Edward Gal, the stylish world champion dressage rider, has turned his passion into his career.
Photography JETTE JØRS / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.1, 2011.
When Edward Gal rides into a dressage arena, the spectators fall silent. The charismatic Dutchman and his stallion Totilas have galloped up the career ladder to reach rock-star status in the equestrian world. In just two years Gal has secured his place in the equestrian history books – achieving a world record score of 92.30 percent in Grand Prix Kür and, most recently, becoming three times world champion in dressage at the 2010 Dressage World Championship. Totilas was sold shortly after the World Championship. Edward Gal has nevertheless succeeded in maintaining his position on the international Grand Prix circuit with the mare, Sisther de Jeu, and continues to be met with deafening applause from spectators wherever he competes. That is because something quite extraordinary happens when Gal gets into the saddle: his control of the horse is effortless and impressively harmonious.
Edward Gal saunters into the room at precisely the agreed time for the interview. People stop to admire the man dressed in jeans and a light-blue shirt under a green, woollen jumper. He has a firm handshake, surprisingly soft hands, perfect hair, inquisitive eyes and a warm smile. As he takes a seat in the sofa, his calm and welcoming demeanour permeates the room. The cards could not have predicted that Edward Gal would join the elite ranks of the dressage world. He is not born of an equestrian family and only started riding at the age of 14. In his early twenties he studied economics until he – to his mother’s great concern – decided to focus on a life with horses. It was difficult at first, with much toil and little money; the driving force in those days, however, was the same as it is today, namely his love of horses.
“When I started riding I had no ambition to become a world champion,” says Edward Gal. “I entered that world because I love horses and wanted to live amongst them. I don’t think you can be a good rider if you don’t love horses. You live with horses seven days a week and 24 hours a day. It’s not a job, it’s a passion.”
And when asked how he trains, he replies:
“I identify myself with the horse, feel it. I improvise and adapt to the horse. The horse is not capable of changing itself to suit me, but I can align myself to it. I try to do what’s best for the horse. I never attempt to change a horse’s character.”
And his weakness as a rider?
“I’m too sensitive. I find it very difficult when a horse is sold. I get so attached to them, but you have to love them in order to be able to ride them,” Edward Gal replies in a low voice, and it is not difficult to imagine which horse he is thinking of.
The black stallion, Totilas, was at Edward Gal’s side throughout his meteoric rise. The world had never seen anything like it and the equipage became the most talked about and loved of all time. Together they set multiple world records and new standards for dressage. The year after its Grand Prix début the eight-year-old Totilas and Gal won the 2009 European Championships in Windsor, in both Grand Prix and Grand Prix Kür. The subsequent year they arrived at WEG in Kentucky as clear favourites. Here they won team gold and triumphed convincingly in Grand Prix Special and Grand Prix Kür. This was the first time in history that an equipage had won each and every gold medal at a World Championship. Shortly thereafter, shock waves swept through the dressage world when Totilas’ then-owners, the Visser family, sold the spellbinding stallion for a dizzying sum.
When Edward Gal is asked about his greatest experiences, his time with Totilas is also what springs to mind:
“The best experience I ever had was when I won the Dutch National Dressage Championship with Totilas after having ridden in the Grand Prix only three times. It was so unexpected and it was then that we realised Totilas was something quite out of the ordinary.
The worst experience I have had was without a doubt the sale. It was unavoidable, yet still very difficult. The buyers had wanted him for two years and, after the World Championship in Kentucky, the Visser family was offered such a vast sum of money that it was unrealistic to keep him.”
The reason for his success is somewhat coincidental:
“My success is not the product of planning. It’s impossible to make plans when it comes to horses. One day the horse is fantastic, the next it might be lame. In my case, my goal was simply something about riding with top hat and tails. The rest just kind of happened,” Edward Gal says, smiling as he shrugs his shoulders.
In private Edward Gal and top rider, Hans-Peter Minderhoud, have been partners for several years. The couple – who compete at equal level and regularly enter the same competitions as competitors – live in the little town of Harskamp, in The Netherlands, where they pursue their passion for horses and dressage. They each have their separate business with their own clients, horse owners and sponsors at the dressage centre, Resim Dressage. Here they share the centre’s wonderful facilities but have separate stables with approximately 15 horses each.
“We collaborate quite a bit. We often train together and help each other,” explains Edward Gal.
Although the two riders have celebrated numerous successes over recent years they have only competed at the same international championship once, namely at the 2010 Dressage World Championship in Kentucky, which resulted in a historical gold medal for the Dutch team. When Minderhoud won silver at the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong, Gal did not have a first class horse available following the sale of his Dutch stallion, Ravel, and when Gal became European champion in 2009, Minderhoud was only a reserve. This year they will both compete for a place on the Dutch national team at the European Dressage Championship in their quest to reach the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
“I get a lot of support from Hans-Peter. In particular we help each other with the young horses and we train together and help each other to find the right horse-and-rider combination. If Hans-Peter isn’t particularly enamoured with a horse it might be something for me, and vice versa.”
A 41-year-old footballer or tennis player would be nearing the twilight years of his career, but dressage is different and Gal is at the pinnacle. That doesn’t mean to say that the road ahead will be a walk in the park. One senses that the parting with Totilas has been difficult for Gal. Focus is on what matters, namely riding. Edward Gal rides every day of the week, during daily training or when he is competing or hosting master classes, the so-called clinics. He never allows himself to be away from home for longer than four days at a time and, as soon as he is back, he rides the horses that stayed behind.
“I teach a few riders but right now I need to spend my time riding, not teaching. I want to ride!”
