Corro Stories

Potential New Faces & Extra Preparation: The Impact of Postponing the 2020 Olympic Games

By Kimberlyn Beaudoin

When the official announcement was made to postpone the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, athletes from around the world had to head back to the drawing board. Unlike other sports, when it comes to equestrianism, it’s not just themselves riders have to think about. It’s also their horses that need adjustments to the game plan, too. For some, the extra year brings the stress of aging, along with another year of strengthening, soundness management, and then intense competition after a seemingly long break due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

Image of Karen Polle and With Wings, courtesy of KTB Creative Group

For Japanese show jumper Karen Polle, the 2020 Olympics Games were going to be even more significant. Getting to represent her country at an Olympics would have been an honor in itself, but with the Japanese flag waving on center stage, Polle was looking forward to spending the summer competing in Europe, and then getting the chance to pilot her 17-year-old KWPN gelding With Wings (Larino x L.Ronald) in Tokyo.

“Originally my plan was to fly to Europe with my horses in mid-April, after the Winter Equestrian Festival. We had two shows planned with Team Japan, qualification events. My plan was to compete at those and then wait to see where everything stood after that. When we found out that everything was cancelled we ended up cancelling the flight for the horses, and I ended up staying in Florida.”

Though the announcement came as a bit of a surprise, Polle took the opportunity to look on the bright side of a darker time. “For me it was quite a shock when everything was cancelled,” she explained. “Obviously, this is an unprecedented situation, but we had a very defined structure. To suddenly have that structure wiped away was difficult, and I felt a little lost. But, I saw an opportunity, one that gave me an extra year to improve my skills and become that much better of a rider. I think that it was good for me to get one more year to improve and become better, so that hopefully a year from now I’ll be even more prepared to try for a spot on the Japanese Olympic Team.”

Image of Karen Polle and With Wings, courtesy of KTB Creative Group

Though her main mount, With Wings, is 17-years old, Polle does have two other horses (Kino and Jet Run) that she feels could be strong contenders if age proves to be too much for the gelding next year.  “In every sport, timing is a huge element,” Polle acknowledged. “It’s about the timing of a goal and working backwards, trying to peak at a particular moment. I think of not only the age of the horses, but also, I’ve been reading about the Olympic gymnasts and other athletes like that. When people or animals happen to be at their peak, it’s always dependent on timing. I do believe that this break is going to affect the outcome of the Olympics and the structure of the teams more than we realize. But, we’ll never really know.”

As far as the future goes, things are still uncertain, but Polle is taking it day-by-day and is hopeful that Wings will stay fit and ready to head to Tokyo in 2021. “I would really love to go [to Tokyo 2021 with Wings],” she said. “He still has the potential to go, but on the other hand he is getting older. I think I am just going to really take it day-by-day. I will continue to keep him as fit, happy, and healthy as I can, and really enjoy having him.”

Image of Karen Polle and With Wings, courtesy of KTB Creative Group

Polle concluded, “Wings has gotten me to where I am and I don’t think I would have achieved anything without him. I am lucky to have some other really special horses, both in my past and in my string now, but I think Wings has really gotten my riding to a level where I feel like anything is possible. I see how everything has started with him, and I am so grateful to him for that. I’m not sure what will happen, but I’m looking forward to seeing what next year brings!”  

On the west coast, USA Eventer Tamie Smith is also taking the extra year in stride, primping and perfecting the performance of her Tokyo hopefuls. “I had three, potentially four, different horses in mind for Tokyo 2020,” Smith stated, “but, Mai Baum was definitely the strongest contender. In any kind of Games situation, the goal is to have multiple horses, so that way you can get named on one, and short-listed on one or two of the others to guarantee your spot on the Team. Mai Baum would’ve been my sure shot-pending all of the things that do pend, including current form, soundness, and all of that.”

Image of Tamie Smith and Mai Baum, courtesy of White Fence Equine Photography

Smith and the 14-year-old German Sport Horse gelding (Loredano x Rike) owned by Alexandra Ahearn, Ellen Ahearn, and Eric Markell have been competing successfully together for five years, recently earning a Team Gold Medal and helping the United States Eventing Team claim their Olympic spot at the 2019 PanAm Games in Lima, Peru. “I started riding ‘Lexus’ in 2015 but I’ve known him for quite a while,” Smith explained. “He’s always been a spectacular horse. Before I was given the ride, he was ridden by his owner Alex. She won quite a bit on him, and then she came and trained with me, so he’s been with us for over seven years. He’s a once in a lifetime horse, he’s sweet, he’s a little quirky, but in all of the right ways. He’s a funny prima donna, and a little bit of a princess. You look at him, and his exudes confidence. I have mirrors in my dressage ring and he watches himself as he goes by. He’s very cocky, which I don’t mind. He has a reason to be! He’s also a super kind, sweet, loving horse, too. He was a little girl’s horse, and he acts very much like that.”

