Plaidcast Mini Episode: Alan Wade by Taylor, Harris Insurance Services

Plaidcast Mini Episode Alan Wade


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Piper and Tori Bilas speak with internationally acclaimed course designer, Alan Wade. Brought to you by Taylor, Harris Insurance Services. Listen in!


This transcript was generated automatically. Its accuracy may vary.

Piper Klemm [00:00:34] This is the Plaidcast. I’m Piper Klemm, publisher at the Plaid Horse Magazine. And coming up on today’s mini episode of the Plaidcast, I am joined by co-host Tori Bilas, who is in charge of press and communications for the Desert International Horse Park. On today’s show, we talk with internationally acclaimed course designer Alan Wade. This episode is brought to you by Taylor Harris Insurance Services. Welcome to the plaidcast, Tori. 

Tori Bilas [00:01:01] Thank you so much for having me. 

Piper Klemm [00:01:04] It’s been quite the season at Desert Horse Park, which we’ve hosted many of your press releases and articles on And there are so many rave reviews about Alan Wade’s courses this past week, as there always are. Can you tell us about some of the big events and big attraction classes that that have brought people from all over the world to the desert this winter? 

Tori Bilas [00:01:27] Of course. Well, we’ve had FEI showjumping basically every week except for the first week of circuit. And it’s been I mean, you know, two and three star for the most part starting off, but five star line ups. And we finished off just the six week just last week and we had four star competition. And Alan Wade was the designer for those tracks. And I mean, it truly did not disappoint. It was so exciting. We had several night classes and five star athletes emerged victorious. We had Kent Farrington winning on Sunday. And the classes were just so interesting. I mean, we had quite a few clear on Friday night which made for such an exciting jump off, and then Sunday was much harder. I think the standard was raised for the first four star Grand Prix of the season, but even that just made for such an interesting class, just watching those horses and riders that so many of them had been to the Olympics and World championships. So getting to see that caliber of rider and that caliber, of course designer right in front of you is I think it’s made a lot of dreams come true out there. And we’re excited to have a lot of those people back. We have three more weeks of circuit remaining before the season is over, and I think we’re going to be three of the most exciting. We have two weeks of three star competition and one more week of four star and two of those weeks, the final two weeks will be back on at the grass field, which a lot of show jumpers have said is every bit as good as the best grass fields in the world. They’ve compared it to Aachen and Spruce Meadows. And I think everyone is excited to get back out there and especially get back up to the four star level. So I think we’re we’re really going to end with a bang, but it’s been a really great season overall. 

Piper Klemm [00:02:58] And the West Coast has just been leveling up. And in May, we’re going to see the first Nations Cup on the West Coast at Blenheim EquiSports in San Juan Capistrano, which is right down the road, you know, about about two, 2 hours in that traffic from Thermal. And so, yeah, it’s been this exciting year and exciting time to really open up the West Coast of the United States to higher level showjumping, which I know is was one of the big goals at Desert Horse Park. And it’s all coming to fruition. 

Tori Bilas [00:03:35] Yeah, it definitely is. I think just last week we really saw that we had quite a few of the riders that base in Wellington come out and join us for the week, and I think it was pretty unanimous that it was well worth the trip, that it’s an enjoyable place to be for the riders and the horses. And I think the prize money is pretty much better than anywhere else right now. We have prize money all the way from the national levels through FEI, so each one of them was very happy that they took that trip out there. 

Piper Klemm [00:04:03] So Alan Wade has has designed for for many years in the desert now from Tipperary Ireland. What’s it like having someone like that come in? I know it’s always kind of a joke in the press room that like, Kaitlin Campbell always wins when Alan Wade is course designing. And you know, what’s it like having someone, you know, come in like that that has both long standing relationships with, with the audience there and high level competition and just exciting, too exciting to see there. 

