Conversations With Course Designers: Guilherme Jorge and Hap Hansen

By Jackie McFarland

Analyzing the World’s Most Competitive Courses with Special Guests Hap Hansen and Guilherme Jorge
We’ve all ridden plenty of Grand Prix classes from our seats… in the audience. And thanks to modern technology we’ve watched the WEG courses via, the new USEF network and YouTube. But I had the chance to watch with Hap Hansen, who certainly knows what it’s like to ride those courses from the seat of the saddle. Plus in the midst of the competition I was able to converse with Guilherme Jorge, assistant to World Equestrian Games head course designer Conrad Homfeld. Through their experienced eyes, we analyzed the world’s most competitive courses from Lexington, Kentucky, home of the 2010 WEG.

Brazilian Jorge was honored to be a part of an impressive team of international designers, including course architect Richard Jeffrey from Great Britian and assistants American Anthony D’Ambrosio, Canadian Michel Vallaincourt and Christa Stormans from Germany. Seven other course designers joined this elite group plus an excellent jump crew of eight. They were truly a design team, with Homfeld asking for their suggestions and impressions of his designs and distance choices.

Jorge commented, “Homfeld’s courses use his knowledge and experience as a rider at this level and his course design experience. His speed course asked a lot of technical questions. It was a good test and interesting to watch. The tests got tougher on Tuesday, but he kept the less experienced riders in mind.” After our Wednesday interview, he was off to a meeting about Friday’s course.

After the warm-up round on Sunday evening where each rider had 90 seconds to get to know the arena, each day forward counted towards both the Team and Individual standings. Monday was a 1.50m speed class, with faults converted into seconds, so each of the 121 starters were scored according to their time. The placings worked as follows – the fastest overall time, which on this glorious Monday was Mario Deslauriers on Urico, was given a score of 0. His winning time of 71.25 was then subtracted from each subsequent score and that total was multiplied by .5. For example on this same glorious day, McLain Ward was second with a time of 71.79. The formula is: 71.79 – 71.25 = .52 x .5 = .27. That is the score McLain carried into Day Two.

The course theme was the ‘nature of Kentucky’ and the jumps were magnificent. Some memorable jumps were the line from fence five, a vertical with wings resembling mountain peaks to an impressive arch wall at fence six in tight four strides and a combination at 10a-10b made from plank board fencing.

The last line of a liverpool vertical to Rolex combination caused quite a few four fault conversions, adding precious seconds onto riders scores.

Day Two was another all day affair – 119 horses passed through the timers. The cumulative scores from this day determined the ten teams that would compete in the Team Final Competition the following evening. I sat with Hap and watched each horse negotiate the brilliant 1.60m Thoroughbred industry-themed course. Hap had the following comments regarding the course, which you can see on the virtual map for 10/5/2010: Team Competition.

Fence 1: A big enough oxer with a nice approach to get everyone started.

Fence 2 –3: There was quite a bit of distance between fences one and two, a good opportunity to gallop in order to stay within the time allowed. However it was important to go far enough around the turn to meet it straight and ride the line, which even though there was a slight bend to the right it rode in a nice seven strides. A few riders rode it in eight.

Fence 4 –5a, b, c: A rollback turn to the left to a tall skinny vertical – a cool jump representing a film slate from Sea Biscuit – which was a careful fence. Best way to approach was to go wide but the time allowed made that difficult. You could see the ones that were confident, careful vertical jumpers who would shave the turn. From there a steady six bending strides to a tricky triple combination – oxer at A, in one to tall vertical at B, what measured a steady two to an oxer at C but rode in a variety of ways depending how much the horse backed up to jump the B element. Each element of the triple took its toll.

Fence 6: Pass the in-gate to the solid black wall. The fence represented a Win, Place, Show scoreboard from the Churchill Downs track and was an intimidating solid looking jump. Quite a few blocks fell.

Fence 7 –8: A sweeping left turn to a wide 4.30m (14′ 1″) water – with several options on the track – inside in seven, center to center in eight or wide in nine strides. This was also tricky as there were quite a good number of feet in the water. The water was set in a line walking long in four strides to a ‘light’ plank vertical that some chose to ride in the forward four and others in the steady 5 – may have been 50/50. Those who stepped in the water did the five. Most who jumped the water well kept going forward for the four.

Fence 9: Right hand turn to a green and gold Keeneland oxer at end of the ring. This was not a particularly difficult fence but it did come up fast after that difficult line. Due to this and because the horses were still forward after the last line and didn’t back off the front rail, it came down a surprising number of times. Like for McLain and Sapphire, it led them right into the front rail, that was the trap.

Fence 10: Rollback to the FEI purple vertical with jockey silks. Not too much trouble at this jump.

Fence 11 – 12A-B – 13: This last line was a difficult track and caused a good amount of rails. Fence 11 was a wide enough oxer then an option of a forward four strides or quite a few tried to collect the horse for a steady five to a very short and airy white vertical – vertical combination and finishing in a forward six stride bending line to a 1.90m (6′ 3″) wide Rolex oxer.

“Overall it was a brilliant course. Exciting to watch with great results. The presentation was beautiful,” noted Hansen. Of the 119 horses, just over 15% (17 horses) went clean; another four were close with one time fault. Nineteen more had just one rail. The remaining 79 horses had 5 faults or more.

So the results from yesterday were tallied – faults were added to the speed score – and the team totals were determined. The ten teams with the lowest cumulative scores competed in a final round on Wednesday night. Again the total number of faults each rider scored in the round were added to both the overall team score and their individual score. These totals resulted in both the final Team standings, awarded on Wednesday, as well as which riders were return for the top thirty on Friday night. The top four scoring riders after Friday’s class would compete on Saturday in the Final Four. Fifteen more rounds were added to Wednesday’s list – the fifteen best scoring individual riders that weren’t on a team competed for a score, to determine if they would make it to the top thirty individual competition.

