The chef d’equipe of any team plays an important role in its success. While we follow the performances of our favourite horses and riders in the show ring, so much more is happening behind the scenes. To learn more about what the role of chef d’equipe entails, The Warm-Up Ring’s Editor, Jennifer Ward, talked with Canadian Show Jumping Team chef d’equipe Mark Laskin about the challenges and rewards of this unique position.
A veteran of the Canadian Show Jumping Team himself, Laskin enjoyed a successful grand prix riding career and was a member of Canada’s gold medal team at the 1980 Alternate Olympics in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, riding Damuraz. Named assistant chef d’equipe in 2009, Laskin succeeded Terrance “Torchy” Millar as chef d’equipe upon his retirement following the 2012 London Olympic Games.
What do you like most about the position of chef d’equipe?
I don’t ride myself anymore so this role allows me to stay in touch with the sport at the highest level. I’m a very competitive guy and it satisfies that part of my personality. I love being involved with all of the competitions that we go to. I still get very excited walking into the iconic venues of our sport like Aachen, La Baule, Rome, Spruce Meadows, and all of the championship sites, and always feel lucky to be involved as I am. I also like managing the strong personalities within our team. It has its challenges, but it’s certainly never boring.
With so many events taking place around the world under normal circumstances, how do you keep up with the results of our Canadian athletes?
With the technology now it’s pretty easy. I can watch the live stream from events where we have riders competing. The athletes send me videos on WhatsApp, and we have a lot of phone calls. I get a notice every week from Equestrian Canada (EC) that tells me which athletes are jumping where in the world. I target them specifically; if there’s someone I’m really interested in tracking then I reach out to them directly. I speak to them before, during, and after competition. We discuss beforehand what the plan is for the week, what classes they’re starting in, and any adjustments that they are making during the week.
How do you select the riders for a Nations’ Cup team? Is the process any different for a major games team?
My only agenda is having the best team possible representing us and to be as successful as possible. We want to win every time out. I also try to balance the goal of winning with rider development; it’s important to give up and coming riders an opportunity but I am always still looking to have the strongest team of available riders.
When selecting team members I look at metrics; I make sure I’m very up to date with everyone’s results. I came up with a metric that I call ‘Usable Nations’ Cup Scores,’ which is simply four faults or less. We track the percentage of rounds that are Usable Nations’ Cup Scores at 1.55m and 1.60m and I rely on that data considerably. If you have four faults in a Nations’ Cup that’s not a bad score. You need other people to have zeros of course, but everyone is pretty happy if a team member has four faults or less as their score.
Availability also plays a role. Our riders are scattered all over the world and we don’t have the biggest budget for travel. For example, for the Nations’ Cup in Rome, I will usually select people already based in Europe. Team chemistry is also a consideration; I know who gets along and who doesn’t. I like to have positive people on our teams; we’re looking for fountains, not drains! I also know all of the various programs well and I know who is going to show up 100% prepared to compete. I consider all of those things.
For a major games, there is a different method of selection. We have a High Performance Committee. I am the Chair and the other members are Gail Greenough, Mike Lawrence, Beth Underhill, and Marni von Schalburg. I select the committee members based on a slate of five names put forward by the riders and five names put forward by the EC Jumping Committee; I pick two names from each slate to make up the committee.
The High Performance Committee is involved in choosing teams for the Pan American Games, World Equestrian Games, and Olympic Games. Everyone watches as much as they can and stays current with how our athletes are performing. We meet and talk regularly about how things are playing out. Leading up to a major games, we have a deadline for making our entries. Prior to that deadline, our committee will meet and have a vote on who the team should be. The majority rules and if there’s a tie, I have the tie-breaking vote. In all of the time I have been involved with the Canadian team, there has always been a clear consensus among the committee.
What is the pathway from the youth divisions up to the senior team level?
We have a youth program that Beth Underhill ran and now Dayton Gorsline is heading it up. I talk to them regularly about who is coming up the ranks and might have the ability and potential to be a future team rider. Sam Walker, for example, is someone I have had an eye on long before he was eligible to ride on a senior team.
The younger riders go through that process of being part of the youth program and once they turn 18 years old, they become eligible for a senior team. They need to make the step from the junior/young rider events into the senior ranks. I wouldn’t put someone on the team who hadn’t ridden in some regular FEI grand prix classes and had some results. We identify them early, then it’s up to them to make the step up.
