- Santiago Varela designed the show jumping course at the Tokyo Olympics.
- He has to make quick decisions about the course on the day of the event.
- He tells journalist Clara Murray: “The life of horses and riders is in my hands.”
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I started show jumping at a very young age. Once, when I was competing in the children’s category at the Spanish Championships, I approached the course designer and asked if I could be in the arena to help him set up the fences. That’s when my career as a course designer began.
I began designing at the Madrid Horse Show from 1984 until 1998. I then worked my way up through Fédération Equestre Internationale – the international equestrian governing body. I designed various Grand Prix, World Cups, and regional championships.
Climbing the ranks in the FEI is very structured. I am Level 4 – the highest.
This is my first Olympics as the course designer, but I was involved with the Rio 2016 course as a technical delegate, assisting with setting up the course and arranging walk-throughs with the competitors.
When I was first asked to design this course, I decreased the pressure in my other career. I decided when I was young that I would have two, having studied economics and worked in the infrastructure business.
I started some new projects when the Olympics were postponed, possibly cancelled. In September 2020, I became CEO of AGR-AM, a renewable energy asset management arm of Ardian.
So now, I am working very hard. Having this passion for horses means that if I need to sleep a little less, or work on the weekends, I’ll do it.
Many times I spend all my holidays with horses, not family. I’m lucky that my wife, daughter and son all understand perfectly that they are my passion.
When I first start to design a course, I sketch it out on paper with simple lines. It all needs to flow – the most important things in this sport are rhythm and pace.
A course should challenge the horses, but they need to be able to jump it naturally. The tests are always there for the riders, not the horses.
My team has built around 60 fences but we designed more than 200 jumps that can be arranged in thousands of combinations.
We have tried to respectfully represent Japanese culture. Many people said we should use manga characters, but we couldn’t as they are copyrighted.
We have been working on the courses for three and a half years but many decisions like the exact height and width of the jumps will be finalized in the arena.
We will need to consider the weather, floodlighting and ground conditions. Many times, you’re walking the arena and, for whatever reason, you feel something needs to change.
We don’t have time to test the jumps in the arena. The final course is only put together on the day. We can test parts of the course or individual jumps by secretly incorporating them into other competitions.
Once you’re in the Olympic arena, it’s like a melon, you open it and eat what you get.
If I make a mistake, I won’t know until the first horse goes round. Then I have to see it 50 more times as the other riders go one by one.
Once, at the show jumping World Cup in La Coruña, I got a distance wrong. There was one extra stride in a double jump. The horses were landing too far from the second fence after jumping the first, which threw off the rhythm.
I stayed up all night watching the videos to analyze where I went wrong.
The life of horses and riders is in my hands.
I need to keep my mind calm to take these decisions under pressure. Sometimes there are only 20 minutes to make changes. Having a team to help is great, but, as the course designer, I have to be ready to take responsibility.
Working with horses helps to keep my mind fresh and relaxed. People ask how waking up at 4 a.m. on the weekend to start building courses from 6 a.m. is relaxing. If I’m honest, I also don’t understand it.
My only worry coming into the Olympics is to do my best. There are thousands of variables and you can’t control what happens in the arena. Even the top riders make mistakes. Nothing can be expected.