In the last 10 months Dutchman Harrie Smolders’ star has been on the rise. He was the runaway winner of last season’s Longines Global Champions Tour, taking the series title before the final competition even began and helping the Hamburg Diamonds win the Longines Global Champions League season title. Last year Smolders, 37, earned individual silver at the Longines FEI European Championships (Sweden) and topped major classes like the FEI World Cup Qualifier of Mechelen (Belgium) and the LGCT Grand Prix of Chantilly (France). Those accomplishments are thanks in no small part to his impressive string of horses that includes Emerald N.O.P. and Zinius (both owned by Axel Verlooy’s EuroHorse) and Don VHP Z, Capital Colnardo and Cas 2 (all owned by the Coulter family through Copernicus Stables).
And when the Fédération Equestre Internationale released the new Longines FEI Show Jumping World Rankings, Smolders’ name was No. 1.
Those who follow top U.S. show jumping will know him, as he’s spent plenty of time at horse shows on this side of the Atlantic, and he and Emerald starred in the advertising campaign for the 2016 Washington International Horse Show (District of Columbia), having won their feature class the year before.
But the new world No. 1—who says he was so scared to jump as a young child that his instructor had to dig the poles into the ground to get him to try—earned that spot after nearly two decades of hard work. He sat down with The Chronicle of the Horse at the Longines Masters of New York to discuss riding, family and producing young horses, including a very special one who earned double gold for Team USA.
COTH: Since the beginning of the year you’ve had exactly three weekends that you weren’t at an international competition. That’s how it is for many top show jumpers, of course, but how do you manage it?
Smolders: It’s quite intense. We’re at shows more than 45 weeks a year, at least three days a week. With traveling and everything, you have four days a week minimum gone, so it’s hard to keep up your social life with family and friends. But I must say, the last 10 months is the first time in my career, in my life, that I can focus myself on the sport. Before I had to develop horses or ride sales horses or train students. I’ve been working hard to create a great group of people around me, and this is the first time in my career that I have six or eight horses at the five-star level.
It’s an opportunity I worked many years for, and now that I’m here I want to try for at least a year to be fully focused on the sport.
COTH: How do you feel about becoming No. 1 in the world?
Smolders: Of course it’s nice to have on your CV, but it hasn’t changed my life or anything.
For me it’s most important that we focus on keeping the horses fit and happy, and then the results will come. That’s how we actually always try to manage my horses, and I’m very pleased that we never let the rankings dictate what we do. I always look to my horses, listen to my horses, then go from there. That’s the biggest achievement, and it’s thanks to the staff and Axel and Copernicus.
It’s also really important that you know your horses very well and at which shows they perform well. You can pick and choose better. In the last year I gave my two best horses, Emerald and “Don” three to four months off. Then other horses stepped up, and they were great. I try to feel when my horses need a break or are ready for a break.
No one can believe it, but Don only did 12 shows last year. We do what each horse needs to keep him sound and happy.
COTH: What kind of horse suits you?
Smolders: The good thing is that I’ve worked my whole life at dealing stables, so I’ve ridden and tried to improve many different types of horses. Maybe that helps me today find more horses for top sport because I can ride different types well. Of course, that exceptional horse is so hard to find and has to come to you through a back door or something.
COTH: You got your start riding for former European champion and former Dutch Chef d’Equipe Johan Heins. What was that like?
Smolders: I rode a lot of younger horses and learned a lot from him. Johan knew I wanted to ride at the top level, and at one point he was very honest and said, “I’m not in a position to keep horses for you for the sport,” and I started looking for opportunities for myself.
With Johan I was making horses for Beezie! I got Authentic [Beezie Madden’s partner for two team Olympic gold medals and one individual bronze] as a young horse. I knew straight away from the beginning that he was very special. He was exceptional, very talented and very clever. We always had the feeling that it would be one of those special horses that would make a big difference at the top level.
COTH: Did you want to keep the horse?
Smolders: Of course! But I knew at that time I wasn’t in a position to do that. I was so very pleased that he went to Beezie and John. I knew he’d be in the right hands to have a great career ahead of him. He’s a very clever boy.
That’s our job, to discover new horses and bring them along, put all the buttons on them. I’m honored that I’m now at the position in my career that I can harvest what I brought along with horses like Emerald. I’m really grateful for that.
