Only in Ireland would you arrange to meet the show jumping course designer for the next FEI World Equestrian Games in a village called Horse And Jockey. It’s a 15-minute drive from the home of Alan Wade, who is completely in his comfort zone in the rich Tipperary countryside. As we talk in the lobby of the local hotel, passing customers nod in recognition or stop for a quick chat with the son of an Irish legend.
Tommy Wade’s extraordinary show jumping career was over before Alan was born. But the legacy of the man who became the greatest folk hero the sport in Ireland has ever known, and who passed away at the age of 80 just two weeks ago, lives on in the stories of his extraordinary career that peaked in the 1950s and ’60s. Tommy’s magical partnership with the great Dundrum, a 15-hand “hony” who was just as strong-willed and defiant as his anti-establishment rider, will never be forgotten. They slayed the giants of their time and attracted huge TV audiences for their courage and tenacity.
By the time Alan came along in 1970, Tommy had turned his attention to course building, so, like the rest of the family that included his mother Felicity, sister Maria and brothers Robert and Ronan, Alan was roped in to help out at local shows from a very early age. Holycross in Tipperary was one of the biggest events on the national circuit, and he cut his teeth as an assistant there before joining the panel of the national association.
“In the early days it was just a hobby but something I was really interested in, and I spent a lot of time traveling and working with other people to get experience,” he said.
One of his greatest influencers was the late Avril Busteed, aunt of Irish show jumping star Billy Twomey, who put Alan through his paces in the outside pony ring in Millstreet, “where I learned a lot, and very quickly.”
Outside The Country
The generosity of fellow course designers is a recurring theme of our interview.
“Brian Henry was the first to take me outside the country, and then I met Bob Ellis—he’s been very good to me,” said Alan of the man who set the much-lauded tracks for the 2012 London Olympic Games assisted by the Irishman.
By then Alan had already been supporting top names like Germany’s Frank Rothenberger at major events including the famous Aachen CHIO in Germany, and he’d a realized a dream by working at the Dublin Horse Show, mecca for all things equestrian in Ireland.
After assisting U.S. designer Linda Allen in Dublin, she brought Alan to Rotterdam, the Netherlands. “Now I’m going back to build there this year, and I’m technical delegate for the European Championships there next summer!” he said.
It’s all swings and roundabouts, and every step on the way up that ladder has to be earned.
“I’ve worked with a lot of good people, and I try to pick up on things that I like from them all,” Alan said. “You just build up this depth of experience, and you fall back on the things you’ve learned. When you design you have things that you like, and there are things that other people do that you hate, but I’ve arrived at a position now where I know what I like, and I don’t try to reinvent the wheel. I just stick with what I can do. I can understand that other people might want to do it differently, and I have no problem with that, but my way is my way.”
Rather like father, like son it seems!
What’s Changed And What Hasn’t
We talk about how much the sport has changed over the years, and Alan says that while it is more technical, “horses aren’t jumping any bigger today.” The fence material is different, but he believes that a good horse back then would still be a good horse now. “Jappeloup would still be spectacular; Milton would still be Milton, and Big Ben would still be Big Ben!” he said.
In the end, according to Alan, what separates the winners from the losers is that extra 5 percent. “It’s not technique or ability, it’s the horse’s will to win,” he said. “I see it every day, horses helping out riders at the very top level.”
When it comes to the crowning moment of his career he says designing in Dublin was always a huge ambition, but he believes his greatest triumph was at the 2017 Longines FEI World Cup Final in Omaha, Nebraska, where McLain Ward and HH Azur came out on top.
“It was the overall package of how that result transpired,” he explained. “For me it was great sport and great jumping—over three days knocking favorites out every day. I looked at the overall thing from the first fence on the first day to the last fence on the last day rather than over-building as the competition went on.”
On To Tryon 2018
And now he’s been selected to build courses for eventing and show jumping at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, North Carolina, in September. “
It just shows that long working days and long trips away from home are paying off,” Alan said.
He’s glad that the opening speed leg has been reintroduced to the show jumping world championships format, and he offered this warning: “The level should be higher than the Olympic Games in reality—it won’t be easy!”
The speed leg will be followed by two more rounds that will decide the team medals, and then two further rounds before the new individual champion is crowned. “Courses will ramp up as the week goes on, but they’ll still be at a high level starting out,” he said.
His core crew includes designer Steve Stevens, who created the tracks for the equestrian events at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games staged in Hong Kong, and work is already well underway.
“Steve is in charge of actual fence production, and I’ve been to his workshop in Florida, and we’ve gone through ideas and drawings,” said Alan. “I have every confidence the materials will be world class. I’ve spent long hours at home designing, helped by [my wife] Ann Marie who has a great eye for colors.
“Also Frank Glynn will be part of the core design team, and underneath that we’ll have three working groups, all led by American course designers, and then two more groups another step down. In total there’ll be eight course designers involved, but there’ll be only one boss!” he quipped.
So what’s his trademark in course design? “I like very simple lines,” Alan said. “I keep telling anyone who comes to assist me, or when they are starting out, to keep it to figures of eight. At all levels I like simple, flowing lines, maybe a little forward or a little short rather than looping or turning. People have different styles. I will loop and turn and try to mix it up but basically coming from a very simple line.”
However then he gets to the nub of the matter, and it’s something that will ring familiar for anyone who ever jumped a Tommy Wade track: “I like to build to maximum dimensions in every class,” said Alan. “I’ll start at the dimensions, building for the sense of achievement. If you have 4 faults you’ll be happy with them. Some people get tied up in numbers. I never get tied up in how many clear rounds there are. I go with what I think is right on any certain day.”
He’ll be building courses at Tryon in June and July and expects his WEG show jumping arena to be ready for trial at the July fixture. A few weeks later the venue will welcome the best horse-and-rider combinations from all around the globe, and they’ll need to be at the top of their game to take on the Alan Wade challenge.
“I’m not a fan of tricks,” he said. “It will be fair, it will be jumpable, and it will respect the horse, but if you make a mistake there will be a consequence. I’m not shy of dimensions, but I won’t try to trick a horse into doing something stupid. The track should be there in front of them, the test should be there in front of them, and they should be able to solve it.”