping, so I decided to take a gap year – which hasn’t ended. I bought a horse, found a great trainer and moved to Denmark, where my trainer lives.
“My career progressed well at first but then, in early 2011, I had a terrible accident. The horse I was riding reared all the way up and fell straight back, right on top of me. The pommel of the saddle crushed my pelvis and broke it in five places.
“I had extensive surgery and was confined to bed for a month, before transferring to a wheelchair and, later, to crutches. To go from being very active to totally immobile does a lot to your body. I had to learn everything from scratch – it took months of physiotherapy to re-teach my body how to get up and move. It was mental strength that pulled me through the most difficult physical hurdles.
“I got back in the saddle as soon as I could. I started off riding placid ponies at a riding school for the disabled. At first it felt totally alien because I had no muscle tone. It took a long time but I made a full recovery. The biggest challenge was rebuilding the quick-fire reflexes and reactions you need on horseback.
“Showjumping is a full-time job. I start work at 8am and ride all day, at least six days a week. And I compete in 12 to 15 shows a year, so I spend a lot of time driving around Europe.
“I’m bringing two horses to the Longines Masters. Basta is aggressive and playful, with a tendency to nip people and mess up his stable. He’s a troublemaker and you have to remind him who’s boss. But he’s really capable and has so much potential. If I’m able to get him to behave and listen to me, then he can really shine. Der Senaat belongs to John, my trainer. He’s the prince charming of the stable, and he’s always looking out for the pretty mares. He is sensitive around people but he never gets aggressive. In the ring he switches on and gets very excited. My biggest job will be to contain his power.”
Christophe Ameeuw is the founder and chief executive of EEM World, the company behind the Longines Masters Series.
“I wasn’t good enough to be a professional show jumper. To survive, financially, you need to be in the top 20. So, instead, I established a beautiful farm in Belgium, where I buy, breed, train and sell showjumping horses. We have over 100 horses, and that’s my primary business. I think of myself as a gentleman farmer.
“It’s frustrating when you devote your life to horses, but the rest of the world knows very little about your passion. Showjumping doesn’t have a big profile, like tennis or Formula One, and for a long time it remained very staid and conservative – more like a boring garden party in a field than an exciting sport. So I set out to reinvent it. My mission is to make showjumping a thrilling spectacle – to attract new fans and put it under the spotlight, where it belongs.
“I’ve done this by creating a new type of showjumping tournament, with the emphasis firmly on ‘show’. I stage it indoors, in a smaller ring, so the spectators get right up close to the horses. It’s dramatic and theatrical, with the horses as the actors, performing under state-of-the-art lighting. We plant microphones around the jumps, so the spectators can hear the horses breathe and the sound of their hooves as they gallop and hit the jump rails. You can really feel the action, which enhances the experience in a big way.
“And we changed the rules to make the show shorter and faster. In standard competitions, a rider has four seconds added to their time if their horse hits a rail. That’s such a heavy penalty that the rider cannot win, so they give up and slow down. At our events, the penalty is only two seconds for a rail down. The rider still has a fighting chance, and responds by increasing their speed, to make up the time lost.
“For me, [the Longines Masters] is a dream come true.”
THE HORSE TRANSPORTER
As head of European Horse Services, Filip Vande Cappelle is responsible for transporting the animals to the event.
“We’ve chartered an Etihad Airways plane to fly the 65 horses to Hong Kong. It’s a regular cargo plane, but a type that has good ventilation and temperature control, which is vital for the horses.
“The plane will take off from Liege airport, in southern Belgium. The airport has a ‘horse hotel’ with stables, where the animals can relax before their flight.
“The grooms will put travel boots or bandages around the horses’ legs, to protect them. When it’s time to go, we’ll walk them into stalls in an aluminium container. Those travelling in ‘economy’ share the container with two other horses. Horses flying ‘business class’ share with only one other, and have more space. Once they’re settled, the container ascends from the ground, directly into the plane, in a big elevator.
