When Gucci came to sponsor the prestigious European Equestrian Masters in 2009, Kevin Staut was the face they chose to represent them. Given the French Grand Prix show jumper’s model looks and track record in the saddle, it was no contest.
Photography OLIVIA GRAAE Text MARIA GRAAE / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.2
One of the highest-ranked show jumpers in the world, Kevin Staut held the number-one spot in 2010 and into 2011, a position he only surrendered to Olympic champion Eric Lamaze earlier this year. His list of firsts is impressive: he won the European Championship in 2009 at Windsor riding Kraque Boom, and with his beloved white mare Silvana he was a part of the Silver Medallist Team at the 2010 World Championship in Kentucky. And then in 2011 he became the first athlete ever to be appointed to the the Executive Board of Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI).
Barely half an hour has passed since completing another Grand Prix on a sunny day in the summer of 2011, and Kevin is still in the shirt and breeches, and brown leather boots he wore for the competition. He has agreed to do the interview within earshot of the show-ground stables – “This way I can still be near my horses,” he explains, with a grin that lights up the handsome face that has become familiar well beyond the world of show jumping thanks to the Gucci campaign he starred in. The conversation that follows is accompanied by the muffled sounds of some of the world’s most prized horses moving in their stalls and chomping on hay, and the voices of the grooms as they work. When he’s not at his Ecaussines stables in Belgium, Kevin can usually be found at show grounds like this one all over Europe and the rest of the world for that matter.
He’s an athlete at the top of his game. But the story of how he made it to the show jumping’s elite isn’t the familiar one of a spoilt little rich kid growing up in a horsey world. Instead, it’s a tale of a determined, young man who chose his own path and worked his way to success. “I’m a hard worker,” he says. “I work a lot and I think that I’m selfish enough to keep at it. It helps to love horses, not just for the results, but to just love spending time with them, being near them. When I started riding it was because I loved grooming. Getting where I am now, it’s a mixture of motivation and luck. I was always aiming for the top, to go to shows each weekend and to compete at the highest level. When I was 16, I organised my life so that I could spend every day riding, studying at night through correspondence courses.”
He had the support of his family, which was hugely important. “When I was growing up my grandfather had a good business producing aluminum windows and selling them across Europe, so he was able to buy me some really good junior horses. But before long I wanted to manage my own life, doing things my own way. When I was 18 I turned professional and went to live by myself. There was a big family drama and for a couple of years we didn’t speak, although today we have a perfect relationship. I studied management and accounting for two years because I already knew that I wanted to start my own independent company. It was a lot of hard work, but freedom is very important to me.”
A life-changing meeting took place in 2003. “When I was 23, my grandfather bought me Kraque Boom and I started getting good results. The same year I met Xavier Marie, who now owns almost all my horses. In the meantime my grandfather had sold his company, so he didn’t have quite as much money as before. But we managed to work out a good deal and Kraque wasn’t all that expensive.”
Was it obvious from the start that Kraque was a unique horse with the qualities necessary to claim the European title? “Oh, he was special from the start. Not in a good way, but in the way that stallions can be special: he had a very strong character. I thought, why not? And suddenly the results started coming.” He looks at where the mighty bay stallion is resting peacefully. Kevin talks about him like an old friend. “He’s always like this, just like you see him now. He’s either sleeping or eating, and he’s quite grumpy in the mornings, so I try not to ride him till 10 or 11 o’clock.” Silvana, another one of his famous horses, is very different, he says: “She’s more sensitive and gets more stressed. Her story is different too. She was already well educated when we got her: she had had all the training, the dressage was there, she was previously ridden by Jos Lansink… So there was a certain guarantee, we knew she was a Grand Prix horse. But we didn’t know she was a horse for the big championships – that she would have the quality to compete at top level for five days. I love her.” Kevin has three other Grand Prix horses in his stable at the moment. The luxury of having five in total means that his team is able to rotate them, so no one horse has too much to do: “We don’t want any of the horses to cross the red line.”
In 2010 he spent a year at the very summit of show jumping, ranked top of the world. “But being number one didn’t change anything for me,” he says. “I’m still waiting for the future to work out my success – maybe I’ll be number 20 or number 50 overall. You can keep riding into old age, and I think that’s one of the best things about the sport, but you are only at your physical peak for five, maybe 10 years. But I’m not stressed, I have time, I can still improve and there’s always more to learn.”