The course wasn’t altered much from the one Hap analyzed on Tuesday, however the few changes were key as many riders experienced. Guilherme shared some of the slight height changes, with some jumps as high as 1.65m (5’5″). Fences # 2, 3, 6, 9 and 10 were raised and 5A was square when on Tuesday it was slightly ramped.

The difficult line mid-course from the open water to the plank vertical, fences seven to eight, changed to an equally difficult width test – a wide (2.20m or 7’3″) triple bar in a forward four or holding five strides to the plank vertical. This made your track from the wall at fence six extremely important and didn’t ride the same as a gallop to an open water, instead riders had to choose a track that would get them to the base of the triple bar and then they each had to know not only how far into the line the horse would land but as well how adjustable once inside. There were a lot of problems here, including the unfortunately long distance to the triple bar that came up for Mario Deslauriers and Urico, which ended up in a frightening crash where Urico sat down on the back side. The pair circled and recovered to finish the course.

Venezuela’s Pablo Barrios had the opposite problem; he rode beautifully across the triple bar and went forward for the four, which came up too long, and the pair plowed through the plank vertical. Both successful and experienced riders, these mishaps proved the challenges that the fifty-five entries encountered on course.

It was Germany’s night. They came in with a total score of 17.80 and with three of four teams riders going clean, the score remained the same for the win. France also had an excellent showing only adding 4 faults to their score, moving up from fifth to second. Belgium made a big jump from eighth to third only adding two points to their total score. It was not a great night for the US, although Laura Kraut did shine with a beautifully clean round.

Displayed here is a nice representation of the track and the jumps used on this day. The jumps in black were used in Round One and in red are Round Two. Visually the theme was Iconic WEF and Kentucky, which the jumps beautifully illustrate. As a brief review, one of the most challenging lines was the final one in Round One, an oxer-oxer-vertical triple combination across the diagonal in line with the final jump. Most scores were between four and eight faults, with only five of the thirty riders going clean. In Round Two, the shortened course was slightly less technical and thirteen of the twenty-four who returned were fault free, including a great comeback by McLain Ward and Sapphire who jumped brilliantly in both rounds to move from a rank of 26th to 7th.

Having watched this at the USET Talent Search Level multiple times it was quite amazing to see the stakes taken up several notches and see four of the world’s best riders ride each others horses over a 1.60m course. Again having the honor of sitting with Hap Hansen, we collectively thought that Hickstead would be the most difficult to ride. Although certainly strong and sometimes slightly out of control, he proved to be on his best behavior for the Final Four and was actually the best horse of the night. Abdullah Al Sharbatly and Rodrigo Pessoa each had surprising rails on their own mounts, but Sharbatly rode the other three horses like a pro and jumped into second place. Small mistakes if not just tired horses took a toll on Pessoa and Eric Lamaze who dropped to fourth and third respectively. Phillippe Le Jeune was simply stellar. Clean on each of the four rides, he was clearly the champion.

Both of my special guests agreed that it was a week of great sport. Jorge, who started the road to the WEG for the Americans when he designed all the WEG Trials in Wellington last winter, absorbed great knowledge from master course designers and riders, as well as contributing his own expertise. Along with keenly watching every horse and rider, Hansen also had a few days of fun socializing with friends from all over the world, shopping and experiencing Kentucky hospitality. I am thankful to them both. Course photos from Guilherme Jorge; course walk photo from Lisa Mitchell.


Conversations With Course Designers: Olaf Petersen Jr.

By Jackie McFarland

Olaf Petersen, Jr.
 You could say that course designing is in his blood. Following in his father’s footsteps, yet making his own distinct tracks, Olaf Petersen Jr. is in that elite group of sought after course designers. Although he has traveled all over the world, his dream is to settle in our own southern California. During one of his visits here designing for Blenheim EquiSports, we had a chance to sit down and learn a bit more about the man behind OP Worldwide.

EqSol: How did you become a course designer? What is your horse history?
 My father, Olaf Petersen Sr., started course designing when I was 10 years old. He has course designed all over the world, including the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. My mother was a dressage rider, so my parents were a strong influence in my horse history. I competed up to the 1.50m level and trained several young horses from four-year-olds to 1.50m. Olaf Petersen, Jr.

My course design career started in 1990 and in 2002 I received my FEI International credentials. I now design about 15-20 weeks per year – there’s not time for more in my current schedule.

EqSol: Your course design mentors?
 My father, of course, and Dr. Arno Gego. I also worked with other top designers, including Leopoldo Palacios and Linda Allen. I was fortunate to assist at two Summer Olympic Games, 1996 in Atlanta with Linda Allen and 2004 in Athens with my father.

EqSol: How the course evolves for you…
Outdoor: The 2009 $40,000 Summer Grand Prix at Showpark
OP: Like other course designers, I watch the horses, know the material and the footing. You plan and move the materials to make it work best for the horses.

The quality of the field makes a difference. Last summer when I built at Showpark in August, we had a wide field of 56 riders in the grand prix. A group ready for the 2009/2010 World Cup qualifying season to start, including top West Coast and Mexican riders mixed with young riders moving up at the end of the season.

The footing at Showpark is excellent – we had 250 rounds on the grass that week – that’s a lot. So I tried to make it work for everyone. I knew some would be jumping a tough indoor course the next week at the first CSI-W of the season. So I thought out of 56 riders I would like to have 10-15 clean rounds.
[There were 14 clean. See write up in the EquestriSol August Showpark Edition.]

I will say that I can see a big difference from when I came here three or four years ago. The gap is not so big from east coast to west coast, the level has really come up.

Indoor: The last CSI-W on the West Coast, the $50,000 OC Register Grand Prix
OP: Of course I can’t give away my course plan for this week’s Grand Prix but I do know a few riders here are vying for their final qualifying points. The results will determine the list of west coast riders invited to go to Geneva for the 2010 FEI World Cup in a few weeks. So the course will reflect enough challenge for those competitors but also consider that these horses and riders have already been tested quite a bit throughout the qualifying season.

