Like the horses and riders for whom they build show jumping tracks, course designers dream of the ultimate challenge. Whether the Olympics, the World Equestrian Games, or the many other prestigious shows throughout the year, that is the brass ring they aim to grab.
Peter Grant and Joey Rycroft are no different.
Both originally hailing from lower mainland BC and integral parts of the Spruce Meadows’ team, Grant and Rycroft, who run Pacific Equine Sport Ltd. in Calgary, are the only two Canadian designers taking part in the inaugural winter season at the brand new World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida.
The Winter Spectacular 2021 began in January and runs for 12 weeks. Grant, an FEI Level III designer, is featured in Week 5 from Feb. 3-7, while Rycroft, an FEI Level II, follows up from Feb. 9-14. They both got this opportunity through their acquaintance with Jon Garner, the former Equestrian Canada Director of Sport and one-time competition manager at Spruce Meadows. Garner is now the WEC advisor on FEI matters.
“I’m super excited to go to this place; it looks amazing,” said Rycroft, widely considered one of the world’s emerging talents. “I know from watching the past couple of weeks, they seem to have a fairly good group of competitors, just the most amazing facility and jumps for us to work with as designers.”
Grant also credited American designer Bobby Murphy’s input for the call.
“For those of us in the industry, we’ve known that it was on the horizon for a long time,” Grant said of the WEC. “The owner-slash-organizing committee had a ‘little bit’ of a background. They run a venue in Wilmington, Ohio, and it has a reputation for top-quality as well. So we all knew the venue would be quite nice. But from words from friends, it’s exceeded all of our expectations. The jumps, the arena, the decorations … it seems to be a real gem for the sport and to be down there for the first year is a real honour.”
For Grant, it’s a continuation of a career that has spanned 14 years. After getting a start in Langley at the Thunderbird facility (his dad was the show farrier), he has paid his dues largely at Spruce Meadow’s Calgary venue where he has designed four CSI5* courses. It’s there that he has been influenced by a handful of mentors: Leopoldo Palacios, Anthony D’Ambrosio, Alan Wade, Werner Deeg and Guilherme Jorge. “If you mention one,” he laughed, “you have to mention them all!”
Rycroft, who received his FEI Level II four years ago, also lists Palacios and Wade. “I’ve done so much with Alan,” he said. “He’s brought me to the Dublin Horse Show twice and I’ve assisted him in his World Equestrian Games. For Leo, I’ve been working for him since I did jump crew and as a course designer, he’s helped me. The wealth of knowledge I’ve been able to gain from those guys has been invaluable to me.”
Just as riding techniques have evolved, so has the art of putting together a course that is challenging, yet fair.
“For me, I try to incorporate as much of the classic elements of show jumping,” said Rycroft. “That’s one thing that has really been instilled in me, how important our history is while integrating the modern pieces of course design, with the more delicate fences and things like that. I like to incorporate a full picture, if you will.”
“I think the conditions for each event have become more standardized which makes the horses more comfortable,” pitched in Grant, who will tackle the international ring at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington prior to Ocala. “Also the level of riding. There’s debate within the sport that we’ve lost boldness and to a certain degree I agree with that. But also, the courses and the technicality we’re setting: for instance, getting ready for the three-star I’m going to do, we’re getting 22- and 23-year-old kids and they might not be in top contention for winning, but they’re holding their own. They’re infinitely more technical and involved courses than we were seeing 20 years ago.”
Rycroft, who will assist Grant at PBIEC, says he’s actually benefited – work-wise – from the pandemic.
“With people not being able to travel internationally, I got bumped up into grand prix [designing] that I wasn’t necessarily going to have prior. In the same token, losing the team of Spruce Meadows … [the Summer Series] is like having a five-week course design seminar every summer,” he said of the valuable learning opportunity of exchanging ideas with some of the best international designing minds in the sport. “I never really realized how much I would miss that until I didn’t have it last year.”
Grant, who has assisted at the FEI World Cup Finals and a couple of World Equestrian Games, is looking at the big carrot – the Tokyo Olympics – with fervent hope that the Games will go on this summer.
“Fingers crossed,” he sighed. “For the athlete, the amount of work they have to put in to make it to an Olympics is special and is a different level. But it’s similar for us. We may not have the high-end skill of riding, but you put in the time and effort.”
He will be working on Spaniard Santiago Varela’s team. “He’s had a huge influence on my style,” said Grant, amending his earlier list of mentors. “We only work together once a year, but he’s an extremely brilliant course designer so it was an honour to be invited on his team. The Olympics was a career goal. When I first started, it was a dream and a fantasy and then I started thinking ‘maybe I have a chance.’”
Adding one more challenge for the course designers will be the controversial addition of teams from countries that don’t necessarily have the experience for such a high-profile tournament.
“You have certain tools in your toolbox,” he explained. “But I think the concern is differentiating the top-end people ‒ putting enough meat out to separate one, two, three as opposed to separate the top eight and let them jump off. It’s tough. In the back of my mind I have some ideas. It’ll be interesting to go there with Santiago, who is one of the top minds of his generation, and see how he plans for it. I think I’m going to learn a lot as well.”