Olympic course designer Santiago Varela talks fair courses for horses
Spain’s Santiago Varela has just returned from the hugely successful CHIO Rotterdam in The Netherlands, and has now turned his focus to the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. It’s a busy time for the man whose life is divided between his job as CEO of a company involved in the renewable energy sector and building tracks for the best Jumping horses and athletes in the world.
I will fly to Tokyo on 21 July and arrive on the 22nd and will start work immediately”,
The 1st of August is the Jumping phase of Eventing and the last day I will build will be 7 August. So in one month I’ll be free, and the happiest man in the world because I will have fulfilled a dream!”.
He made his name in the course design business through his connection with Madrid Horse Show where he was Assistant Course Designer until 1998. He should have taken over the Official role that year
but my wife had other ideas! We got married during the show and on the day of the wedding I worked in the arena until 3pm and then rushed home to change and go to the church. So for that year I had to remain as the Assistant!”.
He competed himself during his teenage years, and amongst his heroes was six-time Olympian Luis Alvarez Cervera.
Everyone came to the show in Madrid when I was young, the British team, Eddie Macken from Ireland and I remember Neco (Brazil’s Nelson Pessoa) too. All the horses he rode were the perfect ones because he made them perfect!”.
Santiago Varela’s philosophy for course design is simple.
The course always needs to be fair for the horses. The modern horse is very clever and they are super athletes, but they need to be protected so we must always build a course that they can jump well.”
He says good design is all about keeping the horse’s canter.
It is fundamental, it’s the only way to play with the balance of the horse. Arno Gego (legendary German course designer) defined it well – ‘you find your line and the horses need to flow’. It’s only when you understand that then you can progress to becoming a top course designer. If you don’t allow horses to keep their canter and rhythm and flow through the course then they cannot jump the big fences”,
And he reveals one secret.
The fences are only a relative issue, not a definitive issue. Distances are only numbers, and numbers alone don’t mean anything. A distance in a combination looks short or long depending on what happened before you arrived there. The riders need to interpret the course because it is a different test for every horse. They need to adjust their plan for a smaller or slower horse with a shorter or longer stride, but one thing they all have in common is that they need to keep the canter and keep the balance.”
So is it difficult for the course designer to find his own balance when, for instance, setting a track for the Olympic Games where riders with many different levels of experience will compete?
No, it is exactly the same when you are building for a World Cup Final or European Championship or World Equestrian Games, you present the same course for the rider ranked 1,000 and the rider ranked number one and everyone in between. At the Nations Cup Final in Barcelona we have 19 teams, and not all of them are Germany!”,
Santiago Varela quips, referring to the strength in depth of Germany in the sport.
Everyone who competes has achieved a high enough level to be there and it is in the nature of the sport that the best will come out on top. The course is the same for everyone, from first to last.”
So his expectations for how things will play out in Tokyo?
We know about the heat and humidity and have to take that into account. I built a course for Eventing riders at the Test Event and saw the venue being developed and it is truly unbelievable. I’ve been to Tokyo four times now and Baji Koen is a fantastic venue and the conditions for the horses are excellent”, he says.
To keep up to date with Olympic schedule and results in the Equestrian discipline, visit olympics.com/tokyo-2020/olympic-games/en/results/equestrian/olympic-schedule-and-results.htm
Dressage Groom Stefanie Wiegan (GER) greets Bella Rose at EQP having juzts arrived from Haneda Airport in Tokyo,Japan.
July 15, 2021
Photo: FEI/Yusuke Nakanishi
You may also like to read
July’s issue of Everything Horse magazine, click the front cover to read for free