EqSol: Along with course designing across the world – what else do you do?
I am a partner in a business called The Wegener Group. We produce invoice envelopes for corporate use – banks, insurance companies, etc. We have offices in Germany, Poland & France and soon Vietnam and employ 400 people. I also have a company that produces jumps and other equipment for stables. The web site is

OP Worldwide Custom Jump

EqSol: Your course design goals… and your future plans?
 I have had some great experiences in the last two years, from the Mexican Championships in December with Equsport to the NAJYRC in both 2008 and 2009. I have had the opportunity to design for some big events like the Asian Games and several big shows in Europe – and I aspire to build in Aachen and at an Olympic Games. I think every course designer has the Olympic Games as a goal.

I really like coming here to Blenheim and Showpark. Not only is the show management excellent, but also it is my dream to live on the coast in southern California. I love the lifestyle, restaurants, the people, the weather. The Wegener Group is thinking of expanding into the U.S. Maybe then I can make my move…

  Thank you Olaf for your time and we hope your California dreams come true.

Guilherme Jorge: Conversations With Course Designers

Watching the horses and riders at the top of our sport master big technical courses is certainly impressive. The course designer plays an integral role in how those classes unfold. Guilherme Jorge masterminded five very different and difficult courses that determined the group of riders heading to Europe on three separate tours. This elite group of fifteen riders is one step closer to representing the US at the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games.

EqSol: How did you become a course designer? What is your horse history?
I started riding when I was 10 in my hometown Campinas (Brazil). I competed up to the 1.40m level, but stopped to focus on vet school. I was always interested in course design. By age 17 I started designing at local shows in Brazil. In 1992 I was first invited to design at a small two-day show in my hometown and then in San Paulo. I realized that course designing was a good way to be a part of the sport, so I jumped at the opportunity to work with every course designer that came to Brazil, which at the time was Leopoldo Palacios and Linda Allen.

I finished vet school and practiced from 1992-1998, and designed courses whenever I had the chance. My invitations to course design as well as my interest grew so I decided to focus on it full-time.

EqSol: Your course design mentors?
I was lucky to start quite young and work with a lot of my mentors – Olaf Petersen Sr., Dr. Arno Gego (Aachen School of Course Design), Frank Rothenberger (Aachen), Aki Ylänne (Finland), Leopoldo Palacios (Venezuela) and Linda Allen (US) – on multiple occasions – up to four times with top ones. I was able to take a little bit from each and create my own style.

I worked as an assistant for a lot of great designers – in 1995 I assisted Leopoldo in Argentina at the Pan American Games and then with Linda in Monterrey (Mexico) that same year. I had the honor of assisting Linda again at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. That really opened a lot of doors for me. I met a lot of experienced course designers, which helped me get more opportunities as an assistant, and furthered my career.

Eqsol: Challenges we don’t think about, like your first course design experience in North America…
In 1998 I designed my first CSI-W in North America in Bromont, Quebec. When the plane landed in Montreal I thought to myself, ‘What I’m doing here?’ I knew the metric system. I had no idea about inches. I looked at prize list and saw a class called ‘Modified Jumpers’ and again I was perplexed – Modified from what?

Due to the measuring system differences, setting the jumps was also challenging. The jump holes were set three inches apart and there were pins for the jump cups. These days the European, Latin American and North American systems are much more universal. They follow the FEI rules, use metrics for setting heights and the jump holes are .05m or 5cm (1.96 inches) apart. Makes the playing field at lot more level for all involved.

EqSol: How do you determine difficulty for the field?
To me there are two types of competition – ones that follow a technical standard like a World Cup Qualifier or a WEG trial. In these classes it is not about how many clean, or how exciting your jump off can be. My specific goal as the course designer is to prepare riders for their goal – making it to and being prepared for the finals. The other type of class is one where you can really adapt by height or difficulty according to your field. Then I try to watch the riders through the week and adapt accordingly. The conditions also play a big part, the footing, the jumps – especially the footing.

EqSol: Setting a variety of courses – from a World Cup Qualifier in Los Angeles last fall to WEG trials in Wellington this year…

On setting the WCQ:
GJ:Leopoldo had built most of the World Cup Qualifiers early in the season. He sent me the course from the qualifier in Sacramento, so I knew the riders and that it needed to be tough. The indoor arena at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center is large, but the arena in Geneva where the finals are in April 2010 is also a good size, so that helps. I went on the strong side of the specs and expected three or four to go clean. It is clear that the quality is improving on the west coast, I was pleasantly surprised to have six clean.

Analyzing the WCQ track…
My first goal is safety and to ask exactly what needs to be asked of the horses. They have a busy calendar, so I don’t want to build a course that is too demanding, which means a course that is nice enough to get around but not easy to jump clear. I like to connect one jump to another – even if it isn’t a straight line – in an indoor that makes all distances related. Riders at this level ride a track, not jump to jump. For me it is a good result when the faults are spread around the course, not just at one or two jumps.

Time allowed as a factor…
I don’t always go with super tight time allowed. I think the horses jump better when they have the time. I try to make other elements create a challenge. This is always a debate with Leopoldo, who has been my technical delegate in the past. I try to be open also to the riders’ opinions, they are the ones being tested.

On designing all five of the WEG trials:
I was very honored to design for the US WEG trials. For me I compare it to being invited for something very important for my own country – like being invited to be part of the soccer team for Brazil. It was a big responsibility to set five courses to test essentially the same group of riders over a two-week period.

Analyzing the tracks…
We could go into a lot of detail here, as Jorge set some fabulous courses that tested scope, rideability, distance, adaptability and connection over five very different yet challenging tracks. Each trial asked solid questions, with the toughest and biggest questions coming at the end.

