By: Cecilla Lonnell
Committed and doggedly determined, the Swiss Olympic champion does not enjoy the media hype. He just wants to be the man he has always been – a man devoted to his horses; a man who has reached the top of his profession without pretense.
When Steve Guerdat was 20 years old he succeeded Rolf Göran Bengtsson as stable jockey at Stal Tops, one of the world’s most profitable dealing yards. It was a plumb job. Ten years later, in September 2012, after having won the individual gold medal at the London Olympic Games, Steve succeeded the Swedish European Champion as World No 1. In between times, he rose like the Phoenix not once, but twice.
Guerdat Mini Me
When Steve was two years old his father Philippe went off to the Los Angeles Olympics to compete as a member of the Swiss jumping team. Dad returned with toddler-sized jodhpur boots, which Steve insisted on wearing 24/7. His mother would take them off after he had gone to sleep.
“If your father has done the Olympics you want to do them too,” Steve has said of his early ambitions.
“You saw already when he was fourteen that he was a real talent,” said former World Cup Champion Beat Mändli, who trained Steve during his teenage years. “At the same time, he wanted to learn, and work hard. That is what you need to reach the top, both talent and the will to work,” Mändli concluded.
“I wanted to do the same as my dad,” recalls Steve. “He wanted me to understand how much hard work is needed, and asked Beat if I could go to his place in the summer holidays. Beat is known for working very hard,” Steve said.
Steve Guerdat: Sick and Tired
The first time he came back from Beat’s yard he was sick for ten days. “I was so tired,” said Steve. “I had never had to cook for myself before, did not speak any German, and the days were long,” Steve explained. “But Beat and I got on very well and the next holiday I wanted to go back. My mum was a bit taken aback and my dad just looked at me, but I learned so much that I felt it was worth the hard work. I went every holiday after that until I left school.” Later, Ben Maher was a student for three years at Mändli’s. He, of course, also won Olympic gold in London, European team gold and individual silver in Herning, in August, and became World #1 in September. Needless to say Mandli’s mentorship is much in demand.
Decision Time for Steve Guerdat
The Guerdats are a show jumping family, and the horses, at least when Steve was young, were their pets. “We had the horses as other families have dogs,” Steve explains. Even today he admits he spends more time with his horses than he does with people. However, as for many male riders, soccer was a rival pastime when growing up. “There was a time when I almost gave up riding,” Steve confesses. “During the summer it was no problem, but in the winter when you came home from school in the dark it was hard to muck out and ride alone, especially when you could have been with your friends having fun. At the same time if your parents were so kind that they let you have your own horses, you had to take care of them. There came a point when every weekend there were both matches and competitions. Then my parents said that I had to choose, and I chose the horses.”
Opportunity Knocks for Steve Guerdat
Steve rode in five Junior and Young Rider European Championships on the Swiss team and won two team bronze medals. The second came in Copenhagen in 2002 just after he turned 20. A short time afterwards, Steve had a call from Jan Tops (the former Dutch international rider and founder of the Global Champions Tour). Rolf Göran Bengtsson had resigned after Tops sold Rolf’s top horse Pialotta, just ahead of the World Equestrian Games in Jerez and Jan needed a new rider.
“It was a great, great chance for me to take the next step up to senior international level,” Steve says.
Experience, is how he summarizes what he gained at Tops’ yard.
“My riding I learnt from my father and Beat, but then you need experience and that I gained at Jan’s.”
During his time in Valkenswaard, Steve soared up the world rankings (he eventually reached the Top Ten when he was 26). After three years at Stal Tops, he left; like his predecessor, after a horse deal. The horse was Tijl van het Palliterland, which he had turned from talented problem horse to Grand Prix winner.
“There were reasons Jan was unhappy with me and reasons I was unhappy with him. It was only a question of time when I would be leaving and Tijl was the last straw. Jan and I have different values in life,” Steve says.
He refers to that period as “a dark year.”
Allegiance to the Flag
A few months into 2006, bereft of mounts and an income, Steve’s friend, Gregory Wathelet told him that Ukrainian owner Alexander Onishchenko was setting up a Ukrainian team, recruiting riders from other countries, including Wathelet from Belgium, Casio Rivetti from Brazil and Germany’s Caterina Offel. Later the same year the Onishchenko “team” came famously close to a sensational team bronze at the WEG in Aachen, with Steve’s father as chef d’equipe. But Steve wasn’t a part of that story. Two months after joining the Onishchenko stable he quit. It was shortly before the start of the Nations Cup season in La Baule, France, when Onishchenko asked Steve to sign his contract to ride for the Ukraine. Steve then realized he could not face giving up his Swiss citizenship.
“I told Mr Onishchenko that he had done everything right but that I just could not do it. I could not imagine standing on a podium and not hearing the Swiss anthem. Mr Onishchenko said fine, but then you have to be gone tomorrow,” Steve recalls. For the second time in a few months he was without a job and without horses.
“I didn’t even have a car so my brother drove from Switzerland to collect me in Belgium. I didn’t know where to go next. I could, of course, stay with my parents, but I had no horses,” Steve says.
