LGCT Exclusive Part 2: At Home with 2017 Champion Harrie Smolders
In Part Two of our feature interview, Harrie reveals what's next on the agenda for future success, why winning the GCL Championship for the Diamonds in 2017 was his top priority, and what makes the Longines Global Champions Tour and GCL series and the highest level of top sport so very special...
Harrie may have been the first rider to win before the final but he's been on the Championship circuit since it's inception since 2006. Last year Harrie emphasised the top level of the series, "In the Global Champions Tour the level is very, very high because we have the best horses and the best riders in the world. A higher level is not possible." Heading back to the office for a coffee, we discussed what the future holds.
“I don't know where it ends. It's amazing how fast it's going. The team behind the Global is very ambitious, and already if you see from the last 10 or 12 years, the progress in what we can make as riders but also how our horses are the stars. It's a very professional team, and horse people who are behind that. You feel that in everything. I think what's good about the Global is also that they try to take the best people in every part, and they are very focused on what they are good at. For example, they take the best camera people, they have the best live stream, the commentators... I think that's also their strength, they do everything to promote our sport. The social media, communications... in every division Jan has the best people – he always goes for that and nothing less.”
And so the best horses, and the best riders come, with events set in unique and spectacular locations. Harrie agreed, “It's kind of the same management as I do to get the best out of my horses, they do that to get the best out of the shows and make our sport bigger.”
The GCL team trophy caught our eye in the cabinet, proudly displayed after Jos Verlooy, Audrey Coulter, Eric Lamaze and John Whitaker teamed up with Harrie for the Diamonds.
“I think this year will be a very interesting one for the League. In the past few years the Diamonds have been at the top - we were 2nd in the first year, and then our big priority of the 2017 season was to win. We had many highlights last year, but at the start of the season we had one real goal and that was to win the League. With Copernicus who owned our team, the focus was really how to manage the Diamonds to get to the victory. Really, that was our first goal of the year.”
And they achieved it. Emphatically. As Harrie said, it came down to the very last round but it worked out. The Coulter family have played an instrumental part in the success of the Diamonds, with Audrey, Jos and Harrie consistently stepping up onto the podium at different events over both seasons.
“I think in the next few years also the team managers are becoming more and more important. It's interesting, you have three riders on a show, which two are riding for the team. You can also see what the 3rd one is doing and you need to think about how the dynamic works.”
We head back out to tack up Zinius, another horse making a name thanks to Harrie and Eurohorse. Harrie gently strokes the bay gelding's forehead, “The team managers need to know exactly which horses jump best on which surface, and then which horses are currently in the best shape. Do they come back from a rest, are they fully in work...? I think the focus will become more and more on the team managers.
“You need to be really into the sport as a manager, and he needs to know his riders, and their horses very well. For the last few years, we had a team of Audrey [Coulter], Jos [Verlooy] and myself from our stables which was easier as we saw our horses every day. When you are in five different places it becomes more complex, and needs a very good team manager.”
The new GCL Playoffs and the future of the team competition comes up. It's a concept that will help bring the sport to new fans. Coined the 'superbowl of show jumping', the aim is to help grow the sport and reach new audiences... “It's something totally new, but I think it's going to be really exciting.” Harrie adds. “And it's something that I must say, the Global is renewing our sport while also respecting the heritage. They are very quick to make decisions if necessary, but they have a format. They keep the same values. They are in the middle of our sport so they listen very well, and if change is needed they can do it quickly.”
As dusk begins to fall, a contented quiet settles over the stables, with the horses tucked into their overnight rugs and the calming sound of munching hay or a gentle nicker as we walk past.
Finally, we ask the ultimate question, to the man who seems fundamentally at peace with himself. What makes him happy?
His eyes light up, and you cannot help but smile with him. “I like to work with horses that are talented, or special – I don't mind if they're difficult but they must be capable. It's my job to find that out and solve problems. And I like to work with people who have a drive, and goals in our sport.”
And so we say our goodbyes to the horses, and to Harrie who leaves to join his family. It's clear Harrie is Champion material, but there's a depth to him that reaches another level. Focused yet kind, ambitious yet grounded, passionate yet logical... Harrie seems the very epitome of what he also believes in: the importance of balance.