Tori Bilas [00:04:40] It’s really exciting to see. I think I think it’s one of the the main reasons that so many of these top athletes are deciding to come out here. And we’ve seen Gregory Wathelet and Conor Swail both basing for pretty long periods of time out in the desert. And I think having course designers like Alan come out has a lot to do with that. And not only are we seeing one of the best course designers in the world come out and set the tracks, but then we get to see so many of the top riders in the world come out and jump them. And I think that combination is just truly unbeatable. You get to watch showjumping that you sometimes don’t even see until the Olympics. It’s such high caliber combinations of designers and athletes. So, you know, to get to spend your winter out on the West Coast and know that the quality of the sport is not compromised is is really great and I think bodes well for the future. I think Alan really enjoys designing out there and the materials, the arenas, the footing, it’s all just top notch. And I think having all of those all of those elements combined for him, I think it makes him want to come back, I would hope. 

Piper Klemm [00:05:45] So we’re going to take a quick break here and and be back with Alan and hear his thoughts about desiging in the desert this winter. And of course, design in general, what makes a good course and and what questions he wants to ask riders and their horses on course. 

Piper Klemm [00:08:02]  Alan Wade of Tipperary Ireland is an FEI level four course designer and has designed tracks for the world’s most prestigious events, including the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon North Carolina, the 2017 FEI World Cup Final in Omaha, Nebraska. The Dublin Horse Show. The Rolex Top ten. The American Gold Cup and many more. The son of Irish show jumper Tommy Wade, Alan designed his first course at age 12 and is now one of the most respected in the industry. Most recently, Alan traveled to the Desert International Horse Park to build for their CSI 4* Week. Welcome to the Plaidcast, Alan Wade. 

Alan Wade [00:08:41] Thanks for having me. 

Piper Klemm [00:08:43] So, Allen, tell us what makes a good course and then what are things that course designers are really thinking about when when starting to build a big class like a Grand Prix. 

Alan Wade [00:08:54] Well, a good course, in my opinion, is a course, is suitable for the competition that you’re actually designing it for. So that would be the level of the competitor. The first thing would be the actual article or the rule on that that they would be judged under. So that would define what type of course you’re actually building when you move on then to Grand Prix level. It’s basically our international level, the Grand Prix. It would be, again, the article normally a jump off. A jump off to a class. So then you would go to your schedule and you’d see the height of which the class is at, and then you would look at your stat list and see the number of competitors that you will have in your course. And the next thing. Then when you actually do start to design high staff myself is a scale drawing of the arena, which in a sand arena would be any permanent islands or artificial islands, or where the ingate is where the sun is. This would all dictate to me in my drawing, what time of the day we would be jumping to class. I start off with a pencil freehand and I would say for last Sunday’s Grand Prix in the desert, I ended up with six different courses drawn in pencil to roughly to scale like roughly to scale and I widdle it down to  two and finally chose the one that I went with. So there’s a process. And when you’re when you’re deciding on, on your course, I would produce a scale drawing on computer with exact measurements and exact very similar to the course plan, except extra details for material and and the measurements between fences and the heights of fences. And this stands for sort of the, the arena party and the crew. And we we take it from there. But as I say, it would be it would be still very fluid. For when I come to actually laying it out on the ground and building it quickly, I would always I would move stuff. If I thought, or move lines or change lines a little bit. Just if I felt it would be better at a certain angle. So everything is pretty fluid until you just open the course for the judges to walk it first and then the competitors. 

Tori Bilas [00:11:26] So, Alan, we’re curious. You’ve designed all over the world and in so many different types of arenas. What kinds of arenas do you prefer and do you have favorite venues across the world? 

Alan Wade [00:11:36] I have learned to adapt to any size, any type of surface. I do like surface that I can trust, whether it sand, all weather sand or grass like once I know that the ground and the arena is good for horses and I can trust it and I allow for A if the ground is a little softer, sand is a little softer. I allow for that in my courses and keep the turns as smooth as possible. But generally I have no I have no problems designing from very small indoors up to huge grass arenas. The basic principles of showjumping and strides and stride patterns, and then what the horse might see what the rider might see. And then the flow of my courses are all very similar, whether it’s indoor or outdoor. 

