“The French crowd has been crazy!” : Christopher Surbey at Longines Masters of Paris

Christopher Surbey and Carnaval
Credit : Scoopdyga

Monday 05 December - 14h30 | Ian Clayton

“The French crowd has been crazy!” : Christopher Surbey at Longines Masters of Paris

The Longines Masters of Paris, part of the Masters Series of Los Angeles, Paris & Hong Kong, took place this weekend on the outskirts of the French capital. Just a couple hours before riding with Carnaval against the world’s best show jumpers in the CSI5* Grand Prix on Sunday, Canada’s Christopher Surbey spoke to GrandPrix-Replay at the huge Paris event. With some great results this year, including a top ten finish at the previous Masters of Los Angeles this Fall, the 29-year-old was soaking up his European experience before heading to next weekend’s CHI in Geneva, Switzerland. Surrounded by star riders like the United States’ McLain Ward and Kent Farrington as well his compatriot Eric Lamaze, the 239th-ranked rider in the world discussed among other things what it takes for someone like him to join the international elite of his sport.   

 - “The French crowd has been crazy!” : Christopher Surbey at Longines Masters of Paris

Chris Surbey and Cavarola in Friday's Speed Challenge
Credit : Scoopdyga

How has your weekend in Paris been so far?
Good, it’s a beautiful competition here, probably one of the best I’ve ever been to! They have a super group of riders and I’m fairly inexperienced at the 5-star level, so I’m excited to go today. But it’s going to be a challenge, that’s for sure. 

After winning a 3* speed class in Sacramento in October on Cavarola and finishing ninth in the CSI5* Speed Challenge at the Longines Masters in Los Angeles recently, you didn’t get the results you were looking for here on Friday night despite a promising start to the weekend [37th in the Laiterie de Montaigu Trophy CSI5* and then eliminated in the Speed Challenge]….
I was actually really looking forward to that speed class on Friday night, but I think the atmosphere got to Cavarola a little bit. The crowd here is different than anything I’ve ever experienced — they were screaming at you to go faster, yelling and hollering. They encourage us — it’s a spectator sport here for sure! — and I think she was a little bit overwhelmed with all that. So it didn’t quite go the way we wanted,  but it’s a good experience for her to get in and do it, and I think she’ll be better for it next week in Geneva. 

One would guess that you probably like that as a rider, when the crowd is so into it and so passionate. But obviously the horses might respond differently….
Yeah, for sure — you never know. It’s probably something that most of the horses have never been exposed to, and some of them handled it and a lot of them didn’t [laughing]. You need the right horse. It’s a lot of pressure to go that fast on a course of this size in this atmosphere with these jumps. It’s hard on them.

When something goes wrong, even on the first jump, how do you react and respond to that as a rider? 
I always like to be forward thinking, so whatever’s happened you can’t really change it now and it’s best to just pick yourself up and stay focused on the task at hand. I mean, you make a plan for the whole course and sometimes you have to adjust the plan but I think everybody at this level lets it go really quick. You take a moment after and assess what happened with your team, but you can’t dwell on it — you make a plan to move forward. There are good moments and bad moments.

You talked about your horses learning things, but are you learning here as well?
Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s a new environment, it’s a higher level, so you learn some different techniques about handling the course for example, because a lot of these things I haven’t seen before. Adapting to some of the related distances between the jumps, especially at this size — it’s a bit different than what I’m used to, so it’s just a question of making adjustments to your technique. Everything is such a fine line at this level: a little bit too much of one thing or not enough of another and you make a fault. So I think that’s generally why you see the people with the most experience, they make it look easy — the line they take, the pace they carry. It’s also so horse-specific, so you have to just get to know your horse and make adjustments. Some horses are better inside or outside, some are better in speed classes. You just learn as you go.

"He’s a little bit afraid of the horses, well a lot afraid!"

He’s a little bit afraid of the horses, well a lot afraid! - “The French crowd has been crazy!” : Christopher Surbey at Longines Masters of Paris

Chris Surbey's home base, Spruce Meadows in Canada
Credit : Grandslamjumping - Wikimedia Commons

Making the move from the national to the international level of show jumping, from 1.50 m to 1.60 m, what is that like?
It’s a big step. It doesn’t seem like much when you think about the height of the jumps. For the horses it’s not a huge difference. But I think just from even the 3 and 4* level to the 5* level, the courses are much more technical — particularly here in Paris because, indoors in the ring, there’s not a lot of space. So everything comes up quite fast, and if you have one little blip it can snowball quickly. Some of the jumps here are very delicate, so it doesn’t take much to knock them down — they’re quite narrow and very light material. There’s not a lot to back the horses up, so they have to be quite careful all on their own. And again, the atmosphere here is unbelievable. The French crowd has been crazy, so that overwhelms some of the horses and it makes it a little bit harder to focus.