Fortunately, he was invited by family friends to ride their young horses.
At the same time his groom Heidi (who is still with him) had asked for a break.
“I was going to shows alone without a groom and eight horses,” remembers Steve, who was grateful for the chance to compete, but missed the top level.
Well, he didn’t pine for long because less than a year later he was on the podium at the World Cup final in Las Vegas, third to his old mentor Beat Mändli, who won with Ideo du Thot. Steve’s mount Tresor (by Papillon Rouge), was owned by watch maker Yves Piaget. Piaget was an old friend of Phillippe Guerdat. They had met by chance, sat down for a coffee, talked about Steve being short of horses. Piaget decided to buy one or two, but not with a big budget.
After Tresor came Jalisca Solier. The mare had been around – with Penelope Leprevost, and briefly also at Stal Tops. Steve spotted her in Switzerland. It was a perfect match. With the French-bred mare (Alligator Fontaine- Jalisco B), Steve almost immediately won the biggest national Grand Prix in Switzerland. Then, in December, the pair won the World Cup qualifier in Geneva. A few months later, Steve came to the attention, thanks to the intervention of the Swiss Federation, of multi-millionaire financier and polo patron Urs Schwarzenbach. He offered Steve room at his exceptional yard at Herrliberg, near Zurich.
Apart from his horse owners, father Philippe, mother Christiane and brother Yannick, Steve’s team also includes three-time European Champion Thomas Fuchs as coach.
Fuchs plays down his role, “with such a good rider there are only little things during competitions that I am responsible for,” he told one Swiss magazine. “Steve is a completely outstanding talent, a completely gifted rider. He would not stop (riding) for ten million Swiss francs, because for him, horses and riding means everything,” Fuchs confided.
Steve Guerdat Looking in the Mirror
Steve’s view of himself is quite modest. His level of dressage is, for instance, “far from the very best riders, like Ludger Beerbaum and Markus Ehning. Their dressage level is perfection. I just want the horse to feel good underneath me and that we have an understanding. I can’t really explain what I do, I just ride.”
For five years Jalisca and Tresor kept Steve near the top of the world rankings. Jaliska was particularly well admired and won for him an Olympic team bronze (in Hong Kong) and team gold (Windsor Europeans). In 2010, Nino entered his life.
A Freak Called Nino
Nino du Buissonets (by Kannan) was bred in France by Jean-Luc Deroubaix. In 2005, Nino was a finalist in the French Young Horse Four Year Old Championship in Fontainebleau. The next couple of years he collected top placings in young horse classes at home and abroad.
Two years before the London Games, Thomas Fuchs noticed the now German-owned nine-year-old competing with Tim Holster at a show in Germany.
“I jumped maybe ten fences,” recalls Steve of the first time he tried Nino. “They were not high, maybe one meter, but I felt straight away that he had everything. I really wanted him.” Nino was bought for Steve by Mr Schwarzenbach and arrived in Zurich in the autumn of 2010.
“Nino is a horse with a very strong personality, he’s a bit special, a freak,” says Steve. “That means that he can be the best in the world but also sometimes a challenge.”
Nino’s dam had a difficult temperament but an impeccable performance bloodline with Narcos II-Alme and Uriel. Maybe that’s where Nino gets his stubborn streak from (for he has been known to throw in a refusal now and again).
“In the beginning it was about me getting to know him and him getting to know me, and agree,” Steve emphasizes the final word.
Olympic Glory for Steve Guerdat
A year into their partnership and the rewards started rolling in. A smattering of top ten places included the runner-up position in the Stuttgart and Helsinki World Cups and a win at the Global Champions Tour event in Rio. But 2012 proved to be their golden year, although they were beaten to the World Cup title in Den Bosch by just 64/100ths of a second four months before the London Games.
Has becoming Olympic champion (the first Swiss rider since 1924) made a great deal of difference to Steve?
“I hope it hasn’t changed me, but it has changed everything around me,” he says. There are many demands on his time – but along with the rather annoying hype, comes the financial benefits of lucrative deals with Honda and Rolex. But Steve is definitely not in it for the money; horse dealing is not even a sideline.
Along with the fame also comes the weight of expectation. “There are a lot of people in Switzerland who come to the shows and go home in the evening disappointed because they expected me to win. But I was too slow, I had fences down, I wasn’t good enough.
“I would say it’s one of the most frustrating parts of being a show jumper,” he explained. “I can’t dominate my sport like a tennis player can dominate his sport or a sprinter can dominate his. When you’re the fastest, no one beats you on your good day. But with horses, ninety per cent of the time you go out of the ring a loser.”
Horses are a great leveler. They don’t allow “you to get a big head.”
It’s not just winning the gold medal, of which one feels there will be more to come, that allows Steve to keep on doing what he does best and what he loves to do most. Self-belief and dogged determination fused together with an enormous talent have made him successful.
“I did it for me (before Olympic gold) and I keep doing it for me now,” he says. “I don’t try to think too much what other people expect from me.”