It would be an understatement to say that 2016 was monumental for 39-year old, Pennsylvania-based rider Callan Solem and her 14-year old Dutch Warmblood gelding VDL Wizard (Gentleman x Ahorn).
Their 7th place finish at the 2016 FEI World Cup Finals in Gothenburg, Sweden earned the American rider and her mount a spot on the coveted short list for the Olympic Games in Rio. After a tough summer tour in Europe, Solem didn’t realize the desired outcome of participating in the Games, but Team Solem capitalized on the value of that experience to finish the year out strong with a 2nd place finish in November’s $250,000 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Lexington CSI4* at the CP National Horse Show in Lexington, Kentucky.
In preparing for what’s to come, Solem doesn’t leave anything to chance when it comes to the well being of her beloved and honest mount VDL Wizard, whose management has always been carefully orchestrated by his dedicated groom, veterinarian, farrier, owners, and manager. With an arsenal of accomplishments already under her belt, it can be expected that the seven-time Nations Cup rider will continue to excel during the 2017 winter circuit in Wellington, Florida. Read on to learn more about Solem’s upcoming plans for VDL Wizard, her approach to the New Year, and the perspective she gained from her eventful summer in Europe.
Noelle Floyd: Going into the 2017 season, how do you plan on utilizing VDL Wizard’s strengths and weaknesses to enhance his level of performance, and what do you hope to accomplish with him in the New Year?
Callan Solem: He’s going to be 14 this year and I really think his condition is the best that it’s ever been. I thought that Lexington [FEI World Cup Jumping Grand Prix] was one of the best classes he’s ever jumped. I think he got more fit from jumping two rounds in the Nations Cups [in Europe] and that pushing him physically got him to a new level within his fitness, which I’d been trying to maintain. He’s a long horse so it’s taken awhile to get the muscling the way that it needs to be, but I’m really happy with it now. He doesn’t jump very often, so we do dressage work on the flat, and we try to keep him moving as much as possible during the day even when it’s low impact.
What we do this year will directly depend upon what is right for him. My first choice would be to qualify for the World Cup Finals in Omaha. He was so great last year and he’s such a good horse indoors, that’s certainly a strength of his. If that doesn’t work out then the $1 Million [Grand Prix at HITS] in Ocala would be my plan B. My owners Collin and Virginia McNeil have been amazing supporters and we have some exciting young horses together as well. So this year, we’ll be able to do a lot of building with the whole string, to try and get those horses ready to be good support for Wizard.
NF: How has VDL Wizard benefited from having a support system that wholeheartedly invests in his growth and prosperity?
CS: We all have our place in the group and we take it very seriously. I think we have learned a lot from the past year, and we are busy applying those lessons to make ourselves better. Wizard is very clear about a lot of things. It’s helpful to know what’s making him happy and what’s not making him happy, and we try really hard to have everything the best that we can for him. It’s easy to want to do the best for him because he’s a horse of a lifetime for me.
NF: What piece of wisdom did you gain from your tour in Europe?
CS: I wanted so much to be worthy of that experience, to be the very best that I could be, and I think that I got a little too desperate to be better and not quite enough of just believing in my system, believing in what I do, knowing what I know and trusting my horse.
I learned a lot about that. I think I came out of it stronger and I think Wizard came out of it stronger. We don’t go to Europe back and forth all the time and the travel was not easy on him, and if I had to do it again I maybe would’ve sent him a little earlier to give him more time. I think Wizard’s groom Holly [Osman] learned how to make it easier on him; just how to get him to drink a little better and things like that, and we all had to learn how to travel easier. It’s important to be able to just recognize what you can do better and then try to apply it.
NF: What do you find beneficial about incorporating mindfulness into your day-to-day activities, and how did that better prepare you for your experience in Europe?
CS: It’s very easy and common to get really wrapped up in the outcome of something. Certainly we all have goals, we wouldn’t be at this level or we wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t competitive, if we weren’t hoping for a certain outcome.
But I do think that detachment from the outcome is important, that you believe in the system that you have. I do the things that I do because I spend every day with these horses, so when I make a choice, whether it’s right or wrong, it’s for a reason. For me, it’s really important that I never get a result that is at the cost of a horse, as nothing that I could ever win would mean enough to me to sacrifice a horse’s well-being. I want everything to be because I make good decisions for them and then whatever we can achieve is a very important second.
I’ve ridden so many horses that are not enjoying themselves, and all I ever want to do is fix that for them. Sometimes that means that dressage is for them or a pasture buddy is for them. They don’t sign up for this, they’re drafted. It’s really important for me to try to find a way that they can enjoy it. Generally, the better set of skills that you have for something, the more you enjoy it. I try to do the best I can, that they understand and learn the sport so that hopefully they have a good time doing it.
NF: How has your success at the 2016 FEI World Cup Finals in Sweden impacted you, and what are your thoughts on the 2017 venue in Omaha this year?
CS: It was my first World Cup and it was his first also, and he’s such an interesting horse because he’s not afraid. Not afraid of the jumps, not afraid of the atmosphere or the crowd; he’s not afraid to fail. When I went in for the warm up on the first day, I really followed his lead a little bit and was like “yeah, we can do this.”
I’ve learned so much from him and he’s learned a lot from me. We have such a great partnership. I’m really excited for Omaha and I hope that I get to be a part of that. I’ve only heard great things about Omaha and I think it’s exciting that it’s in this country. I hope a lot of people will make plans to go out and watch and support the U.S riders who end up getting to go there and compete.