It’s all about the flow: Olympic jumping course designer reveals secret

Course designer Santiago Varela is aiming for tracks that are fair and that horses can jump well at Tokyo 2020.
Image by Trine Melinda Vollan

Tokyo 2020 Olympic showjumping course designer Santiago Varela is aiming for courses that are fair for the horses, and that they can jump well.

The Spanish designer has just arrived in Tokyo where he will start preparing for the courses he will create for the eventing and showjumping Olympians, with riders with many different levels of experience.

“The course always needs to be fair for the horses. The modern horse is very clever and they are super athletes, but they need to be protected so we must always build a course that they can jump well,” Varela says.

“It is exactly the same when you are building for a World Cup Final or European Championship or World Equestrian Games, you present the same course for the rider ranked 1000 and the rider ranked No.1 and everyone in between. At the Nations Cup Final in Barcelona we had 19 teams, and not all of them are Germany!”, he says, referring to the strength in depth of Germany in the sport.

“Everyone who competes has achieved a high enough level to be there and it is in the nature of the sport that the best will come out on top. The course is the same for everyone, from first to last.”

Varela says good design is all about keeping the horse’s canter.

“It is fundamental, it’s the only way to play with the balance of the horse. Arno Gego (legendary German course designer) defined it well – ‘you find your line and the horses need to flow’. It’s only when you understand that then you can progress to becoming a top course designer. If you don’t allow horses to keep their canter and rhythm and flow through the course then they cannot jump the big fences”, he explains.

Varela made his name in the course design business through his connection with Madrid Horse Show where he was assistant course designer until 1998. He should have taken over the official role that year “but my wife had other ideas! We got married during the show and on the day of the wedding, I worked in the arena until 3pm and then rushed home to change and go to the church. So for that year, I had to remain as the assistant.”

Varela splits his time between his job as CEO of a company involved in the renewable energy sector and building tracks for the world’s best showjumper, but he competed during his teenage years. Amongst his heroes was six-time Olympian Luis Alvarez Cervera. “Everyone came to the show in Madrid when I was young, the British team, Eddie Macken from Ireland and I remember Neco (Brazil’s Nelson Pessoa) too.”

As a course designer, he reveals one secret. “The fences are only a relative issue, not a definitive issue. Distances are only numbers, and numbers alone don’t mean anything. A distance in a combination looks short or long depending on what happened before you arrived there. The riders need to interpret the course because it is a different test for every horse.

“They need to adjust their plan for a smaller or slower horse with a shorter or longer stride, but one thing they all have in common is that they need to keep the canter and keep the balance.”

Varela’s first course will be for the jumping phase of the eventing competition on August 2, and the last day he builds will be August 7 for the individual showjumping final.

“I’ll be free, and the happiest man in the world because I will have fulfilled a dream,” Varela says.

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