“The stallions get on first and travel in the nose of the plane. The geldings [castrated males] go in the middle, and we put the mares at the back. If the stallions smelled the mares they would get excited and we would have to sedate them – so we make sure that doesn’t happen.
“The pilot will use the full length of the runway to reduce the gradient at takeoff and landing, and will avoid any sharp turns in the air, to make sure the horses don’t get scared. These horses are frequent fliers though, and they are used to it.
“Along with the flight crew, there will be nine people on board, taking care of the horses. A veterinarian, a specialist flight attendant [flying with horses is his full-time job] and seven grooms, who work for the riders.
“If horses feel disturbed or uncomfortable, it puts them at risk of developing colic – an equine condition which is the No 1 cause of death in horses. To avoid this, we feed them only hay and water before and during the flight, which greatly reduces the risk. A quiet atmosphere is essential. If the handlers are stressed or running around in a panic, it will be transferred to the horses. If the horses perceive that everyone is in control, that everything is going smoothly, that will help to keep them calm.
“Another key issue is biosecurity, which is very tight in Hong Kong, to protect the racing industry. It makes life easier that AsiaWorld-Expo is right next to the airport, so the horses won’t be brought into Hong Kong. The whole area will be treated as a quarantine zone. Members of the public won’t be able to touch the horses, and we’ll put disinfection mats on the ground in areas where both horses and people walk.”
Marlen Schannwell works for Bertram Allen, a rising star in the showjumping world. She will be taking care of his horses at the Longines Masters, and getting them ready for the ring.
“I learned to ride at my uncle’s farm, in the south of Germany, when I was 12. I started an apprenticeship in the horse business at 17 and, three years later, began working as a professional groom for jumping horses. I have been working with Bertram since 2010.
“I’ll be flying to Hong Kong with the horses and will focus on getting them settled in and adjusted.
“Before the first day’s jumping I’ll give them a full body bath. I always choose natural products without fragrance, which won’t irritate their skin. I use a special shampoo, called Veredus Blue Snow, for Hector, who is a white horse. It’s a blue-purple colour so, when I first put it on, he looks like a Smurf but, when I wash it off, it leaves his coat snowy white. It’s amazing how it takes all the yellow out. After the shampoo, I apply Super Sheen, which is a brilliant spray-on conditioner that makes their manes and tails glossy. Baby powder also helps to make white hair look whiter – that’s a good little trick!
“Once the horses are dry, I plait their manes. I divide the hair into sections using a comb, and try to get each section the same size. I’ll do a really tight, tidy plait and then roll it up into a bobble shape, and tie it with an elastic band. Show jumping horses don’t get plaited tails, so I’ll just brush the hair nice and straight.
“I use a curry comb, to remove loose hair and dead skin from their bodies, like an exfoliation. They love it. And then I’ll go over them again with a normal brush, to bring their coats up to full shine.
“I’ll feed the horses no more than two hours before they jump, so they have enough time to digest and are able to perform. If they get hungry, or grumpy, because another horse is being fed, they’ll get a little hay to chew on and relax, but I’ll make sure they’re not weighed down by a full stomach. I observe them all day to see how they feel and what they need. I give them electrolytes to replace body salts if they have been sweating, magnesium if they need to be calmer or have sore muscles, and boosters, like B vitamins, to make them fresher, if they seem tired. They’re quite a lot like humans in this way.
“I’ll get the horse ready and tacked up, and help Bertram in the warm-up area. Then I’ll walk with Bertram and the horse to the ring, and watch them compete from the ‘kiss and cry zone’ with the other grooms and trainers and family members. It’s not easy, especially at the big shows – it’s very exciting, but I always get so nervous.”
Laurent Goblet is head of development at the Hermès saddlery, in Paris.
