As 2016 comes to a close, it’s natural to reflect on the year that was, and for Harrie Smolders there’s a lot to smile about. With a second place finish at this year’s World Cup Final in Gothenburg and an Olympic debut in Rio, the Dutch rider continues to make his mark on show jumping history.
For someone who regularly competes in 5* competition, it’s surprising to learn how much prompting it took to coax the younger Harrie over anything larger than a ground pole. “I don’t know why I was so scared to jump – they had to put the pole on the ground in the beginning,” Smolders said, “But my first pony, Smurf, was quite important. He gave me a lot of confidence. He was very reliable and even when I fell off he would stop and stand right next to me. He gave me so much confidence that when I started jumping I knew nothing could go wrong.”
It was clear sailing after Smurf and, by fifteen, Smolders was balancing soccer – his first sporting passion – school, and the 10 plus horses that had been sent for him to ride by onlookers who had noticed his talent.
Smolders’ father was his first trainer and pressed his son to maximize his talent. “When I was younger my dad was quite demanding. Even when I won 3 out of 4 classes at a show he was still pushing, talking about the one I missed.”
Once his studies were finished, Smolders had a choice to make: university or horses. “When I finished school, I didn’t really know where I wanted to go – whether I wanted to go to university, or continue riding. My parents suggested I try a few months riding and then go to university if I couldn’t make a living. After a few months, I realized I could keep doing it.”
Eventually, Smolders left home to ride for Johan Heins’ stable in the north of Holland. He credits his time with Heins, in addition to his father’s tutelage, for the foundation of his riding skills. “I stayed there for years and learned the basics of riding,” says Smolders.
Since those formative years, Smolders has moved on and now rides for Axel Verlooy’s Euro Horse stables, where Smolders has developed a number of top horses, including his current star, the charismatic Emerald (Diamant de Semilly x Carthago Z). Smolders once likened Emerald to the equine equivalent of an Aston Martin, and the horse is a crowd favourite wherever he goes, thanks to his unique white belly, keen expression, and textbook jumping style.
“I’ve had Emerald since he was 6. From the first time we jumped him he convinced us with his style, technique, and carefulness,” Smolders said, adding, “He has a great mind – he wants to do it. He’s a very attractive horse and attracts many people.”
Don VHP (Diamant de Semilly x Voltaire) is another star on Smolders’ roster and the 12-year-old stallion has picked up numerous clears throughout the season. “He’s a very scopey, careful horse. He’s been very consistent, and can do all the big classes in the world,” says Smolders.
Before the days of Emerald and Don, Harrie’s number one was the recently retired Regina Z (Rex Z x Savoy Hannover). “She was a very special mare and very competitive horse – a real fighter. She won many, many classes.” Though retired from jumping, Regina will start her breeding career next year.
Often times, American riders head to Europe in an effort to hone their skills and compete amongst the world’s best. But Smolders and his horses have racked up more than a few frequent flyer miles making the reverse commute to compete in America and coach American show jumper Audrey Coulter (who herself is having a great season, recently picking up a win in the $100,000 Longines World Cup™ qualifier in Sacramento). Having split his time between the continents, Smolders admits to seeing a difference in riding styles.
“There is a difference [between Europe and America]. When you’re young in America, you do a lot of equitation classes. They teach you to follow the rhythm and count the numbers. I think in Europe you have to improvise and follow your feeling and eye a little more. Probably the best thing is somewhere in the middle. If you want to be a complete rider, you have to learn both sides. You have to be capable to do different types of riding for different horses.”
Though he’s been to numerous major finals, Rio was Harrie’s first time entering the Olympic arena and he’s quick to note it’s unlike any other championship. “You get to meet athletes you normally never would in the Olympic village. Also, the worldwide and national press people that normally never follow your sport follow you during the Olympics. That’s what makes it such a big happening.”
After the taxing show season, Emerald is taking a break until year’s end – allowing Smolders a chance to work with his up-and-comers and also give Don VHP a shot at the limelight. They’ll compete in the International Horse Show in Geneva this weekend and then in Mechelen where, if Smolders racks up some World Cup points, he’ll consider making a run for the World Cup Final in Omaha.
For now, Smolders plans to focus on the outdoor season. He’ll participate in the Global Champions Tour where he’s become a regular face and his team, the Antwerp Diamonds, placed 2nd this year. Smolders welcomes the GCT as a nice counterpoint to the traditional competitions. “I think it’s super that the shows can live next to each other. Of course there are the classics of our sport, but I think with the Global Tour you get a whole new area of shows. To have the 30 best in the world riding against each other is the top, top level.”
Whether in Omaha this Spring, or Doha in the fall for the Global Champions Tour Final, we’ll undoubtedly see Smolders standing atop many podiums in the future.
By Ashley Fairfield-Remeza