Canadian course designer Dave Ballard analyzed each and every track on If you are a member, search for “Course Discourse – Sunday’s $150,000 CN US Open and USEF WEG Selection Trial #5.” All five trials are discoursed, from the bottom up, including fabulous jump photos and course descriptions. If you are not a member, these among other pieces are well worth the investment.

George Morris sat with Guilherme at his ‘office’ inside the International Club several times throughout the two weeks. And what did George have to say? ‘A+ job’ followed by a big thumbs up motion. Now that is a seal of approval!

EqSol: And your future?
This year I will be at Spruce Meadows for the North American CSI 5* and a few other shows. More shows here in the US, including Blenheim in the spring and fall, Saugerties and Horse Shows by the Bay in the summer and the Hampton Classic. Also I have the honor of being Conrad Homfeld’s assistant at the WEG. Then London for the CSI 5* at the Olympia Horse Show in December 2010.

In the big picture I am starting to manage horse shows close to home. There is a beautiful international-class facility called Helvetia Riding Center under construction in the city of Indaiatuba, which is about 30 minutes from home and 50 minutes from São Paulo. The idea is to make horse show management a part of my business, so I reduce my travel to maybe 17 weeks per year as opposed to my current 30 weeks. Then I will be able to spend time more time at home with my daughter Marina, who is six-years-old now. I love my job and love the shows but the travel is really hard.

Of course one of my biggest career goals now is to be chosen to design for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

I have to say I love the horses and the riders, and I am addicted to the sport. When I was invited to be the Course Designer for the World Cup Finals in 2005, I told Robert Ridland that this opportunity was beyond my wildest dreams, I was so honored. To be at the top of a sport that I love is fascinating. It never ceases to amaze me to be a part of these top quality events.

As always we find it fascinating to talk with the people behind the course designs. Thank you so much Guilherme, we look forward to seeing you down the road, and hope to interview you from Rio in 2016!

Conversations with Course Designers: Jack Robson

By Jackie McFarland

Jack Robson

I was thrilled to have another fascinating conversation with yet another person who plays a significant role in our horse show world, actually one of this week’s World Cup Officials, President of the Jury Jack Robson. Robson has spent more than a quarter century working as a course designer, technical delegate and jumper judge.

EqSol: What is your horse history?
JR: Actually I don’t come from a horsey family. I’m a northeasterner – born in Massachusetts and have lived in both Connecticut and upstate New York. I’ve been in California for about 18 years.

My first career was as a machinist, making microchips before they were in vogue. One day a friend of mine who worked for Barney Ward in Brewster, NY in the early seventies called me when he needed a hand. So I said sure. Turned out I liked it a lot and stayed for seven years. You could say it was a turning point in my life.

A Fort Reilly Calvary School graduate at Barney’s taught me how to ride. I jumped up to 1.40m. When I realized I couldn’t afford to have horses, I chose to stay involved by working on the jump crew. My career progressed from there.

EqSol: How did your career as a horse show official progress?
JR: Frank Chapot helped me get my judge’s card. I was at the Saratoga Horse Show and Frank asked me if I was interested in getting my card. I said, ‘Yes sir.’ So he threw me a clipboard and a watch, said ‘You’re working on it’ and walked away.

Frank was my mentor in both judging and course design and I can’t thank him enough. He opened many doors for me.

EqSol: And as a course designer?
JR: I assisted and worked with Frank, Bert de Nemethy, Pamela Carruthers, Robert Jolicoeur… all those guys. I was both a jumper judge and course designer by the early eighties. I was one of the first course designers listed when the AHSA chose to include them in the roster. Then I got my FEI-C (candidate judge) and had that for about 12 years. Now I have an FEI-I (International) card as both judge and course designer.

I love course designing. When you ask fair questions and get good answers it’s a great feeling. I get to see all types of courses as a judge, learning each time. As a judge I get to watch the best jumpers at all levels – it’s the best of both worlds really. Then I can practice what I’ve learned when I design. I get a chance to design about ten times a year. And I judge about 30 weeks a year.

EqSol: Some of your favorite horse show memories?
JR: [smiling] When Pamela C and I got jumped in Cleveland. She was designing and we were sitting on the wishing well discussing the next class. She looked over her shoulder and said nonchalantly in that British accent ‘Be very still’ as the horse proceeded to jump over us.

In the early eighties Mason Phelps modeled The Newport Jumping Derby in Rhode Island after Hickstead. It was a big field. I remember Anthony D’Ambrosio’s horse leapt straight down the steep hill (instead of walking down) – it was maybe sixteen feet down. He landed flat on his stomach, got up and in two strides jumped the vertical. Rodney Jenkins got hung up on the Irish Bank. Buddy Brown wore a helmet cam with a Super 8 attached; he almost broke his neck.

The Tijuana Jockey Club hosted a horse show. That was fun.There was a zoo on the infield of the track. The show was on the grass field right beside the zoo. You waited for your class next to the lions and elephants.

EqSol: And your future plans?
 Possibly the WEG. That would certainly be an honor. I will continue to work with Blenheim EquiSports and the Langer Equestrian Group in California and Colorado. HITS Arizona, HITS Ocala and Spruce Meadows might on the roster next year. In any case I’ll keep trying, improving my game. The sport evolves and you have to keep up with it.

Thank you Jack and thank you Emma (Jack’s Jack) for playing ball with Chloe.

Conversations With Course Designers: Leopoldo Palacios

By Jackie McFarland

Who better to sit with during the $50,000 Grand Prix of California at Showpark Ranch & Coast Tournament than the course’s illustrious designer? Often named by other designers as a mentor, I was fascinated by the mind behind the man known as Leopoldo Palacios.

How did you become a course designer? What is your horse history?
LP: I come from a horsey family in Venezuela. My father had horses; I rode and competed up to the Grand Prix level. My older brother, Jesus Eduardo Palacios, was a fantastic rider. He won the Grand Prix at the National Horse Show in 1960.

