Harrie Smolders has not only stormed to the top of the world over the past decade as a show jumping rider, he has also done so as a trainer. Due to his good results, the son of a Brabant pig breeder, who dominated the world rankings for eight months in 2018, is in great demand as a show jumping coach by the elite of equestrian sport.
In 2018, for example, Smolders received a phone call from America from talented show jumper Jennifer Gates, the daughter of Bill and Melinda Gates, founders of the Gates Foundation. When Smolders talks about Gates, now 26, he chooses his words deliberately and allows long silences. He is discreet, the privacy of his known student is paramount at all times.
At the World Championships in Herning, Denmark, Smolders will compete next week on top horse Monaco, which is owned by Jennifer Gates. With the 13-year-old bay gelding, Smolders finished second in the prestigious World Cup final this spring. The combination is also a favorite for a World Cup medal.
The collaboration between Smolders and Gates began a few years ago when he regularly met the billionaire Microsoft’s eldest daughter at competitions in the United States. “I’ve had great success with other US clients, Jennifer has seen it. The fact that I was world number one at the time must also have played a role,” Smolders explains.
Did he think it was special that Gates called him? “If you ride at a high level yourself for a long time and train at a high level, it makes sense that at some point someone like Jennifer would be interested in a collaboration. Her dad happens to be famous, but it could have been someone else with the same ambitions.With famous people, you often see people around them start behaving differently, but it doesn’t have to be for that.
De Brabander often went to America – until the crown struck – to train Jennifer Gates. The runner achieved impressive results, including third places in five-star competitions (the highest level) in Hamburg and Calgary. Gates has also represented the United States in Nations Cup Nations Cup competitions.
For the moment, her show jumping career is on the back burner and she prefers her studies. “Jennifer now only rides a bike as a weekend hobby in America. She’s a woman who wants to get the most out of life and has broad interests. I have a lot of admiration for that.” , says Smolders, who occasionally travels to the United States to train Gates.
The rider only comes sporadically to her Belgian base Evergate Stables. Jennifer Gates bought this stable four years ago for herself and her husband, Egyptian-American rider Nayel Nassar.
Smolders’ current top horses, such as his World Cup horse Monaco and second horse Darry Lou, are owned by Evergate Stables. Smolders need not fear a scenario like that of show jumper Jeroen Dubbeldam last year, when his top horse was sold shortly before the Olympics. Jennifer Gates will not sell her horses. Smolders: “It is to the Gates family that they return me like this. But in the end I created this situation myself. I had to invest a lot of time and energy for the recognition that I get now. The top rider also sometimes sits at the table with Bill Gates. ‘A man with a lot of know-how with whom you can have interesting conversations.’
Smolders (42) can rightly be called a self-made man. He grew up in Lage Mierde in Brabant, near the Belgian border. His father was a pig farmer and both grandfathers had a farm. Pa Smolders bred horses as a hobby and so Harrie came into contact with ponies and horses at a young age. After graduating from high school, he started working as a stable rider with the then national trainer Johan Heins in Meppel.
As Smolders was not a natural talent, his parents urged him to develop as widely as possible. That’s why he started to train young riders. After his time in Meppel, Smolders worked for the Euro Horse stables of the Belgian Verlooy family for twenty years. Evergate Stables is now his home base in Belgium.
Over the past two decades, Smolders has established himself among show jumping coaches around the world, including many top riders. “But I acquired most of my knowledge by observing the competitions carefully. Just watch how great riders interact with their horses, how they communicate, and how they step into the ring. The higher the level, the more detail. By training in show jumping, I also became a better rider myself.
Smolders describes himself as a trainer who emphasizes recognizability and repetition. “When horse and rider know exactly what to expect, you create a system of consistent performance.”
Jennifer Gates calls Smolders “an incredible rider and trainer.” “Harrie taught me to develop confidence in my own abilities and taught me skills that I can use in the ring so that I have confidence in my own abilities. Harrie made me believe in myself more and he made me more patient with horses,” Gates told an American magazine last year.
Smolders is optimistic about his chances at the World Cup. “The feeling with Monaco has been very good in recent months,” he said shortly before leaving for Denmark. “But in equestrian sports, it all depends on the shape of the day.”
The World Cup offers a first chance at Olympic qualification
The World Equestrian Games will henceforth be known as the Equestrian World Championships. The reason? The chaotic scenes during the previous edition of the quadrennial event, in 2018, in America. With eight equestrian events at the time – and 800 athletes from 70 countries – the event proved too massive to be properly organised. That’s why it was decided to part ways. Four disciplines are on the program for the Equestrian World Championships in Herning, Denmark (August 6-14): show jumping, dressage, vaulting and para-dressage. In Italy, the world championships of three other disciplines take place in the fall: four-man driving, eventing and endurance. Reining is no longer part of the FEI World Equestrian Federation.
The Dutch show jumping and dressage teams will have the first opportunity to qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris at the world championships in Denmark. The show jumping team must finish in the top five in the Nations Cup, a top 6 finish is sufficient for dressage riders.
National show jumping trainer Jos Lansink has to do without the experienced Marc Houtzager (injured to his lead horse) and Willem Greve, who broke his arm and ankle last month falling off his horse. The show jumping team consists of Harrie Smolders, Maikel van der Vleuten, Sanne Thijssen and Jur Vrieling. The Netherlands last won a World Cup medal (gold) at the Nations Cup in 2014.
The dressage team traveled to Herning with a beaten team. Besides the figurehead Edward Gal, who has taken a break from competition, Hans Peter Minderhoud is absent due to an injury to his horse. For the first time in history, the Dutch dressage team is composed entirely of women: Dinja van Liere, Emmelie Scholtens, Marieke van der Putten and Thamar Zweistra. The 31-year-old Van Liere, world number six, is an immediate medal contender on his World Cup debut.
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