The Swiss heartthrob and reigning Olympic champion Steve Guerdat is firmly established at the very pinnacle of showjumping.
Text Maria Graae Photography Daniel Stjerne/ The Horse Rider’s Journal No. 12
The afternoon sun is high in the sky over the CHI Al Shaqab event in Qatar. It’s day two of the five-star showjumping competition and, thanks to a fence down and a time fault, Steve Guerdat and Sidney VIII leave the ring without reaching the top placements. As Steve dismounts the bay mare to join us for an interview in the riders’ lounge, the disappointment is still obvious on his face.
Standing at 183cm tall and uncommonly handsome, he is hard to miss as he walks in. Taking a seat, he starts to talk and, slowly but surely, the usual warmth and laughter return to his face. The look in his light brown eyes is direct and his words are to the point. His English carries a soft French edge, and sometimes he will hesitate as he tries to find the exact words he’s looking for.
He explains how he bounces back after disappointments like today’s. “I’ve definitely had my fair share of ups and downs. It’s in the nature of the sport. In that respect, showjumping is very similar to real life. Often it’s the downs that help me up again: They get me to focus even more and work harder. Every rider experiences losing a horse at some point, and the fact that a rider without a horse is just a man is something that I carry with me and that keeps me humble.”
The son of Philippe Guerdat, an accomplished showjumper and chef d’équipe of the French showjumping team, equestrian success runs in the family for Steve. “My father has never acted as my trainer, but he has helped me a lot and made sacrifices in his own sport to get me where I am today. He’s a part of my success and has been a great help. I started at a riding school at the age of seven, and it sort of took off there. I’ve had a lot of support from my mother as well, and my brother, who has great success with his IT company. He’s got a lot on his plate but always takes time to give me a helping hand.”
Steve’s fascination for horses started young. He was only three when he began riding, and was on horseback daily from the age of seven. He achieved success early and made the Swiss national team as a junior. Later on he won Junior European Team Bronze and Young Rider European Team Bronze medals before claiming a European Team Bronze in his first year as a senior competitor.
“I knew at an early age that I wanted to ride professionally,” says Steve. “My father knew the sport inside out, including the downsides and the hard work. That meant I knew about the work that needed to be done to get to this level. So I worked hard. My father wanted to make sure I was tough enough and had the necessary dedication, so I did a lot of mucking out and cleaning as well as riding. Luckily I past the test!”
Steve, his staff and his horses have been based in Herrliberg near Zurich since the start of 2007. “I have 14 or 15 horses at home, and I ride quite a lot when I’m there. Since I do a lot of travelling, I just try to ride and to keep my focus. But I still have to handle the administration and paperwork, which easily takes up several hours every week.”
It’s the simple pleasures of everyday life such as friendship and good health that are the key to Steve’s happiness. “I enjoy the good atmosphere at our yard. We’ve all worked together for a long time, so it’s almost like hanging out with friends and I’m lucky to have such a good team. As long as the horses are healthy, I can work and improve with them, and that’s all I need.”
Steve was the only rider to perform a double clear in the individual finals in the London Olympics in 2012, where he was crowned Olympic champion just a couple of months after his 30th birthday. It was a title he had always dreamed of, but even though the win is etched in his memory it’s not something he dwells on. “Becoming an Olympic champion was a huge source of satisfaction, since it was a long-time goal of mine. But I still have so many more goals left, so I don’t want to be too satisfied. I guess I’ll enjoy the medal more when I’ve finished my career. My focus is on the future, not the past.”It’s often said that staying on top is more difficult than getting there and, with a declared ambition of retaining his Olympic title in 2016, the pressure is definitely on for Steve. “Just take a look at the field of riders here at CHI Al Shaqab, and the money involved. Everyone here is really on the ball and there are younger riders coming up, some of them better than me. So I need to keep improving and finding new horses for myself. Since prices are going up, it’s getting more and more difficult to find the right horses to develop. It’s something that takes a lot of time and travelling.”
When it comes to the criteria for finding a horse that can deal with the big competitions for several days, Steve likes to keep things simple. “I look for a horse who wants to jump clear, period. You can go on and on talking about canter, about scope and technique, but in the end you need a horse that wants to fight for you; that’s what it’s all about. I’ve achieved success with horses others would describe as bad, horses with terrible canter or that are really slow, even. But all of them wanted to fight and to be clear.” When asked what feeling it gives him being around horses, he goes silent before offering a hesitant answer. “It’s hard to put into words, since horses have been such a big part of my life and of who I am for as long as I can remember. I don’t think I ever even thought about it like that, but I guess you could say my horses are both working partners as well as best friends. It’s important to really know them inside out. A horse like Nasa prefers warmer conditions and outdoor arenas, so a show like this really suits her. She has a lot of temper, and the heat calms her down a little. So when I had to choose between the indoor competition in Paris and here, it was no contest.”
As an idol for many showjumping enthusiasts, Steve is highly popular on social media, having passed the 100,000-fan mark on Facebook alone long ago. So what advice would he give to someone who wants to follow in his footsteps? “First and foremost, believe in your horse and believe in yourself. Believe in your luck and believe that dreams come true. It’s a passion and a lifestyle. I’ve proven several times I can make things happen, not by riding the best horses but through my determination and ability to work hard; to put in the hours, the days and years needed. And by having the patience to give my horses a fair chance to prove their worth, even though far from all of them are obvious grand prix horses.”
So what is there left to improve?
“There are a lot of things, the general riding and dressage. And certainly to make fewer mistakes!”
A meticulous crafter, Steve knows better than anyone that talent alone is not enough. The secret of success in showjumping is patience and work. After the interview, in the final class of the night, a determined Steve sets a relentless pace on Nasa in the big tour five-star jump-off, resulting in an impressive win.•