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April 16, 2010

Free Rein With: Michael Etherington-Smith

Michael Etherington-Smith will be designing the Rolex Kentucky course for the final time in 2010. Photo by Beth Rasin.

For 19 years, Michael Etherington-Smith has designed the Rolex Kentucky courses, shaping the contours of the Kentucky Horse Park into a test that draws the best in the world. His next challenge at the Horse Park will be the courses for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, which he plans to make his final event before retiring.

Etherington-Smith designed the cross-country courses at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong. He was the technical advisor for the 2006 World Equestrian Games (Germany) and has worked on numerous other courses in the United States and abroad.

A former professional event and show jumping rider, Etherington-Smith was the event director and course designer at the Blenheim CCI*** (England) from its inception 20 years ago to 2007. In 2007, he took over as Sport Director of British Eventing, and then became Executive Chief of BE in 2008—a position he still holds.

Name: Michael Etherington-Smith                         
Age: 55    
Home Base: Banbury, Oxfordshire, England

How did you get into horses?        
One of my sisters bet me that I could not stay on a horse for 20 minutes (I won the bet). Then I joined a local Pony Club with some mates and competed on eventing and jumping teams, plus did the national tetrathlon championships. The fact that there were lots of girls in the Pony Club was the perfect reason to join.

In retrospect, what’s the best decision you’ve made?    
1. Getting married; 2. Not going to university.

What do you do on your days off?  
 
I’m not good at taking days off, but when I do my wife [Sue] and I go walking, or I’ll play some sort of sport. Or we really enjoy meeting up with non-horsey friends.

What do you consider your most significant riding accomplishment?        
Coming out of 10 years of competing professionally without breaking too many bones!

What appeals to you about course design?  
    
It’s a mix of things—the variety of sites and venues, the opportunity to work in some of the most spectacular venues in the world, the challenge itself, the opportunity to be creative, the opportunity to go to places that I may not go to otherwise and meet people who I otherwise may not get the chance to, the opportunity to remain in a sport that I love, and the opportunity every so often to build something from scratch.

What’s one thing you’ll never see on an Etherington-Smith cross-country course?   

A gate.

What was the last book you read?   

Ranulph Fiennes’ Mad Dogs And Englishmen.

Have you ever built a fence you wouldn’t want to jump?    
No.

What type of automobile do you drive, and how many miles are on it?  

I have a Subaru Impreza WRX with 22,000 miles on it.

How long have you been designing courses, and how did you get started doing it?   
I’ve been designing for 35 years or thereabouts, starting when I was 17 helping with Pony Club
courses. The first CCI I designed was at Bramham [England] in 1986.

I realized that making a living from competing was not really a long-term viable career, since I always rode for other people and could never afford my own horses. So I was always looking for other opportunities within the sport. I became a technical advisor in the early ‘80s for what was then the British Horse Trials Association—now British Eventing—which got me involved in more design work and was a terrific opportunity to learn more about designing.

How many airline miles do you accumulate in a year?     
Not so many now (about 20,000-30,000 but reducing all the time), but until two years ago it was about 200,000 to 240,000 each year.

What do you think is the biggest issue facing the world today?   

Too many people.

Name one random fact people wouldn’t know about you.   
I play tennis.

What word or phrase do you overuse?    
You can’t print it!

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Free Rein With: Michael Etherington-Smith" ran in the April 16 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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