Piper Klemm [00:12:31] Those basics are kind of the questions being asked at that, the horse training questions essentially that every jump is asking. I know that a lot of people like you who have been doing this for so long, it almost comes down to feel. But but how much do you really think through? Like. This is the this is a training question. I’m asking a horse or like this particular, you know, line or course or angle. It is asking this question?

Alan Wade [00:13:03] Basically the question is aimed at the athlete of the rider. And you know, because especially at a higher level of the National Grand Prix or any Grand Prix, most horses will jump all the single fences you would design on their own without knocking them. So the question is for the rider to get the horse to the correct takeoff point over the course of fences. Because most horses that jump a grand prix level are eight. nine years old and older that they’ve got to that level because they have an ability. So you’re just testing the ability of the rider to allow the horse to use his ability. And add in rider questions more than horse questions with distances and different tests like that. And this is basically you’re trying to test the rider ability more than the horse ability. 

Tori Bilas [00:14:07] Well, I think one of those I think it’s pretty agreed upon that one of the one of the core elements, of course, design is the time allowed. I think, you know, you have a very interesting stance on that. And not only are you really good at determining an accurate time allowed, but you’re also not super eager to change the time allowed. Could you talk a little bit about your your theory there as to why you usually don’t change it? 

Alan Wade [00:14:31] Well, I don’t like to change the time allowed even on Sunday, the time allowed was a little bit generous, in reality it was it was an easy time allowed. But I have measured it twice. My assistant had measured it twice. But the flow of the course was so nice and so smooth. And so far we’re going. And they could shave, it wasn’t the time. Time wasn’t an issue. But my my feeling on time allowed is if if, for instance, after the first couple of horses on Sunday, we had reduced the time allowed by 2 seconds – fragments which you could do which which I never like. I never do, I never do, but which you could do in my opinion. Then you you’re actually raising the height of the course a small bit, every fence on the course. And the same as that if I have measured it four times on the ground and the time was maybe a little, say, snug for other words to say, but wasn’t a grave mistake. A grave mistake. You can change the time allowed, but if something is a little slow, that’s not a grave mistake. One second isn’t a grave mistake, even though it can make an awful difference. But if you extend the time allowed by one second or 2 seconds, you’re actually reducing the height of the course for the remaining competitors in the class. So when I wheel on the ground and I’ve wheeled it multiple times, through the track two or three times. I know I’m there or thereabouts, but I don’t I don’t want to affect it any more than – it this should be the same for everyone and the first three shouldn’t have gained an advantage or lost an advantage just because they were in the first three. So that’s why I try and be consistent with my time, alloweds to be fair and to have them there as sort of in the background as another jump, just another test that has to be respected but not feared. But it’s a very it’s very hard to be consistent and be exact. It’s a lot depends on your course and where you put the careful jumps and where they can travel at a speed for a certain part of your course. And then they will have to steady down and slow down. And so it’s. I know a lot of that has got to do with feel because that is why I am slow to change now. I measure it and I measure it and on numerous occasions if I have assistants, I will get them to measure it and we just go and. And I think it’s sort of fair to everyone else then that they’re not going consistent, even if it is a little tight. They know that that border is not going to be changed. And it was a little loose the law so that they can ride through to take a ride that it’s that there and that it won’t be changed later. 

Piper Klemm [00:19:14] There are probably more options for for building materials, more visual effects that you can create from jumps. We have so many exquisite jump designers right now. We have more, you know, materials and 3D printing and different types of construction than we’ve ever had. How do you decide what elements you want to use on the course, where you want to use them, and how do people train horses to to be really ready for any element. I feel like every few Grand Prix now we’re seeing some sort of jump that we haven’t really seen a ton of. And it’s with so many more facilities and such high level of competition all over, like the different options are coming very quickly at a competitor. 

