When professional chemist Beat Sax, 62, stood on the podium at the test event for this year’s FEI World Eventing Championships in Pratoni del Vivaro, Italy, accepting his team gold medal, he said the camaraderie of achieving success together with his Swiss teammates made the victory especially sweet. The Nations Cup competition held during the test event was his first time on a team, but he hopes to repeat the experience at the World Championships in September and maybe even at the Olympic Games in Paris in 2024.
Those are lofty goals, particularly for someone who works 50 hours a week in a profession far removed from horses and is nearing retirement age—something, incidentally, Sax says he has no intention of doing any time soon. But, as the most senior rider on the Swiss team, Sax brings 45 years of experience and strong results through the four-star level. This weekend, he and his one horse, Secret IV, a 14-year-old Hanoverian gelding (Satisfaction FRH—Escada, Earl) he purchased as a 4-year-old, are competing in the CCI4*-S at the Luhmühlen Horse Trials (Germany) to help make their case for a team selection that would return them to Pratoni for the World Championships in September.
Working For A Living
For as many years as Sax has spent in the saddle, he’s spent almost as many working as a chemist for Bachem AG, a company that makes peptides for the pharmaceutical industry. As factory site manager, he leads 1,200 people and works more than 50 hours each week.
“I went to university until I was 23 and then was working, but now for 40 years I’ve been in the same factory and worked my way up from the laboratory to the top,” he said. “I’m an expert in what we’re doing. I think I’ll keep working after my pension; you normally retire around 65, but my job is lovely, and I think it’s a good thing. It makes life interesting. It helps to be fit in the head!”
Sax lives in Bubendorf, Switzerland, a village of around 4,000 people with just a few local stables.
“I’m working, riding and sleeping in the same village—I have three minutes to the stable and five minutes to my working place,” he said. “That’s great. Without that, it doesn’t work!”
To stay fit, Sax does a half-hour exercise program every morning, including stretching and conditioning.
Although he was previously married, Sax has been single for the past decade and has no children, so “Secret” has his undivided attention. His work schedule includes a midday break, which is when he heads out to the stables to ride, care for Secret and have his daily mental health break.
“Secret looks out for me and for my health,” he said. “He makes me very happy. To be around my horse is my relaxing time.”
10 Years, One Horse
In his 62 years, Sax has owned just five horses, and today Secret, who he purchased a decade ago, is his only competition horse.
“He was 4 and really green when I bought him, and he set me sometimes into the sand!” Sax said of their early years together. “He has his ideas, and I had my ideas, but not always in the same direction! I’ve seen in the beginning that he has really good nerves; that was clear. He had some troubles learning about jumping in the beginning, and it was hard work to bring him along so he understood that the jumps wouldn’t bite him or something. Also, water was not something he liked, but jumping into water is no problem for him now. He has a natural talent in dressage, too, but he’s not so easy to ride.”
Two years into their partnership, Secret placed 17th in the 6-year-old division of the FEI WBFSH Eventing World Breeding Championship for Young Horses at Le Lion-d’Angers (France).
In March of this year they won their first CCI4*-L at Montelibretti (Italy) before being named to the Nations Cup team for Pratoni.
But Secret had to overcome physical challenges on the way there.
Back From The Brink
When he was 7, Secret got caught on an oxer, and part of his kneecap splintered off, requiring surgery and work with an osteopath.
In 2019 they were again competing successfully, but then Secret colicked and needed another surgery. His bowels were not functioning properly afterward, and after 10 days veterinarians were ready to put him down. A day before, Olivia Rudolf, a veterinarian with experience in alternative medicine, worked on the horse, and gradually his intestines started functioning again.
“In the year Secret had the colic operation it was a hard time; he nearly died,” Sax said. “After that I was playing around for about a year, and in my mind our competitive career was over. I only have one horse—I have always had one horse during my time eventing—but Secret is my heart. He is the best horse I ever had.
“I was really wondering what would happen though because the team leader, Dominik Burger, chef d’equipe, asked me to come back in 2020,” he continued. “I thought, ‘If it works it’s fine, and if it doesn’t it’s also OK.’ ”
Secret was able to run the Avenches CCI4*-S (Switzerland) at the end of 2020 and placed in the top five. From there, both his health and his competitive performances kept improving.