When he talks about the future it sounds like his life will always involve horses, competing at the highest level, and a living out of a suitcase. It makes me wonder if he ever had doubts about committing so wholeheartedly to show jumping. Yes he has, he says. “I was at a national championship, and everything seemed to be going wrong. So that night, feeling sad and alone in the truck, I decided to change career and become a Formula One driver instead. But when I looked up the requirements online I realised how difficult it was. The next day I was back riding.”
For all his strengths, determination and willpower, this widely admired ambassador of equestrian sports is not without weaknesses. “If you’re asking me what’s the worst thing about me, it must be that I’m very impatient, and if I’ve had a bad result, I need some time alone to accept it. If it’s been a weekend with disappointing results, then I’m not very nice to be around the following Monday. I can be quite mean, actually.”
Kevin is the clean kid on the block. Whereas many of his colleagues have had difficulties with doping, he has never been touched by scandal, a factor that contributed to him becoming the first ever athlete appointed to the FEI Executive Board. “I’d been on the jumping committee for three years, and I was asked by Mr Pessoa and Mr Beerbaum, who serve on the jumping comittee and are show jumper collegues of great merits. When men like that ask you something, you don’t say no. I think they chose me because I’m ‘clean’ and a young, international rider. I represent the future, I wasn’t involved with the past. Riders have been fighting for 30 years to get an athlete on the Executive Board, so it was a very political decision and FEI preferred someone like me. I was at bit scared at first but it’s also a challenge. I’m representing not only show jumpers but all riders, and I like to learn new things and learn from the different disciplines.”
When I ask him about the shoot he did for Gucci, he becomes a bit self-conscious as he explains how he ended up as the pin-up boy of French show jumping. “They asked me and I said yes. It’s fun working with photographers, stylists and models for a day or two. It’s quite different from everything I’m used to, and I was a bit surprised at how slowly it all moves; I think I’m more into action. As well as the Gucci shoot, I did some photos for a French magazine. It’s nothing I would ever want to do full time, but I think it’s an obligation in my position to promote the sport. The modelling is nice for two or three days a year, but it also gives you a feeling of being just another handbag.”
And speaking of handbags, is fashion something that interests him? “No – I like things simple and classic. I enjoy the freedom to wear what I want. I don’t want to be paid to wear someone else’s logo – I did that in the past and I didn’t feel comfortable; I like being free. And for me, clothes aren’t about fashion – it’s just a pleasure to wear nice things and I like classic items. We travel a lot, and sometimes it’s very warm and sometimes it’s cold, so good materials are important. But I’m not into anything too futuristic-looking: I like to combine the benefits of new textiles with a classic cut. So I design my jackets myself, made to measure by a tailor in Brussels.” He shows me the details he specified for it, and tells me about another he had designed, in blue with white and red details on the collar, lined with the French Tricolore, which he wears proudly at the Nations Cup. His look is elegant, functional and subtle at the same time. “I’ve made my own logo,” he says, showing me where his initials are discreetly engraved on his brown leather boots, “because I don’t like to have my name everywhere. I’m quite shy really, and with the logo, people don’t know it’s me.”
From a distance, Kevin’s life seems very glamorous, mingling with the VIPs of the show jumping circuit. “Yes of course there are some nice parties and it can be glamorous, but it’s not something I pursue. I don’t take that to extremes: I wouldn’t say no to a trip by private jet just out of principle. But reall, I’m in it for the sport – I prefer the show grounds in Falsterbo and Aachen to Monaco any day. There are so many fabulous things in Monaco, but it’s a city and not a place for horses, with its small, hot stable area and a small sand arena. I prefer a show ground with genuine atmosphere and real sport.”
Kevin likes to talk a lot about safeguarding his freedom, but you can’t help wondering how free he really is, getting only two or three weekends off each year from the endless circuit of show grounds and championships – and even then he finds himself training horses at home. But he is free, he insists. “I’m free to travel, and that’s just fantastic. I’m out there discovering new cities, and then I enjoy going back home. I’m like a child; I’m living my dream.” •