The distinctive maroon hunt coats of the Qatari Equestrian Team riders have been everywhere on the European show circuit this spring. Led by their Dutch coach, the infallible Jan Tops, they are a close-knit bunch that train and work together nearly every day of the year. Most successful among them is Bassem Hassan Mohammed, a 28-year-old up and coming star who sits on his horses with a soft hand and a quiet focus.
Bassem has set several records since debuting on the international show jumping circuit in 2011 – he became the first Qatari rider to win a Longines Global Champions Tour Grand Prix, in Monaco in 2014. He was a member of the Qatari team at the 2014 FEI World Equestrian Games, the first time his country fielded a team at a WEG. In March, Bassem was on the Qatari team that won the all-important Arab league Nations Cup in Abu Dhabi, a victory that earned Qatar its first-ever qualification for an Olympic Games. And of course, he holds the reins of Palloubet d’Halong, the chestnut gelding that made headlines around the world as the most expensive show jumper in history in 2013, when he was purchased for $15 million dollars. Palloubet is just one top horse among a deep string of talented jumpers that Bassem rides, and that depth has helped him rise to FEI World No. 23, where he sits as the highest-ranked Qatari rider in the world.
But the humbling part of show jumping is perhaps its best quality: even a rider who has access to the very best resources in the world will experience their fair share of ups and downs as they develop their career. Every week, Bassem works hard to maintain his ranking, improve his skills, and continue to put in top performances at the highest level of the sport. The Athina Onassis Horse Show in St. Tropez exemplified this for Bassem; on Friday, he rode The Toymaker to a flawless double clear and placed 3rd in the €91,500 Prix Julius Baer. But in Saturday’s €300,000 Longines Grand Prix, a single mistake with Victoria in the triple combination left him with four faults and a 22nd place finish. Bassem speaks with us about how he accepts the results –both good and bad–, the development of show jumping for his country, of working with his team, and of what the future may bring for himself and his horses.
Q: What is your background with horses, how did you become interested in the sport?
A: I started riding in Saudi with my family. My father is a trainer, so I started riding with him as a child. He is still a trainer in the Gulf region, and he supports my goals. From my beginning in riding there, I continued to move up and became more focused. In 2008, I jumped my first grand prix at a four star show. But I feel that I’ve only been at the big level, as a professional, for three years; the last two or three years is when the sport has become very serious for me, when I’ve been having good results at four and five star shows.
Q: How is the Qatari Equestrian Team structured, and how has it developed?
A: All of the riders on the team are based at a stables in Holland, and we train with Jan Tops. I ride every day. We all want to do well, and work hard in our riding, but we also we enjoy this life. We are always working to become better. At the shows, and at home, we are always together. We like training together, it’s good because we help each other all the time.
We have had some very good results, but our focus is on how we can become better as a team. For example in the Nations Cup in Rome [on May 22nd, where Qatar placed 7th], I think we did a very good job, ok we had small mistakes everywhere, so we didn’t finish high, but it’s just more experience that we need. You know, the Nations Cup isn’t like a normal grand prix, it is longer and we work together in it for the best result. We would love to do even better in this format in the future, but I think we did a good job in Rome.
Q: What is it like to train with Jan Tops?
A: It is very good. Always Jan trains us, both at the shows, and at home. He is a busy man, and he has a lot of things to do, but with all of the other things he has to worry about, he still makes the time for us. He makes sure that we are organized and ready for each week. That he does this, and that he’s always with us, it gives us great confidence.
Q: How does Jan give you and your teammates confidence in the ring?
A: Jan keeps us motivated, he always gives us the support we need and keeps us focused. He does this even when the results are not so good. Like in the grand prix at St. Tropez, I did not have the result I wanted with three rails down.
I was happy for Khalid, he was flying and had a very good result, but I had a mistake and didn’t ride a line well. But that is sport, and Jan has taught me that you have to learn from things like this.
Of course in the end, Jan doesn’t want to see this result any more than I do, but when there are mistakes in the ring, he says that I should not dwell on it, I should just accept it and move on. And of course he is only a little bit angry until I do well in the next big class!
But in seriousness, he will always tell you what he thinks and why. When you ride good he’ll tell you did good, and when you ride badly, he’ll tell you, you rode badly. For me, I think this honesty is very valuable and it keeps me moving forward.
Q: Do people in Qatar follow the sport? Is show jumping becoming more popular in your home country?
A: Yes, I must say that they start to follow the sport more and more. Ok, the big numbers [in show jumping] are here in Europe, but also, there are many good horses, and many good shows now on the Arab Tour. A few years ago, there were not nearly as many of either, and it was easy to compete in the Gulf region against smaller riders and horses. Now, it’s not so easy, but that is a good thing. In the last three years we have seen a lot of European buyers and riders come to the Gulf for the Arab Tour, and it has become a bigger and bigger tour. That said, the top riders still come in the summer to Europe, so as always, it is harder competition in Europe. For me, that is where I need to be, because one of my goals is to qualify and continue to compete at the World Cup Finals. And of course, since our team is now qualified for the Olympics, that is one of our bigger hopes, and we are training for it now. The best place to do that is in Europe.
Q: Can you tell us about three of your top horses, The Toymaker, Victoria and Palloubet?
A: Yes, The Toymaker is a new horse for me. Before we came to Europe for the summer, I found him on the Arab Tour, and did two shows with him on that tour before we brought him to Europe. I think he will become one of my best horses. Everyone always remembers him because he has no tail! This was because when he was with his previous rider, they wrapped his tail up with a bandage too tightly, and from then on he had no tail. So, now it is extra fly spray for him! Of course, this doesn’t affect his ability to jump – he is a super horse.
Victoria is a great mare, she likes to jump and I’m really happy to have her. She can be a bit slow when I rider her outside the ring and in the warmup, but inside the ring, she always goes.
And Palloubet, he is the one who will be going to the Olympics next year if everything is continuing to go well. Jan, he always makes a very good program for the very top horses we have. It was Jan’s plan that Palloubet jump in Miami, Antwerp, and Shanghai, and then he had a small break. This summer, he will do a few small tours, and then we will wait to see what Jan wants to do with him next. For this horse, we really carefully choose the shows for him, because he’s a superstar and our whole focus is to make sure he feels good. From there, the results will come.