I have worked as a contractor, mostly hotel construction, all my life and used to course design on the side as a hobby. That started in the 1970’s. It got to the point that I would split my time, about twenty-five weeks a year as a contractor and twenty-five weeks as a course designer.

When I retired from construction a decade ago, I followed my passion and started course-designing full time. My first job designing in the United States was in Ocala about 20 years ago. I designed for the Olympics in Sydney nine years ago.

Your course design mentors?
LP: Three influenced me the most – Pamela Carruthers, Dr. Arno Gego and Bert de Nemethy. I was an assistant to all of them. Arno was the course designer at Aachen for 20 years and established the Aachen School of Course Design; I worked with him quite a bit from 1980-85.

How do you determine difficulty for the field?
LP: For me the most important part is to know the riders. They are essentially my customers in every class. I believe that course designers need to tailor make courses for the field we have. Not so easy as to have too many clean, not too hard.

Course designers are like chefs. We take height, distance, scope, time allowed, the way we use the materials, positions of the jumps, shadows, terrain plus a dash of this or that – when we put the various ingredients together successfully we make a great course. Our job is to make it work for different types of horses – a variety of tests for horse and rider using our ingredient options without overdoing it by making too salty or too spicy.

I am happy that here we have three types of horses clean so far today [for the $50,000 Grand Prix of California], – a small, catty horse, Nadia (Will Simpson), Kaskaya (Jill Humphrey) is a medium horse in size and Urian (Guy Thomas) a large horse – all different types, all able to go clean.

How does the course like the one today evolve for you?
LP: I take many steps to create this course. First I research courses I’ve designed in years past to see what questions I’ve asked. Then early in the week I determine where I will place the triple and double combinations for the Grand Prix and I’m careful to save the footing around this area when building other courses. Throughout the week I see who my real customers are – what possibilities I have for designing a course where the best on that day will go clean. After this step I start to decide if these combinations will stand-alone or have related distances leading up to or after them and where they will fall in the course, early or late. Then I begin to connect the combinations to develop the rest of the course. I am careful to choose how the jumps relate, not having too many similar types in succession and choosing different striding in the lines. Put this all together and I’ve produced a track. Riders need to understand the track. The psychology of the rider is so important.

Analyzing the track…
It is key to note here – and one of the most essential lessons – that we analyzed the track, not the course. The technical questions asked aren’t just jumps with height or width, but how the rider approaches the jump, what track will keep them within the time allowed and how they mentally handle the challenges on the track. For this particular course Leopoldo presented a number of mental puzzles including a steady seven to a long one stride, to a long two stride in the triple combination towards the end of the course. Many the rails (and some of the riders) fell due to the above.

LP: I made the ride to the triple combination a bit too difficult for the field. My mistake is that the second element is a bit solid with a gate, which is backing horses off more than I had planned. The riders’ mistakes are happening because they need to steady early in the seven so they are coming forward for the ride through the triple. Too many are riding steady as they jump in.

And your future?
LP: Time passes and I am getting old [laughs] but I work with a wonderful team of course designers around the world – I learn from them and they learn from me. I am designing almost non-stop through The Masters in Spruce Meadows in September.

We would love to follow Leopoldo and his fellow course designers as they trek around the world designing tracks that challenge riders at all levels. What an interesting life they lead, constantly considering how to challenge on course. Thank you Leopoldo!

Conversations With Course Designers: Anthony D’Ambrosio

By Jackie McFarland

I had the privilege and the honor to spend time with course designer Anthony D’Ambrosio. The art and science of course design is not only well-illustrated through his work but equally as well explained by him. Beginning with the warm-ups on Wednesday, each day of competition from the course perspective is covered below.

Warm-Up Wednesday
While fifty-five horses jumped around the warm-up course on Wednesday, including FEI World Cup and Las Vegas Grand Prix competitors and their mounts, I spoke with Anthony about the warm-up choices and the upcoming World Cup courses.

“The warm-up is about getting the horses comfortable with the ring. Allowing them into the corners,” he explained, which coincides with what most of our West Coast riders said they were planning to do [see their interviews here]. “We kept it simple, no more than nine efforts at 1.30-1.35m (4’3”- 4’5”) in height with 1.40-1.45m (4’7” – 4’9”) spread. We put in a tight corner jump and one double.”

Naturally I asked him about what’s to come. He shared that all the courses were not only ready to go but he was pleased to have had the opportunity to lay out each one using 2×4’s the Friday before the event commenced. “Due to the unique shape of this arena, the chance to see how the course fits is a luxury.” Upon seeing the courses in the arena, Anthony said he did make one change, and from this point forward it will only be fine-tuning as the competition begins.

Track & Field Thursday
Walking the Table C course with Anthony D’Ambrosio on Thursday it was clear he set a course of many colors. The jumps were vibrant and the options he offered riders created a field with numerous tracks.

Jump one was a sizeable Rolex triple bar with an option six or seven bending line to fence two. Tight turn to fence three to a bending line in six to a ‘heavy’ pole jump made up of red and white poles to look like the Swiss flag in honor of Beat Mandli, the 2007 World Cup winner. Only two riders, class winner Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Steve Guerdat, took the inside turn to fence five. This turn required adding a step in the long three strides from fence five to six, riding it in four. Worked well for Meredith. “My horse is a good adder,” she noted. Another tight rollback to the double also had an option to go inside or around an island of trees. This is where Rich Fellers and Flexible, who had to go first, almost parted company. Seemed one turned faster than the other, however they quickly worked it out, made the turn, hopped the in to the double and made it out in two strides without touching a pole. Still setting a solid time to beat at 58.50, the pair ended up fourth in a class of 44 entries.

Next efforts included a natural skinny vertical with a turn to a long four-stride line to an oxer, vertical, vertical combination. The second element was the four seconds added for many riders as that came up fast resulting in a downed rail. Finishing with a line in seven or eight to the final pin-striped liverpool oxer, the widest jump on the course.