Alan Wade [00:20:11] But I feel a lot of the say, the more flashier jumps, as you say, with different options. The horses jump them very well. You know, they jump from very well. It’s normally pillars and that with flowers and top and that and 3-D wings. Any 3D wings with a bit of depth for for for for most of the modern type of horses that actually helps them to jump well and like when. But we’re talking about National Grand Prix horses and international horses. They’re not fazed basically by anything that you might put in front of them. So therefore, sometimes you have to go back to a. To get a real true test of your carefulness and then the ability to steady, you need a a maybe what I would call a flat fronted wing a wing that is very vertical that is there’s no 3D to it. That is no part of the wing coming out in front of the line of the pole so that it gives an advantage to – it backs the horse off. So you have to mix up your material because if you’re used to all the big, big 3D rings everywhere, you’d have to start building very big and building wider at whatever level you’re at. Whereas if you have a mixture of everything, some some bigger wings and more bulky for horses that might look at it, and they may be they’ll just be wondering what it is. And then you have to have maybe some light airy fences on your course. That’s just just pure careful as the test so that you would be trying to test different the bravery of the horse as well as the carefulness of the horse in the Grand Prix course. And for instance, like walls and different things like that, they’re basically there to test us because the amount of times that there’s faults over it is very minimal. And when you have a grand prix course with 13 fences in, this is it’s good to have something different like that. It says it’s good. This I think it adds to the overall look of the course. As well as being a test, something different that they haven’t seen every day that they see brand new. On top of that now the likes of the Grand Prix last Sunday. Was a qualifying competition for the championship so that it was a we had a certain amount of rules that we had to have that’s on the FEI schedule. You had to have a number of fences at a certain height. You had to have a number of different types of fences, as in a wall, a plank, a narrow fence, 2.5 meters, and you had to have one answering a triple and it had to be 150 by 160, you know, and different things, because there’s was about ten or 12 rules there in the FEI schedule. And when whether an event is a qualifying event. So that would be the reason why you see some different fences added in just for the Grand Prix. 

Tori Bilas [00:23:15] Well, having been there in person for last Sunday’s Grand Prix, I think I can agree that there were some really beautiful fences there. I mean, some of those horses clearly have seen a little bit of everything. They weren’t. Of course, there were challenges presented in the course, but I don’t think any of the brand new fences really took them too much by surprise. So curious when you got a course design job. So from finding out that you’re going to design for a specific facility and show, how far out do you start thinking about those tracks? What is your process like from the day that you find out you got the job up until the day or the week that you’re designing? 

Alan Wade [00:23:52] I be more during the week when I design and when I see what the what the standard of the competitor is and who is actually on the staff list. You know, I wouldn’t get I don’t get tied down. Especially like I wouldn’t get tied down to any plan that, as I said, like I had started early on in the week, I created six different designs for Sunday and I was just seeing how the welcome went and that was more than happy with how that went. So it was then we closed down as I wouldn’t I wouldn’t come to a show and have all my plans done and said, This is going to be the way it’s going to be, because that’s when you get in trouble, because you have to make changes during the week. So no, I wouldn’t either. I don’t marry myself. So planning if I don’t like something or if if there’s bad weather coming in or something like that, then I’d have to change it. Sometimes I’ve even had to change a thing – I’ve been at shows and had to change from grass to sand arenas overnight. So it’s it’s as a course designer you meet everything on your travels so you have to be flexible and to be able to cope with change as well. So no, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t say for championships and that I would be prepared months ahead of schedule for a big 5-star shows where I know all this, what the boundaries and where with water jumps if it’s an Nations Cup Show, I prepare well in advance, and I could change my mind up until I actually get to build it. But for other shows and such. I would be more concerned about getting a feel for the level of competitor that is there that week and then then work like I did last week and then whittle down like two or three drawings down to one that I finalize. 

Piper Klemm [00:25:41] When you’re being really creative over years and decades and really regularly creative, do you do you always have more ideas? Do you limit your jobs to a certain number of a year that you know, maybe allow you to be better? I think one of the things that’s really interesting about our sport is that we ask so many people, riders, horses, course designers, judges, etc., to at some level like peak every single week. And I think with a really creative job, it’s it’s you know that’s asking for either things to get less creative and more formulaic or asking for burnout or asking for all these things. You’ve stayed extremely creative over decades, like how do you how do you balance that creativity? 

