The Master Builder

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Luc Musette sets the bar high for the world’s top showjumping events. We met up with the course designer mastermind to find out how a Grand Prix class comes to life.

Photography MICHAEL HEMY Text SUSANNE MADSEN / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.9

Luc Musette is glued to his laptop when we arrive at the glitzy Port d’Hercule in Monte Carlo to meet the course designer par excellence. From his desk in the judges’ office – overlooking the arena of the Longines Global Champions Tour and the house-sized yachts lined up in the harbour – Musette is busy putting the finishing touches to the evening’s Grand Prix du Prince de Monaco. Earlier in the morning, he had been told that one of the key sponsor jumps needed to be moved because of TV camera angles, so it was goodbye to his carefully mapped out original design and back to the drawing board for the Belgian designer. With only a few hours to go before the prestigious CSI5*, it’s clearly one of those moments where 32 years of course building experience comes in quite handy.

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“I have a white piece of paper with nothing on it – and then I start. Sometimes it’s easy and it’ll take five minutes. Sometimes it’s more difficult and it’s three or four days,” Luc Musette says of his design process, flashing a smile. We’re sitting in the cool shade of the VIP area, and if Musette was feeling the pressure moments earlier, he’s now the picture of relaxed cool. “For me, course building is never repetitive. I draw a lot of inspiration from the size and location of the venue. During the day you have to be careful and think about the position of the sun. And here,” he says, gesturing out across the compact arena nestled tightly between the majestic backdrop of the palace-filled mountainside and the glittering harbour, “the venue is really small, so my options are a bit limited. I have to compose with a small ring in mind and really think about how the lights are positioned this evening when it gets dark.”

As one of the world’s most sought-after course builders and a key part of the Longines Global Champions Tour for the past five years, Musette has spent decades working at the pinnacle of the showjumping circuit, challenging top riders and horses and thrilling the crowds with his superb tests. Young talent and US National Champion Reed Kessler is one of his many fans: she calls his courses “outstanding”. While horses and riders may be the ones to steal the spotlight in terms of glamour and exposure, the sport would be pretty much non-existent if not for clever course designers like Luc Musette who consistently dreams up exhilarating new tests. “I build a complete story, a spectacle, a mise-en-scène,” Musette says of his role. “I not only have to build a course for the riders and horses, but also a show for the public and the guests.”

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Known for technically challenging but very natural courses, Musette is not a fan of overly complex tests. “First of all, a course needs to be fair for the horse. One of my main goals is that the horse is able to really express itself and showcase its skills, potential and qualities. The course has to be harmonious but with some tricky spots. That’s sort of my speciality. And if you can manage the tricky spots, then you’re clear.” As the fifth generation of a horse-mad family and the brother of Jean-Paul Musette, the retired national show jumping chef d’Equipe for Belgium, Musette says his career choice was a happy accident. “I wouldn’t say it was planned, but I used to ride a lot when I was younger, and I was always involved in the sport, so it was circumstance really that brought me to the job.”

From all his courses, is there one that stands out as The One? “The €1 million Grand Prix in Rio last year,” he says, referring to the Athina Onassis Horse Show in Rio de Janeiro, which was won by Olympic individual gold winner Steve Guerdat. “I was really proud of that. It was very suspenseful with only four in the jump-off. It was horsemanship course designing. The horses could express themselves without pushing beyond their limits. You have to be really respectful of the horses. They’re out at the shows every weekend. If you put a really high and wide jump, for sure there are going to be mistakes on that. But that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for something respectful and harmonious. It was only a 1.45 metre course, but the technical part was difficult.”

These days Musette no longer rides, but he is heavily involved with equestrian pursuits through Ecole d’Equitation Musette, his family’s riding school in Hoeilaart, Belgium. “I divide my time half and half between that and course building. Course building is sort of a hobby,” he says, laughing. Watching the world’s top riders interpret his work at all the biggest international events, does he have any favourites? Musette has high praise for Edwina Tops-Alexander and Ian Millar, but it is Olympic UK gold medallist Nick Skelton and Big Star that he rates as the most technically accomplished combination. “Big Star and Nick are fantastic. Nick has the perfect riding attitude and he’s an extraordinary horse builder.”

As it turns out, Nick Skelton also happens to be quite the Luc Musette fan. “Luc is one of the best course builders in the world. He is very talented and gets good results with very fair and horse-friendly courses,” Skelton says, “and you can always talk to him.”

It’s not uncommon for riders to talk to the course designer before riding a class. “It’s usually about the distance or – if the time is short – how they’re going to measure the time. But I always have to be careful that I’m not serving the interests of a specific rider,” Musette says, his eyes twinkling. Tonight’s Grand Prix course is sure to prompt a few questions during the course walk. “You have to give them one or two spots where they can win time, and that’s hard to do in a small venue like this, so I’m not setting a very short time,” Musette explains.

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In the evening, as the fierce Riviera sun sets behind the mountain and Monaco’s royal family take their seats above the arena, a tanned and suited Musette is in full conductor mode, orchestrating the set-up of the Grand Prix. With the course paperwork rolled up in his back pocket and his foldable measuring stick in hand, he is dashing between fences with his team to make sure distances between triple combinations, oxers and verticals are measured to the millimetre. “Every class is important, but the Grand Prix really has to be perfect,” he notes. With two rounds and a jump-off, it’s quite a mouthful for the 49 riders and their mounts. But when the bell sounds and the Longines clocks start ticking, Musette’s work is far from done. Now is the time to observe and make notes for future courses.

At rider number 17, we’ve had one clear in the first round, not least thanks to the last obstacle: a seemingly simple vertical sitting on a tricky and narrow turn off the rail. It’s the kind of course that requires a lot of thinking and some astute judging of lines, turns and distances. Only three combinations make it through to the jump-off, and an elated Richard Spooner and Cristallo end up taking home the trophy ahead of William Funnell and Edwina Tops-Alexander.

So what advice does Musette have for aspiring course builders? “Keep it really simple. You always have to question yourself and put yourself in a position of wondering every single day.” For hard-working Musette, the next show is just around the corner. “For me, it’s not a job,” he muses. “Take this show in Monaco, for example. I’m here in this mythical place and it’s a little bit like a holiday. I’m always on the road, but it’s my passion. It really is my passion.” •



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