After 40 years at the pinnacle of showjumping as one of the most respected horsemen, Michel Robert is galloping on. Here, the legendary French rider reflects on his philosophy on horses, life and the importance of having an open heart.
Photography MICHAEL HEMY Text SUSANNE MADSEN / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.9
Michel Robert is sitting in the sprawling, manicured gardens outside the pale pink Monte Carlo Bay Hotel, sipping a cup of green tea, looking out across the sparkling azure sea and talking about his daily yoga routine. “Every morning before I have breakfast, I do 40 minutes of yoga. I’ve been doing that for the last 20 years. Yoga is about communicating with body and spirit. You need mental and physical control,” he says, orange trees and palm leaves wafting softly around us in the Mediterranean breeze. “It’s the same with horse riding. If you’re blocked mentally, you’re blocked physically. Sometimes when I teach a rider, and there’s a problem with their position, it’s about changing their mind rather than their position. Then everything falls into place.”
Michel Robert is about as zen as they come. Whether he’s working at home with a top horse in just a head collar and a lunge, or sailing through a five-star class with the softest of hands, the revered French veteran exudes calm composure and a confident, peaceful air that immediately affects those around him. Place him in the middle of a chaotic showground for a portrait shoot, and his gorgeous grey gelding Nénuphar Jac is completely unruffled by all the commotion, licking Robert’s face like a big puppy. While he insists he’s not perfect, 64-year-old Robert represents the kind of rider ideal most aspire to. It’s not just his stacks of medals or his countless World Championship wins: more than anything, it is Robert’s remarkable horsemanship that makes him such a hero to riders around the world.
“At this point in my life, one more Olympic medal is OK – just one more, then,” he says, laughing. “But it’s not the most important thing. It’s important for me to win because the more I win, the more trust I instil in the people I teach. I would not be as credible as I am now if I didn’t continue to have this presence at the top level of the sport. If you have the medal, you have the proof. What I want is to try to help people understand the horse for the horse.” Since Robert can’t possibly accommodate the hundreds of riders who approach him for lessons, he has set up the Horse Academy, a comprehensive online educational platform where riders of all levels can watch video lessons on hundreds of topics, from lunging techniques to flatwork tips and leg positioning, all infused with Robert’s ideas on harmony between body and mind and his warm sense of humour.
Alongside his popular books and DVDs, Horse Academy is the perfect extension of Robert’s universe, the spirit of which, he says, is that “you have to be conscious of everything and affected by nothing”. Dressed in a pink polo shirt, dark blue shorts and a pair of blue suede loafers, the tanned show-jumper is having a chilled afternoon before he and Nénuphar Jac will canter into the arena for the Longines Global Champions Tour’s high-profile Grand Prix class later in the evening. In 2009, he won the Global Champions Tour final in Doha with Kellemoi de Pepita. “The Global Champions Tour has completely changed the vision and future of our sport, not only in terms of prize money but also media attention. This year, I don’t have a top horse ready to win it, but I’m hopeful. It’s difficult now because you need to go every step of the tour to get enough points,” he notes.
Growing up in the Dauphine region of France, Michel Robert’s first teacher was his father, a country doctor who drove around with a horse and carriage to see his patients. “My philosophy comes from my father. He tried to make medicine simple. When my father went to a family where someone was sick, he spoke with the family members to understand the situation before he dealt with the problem. If you go straight to the problem you don’t have the full picture, the panoramic vision. With the horse – and with life in general – I have the same philosophy. The problem you have now is never the problem. It comes from something else, an underlying problem. I always try to find that initial thing.”
While his first pony was somewhat unorthodox – “I rode a sheep with a saddle and bridle! And I jumped that sheep!” he laughs – working with horses was always in the cards. After competing in junior horse shows and dressage, 18-year-old Robert left home to do stints with several top riders, including French eventer Jean Sarrazin. The early 1970s saw Robert competing as a top eventer before deciding on show jumping and going on to win just about every title there is. At last years Saut Hermès at the Grand Palais in Paris, flocks of young fans were crowding around him for autographs before he entered the ring and won the Grand Prix GL on Catapulte, his spectacular and aptly named piebald mare. And Robert – in true no-big-deal style – jumped the prize-giving ceremony’s velvet rope during his lap of honour, doffing his hat mid-air to wild applause.
The charming Catapulte, he says, is “wonderful”. At the moment, he is excited about Oh d’Eole, a “good, good Kannan mare” with whom he won the CSI4* Grand Prix in Bourg-en-Bresse earlier this year. Another Kannan mare has also recently moved in at his idyllic yard in Fretignier east of Lyon, which he runs with his wife Dominique. “Mares are difficult but I like them. They have a lot of sensibility. I’ve had good results all my life with mares,” he says, adding: “With any horse, you need to show them that you are a friend. It’s the key to understanding horses.” Of all the horses he’s ridden, Sissi de la Lande III – the elegant bay mare he won individual silver with at the World Championship in The Hague in 1994 – stands out for him. “A special horse, very sensitive. No action, you’d just think about it and the horse would jump. Like telepathy.”
So is he a little bit of a horse whisperer? “I am the contraire, the opposite. The horse speaks to me first, and then I speak to the horse. I am a horse listener,” he says, smiling. At this point, our photographer Michael Hemy asks Robert if he can ask him a question. “I don’t know anything about horses,” Michael begins, before a grinning Robert interrupts him: “Oh, it’s all the same. All of life is the same. Whether it’s the children, the wife, money – it’s all the same approach and solution!” he says, with a big, bellowing laugh before Michael asks how he knows when the horse is communicating. “First of all, if you have an open heart and you are quiet, you’ll get the message. There is an energy before any message.”
Working with horses is an instinctive thing, he says. “When you first meet a person, the first impression always counts but sometimes it’s just a misunderstanding because the person reminds you of someone you knew before. So that’s what I’m trying to avoid. No judgements. You have to be as simple as possible and be completely aware of the situation.” Part of his strategy is riding bitless. “Sometimes when you get a new horse there is a lot of memory in the mouth of the horse. Someone’s been using draw reins maybe or it’s too strong. And for me it’s important to have a new contact.” In Robert’s opinion, people rely too much on gear today. “When you haven’t got a solution, you reach for a material one. Everything in the human life and the horse life is material. And material is nothing. Money is nothing, draw reins are nothing, the bit is nothing. But if you have a good understanding of the horse you have the solution.”
In the evening, Robert and Nénuphar Jac sadly clip the last fence in the first round of the Grand Prix, but they also enter to the biggest and most roaring round of applause all night. If there were an elegant timepiece trophy for Most Beloved Horseman, Robert would have been the one on the podium. And from his philosophical approach to life, it comes as no surprise that the Frenchman reads a wealth of Middle Eastern and Eastern philosophers, which prompts Michael Hemy to ask if he has a favourite philosopher. Robert leans back in the sofa, looking at us with kind and inquisitive eyes. You English want to put labels on everything. I read a lot of different things, he says, smiling. It’s a symptomatic answer for a man who seems totally in sync with the world around him. To Robert, the world doesn’t need a clarifying sticker. You just need to keep an open mind.
“I think it’s important to know that you can always change. At 40 you can still change. It’s never too late. Age is just a number,” he reflects. “Before, you always used to ask the old man in the village for advice because he had the knowledge. Then age became a negative thing. Hopefully we will get back to how it was. I find that I have a lot of 13 year olds who really listen to me when I’m teaching. They want to learn,” he says. And they really should. Michel Robert may be a horse listener, but he’s quite the rider whisperer too. •