Why did you want to come here, to Paris and to Geneva next week, when you’re usually riding in North America, like on the World Cup qualifying circuit?
I think it’s important to immerse yourself at this level. You don’t get better sitting at home, so when an opportunity like this or Geneva comes up, an opportunity to compete against the best riders in the world you take it. Maybe sometimes you have to be a little bit realistic with your expectations at the beginning, but at the same time we’re not here just to participate. We’d like to be competitive, and whether that’s realistic or not, I suppose, doesn’t really matter to me. I’m happy to be here and give it my best try. 

You had mentioned the atmosphere in a big competition like the Longines Masters of Paris. How does this experience help a horse?
I think for horses, the more venues you go to, the more experience they get, the more competent and comfortable they become in all different types of environments. So my horse — I’m very lucky — he’s a super horse, he’s really scopey, he tries really hard, he’s very brave. The biggest difficulty I have with him is in the practice area; he’s a little bit afraid of the horses, well a lot afraid of the other horses! [laughing] So it’s sometimes hard to try and find your rhythm because he’s always kind of on the look out for the others — if they stop in front of him, he turns the other way or he canters toward them or something like that. So he actually prefers being in the ring, which is nice, because he’s by himself and he’s comfortable out there. But for me, it’s getting the experience to ignore overcome the hiccups and still stick to our plan and get our rhythm going in the ring.

For example, with my horse, I’ve only done two 5* Grands Prix before and I’ve actually done them both with this horse [Carnaval]. One was outdoors, and one was indoors. And so he’s relatively inexperienced as well. So there’s a lot of unknown factors for my horse and I for a competition like the one this afternoon. But there’s only one way to get experience!

Show jumping’s a sport where the margin of error is so small, so is this kind of elite indoor event particularly beneficial to improve your technique?
For sure, I think in North America we don’t often see indoor shows at this level, or at least not that I’m used to. So it’s a whole different ballgame inside. I’m fortunate enough at Spruce Meadows where we have huge tournaments — the best in the world for outdoors — with huge grass rings. But we’re a little more familiar with that kind of terrain. So to come here inside, it’s like re-learning…

A Small Step Towards the Olympics?

A Small Step Towards the Olympics? - “The French crowd has been crazy!” : Christopher Surbey at Longines Masters of Paris

Credit : Scoopdyga/COSTABADIE Pierre

The international travel aspect of high level show jumping — flying to Europe with your horses for example, but also traveling across North America — seems like a challenge. What is that like?
It’s unbelievable! It’s taken a bit of getting used to, for sure. This year I’ve been at different horse shows almost every week, which I think is typical for a lot of European riders but in North America we’re not as used to that — we kind of do a circuit then take a break, then go again. So it takes getting used to, arriving at a new venue with horses you didn’t ride the week before. But I’m fortunate that my team at Spruce Meadows helps me keep them going while I’m away with other horses.  I’ve had a really big year with a lot of travelling and shows, and I’m fortunate to have enough horses that they can have some breaks. So they’re still kind fresh, and I just get to keep going, which is great!

And you’re increasingly traveling on planes with them?
Yeah it’s crazy, it’s really cool…

You start to have a lot of horses at this level, don’t you?
It’s hard to do it with too few horses because it takes a lot out of them to do a tournament like this. And you just never know — some of them get hurt or they’re just not feeling well and you need to swap around. So you need to have some options, I think, to sustain a year like we’ve had. 

Back in North America, the United States is obviously an equestrian superpower, but Canada has done well over the years with a much smaller population. What do you attribute that to?
Yes, Canada’s been very strong in show jumping. We’ve had a few individual and team Olympic medals over recent years, like with Eric in Beijing and more recently in Rio with Eric again and the team a close fourth [losing the bronze to Germany in a jump-off — editor’s note]. We won the Pan-Am games the last time around. I think we’ve got a really great group of riders, and even more importantly a great group of supporters behind those riders. Spruce Meadows has of course also been one of the biggest reasons for Canadian success too. The vision of Spruce Meadows was to bring the highest level of the sport to Canada and Calgary, and it’s done that. 

And you’ve grown up in that in that world-class environment…
Exactly, it’s a world-class facility. They did five 5* tournaments last year, which is a lot, and so it really gives riders and horses in North America a chance to get exposure at that level without having to travel to Europe. 

How have people like Ian Millar and Eric Lamaze influenced you? Ian Millar only missed his 11th Olympic Games this summer because his horse had an infection…

They’re big inspirations for young Canadian show jumpers. They’ve done a lot in the sport over a long period of time — they’ve sustained themselves at the highest level. And so they’re definitely people you look up to. Yeah, unfortunately [Ian] just missed the window with his horse this year which was too bad. 

And you can’t just replace a top horse like that in that situation right?
Yeah, particularly for the Olympic Games, it’s such a difficult event, it really speaks to the amazing athleticism of those horses that did go and compete. It takes a special horse for a Games like that. 

Are the Olympic Games an eventual objective?
Oh yes, of course, I would love to do that. And I think being at a 5* like this weekend is maybe a small step in that direction, but you have to get exposure before you go to something like that, and it’s just a question of having the right horse at the right time. 

Christopher Surbey finished 38th in the Paris Grand Prix on Carnaval, and will soon be en route for Switzerland — see their ride (with the more hushed Grand Prix crowd) below.

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