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.

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!