Written by: Pamela Young
Show jumping’s ‘nice guy’ has found happiness doing what he loves.
Some people are just born lucky; others make their own luck. This past May, Harrie Smolders achieved his life’s ambition – after a decade of hovering in the FEI world ranking’s top 25, the “nice guy” of Dutch show jumping reached the pinnacle: World No. 1.
Harrie took a fairly pragmatic route, starting out on a pony on the family farm, dabbling in dressage and eventing before locking in on show jumping. Seventeen years ago he won his first international medal as a Young Rider and then in 2002 secured a prime position as stable jockey for one of Europe’s foremost horse dealers. In a trading yard, great horses come and go (he rode Beezie Madden’s Authentic, for example) and sales take precedence over personal performance goals.
But good things come to those who persevere. Sixteen years on, Harrie still commutes daily to Axel Verlooy’s stable in Grobbendonk, but his status is such that now, in addition to developing horses for others, he can concentrate on doing his own thing – not with just one super-talented horse, but with a dozen.
What is a typical week like for you?
From Thursday to Sunday I am nearly always at a show. From Monday to Wednesday I try to take my children to school. I find that important, because I am so often away from home. Then I go to the stable, which is about a 45-minute drive from home and ride the horses and train my pupils. In the evening I go home, check my mail, look at the planning and spend some time with my family.
How many generations of your family have been horse lovers?
My parents bred horses, just for fun, not to make money. My grandparents were farmers and had horses to work with on the land. My father also rode in quadrilles and competed in dressage, jumping, eventing, and driving competitions at the rural level with one and the same horse for 20 years! My earliest memory is riding Smurf, the pony I took over from my sister.
Can you identify a turning point in your career?
When I finished high school I was 18 years old and wasn’t sure what to do. I was either going to study economics or riding. So my father suggested that I go work at a stable for three months to find out if I liked that. Those three months at the stables of Johan Heins (former European champion) turned into four years. When I won my first 3* grand prix when I was 23 years old, I thought that I might succeed in having a successful career.
Were there sacrifices made along the way?
Not really. Riding is my passion; it doesn’t feel like work. The only sacrifice I have to make is that I miss seeing my children grow up. I try to see them as much as possible, but I am away a lot.
If you could relive six months of your life, when would that be?
I am grateful for every period in my life. I am grateful to my parents for giving me the opportunity to find out what I wanted in life when I was 18. Before then, I hardly left the village; I knew nothing about the world outside.
Horsepower and an ultra-competitive nature aside, is there another ingredient that gives you an edge?
For me it is a complete picture, not only competitiveness. You need a good team, good management, good horses, perseverance, and discipline.
How would you describe your character?
I’m very passionate about what I do and very committed and I like to plan ahead. I am very impatient, but with horses I have all the patience in the world.
If life hadn’t taken you where it has, is there another profession that would have enticed you?
I would have studied economics or anything else that has to do with economics.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
Home. That is where my wife, my children, and my family and friends are. I travel so much, it is always great to be home.
Where would you most like to go that you haven’t been?
I would like to see India and Japan. My son Pim once said to me out of the blue: “Dad, you have never been in Romania,” but I don’t think that is a country I want to go to.
When and where did you last go on vacation?
We don’t have much vacation, but sometimes we try to spend some time together in between shows; for instance, in between the LGCT in Miami Beach and LGCT in Mexico City last spring. After Mechelen we went to Texel [a tourist island] in the Netherlands for a few days.
Do you have a health and fitness regimen?
I romp with my sons when I come home! I already do a lot of physical work, so no, I don’t really have a fitness regimen. If I began to feel like it would influence my riding, I would certainly start one.
Can you recommend a book or movie from the last year?
I mostly watch movies on the plane, most I don’t remember. However, I liked the movie Moneyball. It was interesting to me that a coach was using computer-generated analysis to compose a team. It makes me wonder if this could be done in equestrian sport; use data and statistics to compose a jumping team. I like sport-related biographies generally, so I would recommend the Johan Cruijff and Louis van Gaal (soccer players) biographies.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I don’t really have one. Once a year my whole family and friends go to the fun fair in the village. Too many beers, up too late, but great fun!
If you had a life lesson to share with us, what would it be?
Follow your passion and when you can do what you love that much every day, you have a great life.
If a genie were to give you three wishes, what would you wish for?
Health for myself and my loved ones. That my success will continue. That I will be able to maintain as good a team as I have now for the rest of my career.
Money or medals, what’s more important to you?
Neither. To be able to do what you like most is, for me, real happiness. Money is an instrument to reach your goals and medals are the result.
What’s on the horizon for you in 2018?
To qualify for Tryon and in Tryon to qualify for the Olympics.
Do you have a burning ambition?
To become number one in the world! Oh, I already am. [laughs]
Just before I went to Johan Heins, I helped someone in the village breaking horses. He asked me what I wanted to become and I said ‘I want to become the best rider in the world.’ And he started laughing…