Alan Wade [00:26:30] Well, it’s just, it always came. I wouldn’t say easy, but it comes like I can sit down and I can start drawing and in the space of. Especially if -sometimes it’s easier to do the bigger courses where you might have a water jump, and that dictates your starting point. Um, you know, because basically when you when you well, when you talk about creativity, the one thing you need to do is respect the rules, and then you respect what you were brought up yourself. And, and, and in what I was taught about distances and how horses and how horses react to different distances and different places in the arena and basically that all that, all that experience and knowledge that you’ve picked up from other course designers, then you’ve learned yourself down through the decades. It’s all there in the back of your mind when you’re dealing, when you’re drawing off any course. It’s just the process that you’re ticking off boxes and getting the balance of left and right and balance and combinations and different reins and trying to use different combinations in the week and not trying to reinvent showjumping or, course designing. You know, normally when people try to do something a bit too creative, it doesn’t normally lead to a great result. So like I do believe that when I do design the Grand Prix course and I get it set up and get the fences where I want them and then have the arena looking the way I want it. That the overall look of an arena should look balanced and should look pleasing to the eye with, with whatever fence material you have, you can always make it look as good as possible. And then when you go to top level shows like like what we had last Sunday, we had a choice of material, but still, I think. We don’t want to clutter up the arena so that everyone can have a good view of each fence and then they can stand out individually. But I think overall, the the look of the arena should be important to. 

Tori Bilas [00:28:37] I just wanted to bounce back to that preparation discussion briefly last week. Desert circuit six we had a bit of a five star line up for that four star week and I mean, it was so exciting. We had Kent Farrington, Conor Swail, Gregory Wathelet, Tiffany Foster, Erynn Ballard, just to name a few of the five star athletes that came out to compete. How did that particular lineup influence your plan for the week for your course design? 

Alan Wade [00:29:01] Well,  I had a couple of more difficult lines to draw on some of the other courses. But I sort of stuck with that. But that line, I just felt I could go full dimension with that line. And not have to worry about the height of the fences so that everything was up to the full height. And because it flowed and was such a nice thing that it would be suitable for everyone in the class. And while still proving the test for the ones at the top end that the ones say may be moving up to 155 four star level wouldn’t be overwrought and wouldn’t come away feeling that would come away, feeling maybe that they might have learned, might have made a mistake. And if they got a second chance, they might have jumped a clear round. I think there was a good few of them on Sunday. You know, the faults came everywhere, you know, and it wasn’t any one place. And I feel it was a very good experience and it was a nice class to watch. You know, it was the horses were having fences and and still there was enough clear rounds and the jump off was was a good jump off. But the winners the winners jump off was, was, was world class. But I just thought it showcased what the desert was about. And at the end of the three weeks that it was the highlight of the three weeks and I think it was a very good class and the like. Those management are saying they’re trying to build up the standard and you know, it’s trying to get the standard up to that level so that it is easier. And the more times people compete at that level, it becomes easier. The same as for me, as course design and I have built an awful lot of Grand Prix now in my career. I’m not saying it gets any easier, but when you’re at that level and you’re working at that level the same as if you’re jumping at that level every week, it will make it easier for people to get more confidence to trust themselves and trust their horses and find out what they need to improve on to compete at that level. 

Piper Klemm [00:31:04] Alan Wade thank you for joining us on the plaidcast. 

Alan Wade [00:31:08] You’re welcome. Thanks for having me. 

Piper Klemm [00:32:22]  To learn more about anything we’ve discussed on today’s show, visit You can find show notes at the Follow The Plaid Horse on all the social medias. You can subscribe to the print edition of the Plaid Horse Magazine at Please rate and review the plaidcast anywhere you listen to it, and if you enjoy this episode please share it with your friends, I will see you at the ring!