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: 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.