This is said with some force and a hint of defiance. He continues:
“I ride a lot, currently around nine horses a day and I need to ride a lot if I want to stay at the top. I will keep going for as long as I have the physical strength to do it. If I cut down now and, for example, only rode three horses, it would be almost impossible to come back again.”
He is nevertheless sought after as an instructor and his clinics are full. Riders from all over the world apply to attend training camps with Gal, who also hosts quite a few clinics at shows.
“I receive invitations from all over the world, but it’s difficult because I need to be home so I can train. So when I host clinics it’s usually because I am at a show anyway or when the transport time is relatively short.”
Since the sale of Totilas, Sisther de Jeu has become Gal’s top horse. The 12-year-old Gribaldi mare is Totilas’ half-sister and has been stabled with Gal for six years. The two horses have a similar charisma and tactfulness, but the highly sensitive mare has needed more time to develop. About his chances of defending the European Dressage Championship on Sisther, Edward Gal says:
“If Sisther performs well we will finish at the very top, but she can easily become a bit difficult. I have had to give up twice during a Kür test. Unfortunately one can’t train her to be in a large arena with noise, music and spectators. But she keeps getting better at handling all the racket.”
His voice reveals contentment and warmth and it is evident that Edward Gal has come to cherish his new leading horse:
“Sisther is definitely getting there. She continues to get stronger and I know her really well by now. I prefer to have the horses from a young age so I can train them as I see fit. Taking on a trained Grand Prix horse is one of the most difficult tasks. It is much easier to train the horse yourself.”
The most important characteristics he looks for in a horse are such:
“Having a good head, the right temperament, is essential. If you have a problem with a horse when it’s three years old, you are likely to have the same underlying problem when it’s ten. The horse will merely be better trained. It would be too easy if I could turn any horse into a Grand Prix horse. You make it a Grand Prix horse by riding it. And there is no guarantee that a horse will become a future winner just because it’s good, which is also why I don’t have a preference for a particular type of horse. It’s the individual horse’s character and willingness to work that’s paramount.”
And when questioned on how – and how quickly – he knows whether a horse is right for him, he replies:
“I get a feeling about a horse’s character as soon as I am on its back, and I might also see it in its eyes. I have always found it difficult to see whether a young horse is good or not. I have to sit on it and feel what it’s like. It then takes a few days for me to determine whether or not it’s a horse for me. I am not that interested in pedigree and in contrast to many riders I am also happy to ride mares. It completely depends on the specific horse and the feeling I have when I am sitting on it.”
Horses aren’t Edward Gal’s only interest. Despite bordering on surpassing the designated time for our interview to end, he leans back in the sofa and explains:
“I love dogs. We have seven, although we only take three home, the rest stay at the stables overnight. We no longer live at the riding centre. As our days grew busier, we felt the need to have a home to go to. But we only live two minutes away from the stables.”
Edward Gal is usually sitting on the first horse by eight o’clock in the morning and rides into the afternoon. He might teach for a few hours after that. The couple finish the days at the stables by 6 p.m. on weekdays.
So, how has his status as a superstar changed his life?
“Of course, I am happy with my success and I make sure that I enjoy it for as long as it lasts. But I have friends outside of the equestrian world and it’s important for me to know that there is more to life than riding. When I was young horses were my life, but there is more out there: family and dinners with good friends. We have often had to decline social events because we’ve had to be at a show. Our family does understand now but it’s been difficult to explain in the past.”
Commenting on rumours of his love of being in the garden, Edward Gal says:
“I am not crazy about gardening … but I do love to mow the lawn perfectly, I love to make the lines completely straight and identical.”
Edward Gal is known for his impeccable style. When he rode into the arena on Tortila in De Steeg during the Dutch National Dressage Championship in 2009, he was wearing a tailor-made grey dressage jacket. The jacket almost caused as much of a sensation as his convincing win.
“I like to do things a bit differently, providing it’s done with style. You won’t see me wearing orange in a dressage arena – that would be too much. Less is more! But perhaps at a show … I think dressage should be beautiful to look at. There shouldn’t be too many distractions.”
The right equipment is generally important, and Edward Gal loves to shop:
“Unfortunately I don’t get much time to shop, though maybe that’s a good thing since I’d quickly acquire too much stuff. I never know what I’m looking for when I’m shopping but I often come home with shoes and jackets. We have a rather large wardrobe, it’s amazing. Hans-Peter also loves to shop, but the difference between us is that I keep everything. Hans-Peter has a rule that if something hasn’t been used in a year, it needs to go. Then we give it away… which is why I sometimes wonder where something is, only to find that it’s been thrown out a long time ago,” he says, laughing.
When quizzed about whether he would ever consider designing his own riding collection he is not entirely dismissive:
“I love nice clothes. I won’t rule out that I’ll design my own range of riding clothes one day, but it will require a lot of time and effort, so it will have to wait a little while longer.”
Edward Gal always wears an orange watch, orange boxer shorts, an orange Hermès belt and a gold guardian angel pin when he’s riding in the dressage arena.
“I am a little superstitious. I’m not sure how it started. A ride went well so I wore the same clothes the next time. But I don’t have any rituals. I don’t have to put my left boot on before the right one or anything like that.”
And is the guardian angel pin on his dressage jacket purely symbolic?
“I believe that we all have a guardian angel. I don’t believe in coincidences – things happen for a reason. When one door closes, another one opens. I have often experienced making an important decision without being able to explain how it came about. It has then become clear later on. In those situations I believe I’ve received help from somewhere else.” •