Inside the Rolex Grand Slam: Breeding Uncovered with Olympic Medalist Grégory Wathelet

s’Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands – August 18, 2021 – A Rolex Grand Slam Grand Prix winner in his own right, Grégory Wathelet (BEL) is a top riders who has focused not only on competing but also breeding. Here’s what the Belgian had to say in this interview with Rolex Grand Slam of Showjumping.

What is your earliest equestrian memory?

My earliest equestrian memory was doing my first show, when I was seven years old. It was a local show near Liège, Belgium, where I grew up. The jumps were so small, basically just a pole on the ground, and despite needing help to get me around the course, I loved it.

What is the proudest moment of your career so far?

It would be easy for me to say the [Team] bronze medal at the Olympics. It was an incredibly special moment for me, my country, my team, as well as the sport in Belgium. But I think that the proudest moment of my career so far is my victory at the Grand Prix in Aachen in 2017. It was always a dream of mine to win, words could not explain my feelings when I won. Aachen is such a special venue, this year I have decided to compete there instead of the European Championships, that’s how incredible it is.

How did you get into the breeding side of the sport?

My father was a great inspiration, he was involved in the breeding side before me. I started four years ago when I bought my parents’ farm. I then had the facilities, with 70 acres of fields, 60 stables, and indoor and outdoor training facilities. As well as having excellent mares and stallions, I just thought I should try it, I then quickly I fell in love with it.

Can you summarise what the main elements of breeding of top show jumping horse are?

Breeding sport horses versus dealing is very different. For show jumping, we need quick, clever and careful horses. For example, at the Olympic Games, the top horses were able to rise to the challenge and succeed. For the dealing side, which makes up about 95 per cent of the horses each year, you need an easy and brave horse, that has good confirmation and is “flashy”, so they are easier to sell. I am just at the beginning of the process, so I am still learning.

I have competed most of the mares at a high level and at Grands Prix, so I know them very well. I have also ridden the majority of the stallions. This allows me to match them based on their attributes. Some breeders like to look at the history of the bloodlines, but I like to look at the present and the individual talent that they have.

Is the partnership between a horse and rider very important for when you sell a horse?

Yes, it’s extremely important. I really try to match the right horse with the right rider. Sometimes people ask me to try a specific horse, but I am very honest and say: “I don’t think that this is the horse for you”. I am not a dealing stable, and I really care for the happiness of the horse and rider. On top of that, if you want to build a business and ensure people trust you, this process is very important.

How long do you usually keep a horse before you sell it or break it in?

We don’t sell many foals; we usually sell two or three to cover some of the costs. I don’t like selling them when they are young, as I like to see how they progress and mature when they are two or three. Most will stay until they’re three years old, after we have started to free jump and break them in. As I only started relatively recently, this is the stage that many of the horses are at.

How many horses do you breed in a year?

This whole process is still very new to me. In my first year I bred about 10 foals, although this year we bred 34. Ideally, I would like to breed about 15 to 20. This year we bred more, as we had far more time to invest in the process due to the pandemic.

What is your ambition behind your breeding programme?

We would love to have one or more horses jumping at the top level. This could potentially be with me as the rider, so that’s very exciting. It is well known that breeding is very expensive, and there are so many disappointments. So, it’s important to have something to dream and work towards, to keep us going.

I’m very proud of our progress so far, I give 100 per cent in everything I do, and I have learnt so much over the last few years. I am beginning to really enjoy the breeding side of the sport. I have definitely become more involved and interested with the mother and father bloodlines, as before I was just concerned about whether the horse was good or bad.

Is there one horse you are very proud of breeding?

Nine years ago, my father and I bred a mare called Argentina, she is definitely the horse that we are most proud of. She was bred from a very “normal” mare, who just jumped one metre classes with an amateur girl, and an unapproved stallion chosen by my father. That unexpected combination led to the breeding of such an incredible horse, I like to call her “My Little Star”. She is now jumping 2* Grands Prix and won the Belgium Championships. I don’t know if she will jump 5* Grands Prix, but she is incredible.

How positive do you believe the Rolex Grand Slam is for the sport of show jumping?  

It’s so important to the sport. I think that the four shows are the pinnacle of show jumping competitions, they all have such great atmospheres, and have both VIPs and the general public in attendance, which is great for the sport.

Aachen and Geneva are definitely my favourites out of the Grand Slam shows. The venues and the crowds are amazing. I’ve won Nations Cups and Grands Prix at those shows many times, so they hold a very special place in my heart. In my opinion, Geneva is the best indoor show, everything there is perfect for the horses.

In your career/life who has been your biggest inspiration?

I have always been a huge fan of John Whitaker, how he rides and manages his horses. However, I don’t have one person that is my biggest inspiration. I’ve been inspired by so many people throughout my career. I watch, listen, and learn from the best of the best, and this helps me to continue improving and learning, in order to stay on top of my game.

What is the best piece of advice you have been given in your career?

My parents always told me you must be a hard worker, and if you do this, you will achieve what you want. It doesn’t matter if it is with horses or if it’s in the normal world.

What piece of advice would you give to someone young who is considering a professional career in show jumping?

I would reiterate the importance of the advice that my parents gave me. Even if you do not come from a horse background or have large financial backing, it is still possible to achieve your dreams, as long as you work hard. For example, Jérôme Guery and I both won medals at the Olympics this way. Of course, the way is long and hard, but the journey makes you stronger. Anything is possible with hard work.

Source: Press Release from Rolex Grand Slam

Photo: © Rolex Grand Slam / Sébastien Boulanger