Ultimately the class winner, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum riding her partner Shutterfly, stopped the clock in 56.48. She chose the best track for her horse, which included tight turns and adding strides. “I thought it was a brilliant course,” said. “It presented a lot of options. I was surprised only one other rider (Steve Guerdat) did it the way I did.”

On the other hand, second place winner Christina Liebherr aboard LB No Mercy took all wide turns, no inside tracks and left strides out in a time of 57.47. Next fastest time also stuck to his plan, McLain Ward riding Sapphire took his own unique track around the field, coming in third at 57.73. A very interesting class indeed.

Follow Friday

When walking with Anthony on Friday evening, he said, “It’s a demanding yet fair course.” He built it with a hope of getting eight to ten clear rounds and having a great jump off.

With 14 obstacles set, interesting questions asked included fence three the triple bar, 1.90m (6’3”) wide, 1.55m (5’1”) high at the back rail. The triple combination was the eighth obstacle, vertical-vertical-oxer, with a quick turn to 1.60m (5’3”) Las Vegas vertical in a steady five or potentially a forward four strides. Fence eleven was an airy wide oxer that caught a few horses, however the two jumps providing the most difficulty were the Las Vegas vertical at nine and the plank on flat cups at 12. As the plank was the first jump in a tough four or five stride line to a double right towards the in-gate. “Number nine came up quickly after the triple combination, and rode in a short distance toward the in-gate,” explained second place finisher McLain Ward at a press conference after the award presentation. “Planks are always tough, seemed some of the riders were riding the distance in the line after the jump before clearing it.”

Mission accomplished – seventeen riders had just one rail, mostly at the jumps mentioned above. However thirteen of forty-two riders rode fault free. In an exciting jump-off, that demanded tidy turns and a long gallop to the final oxer, six went double clear.

Friday followed Thursday for Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (GER). She mastered Anthony D’Ambrosio’s first round course as well as the jump-off. McLain Ward (USA) came in a very close second, losing by only a second. And capturing third was Albert Zoer (NED) on Oki Doki, who was just under a second slower than McLain. Beezie Madden (USA) and Danny Boy were just tenths of a second behind Zoer for fourth and Richard Spooner (USA) aboard Cristallo was only hundredths of a second slower than Beezie for fifth. The only other double clear was Helena Lundback (SWE) on Madick picking up the sixth award.

“I had a super turn from two to three that was very fast,” Michaels-Beerbaum said of her jump-off ride. She added, “Shutterfly is a very fast horse. He’s a racehorse type.”

Ward added, “I went as fast as I could go. There wasn’t one place I could go faster. My hat is off to Meredith.”

Super Saturday
A day of rest for the World Cup horses, the Saturday course was built for the Las Vegas Grand Prix immediately followed by some of our nation’s best riders dropping britches for jeans, chaps and cowboy boots in a reining competition.

Anthony’s course proved to be challenging in both scope and timing. The large liverpool at the end of the bending line from three to four was the first real challenge on course. It was followed by a tough roll-back to the Las Vegas vertical at fence five, in a forward bending six strides to the next test, the triple combination. The wide sunburst oxer in the middle of the vertical-oxer-vertical triple proved to be the biggest challenge, nearly a third of the riders had it down. Exceeding the 84-second time allowed ended up as the only fault for two American riders, young East Coaster Michelle Spadone and West Coaster Jill Humphrey.

Five jumped clean in the first round. Truly an international line-up, young American Laura Teodori went eleventh of 21 and was first clean, followed by HRH Prince Abdullah Al-Saud from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Norwegian Geir Gulliksen, American Rich Fellers riding Kilkenny Rindo and Dutch Gerco Schroder rounded out those returning for the jump-off.

When the course was reset, it included the already difficult roll back from the liverpool to the tall Las Vegas vertical direct to the ‘B’ and ‘C’ of the triple, now a double. Only Rich and Prince Abdullah went double clean. Rich rode the inexperienced but talented Rindo beautifully for the win. The horse just began his Grand Prix career last November.

When asked at a press conference about the course, he said, “I thought it was a great course. It had a lot of variety, which makes it interesting for the crowd and challenging for the riders. Anthony is one of my favorite course designers.” As for Sunday when Fellers will be back aboard Flexible, he said, “I think it’s going to be very, very tough. Big and technical.”

Spectacular Sunday
Sunday is run in a format unique to the World Cup. Theplacings from the first two rounds are converted into World Cup penalty points to determine the overall ranking. With two rounds, the faults accumulated in the first round are added to the penalty points to determine who returns for the second round. A jump-off follows only if there is a tie after the two rounds are complete. The 22 riders with the lowest score, along with any with clean rounds who chose to ride again, moved on to the next round—which is also scored by adding faults incurred to the rider’s penalty points.

Round I
We had the added honor of walking the course with assistant to Anthony, Leopoldo Palacios, a world-renowned course designer in his own right. The jumps were taller and wider than previous days and the questions asked a touch more technical. Both rounds had twelve obstacles, including challenging triple and a double combinations configured differently in each course. The second effort in Round One was a triple bar at a width of 2.0m (6’7”). The last jump in Round One was a 1.62m (5’4”) tall vertical plank on flat cups. Twelve of 29 went clean in this round, eleven had four faults and five dropped two rails. Unfortunately two of those five eight-faulters were Richard Spooner and Rich Fellers.

