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.


Highlights From The 2010 Blenheim Fall Tournament

This fall horse show was chocked-full of evening excitement. To kick the week off, Wednesday night Blenheim Farm’s Covered Arena was host to the $30,000 Blenheim Jumper Classic, presented by Royal Champion. Jumping into Friday, with another competitive evening, the $50,000 CSI-W Grand Prix, presented by Cavalor, riders were vying for prize money and points on the World Cup leader board. In addition to the show jumpers, qualified Big Eq riders also competed under the lights on Saturday in the 2010 ASPCA Maclay Regional Finals.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010: $30,000 Blenheim Jumper Classic
Course designer Guilherme Jorge built a 1.50 meter class for the 40 entrants, which served as a solid speed course. Topping the class was Keri Potter and her own Rockford I who sailed around the track clean in 73.10 seconds. Second place honors went to the fabulously consistent couple of Bristol (Grey Fox Farms, owner) and Rusty Stewart. Posting a clear round on her other mount Coco (Redfield Farm, owner), Spadone crossed the timers in 76.23 seconds to take home the third place prize.

Friday, September 17, 2010: $50,000 CSI-W Grand Prix
The Guilherme Jorge designed course welcomed twenty-eight horse and rider couples into Blenheim Farm’s covered arena for the $50,000 Blenheim Fall CSI-W Grand Prix, presented by Cavalor, on the evening of September 17th. Four jumped clean in the first round to earn a spot in the jump-off, but it was the East Coast pair of Michelle Spadone and her talented mare Melisimo who presented spectators with the only double-clear ride of the night for the win.

In order to use the indoor space well and test the riders appropriately, Jorge presented sixteen challenging efforts that demanded a well thought-out, accurate ride. “Since the ring is not too small, I was able to build a real World Cup qualifying course,” the Brazilian designer explained. “The triple was an oxer-oxer-vertical combination so it was a scope test and the double with the liverpool [under the first fence] was at the end of the course so it was more of a technical challenge.”

As the sixth pair to take on the first round course, Spadone and her 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood, Melisimo, (Morgan Hill Partners, owner) were the second duo to cross the timers clean and advance to the jump-off, following the first to do so, Richard Spooner aboard Ace (S&B LLC, owner). Soon afterwards the young and talented firecracker, Ashlee Bond, rode her chestnut horse Cadett 7 to a clear round. Also fault free was the tried and true team of Australian Harley Brown and Cassiato (Oak Park Group, owner) who were sixteenth to go.

As the second rider to step up to the second round challenge, Spadone knew she had to be both quick and clean. “I had to worry about two of the fastest riders (Bond and Spooner) so in the jump-off, the main thing was to be fast,” Spadone noted.

After her winning ride, the victorious Spadone said of her five-year equine partner, “[Melisimo] is great and I am lucky to have her. She really likes the atmosphere of indoors best.”

The young equestrian star has already competed in two World Cup Finals and now seeks to be on the list heading for Liepzig, Germany, the location of the 2011 FEI World Cup Finals. For a nice change of scenery and the chance to ride with a keen training couple from San Juan Capistrano, Spadone will continue to compete on the West Coast.

 “I decided to come to California because of Joie Gatlin and Morley Abey; they are amazing people,” said Spadone. “I love Joie because she is so competitive and she really makes you want to win for her.”

Riding in the second position for the victory gallop was Bond and her superstar mount Cadett 7. The duo pulled an unfortunate rail mid-way through the second round course but set a blazing time of 39.79. Spooner and the gorgeous bay stallion Ace went first in the jump-off and had a super ride until the gallop to the last fence. The crowd groaned as the rail fell for four faults in a time of 40.97, which placed him third. Last to tackle the jump-off track, Brown and Cassiato had two rails part way through. Knowing he wouldn’t beat the other three, the rider voluntarily withdrew for a fourth place finish.

“The jump-off was difficult,” reflected Jorge. “It is up to how hard the horses and riders try. I think it was good jumping; the four who qualified proved they are up to the level of World Cup competition.”

First to enter the ring, Tani Zeidler of Canada and her mount Ranville (Zeidler Farm Canada Inc., owner) negotiated Jorge’s track without a rail but incurred one time fault, exceeding the time allowed by less than one second for fifth place. El Dorado 29’s Cantano and Susan Hutchison rounded out the top six by laying down the fastest of the four fault rides. After pulling a rail on the second element in the triple combination, Spooner picked up seventh place for his ride aboard Pariska 2 (C&S Partnership LLC, owner).

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!