Top riders secretly think: I’d also like to take a vacation like Edward Gal

It was a short post on Instagram on April 22nd. “I’ve been competing for a long time and it’s always been so much fun,” wrote dressage contestant Edward Gall. “But after the Tokyo Olympics, I felt like I needed some rest. I love to ride at home and train my horses. I would like to continue doing it peacefully this year.”

Edward Gall (52) has been at the top of international dressage for years. He won national championships, world championships and European championships individually and with the national team. With the wonderful horse Totilas he was successful in 2009 and 2010. However, his announcement did not cause a huge stir. What motivated Gall and what does his decision mean for Dutch dressage?

The decision came as no surprise to Alex van Sylvhout, the national coach of the Dutch dressage team. “I’ve seen it coming for a while,” he says. “It became increasingly difficult to get Edward into competitions. The fun was missing, the motivation.” till when? Two or three years. Of course Gal asked about it, says Van Sylvhout, “But then, what do you say when someone doesn’t feel like it? Does it have to make sense?”

Iris Boelhauer, chief sport director of the KNHS Equestrian Federation, was informed ahead of the Gale’s announcement. When asked if it took her by surprise, she replied: “Surprise, surprise … Let me say I find it high quality when a great athlete looks in the mirror and concludes that he can no longer achieve physical and mental success. The perfection required to perform at the highest level” . There is hardly any Persian athlete who has been “for so long and so consistently at the absolute top of the world,” says Boelhouwer. “Only a driver like IJsbrand Chardon comes close.”

Norwegian Refugee Council Talk to jockeys, trainers, horse breeders and the referee. Almost all of them think that it is difficult to compare equestrian sports with other sports. Where we’d be surprised if Rafael Nadal quits tennis for a year, or Frenkie de Jong from football, it’s no surprise that a rider would take time off, however unfortunate he may be for the sport. They say equestrian sport is a stressful sport for several reasons.

“I think a lot of riders secretly think: If I could only do what Edward does,” said former top riders Emek Schilkens Bartels, now national coach for Colts and Raising. She’s never taken time off by herself, but when she got pregnant in 2015 and gave birth to her son Job the following year, she automatically took a few months off. “It was very relaxing,” she admits. “Honestly, I didn’t miss competitive sports.”

“In equestrian sport, we’re not talking about exhaustion,” says breeder and trainer Leonus van Lieren, who has trained dozens of horses at Grand Prix level and led, among others, Amazons Dinga van Lier and Thamar Zwistra. “We just say: I’m tired. A lot of people in equestrian sports are tired. Then it can help to do something else. That’s why I did construction work for a while. Then I started on the roads for three days and I can get back on it.”

Long working days

While most other elite athletes end their careers in their mid-30s, or in their extreme forties, equestrian riders are spending much longer. Japan’s Hiroshi Hoketsu (80), for example, has competed in three Olympic Games in 44 years. He was on the long list to be delegated to last year’s Tokyo Olympics. “Equestrian sports are often played for life,” says Zwistra, an equestrian rider. “NOC-NSF Parachute Sports sometimes sends me emails asking if I’m considering a second job. I have to laugh about it, because equestrians don’t know it. When they finish racing, they go to teaching or trading. In principle, They continue to practice their sport.”

“Our sport is a way of life,” said former dressage coach Ryan van der Schaft. “A Formula 1 driver doesn’t have to modify his car nor does a tennis player have to modify his racket. But horses are living creatures. This goes much further than that. Riders spend all day working with their horses, in all sorts of ways. In fact, they are so much more than just athletes”.

Not only is this sport played for a long time (in years), but the riders also work for long days. “They get up very early in the morning and train eight to 10 horses a day,” says Martin van der Heyden, a former KNHS technical director who is now a coach and jury member. And he says they should, because they are not only training their best horse for competitions now, but also the horses they hope to make the best combination with in the future. Moreover, in most cases, jockeys do not own the horses they ride. “This creates stress, because owners want their horses to compete regularly.”

Because equestrianism is an expensive sport, riders do other things in the evening besides it, such as teaching and trading. To be a successful racer is a common saying, you have to be a successful entrepreneur. Van der Heijden: “KNHS research among CEOs shows that riders take very little rest. I don’t know a rider who goes on vacation for more than a week. Senior riders who are well staffed can take a longer vacation, but they often choose to get back on their horses quickly” .

Cyclists say that what doesn’t help them either is that their sport doesn’t include a winter or summer vacation. Equestrian sports are practiced all year round. Zoestra: “I can imagine you think that at some point: I just saw it, I want something different.”

Total US, Edward Gal’s horse.
Photo: Robin van Lonkhuijsen / ANP

High expectations in the sky

Gal’s Instagram post raises a lot of questions. The questions he and his partner Hans-Peter Menderhood and his teacher Nicole Werner don’t want answered. His earlier statement is sufficient. “It’s not the most exciting,” Werner wrote.

People who know Gal intimately indicate that he has been under pressure in recent years. He (and many other riders with him) are under increasing criticism on social media for alleged animal abuse. Animal rights group PETA has twice sued him for allegedly riding his horse in a controversial “free lap” race. Gal was acquitted both times.

“you do not need rocket scientist To understand that those lawsuits did not leave Edward out in the cold,” says KNHS Director Boelhouwer. But was it the last straw? “I won’t go into that.” Horse dealer Nico Witt, a close acquaintance of Gal: “I think he can ignore that kind of Criticism because he knows it doesn’t make sense.”

In addition to public pressure, there is also pressure generated by Gal’s success with Totilas. Schellekens-Bartels: “If you’ve got the best horse in the world under your ass, and you’ve been number one for a while, expectations remain high. There are riders who can enjoy competitions with a smaller horse. Not Edward. He wants to be the best. Always.”

“With Totilas he won everything there to achieve,” says national team coach Van Selvhout. “It is not easy to reach the same level afterwards. You have reached the highest level that can be reached and if you are a perfectionist, or someone who loves to win, you will want to try it again. Edward has been the driving force behind the Dutch team all these years, but it was It’s hard for him to comprehend that this new experience hasn’t existed for a while.”

At the Olympics in Tokyo last summer, Gall finished sixth in the freestyle final with Total US, a descendant of Totilas. He was satisfied with the result afterwards, and said that he had no illusions that he could win. “The sport was at a very high level in Tokyo,” said Francis Verbeek, one of the jury members. “Sixth place is a good achievement. Gal rode a young horse with almost no competition experience.”

Verbeek calls it a “huge loss” that Gall is missing in August at the World Cup in Herning, Denmark. He “gave the experience” and proved that he could peak at the right times. “The Dutch dressage summit is not that wide,” Verbeek says. “If Edward falls and a few horses are slightly injured, the flow becomes weak.”

National team coach Van Silvhout cannot deny that there are now fears of losing his constant value and ‘ideal team member’. He doesn’t assume that gal won’t be back because he’s enjoying the life he’s living now so much. “And if that’s the case, he’ll cry,” he says.

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