Round II
It started off immediately with a line from a vertical at one with a flowing six strides to an oxer at two. Around the corner to a skinny vertical at three that was the first jump in a bending line of five strides to a big and wide (1.60m – 5’3”) vertical-oxer double combination. The super wide triple bar from Round One was moved to a new location as fence five in a blind turn bending line to a liverpool vertical standing at 1.60m (5’3”). The seventh element, the Rolex triple combination built with two big oxers and a vertical, took its toll as a multitude rails were dropped while negotiating the challenge, however no rest after this test as the big wall at eight came up quickly in a bending six. The last large oxer seemed to come up long off the corner and even more rails came down there then in the triple. This course caused three riders to withdraw, and challenged American riders Christine McCrea, Hillary Dobbs and Rich Fellers who ended up with 19, 20 and 22 faults respectively. Mandy Porter and Beezie Madden both had twelve and Richard Spooner finished with eight faults, along with the awesome Marcus Ehning. Six of the 23 rides jumped without a fault, including Steve Guerdat (SUI), Ben Maher (GBR), Ludger Beerbaum (GER), Christina Liebherr (SUI), Albert Zoer (NED), McLain Ward (USA) and of course Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (GER) who kept her perfect score of zero penalty points for the win.

Results Reflect Design
The tremendously close results of the top three riders, all jumping each round clean with only time separating their scores, speaks highly for the course designer. This competition is about testing the best riders abilities over multiple days asking a variety of difficult questions including timing, scope, rideability, accuracy and precision. Doug Meine, Executive Vice President of Rolex, expressed it from the sponsor perspective, which speaks for the event overall “FEI and Rolex share a passion for precision and excellence.” Anthony D’Ambrosio, our 2009 Rolex FEI World Cup Final course architect, designed for just that – passionate perfection.

Conversations With Course Designers: Peter Holmes

By Jackie McFarland

During the first week of the Blenheim Spring Series, which was host to final World Cup Qualifier, we took the opportunity to speak with Canadian course designer Peter Holmes.

How did you become a course designer? What is your horse history?
PH: I was raised with horses in Victoria, British Columbia. My mother was a horsewoman in England, and I grew up doing a bit of everything: western, arabs, eventing and then I got into hunter-jumpers. In the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s I started designing courses at the family farm and for the local shows. As I got into jumping we had more jumping shows. Back then, no one else would do it – designing courses was a fair bit of work. ‘Design’ usually meant not only designing the course but bringing the jumps to the show, unloading the trailer, setting the course with whomever was around plus competing on the course you designed!

After graduating college and managing a stable for ten years I started designing further afield and did my first Grand Prix for Diane and George Tidball at Thunderbird in the mid ‘80’s. My interest in course designing grew and I took it up full time in the late ‘90s. Throughout I gained valuable experience working at Spruce Meadows

Your course design mentors?
PH: Pamela Carruthers and Leopoldo Palacios.

You design courses for Children’s jumpers through World Cup Qualifiers. What factors go into the engineering of the different courses for the variety of levels?
PH: For a while I did get course designers disease – doing things that are clever, but not so good for the horses; it wasn’t good course designing. I remember one day Albert Kley (Spruce Meadows Riding Master) said to me ‘Peter, what are you doing?’ It was the trainers who talked me into coming back down to earth. Your perspective changes a lot with experience – you see things from a different viewpoint. With good course design, you want horses to go well. In the end, your goal is for the riders to have success on course and the horses to enjoy it. I truly love watching horses jump. My favorite moment is when a rider pulls up after completing a course and pats their horse.

How do you determine difficulty for the field?
PH: Coming in from Canada I may know many of these riders, but I don’t always know all the horses they are riding now. I usually do numerous things to get to know the group – first I set a more generous course early on in the week and then watch and see what’s happening. I do a lot of listening and hear tidbits from the riders. Plus I inquire with show management to see what their goals may be for the show or for a particular class.

Like a course for tonight – the final World Cup Qualifier…
PH: So I asked Robert Ridland and the technical delegate Bernie Traurig – to get their sense on how the course should ride. They know how the horses are going better than I do. They’ve seen them all season. We are all part of a team – all trying to achieve the same goal – a good experience for horse and rider. We decided not to go overly scopey – the horses jumped well on Thursday and you want the horses jumping well this close to the World Cup. We don’t want to get them backed off right before the Finals. Apparently the group has done some hard trials – so they just need a good refresher.

So would you say it’s a ‘soft course’?
PH: (as his eyes light up) Oh no, it’s definitely not soft. Anyone who thinks so should get on and give it a go!

So how many do you think will be clean?
PH: I would like to have the ones that are jumping well to be rewarded with a clean ride. Maybe five will jump clean. But in some ways you never know.

Tell us how a course like the one tonight evolves for you…
PH: You start with a piece of the course that you’re thinking about – then you work from it. Tonight – the opening line is a possible type of line you’ll see in a World Cup class. You actually have a little more room in this ring – so the four/five to a four (long to short) like I built could potentially be a three to a three in the World Cup.

Horses are fascinating – what is hard for one is not for another. Or sometimes where you think there is a test on your course, the test ends up being elsewhere. There are so many variables in the sport, it’s what keeps designing interesting.

What are your immediate and long- term goals?
PH: Well my life has changed a bit – I just got married and I am really enjoying my life at home. So now I’m adjusting my schedule, I’m not on the road for months in a row. Danielle has her own career and we both like it at home. This means designing at a few less shows and taking a few more breaks in-between shows.

A great plan – we all wish we could take more breaks! Thank you, Peter, for your time and expertise.

Conversations With Course Designers: Scott Starnes

By Erna Adelson and Jackie McFarland

A name we have seen printed in prize lists for many years, we caught up with Scott while he was designing courses in Parker, Colorado for the series of ‘A’ shows at the Colorado Horse Park.

“It’s been a long, strange, trip,” says Starnes of his ascent to his current status as one of California’s well-known course designers. Not a competitive rider but rather a former collegiate defensive back, Starnes’ experience in the elite equine world was hard to come by, and is a testament to his work ethic, determination, and skill as a technical designer.

