Breeders Uncovered with: Olympic Medalist Grégory Wathelet | Inside the Rolex Grand Slam

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Grégory Wathelet and Nevados S. Photo by Sébastien Boulanger

What is your earliest equestrian memory?

My earliest equestrian memory was doing my first show, when I was seven years old. It was a local show near Liège, Belgium, where I grew up. The jumps were so small, basically just a pole on the ground, and despite needing help to get me around the course, I loved it.

What is the proudest moment of your career so far?

It would be easy for me to say the [Team] bronze medal at the Olympics. It was an incredibly special moment for me, my country, my team, as well as the sport in Belgium. But I think that the proudest moment of my career so far is my victory at the Grand Prix in Aachen in 2017. It was always a dream of mine to win, words could not explain my feelings when I won. Aachen is such a special venue, this year I have decided to compete there instead of the European Championships, that’s how incredible it is.

How did you get into the breeding side of the sport?

My father was a great inspiration, he was involved in the breeding side before me. I started four years ago when I bought my parents’ farm. I then had the facilities, with 70 acres of fields, 60 stables, and indoor and outdoor training facilities. As well as having excellent mares and stallions, I just thought I should try it, I then quickly I fell in love with it.

Can you summarise what the main elements of breeding of top show jumping horse are?

Breeding sport horses versus dealing is very different. For show jumping, we need quick, clever and careful horses. For example, at the Olympic Games, the top horses were able to rise to the challenge and succeed. For the dealing side, which makes up about 95 per cent of the horses each year, you need an easy and brave horse, that has good confirmation and is “flashy”, so they are easier to sell. I am just at the beginning of the process, so I am still learning.

I have competed most of the mares at a high level and at Grands Prix, so I know them very well. I have also ridden the majority of the stallions. This allows me to match them based on their attributes. Some breeders like to look at the history of the bloodlines, but I like to look at the present and the individual talent that they have.

Is the partnership between a horse and rider very important for when you sell a horse?

Yes, it’s extremely important. I really try to match the right horse with the right rider. Sometimes people ask me to try a specific horse, but I am very honest and say: “I don’t think that this is the horse for you”. I am not a dealing stable, and I really care for the happiness of the horse and rider. On top of that, if you want to build a business and ensure people trust you, this process is very important.

How long do you usually keep a horse before you sell it or break it in?

We don’t sell many foals; we usually sell two or three to cover some of the costs. I don’t like selling them when they are young, as I like to see how they progress and mature when they are two or three. Most will stay until they’re three years old, after we have started to free jump and break them in. As I only started relatively recently, this is the stage that many of the horses are at.

How many horses do you breed in a year?

This whole process is still very new to me. In my first year I bred about 10 foals, although this year we bred 34. Ideally, I would like to breed about 15 to 20. This year we bred more, as we had far more time to invest in the process due to the pandemic.

What is your ambition behind your breeding programme?

We would love to have one or more horses jumping at the top level. This could potentially be with me as the rider, so that’s very exciting. It is well known that breeding is very expensive, and there are so many disappointments. So, it’s important to have something to dream and work towards, to keep us going.

I’m very proud of our progress so far, I give 100 per cent in everything I do, and I have learnt so much over the last few years. I am beginning to really enjoy the breeding side of the sport. I have definitely become more involved and interested with the mother and father bloodlines, as before I was just concerned about whether the horse was good or bad.

Is there one horse you are very proud of breeding?

Nine years ago, my father and I bred a mare called Argentina, she is definitely the horse that we are most proud of. She was bred from a very “normal” mare, who just jumped one metre classes with an amateur girl, and an unapproved stallion chosen by my father. That unexpected combination led to the breeding of such an incredible horse, I like to call her “My Little Star”. She is now jumping 2* Grands Prix and won the Belgium Championships. I don’t know if she will jump 5* Grands Prix, but she is incredible.

How positive do you believe the Rolex Grand Slam is for the sport of show jumping?  

It’s so important to the sport. I think that the four shows are the pinnacle of show jumping competitions, they all have such great atmospheres, and have both VIPs and the general public in attendance, which is great for the sport.

Aachen and Geneva are definitely my favourites out of the Grand Slam shows. The venues and the crowds are amazing. I’ve won Nations Cups and Grands Prix at those shows many times, so they hold a very special place in my heart. In my opinion, Geneva is the best indoor show, everything there is perfect for the horses.

In your career/life who has been your biggest inspiration?