“That was the start again,” Sax said. “After that we did two other events, and now in 2022 we are really on the way back to the level where we were before. In Strzegom (Poland) we had the fastest round in the four-[star] long, but some rails down in show jumping. In Le Lion in France we had a problem with the flags and had 15 penalties, but Secret jumped all the jumps. I lost a stirrup in the jumping, and at jump 6 my new stirrup was broken, so I retired. That was really something unusual, that my equipment was broken.”
Then March, they earned the win at Montelibretti CCI4*-L (Italy).
“I had never won a four-star event; that was an absolute highlight of my riding career,” he said.
Riding With The Team
As a member of Switzerland’s high performance squad for the past eight years, Sax has had opportunities to train with team coach Andrew Nicholson, dressage trainer Gilles Ngovan, and show jumper Leslie McNaught-Mändli.
“I was never riding in a Nations Cup though,” Sax said. “Pratoni was the first time. For me I normally also go with the Swiss people in an event. For me it is a feeling always like we are a team; we help each other and are looking out for each other. I am the oldest and one of the most experienced guys, so often I could help. But winning together and bringing the best cross-country result like in Pratoni, that was the best feeling because we did it all together. That was really great.”
After their victory in Pratoni, Nicholson commented on the squad’s dynamics: “They keep getting better, more confident and are pulling together as a team. They are passionate and want to do it, and they are making the younger ones hungry, which pushes the older riders.”
Sax attributes the success of the Swiss team to a good, consistent training program.
“We have a good team situation at the moment. We have a good understanding with the trainers; we are really in good interaction,” he said. “We train together every two weeks, about an hour from home. That’s fine. I always train with the team coaches.”
From Plow Horse To Event Horse
Working with specialized coaches and standing on podiums is a world away from Sax’s start with horses.
He first became interested in horses as a child, growing up in a small village of about 600 people.
“There was one farmer who was working his fields with horses. That was really special at that time, around 1968 or 1969,” he recalled. “I helped him in the field and the stable, and some days he was coming to the schoolhouse at the end of the day and waiting for me to go with him to the fields. He’d bring up the hay, and I would hold the reins and sit on the wagon.”
After the “horse bug” had bitten, Sax’s parents, who had no experience with horses, sent him to the local riding school for lessons. Later he worked there, helping with whatever they needed, and at the end of each day he could ride for an hour. By age 13 he was riding horses for owners who didn’t have time to ride themselves, and he started competing. He rode in his first event at age 16, finishing last, then came back a year later and won.
“I got my first horse of my own when I was around 20, but it was a family horse, for me and also for my brother and my sister,” he said. “When I began riding my brother and sister also wanted to do it. I bought my first horse of my own when I was around 30 years old.”
His current home of Bubendorf doesn’t have many other riders, so Sax got used to training and traveling alone as he worked his way up the levels, getting help when he could from more experienced riders.
“Before, I trained by myself, and a friend of mine who’s 10 years older than me and was also riding in eventing would go with me to events and gave me some advice, like a trainer but not on the level where we are today,” he said.
He said all five of his horses have gotten to at least the three-star level, four of them to four-star.
“I bought them at 4 years old and brought them up to the highest level possible,” he said. “I haven’t competed at the five-star yet, but that is my next dream. Maybe I’ll compete at Kentucky next year like Michi Jung!”
At Luhmühlen, Sax is hoping for a strong performance to help punch their team ticket back to Pratoni, but he is also excited to compete for a more sentimental reason: Secret’s breeder, Johann Burfeind, is attending the event.
“The breeder is 75 years old or so, and the mother of Secret is 18 now—he was her first foal,” Sax said. “The breeder has only five broodmares, so it’s very exciting for him. He’s always writing and phoning—it’s really nice. For him it’s good what Secret is doing so he can better sell his horses!”
Sax said there are six riders contending for a spot on the Swiss team for the World Championships, and five will go, including one reserve.
“That’s a pretty good chance,” he said. “I also have the four-star win in Montelibretti, so yeah … I think it could be.”