It all began with the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when Coto de Caza was host to the Olympic pentathlon show jumping events. Starnes took what was supposed to be just a summer job as part of the set up crew and ended up having a knack for the assignment. Shortly afterward, he met the legendary Pamela Carruthers and upon her encouragement traveled to Spruce Meadows where he crewed and assisted with course design. During the next decade Starnes observed and drew inspiration from some of the finest in the field from Equitation Finals to Grand Prix, including Jon Doney, David Ballard, Richard Jeffrey, Leopoldo Palacios and Linda Allen. While assisting abroad, Starnes was also working his way up as a course designer in his own backyard, learning from Tommy Dendiu, Richard Keller and Michael Curtis about designing for hunters and equitation as well as jumpers. As the horse show schedule in southern California expanded, Starnes was gainfully employed and no longer
had time to spend summers in Spruce Meadows.

We asked about designing courses for the new USHJA Hunter Derby, a more recent addition to our ‘A’ rated shows that requires a designer’s imagination to create a demanding yet inviting course for hunters. Whereas an equitation medal final or grand prix have many of the same technical questions and distance challenges, the Hunter Derby has its own requirements. “It is supposed to be more like an actual foxhunt while maintaining traditional hunter style,” Starnes commented. “The class requires a completely different build, at least four height option jumps, 3’6” and 4’, plus handy options.” Only in its first year and growing in popularity, this class requires the skill of an experienced course designer and when done well is as awesome to watch as a great Grand Prix.

Certainly steeped in the system, Starnes is the first person to admit that his career path would be considered unconventional. “Nowadays course designing is regulated more strictly,” he says. “You need to apply for a license, attend a certain number of clinics, and design at least three grand prix courses every two years to maintain your certification.” He notes that the new guidelines require all course designers to get licensed which he feels helps to ensure the safety of both horses and riders and improves the sport for all involved.

Though Starnes says that his most memorable assignments have been while crewing high-end events like the Olympics, World Cup and the Masters at Spruce Meadows because of the caliber of the designers and the athletes involved, he reveals that designing local and regional Medal Finals make him most happy. “I love designing at the Oaks because it’s home,” he says. Starnes is far from settled, though. With his FEI license pending, he may very well be back at the Olympics in London 2012, this time at the helm.

Conversations With Course Designers: Anthony D’Ambrosio

By Tammy Chipko

FACT: Show jumping is an Olympic sport where men and women (both horse and rider) compete on an equal basis.

FACT: Grand Prix courses reach heights of 5’3”, with spreads of up to six feet. The course may also include a water jump, which may be 10 to 16 feet in width.

COURSE DESIGN: The height, width, location of fences, and time allowed for the round allows only the best rider/horse teams to move on to the jump off. That’s where Anthony D’Ambrosio and other top course designers come in. Known for building fair, technical courses to test every level of rider, Anthony D’Ambrosio is a well-respected course designer both nationally and internationally.

Tammy Chipko: How did you get started in designing courses?

Anthony D’Ambrosio: I have been designing courses since 1995. Being a Grand Prix rider myself, I found I had an interest in what type of questions were being asked of riders and horses in the ring. I spent a lot of time speaking with course designers from all over. Eventually, as my interest in course designing advanced and my professional riding slowed, I made the full transition to course design.

TC: How much advance preparation is needed to design your courses?
AD: If I know a place well I am able to work a bit in advance because I know the layout of the ring and the materials available to me. If it is a new place for me I usually do not plan too much in advance but work day to day.

TC: Do you use a computer program to design courses?
AD: Not too much. I prefer freehand. It allows me to use my imagination to draw without relying on a computer. I can usually be seen with a clipboard in hand drawing basic ideas depending on the track, types of jumps, combinations, flower/tree fill etc. I will then copy the results to my computer. That works best for me.

TC: Do you use the class sheet to help determine what type of course you will build?
AD: I can certainly get an overall impression of the level and strength of the group from the class sheet. I have worked with most groups more than once so I have fairly good knowledge of rider/horse ability. If it is a group of green riders and/or horses, I might change the combinations to require more agility and less power. I never want to over-face anyone but at the same time I do want the riders to be challenged. Riders appreciate a challenge so that they can feel as though they have accomplished something that not every horse and rider team is able to do. Keep people learning and growing and everyone is happy.

TC: You design courses for the Children’s Jumpers through World Cup Qualifiers. Is one more fulfilling than another?
AD: No, a good class is a good class. It is all rewarding. Every course, no matter which ring I am building for, is a serious effort that requires a meticulous physical layout. Each day of jumping is the same in terms of importance. There have been times when a Children’s Jumper Classic is so exciting, the crowd so involved that I’ve thought, “WOW! I wish my jump off in the Grand Prix would have unfolded like this one!”

TC: I would imagine building a World Cup Qualifier course is more difficult than a Friday Grand Prix?
AD: A World Cup class is pre-determined since it has to be built within International Standards. West Coast riders have insisted that the courses be tough and demanding. They want to prepare for the finals by jumping extremely competitive courses. They have raised the bar for themselves and want the course designer to show them what they need to know ahead of time. They do not want to be coddled. The Friday Grand Prix are not as big or demanding. If there are a lot of competitors, my course might be a bit trickier in order to manage the total number of clean rounds for the jump-off.

TC: Do you have a favorite moment in your history as a course designer?
AD: I can’t choose a favorite because I’ve had so many good moments. The Sunday Grand Prix at HITS II in Thermal was exciting. We were hit by a wind storm during the Grand Prix that blew everything down and we had to stop the class temporarily. When we were able to resume hours later, we had the entire course rebuilt in 15 minutes. The resilience of both the competitors and the spectators was amazing.

TC: What are your future plans and goals?
AD: As far as designing courses, I hope to build in Europe. I have recently also become more involved in management and enjoy that immensely. From my extensive base of experience with infrastructure, I feel I can offer some management input to horse shows. I am also enjoying a new consulting business with my wife Michael, D’Ambrosio & D’Ambrosio. One of the services we offer is advice to clients interested in building a farm, planning a ring or designing a Grand Prix field.

TC: Good luck with all your future endeavors. Thank you for your time and great design!