“My family on my father’s side were jockeys so I grew up in Chantilly, a town north of Paris, surrounded by horses. I always loved to work with my hands so, when I was 15, I moved to a technical school. I spent three years there, learning how to craft leather. Leather has a very special feeling in the hand – it’s a ‘hot’ material, and you can transform it the way you want.
“I decided to combine my love of horses and leather by becoming a saddlemaker. On graduating in 1977, I started work at Hermès, and I’ve been there ever since. The saddlery is on the top floor of the original Hermès store, at 24 rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in the centre of Paris. I like to think I didn’t have to work my way up, because I started at the top!
“We sell various saddle designs for different disciplines, including jumping and dressage, but each saddle is made to measure for a particular horse and rider. As the interface between the two, the saddle has to fit both the horse’s and the rider’s bodies perfectly. The tools we use feel like an extension of our own hands and our aim is to create a saddle that links the horse and rider in a comparable way.
“Hermès works with 19 partner riders – all top professionals – to design new saddles. We think that if the world’s best riders enjoy our saddles, then our customers will, too.
“Our saddle experts, who live and travel all over the world, visit our clients at home to do a custom fitting. They measure and draw the rider’s legs, and use a special tool called an Equiscan, which looks like a big blue spider, to take 100 measurements of the horse’s back. This data generates a 3D computer model of the horse’s back, from which we make a physical replica that we make the saddle on. It’s as if the horse is in our craftshop.
“The first step is to make the ‘tree’ – the saddle’s rigid skeleton. I use beech wood, because it’s both durable and supple. The seat is made from either calfskin, which is very smooth, or bull calf leather, which is velvety and ‘grippy’. The flaps on the saddle’s sides are made of cowhide, lined with either calfskin or bull calf leather. We sew the pieces of leather together with both traditional linen and synthetic nylon threads, using classic saddle stitching. It takes 20 to 40 hours to make each saddle.
“Some of our partner riders will be competing with our saddles at the Longines Masters. It’s always a great joy if one of them wins – it feels like the ultimate outcome of our work.”
THE COURSE DESIGNER
Uliano Vezzani designer of the Longines Masters showjumping course.
“I started riding when I was six years old and it immediately became my passion. I worked for my family’s plastics business, in Correggio, Italy, but I kept riding. I rode opera singer Luciano Pavarotti’s horses – to exercise them and in show jumping competitions. One time at a show, the course designer was absent, so I offered to create the course. I enjoyed it, so I started doing more and more, and it became my No 1 passion and, eventually, my career.
“I arrive at every tournament with an idea for the course, but I never finalise the design until I have seen the horses jump on the first day. When I see which horses are competing, how well they are jumping, and the conditions in the arena, I’ll adapt the design accordingly. Having that knowledge, on the ground, is essential.
“I try to pace the course to ensure the horses and riders have time to breathe, and recover, between the jumps. Usually the most difficult jumps – the double and triple combinations – will be placed around the middle of the course. I never make the first jump a hard one, because that could make the horse afraid to continue. And I don’t make the last jump especially challenging, either, because the horses are tired by that point.
“I use my feet to estimate the correct distances between the jumps, and then I check it with a measuring tape. Each run-up represents a specific number of horse strides, but there isn’t a standard length – the length of the stride depends on what they are doing at the point you start the measurements. It’s very complicated. I try to ensure there’s a different number of strides between each jump, to build variety into the experience.
“To be successful, a showjumping horse has to be fast, flexible, careful and motivated. There must be harmony and equilibrium in the way it jumps. As for riders, the winning quality is something inside. You can do all the physical exercise you want but the rider, who is an artist, who really feels the horse, will get the best response from the animal. It’s the same for a course designer – you need to be born with that natural instinct and then experience adds to your skill. It cannot all be learned.
“What’s most important to me is to respect the horses. I want to see them ‘smiling’ when they leave the ring.”
The Longines Masters takes place from Friday to Sunday. For tickets, go to www.longinesmasters.com/en/ticketing