I have always been a huge fan of John Whitaker, how he rides and manages his horses. However, I don’t have one person that is my biggest inspiration. I’ve been inspired by so many people throughout my career. I watch, listen, and learn from the best of the best, and this helps me to continue improving and learning, in order to stay on top of my game.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given in your career?

My parents always told me you must be a hard worker, and if you do this, you will achieve what you want. It doesn’t matter if it is with horses or if it’s in the normal world.

What piece of advice would you give to someone young who is considering a professional career in show jumping?

I would reiterate the importance of the advice that my parents gave me. Even if you do not come from a horse background or have large financial backing, it is still possible to achieve your dreams, as long as you work hard. For example, Jérôme Guery and I both won medals at the Olympics this way. Of course, the way is long and hard, but the journey makes you stronger. Anything is possible with hard work.

Jack Ryan. Photo by SportFot

Meet the Next Gen with: Jack Ryan

What are your plans for 2021 and what would you like to achieve?

I have a really nice nine-year-old horse called BBS McGregor, who I competed with at the FEI Jumping European Championship for Young Riders, Juniors & Children in Vilamoura two weeks ago. We finished seventh individually and won a Team silver so I was really pleased. At some point in the next few months, I would like to move BBS McGregor up to the next level, but as a nine year old, it’s difficult to know how good he really is. When he makes that step up to the next level, then we will find out what he’s really made of. After Saint-Lô two weeks ago, I’m hoping to go to the 3* at the FEI Jumping European Championship in Riesenbeck, Germany. I competed in Deauville in France last week, and go to a 2* at Bolesworth this week, and then Riesenbeck for the Europeans in two weeks.

I don’t know my plans with the young Riders Academy yet, but hopefully I will compete at CHIO Aachen – it would be nice to go there, as I’ve never competed at the show before. I’d also like to compete in Geneva at the end of the year, but everyone needs a chance, so one would be fantastic. Jack Whitaker got the wildcard to compete at the Rolex Grand Slam event at The Dutch Masters in ‘s-Hertogenbosch and did really well winning the Audi Prize. To compete at a big 5* Rolex Grand Slam show is the dream for this year.

Which horses are you most excited to be competing with this year?

My main horse is BBS McGregor, who my mother and I bred – he is actually named after the mixed martial arts fighter, Conor McGregor. There was a very worrying period when he was two years old. Everything he ate, he spat back out, and when we put him in his stable, he couldn’t get up. We didn’t know what was wrong, and a week later a lump appeared on the front of his face. My mother thought it might be cancer, so we called the vet and got him x-rayed. Thankfully, it turned out he had been kicked by another horse and it had split one of his teeth, which had gone into the roof of his mouth. The pain is what caused all his problems, which an operations was able to fix. So, we called him BBS McGregor because he is a fighter, and his stable name is Lucky because he is lucky to be alive! He is currently competing in 1.50m classes, and he has done a 3* Grand Prix before, and I’m hopeful he’ll move up to 5* level next.

One of my horses, who competed last week in Eschweiler is a 10-year-old called Guminka. He placed in a few 2* Grands Prix, but then unfortunately got a knock, so he is just returning from that now, and I think he’s got a lot of potential. BBS McGregor would be the horse I would take if I was selected for one of the big Rolex Grand Slam shows, and that would be his first 5*. People think I’m crazy but everything he’s done so far has been so easy.

How positive do you believe the Rolex Grand Slam has been for the sport of show jumping?

It’s been absolutely massive, Rolex has been an incredible supporter of show jumping, and having an initiative like that for riders and breeders is just amazing. The breeders that bred Explosion W and Hello Sanctos are leading the way, as they’ve won at Olympic and the Rolex Grand Slam level, so it’s a real incentive to try and go on to breed another horse of that caliber. We are aiming to have BBS McGregor jump at one of the Rolex Grand Prix shows. With the exception of this year, because of the Olympics, the Rolex Grand Slam is top of every rider’s list.

What have you learnt over the course of the last 18 months, and what positives will you take?

I’ve learnt to live every day as it comes, and to enjoy every day, as life isn’t the same as it used to be. Hopefully in the next year it will get back as close as possible to normality, but it will never be the exact same as it used to be. Because I work for Shane Breen in Hickstead, I haven’t been home that much to see family, but I’ve spent a lot more time in the stables. We’ve let the horses have a break for a while, which is good for them, as they have busy seasons. Taking some positives from the last year or so, it’s been good to produce the younger horses and give the older horses a bit of time off.