The duo also put in a successful Nations Cup performance last fall at Boekelo, qualifying themselves for Tokyo 2020. “It was a great showing,” Smith said, “I really think he would’ve been one of the horses to go. We’ve connected over the last year, and I think that’s become more obvious over time. For people who don’t understand horses, they don’t understand how they read our minds and our body language, they feel what we feel without us even realizing it. When I get on him, he can hear what I’m thinking. That wasn’t always the case, it’s been a process of us developing this partnership, but now it feels like a hand in a glove. I don’t think I had that with him until the end of last year.”

Though the postponement has come at a time when Smith feels Mai Baum is in his prime, she’s not worrying about the extra year. “It [the postponement] is definitely going to help us perfect what we’ve been doing,” she stated. “He’s such a great horse and is fantastic in all three phases. We’ve been working on physical strength, getting him stronger. At the top Olympic level, it comes down to millimeters. I’m in a place with him now where it’s those millimeters that we’re improving.”

Smith continued, “To the naked eye it wouldn’t be that obvious, but I’m working with special trainers to make the show jumping phase that much better. It’s not that there are huge improvements that need to be made, but it’s millimeters that need to be adjusted. That’s such a huge piece with sports at the top level. We’re just going to keep him primed and ready to go. That horse is in the prime of his career, and so now it’s just getting to those details that will make him first, or ninth. When you’re competing against the best in the world, that’s what it comes down to. If all goes to plan, the plan is still to get to Tokyo with him.”

Image of Jaimey Irwin and Donegal V, courtesy of KTB Creative Group

In Canada dressage duo Tina and Jaimey Irwin are also utilizing the extra year to spend more valuable time working with their mounts. The Irwins own and operate Team Irwin Dressage out of Stoney Lake Equestrian Center in Ontario, Canada, and typically spend their winters in Florida competing in Wellington. Tina, who was named the 2019 Equestrian of the Year for Team Canada after earning a Team Gold Medal and Individual Silver Medal at the 2019 PanAm Games in Lima, Peru, is focused on getting the 14-year-old Oldenburg mare (Donnerschweg x Frelherr) Fancy That ready for Tokyo 2021, after digesting the initial Olympic postponement.

 

Image of Tina Irwin and Fancy That, courtesy of KTB Creative Group

“In the beginning I was like ‘what am I going to do?’ because Fancy was pretty fit,” Tina explained. “I definitely had to rethink my plan. Now I’m focusing on keeping her fitness up, for sure, and I do run through the test movements, the areas that I’ve had difficulty in, and I make sure that I am keeping her fresh and up to date in those departments. If the shows do start next month, or the month after, I want to be ready. I’m keeping that in the back of my mind, and not having a complete holiday.”

Tina and the mare have had a lengthy partnership, with Fancy That initially arriving at Team Irwin to be sold. “We started working with her and advertising her,” said Tina. “The first day in the arena Jamiey got on her and she wouldn't go. She just stood there. He tried to push her forward and she wouldn’t move, and that was kind of interesting. It went up from there, things got better. I ended up riding her and really liking her. Our team coach for Canada at the time was Markus Gribbe, and he saw me with her at a clinic. He said to me ‘this is a really cool horse and I think you need to try to keep her.’ Coming from him, I thought that really meant a lot, and got the wheels turning.”  

Image of Jaimey Irwin and Donegal V, courtesy of KTB Creative Group

Jaimey and his 12-year-old KWPN (Johnson TN x Gribaldi) dancing partner Donegal V don’t just have their sights set on Tokyo 2021, but on Paris 2024, too. Jaimey said: “This winter, Donegal got back into the ring, and he’d been building from test to test. He was developing extremely well, and he got a lot of exposure in the International Ring, at the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival. We also started getting some help from Robert Dover this winter, which was great, and I was pleased with everything. We were working our way to the top through this winter season.”

When the pandemic hit, the Irwins packed up early and had to head home. “It was disappointing,” Jaimey commented. “I thought we were really on a roll. I was really excited to come home and continue that, and hopefully to go to the Olympics.”

Despite disappointment, there’s usually a silver lining. “For us,” Jaimey continued, “the extra year is great because we have Donegal’s age on our side. He is so young for a Grand Prix horse. He could be a contender for this Olympics next year, and another in his future as well. He’s been doing everything extremely well.  His age is suitable to move toward the next Olympics too, so for us it was ok either way.”

Image of Tina Irwin and Fancy That, courtesy of KTB Creative Group

Unlike Jaimey, Tina believes that this will be only chance for her to go to the Olympics with the Irwin and Rocket One, LLC owned Fancy That.  “I’m also trying to look ahead, Tina noted. “I’m focusing on the younger horses too, for what the next 5 years will bring. Fancy is 14 this year, and our goal, as well as the owner I have a partnership with, Susan Jones, was always to try to go to the Olympics. It’s still the goal, but after that we will probably sell her. So, I won’t have the chance for another Olympics with this horse. We do have more wonderful horses coming up that we’re excited about, so the future is bright.”