There are certain Nations’ Cup events that I prefer the rookie riders to make their debuts in. It doesn’t always work that way though. In Sam’s case for example, this winter he was going to start his senior team career in the Nations’ Cup at the Winter Equestrian Festival, not in the five-star Nations’ Cup at Deeridge. Sam had some early positive results in Florida and everyone involved with him thought he would be ready to handle a debut in a five-star so we gave him that opportunity at Deeridge. He did pretty well! (Editor’s note: Walker posted scores of four and four in his Nations’ Cup debut in the $290,000 Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ of the United States of America at the CSIO5* Palm Beach Masters in Wellington, FL.)
Owners play such an important role in our riders’ ability to be successful on the world stage. Do you think Canada does a good job attracting and engaging its owners? Is there anything you think we could be doing better?
We do recognize the owners of every horse that competes in a Nations’ Cup. They receive a letter and a token of appreciation from us such as napkin rings and wine bottle coasters. I think it’s appreciated and the feedback we have received from the owners since we started doing this has been positive. I think that was a big step. I personally always try to acknowledge any owners that I can while I’m at the shows. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter how good the riders are, they wouldn’t be riding on our national team without the owners or their horses.
How do you interact with the high performance athletes on a day-to-day, week-to-week, or month-to-month basis?
We all have phones so calling is easy. We send text messages. In a normal year, I would see most of them regularly at the competitions. I cycle through the top 20 Canadian riders on the world ranking list and try to communicate with them at least every couple of weeks. We talk about what their plans are, where they are going, how their horses are going. It’s regular and consistent. The riders at the top of the list I talk to even more regularly.
How have your athletes been coping with the lock-down due to COVID-19, whether they are based in Canada, the U.S., or Europe?
I think everyone wants to be out competing. Luckily, most of our athletes had access to great facilities so they were working like they normally would, they just weren’t able to get to a show. Our horses go pretty hard during a normal season so I don’t think it hurt for them to have a bit of a break. In our sport, we were lucky to be able to continue training at home. We weren’t locked out of our practice facilities like other athletes in other sports were. We were able to keep practicing our craft.
Do you think the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics was beneficial or detrimental for Canada?
I don’t know if it was either. I think most of our Olympic riders’ horses, those that had a real chance to be on our Olympic team, are in the prime years of their careers. It would be nice for those horses to get another year of experience but, having said that, no one from our rival countries are competing much either. There seems to be more competition happening in Europe now so maybe those horses are getting more experience and will be better prepared come next year. It’s really difficult to say.
What is Canada’s plan for participating in the Longines FEI Nations’ Cup Final in Barcelona scheduled from October 2 to 4?
We would like to go. I’m monitoring the COVID situation in Europe closely. I hear that the FEI really wants the Final to happen. Unless there is a major issue in Spain, at this point we’d like to try to go. It’s complicated because you want to go with your best group to a competition of that significance which would entail bringing some of our North American-based riders which could be difficult and might not be possible. The rug could get pulled out from under us at the last moment. You would hate to get riders over there and then have them cancel the event. It’s not such a big deal for the European teams but for us it’s a consideration. If the Final happens, we are going to make our best effort to send the best team possible.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Well, my least favourite part is all of the administration! There is a lot of paperwork and a lot of meetings with the Federation and our other funding partners like Own The Podium.
From the point of view of chef d’equipe and the sport, any time you select someone for a team it means you are not selecting someone else. As excited as one rider is to hear that they have been selected, the other rider who was not is disappointed. It’s hard to have those conversations.
Is there anything else about the role that you would like to share?
I consider one of my main jobs to be that of a general manager. I need to get the right riders on the right horses in the right place at the right time. That’s crucial and it’s probably the most important part of my job.
Riders ask me all the time how they get on a team. I tell them it’s simple; it’s all about jumping clear rounds in true 1.60m classes. Do that consistently and I guarantee you’ll be noticed and you will get your opportunity to ride on the team!
Since I started doing this, 45 different riders have represented Canada on Nations’ Cup teams. I am very proud of that fact. The year 2009 was the first time I ever took a team to Europe on my own; I went to the Promotional League Final in Barcelona with Jonathon and Amy Millar, Jenna Thompson, and Keean White as my first team. Riding for your country is the greatest honour in our sport, and it’s what every rider aspires to. It’s been extremely gratifying to help make some of those goals and dreams happen for our riders over the years.
Athletes who have represented the Canadian Show Jumping Team under chef d’equipe Mark Laskin:
Laura Jane Tidball