COTH: Since 2002 you’ve been working with Olympian and top dealer Axel Verlooy at his stable in Belgium, EuroHorse. At this point what role does he play in your program?
Smolders: We are still very close actually, which is great. It’s a partnership, and Axel provides me with some horses also for the sport like Emerald and Zinius. And of course, thanks to Copernicus for sponsoring my riding as well; they both make it possible that I can focus on the sport.
When I joined the stable was smaller. We started at the one-star level, then started getting better horses, better owners and slowly stepped up. Axel and I use both our assets to bring the stable to a higher level. He’s on his computer all day phoning with owners and finding horses, and I’m focused on the horses and riding.
Over the last 10 months I really haven’t been coaching, which has enabled me to really focus on myself. I’m very lucky.
COTH: So though sisters Audrey and Saer Coulter of Copernicus have stepped back from riding they’re still supporting you?
Smolders: I’m very grateful for that and the huge opportunities they’ve given me. They’ve been amazing, and we have a great relationship. They sponsored the Hamburg Diamonds [Global Champions Tour League team] and are so supportive. They follow the sport closely and watch every round, no matter where in the world I am.
Audrey lives in New York City, and that’s one of the reasons we came [to the Longines Masters of New York] with her horses [Cas 2 and Capital Colnardo], so she could see them compete.
COTH: At the start of your career you spent time developing young horses, and now you’re riding at five-stars. How do you manage to keep good young ones coming up the pipeline?
Smolders: That’s one of the biggest difficulties at the top of the sport: How do you get new ones, because you really don’t have time, as a rider, to find them and develop them. If you go to the five-star shows these days, you need to go with horses that already have lots of experience, 9- and 10-year-olds. If you have good 7- and 8-year-olds with potential you still need to give them some mileage. So any weekend I’m not at a five-star competition we’re buying horses or trying to find new ones.
That’s always the challenge for the future. Right now we have nice young horses in the program, but we don’t have one like Emerald [whom Smolders developed as a young horse].
COTH: Is that where Axel is especially helpful?
Smolders: Yes, because we have four show riders at the barn. Jos Verlooy, his son, and I compete at the five-star level, and there are two riders below that. But even if someone else develops a good horse, you still need to ride that horse for a while. You need to know his ins and outs, and you need to get a good partnership, and that takes time.
There is a flat rider who keeps the horses going at home, but I always jump them. Each horse has his own program, but the basics are the same. Really it’s about moving the horses. They come out twice a day. One time in the morning they go through the forest, and then they come out for flatwork in the afternoon. We don’t even have to go off our yard to walk straight into the forest. I think that’s super to keep their minds fresh and do something different.
COTH: Does your family come to shows with you? How do you keep up family life with so much time on the road?
Smolders: My wife, Inge, and two sons, Pim and Siep, were in Paris [for the Longines FEI World Cup Final], and sometimes they do come to the shows—especially when the boys are on holiday—because I like to have them with me.
When I’m not at shows I’m at home in Lage-Mierde in the Netherlands, and I drive 45 minutes or an hour to Grobbendonk in Belgium to Axel’s farm. When I’m at home I always have breakfast with my family and bring my boys to school. And at night when I’m home we’re always together.
The area where we live is where my family is, and my wife’s family, as well as all our friends and our boys’ friends. I don’t want to take them out of that community; it’s better for me to drive. Their lives keep going, and sometimes I step in.
My youngest boy, Siep, is riding a bit. He had his first show at the Dutch Masters. I was very proud. Right now he goes once a week to the riding club with his friend, and they love it. He talks about horses a lot, and he’s very interested. We’ll see what the future holds.
COTH: Do you have any dogs?
Smolders: No, we don’t have any dogs at the moment, but my sons really want one! My wife works as well. She’s a speech therapist and also works with stroke patients. She’s not involved with horses; I met her during school.
COTH: If you could pick one horse on the circuit to ride, who would it be?
Smolders: [Luciana Diniz’s] Fit For Fun.
COTH: So what’s your goal right now?
Smolders: I gave my two top horses [Emerald and Don] the winter off, so they could be prepared as contenders for the FEI World Equestrian Games [North Carolina]. My country’s main priority is qualifying for the Olympics.
But before that it’s just the day to day: listening to your horses about their form and condition. You need to feel when they need to step back and when you feel success will come in a few shows. That’s what we focus on.