One to Watch: Karen Polle

Karen Polle & With Wings jumping to a 5th place finish in the 2016 Hampton Classic Grand Prix.
Karen Polle & With Wings jumping to a 5th place finish in the 2016 Hampton Classic Grand Prix.

Two recent weeks of clear jumping marked the end of Karen Polle’s summer after a season of highlights and pivotal moments. 

It was on July 2, 2016 that the 24-year-old talent guided her own 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, With Wings (Larino x L. Ronald), to a historic win in the CSI5* $35,000 CIBC Cup at the Spruce Meadows Summer Series in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Polle producing the fastest time in a six horse jump-off against a roster of seasoned professionals, and her win saw the Japanese flag fly for the first time ever at Spruce Meadows. The amateur rider has been steadily working her way up the ranks for years and is currently training with Canada’s Ian Millar.

Fast forward a month or two, and Polle touched down at The Hampton Classic Horse Show in Bridgehampton, New York, to defend her 2015 victory in the Hampton Classic Grand Prix. She and With Wings became the first clear round in this year’s edition, and continued on to go clear in the jumpoff for an eventual 5th place finish. The following week, they kept all the jumps in the cups during the Saugerties $1 Million CSI5* Grand Prix, but a single time fault kept them from a second jumpoff. Still, it was quite a high note and Polle was thrilled with the performance of her veteran partner.

Born in Tokyo, Japan, but raised in New York City, Polle holds dual-citizenship, and three years ago made the switch from riding for the USA to riding for Japan.

“It was actually a very extensive process through the FEI,” explained Polle. “I had never competed internationally for the US aside from some Young Riders competitions but never anything senior, and still, it was very complicated to make the change.”

750_6086Heaps of paperwork later, Polle found herself with a new country to represent, her Japanese mother and grandparents especially proud to see Polle embracing their heritage.

But more than honoring her family, the switch also granted Polle opportunities to compete internationally that she may not have had otherwise. One of those opportunities was training with Paul Schockemöhle in Germany earlier this year to participate in Japanese team qualification events across Europe. Polle spent two months overseas competing alongside other members of the team at venues including Lanaken, Hagen, Redefin and Odense.

“Most of the Japanese team riders are based in Europe and I’m more US based, so I don’t get to see them that frequently,” Polle explained. “But I’ve gotten to know them better in the past year. A lot of them have been really supportive of me and Wings and that has been really nice.”

Since there are no international show jumping events held in Japan, Japanese riders base themselves in more established hotbeds of the sport in order to earn world ranking points. But while Japan is lacking on the venue-front, the country is growing in talented riders. This year the country qualified a team for the Olympic Games, and was represented by Taizo Sugitani, Toshiki Masui, Reiko Takeda, Daisuke Fukushimo and Koki Saito in Rio.

Polle was one of nine Japanese riders on the FEI long list for the Rio Olympic Games, an accomplishment in itself for such a young athlete. While Polle did not compete in this year’s games, representing Japan at the Olympic level is a definite goal for the young rider.

The highlight of Polle’s time in Europe was making her debut on a Senior Nations Cup team at Odense, where Polle proved she is one to watch by producing the team’s only clear round.

“It feels so good to go clear on a normal day, but when you’re on a team there’s that added element,” said Polle. “This is a very individual sport, but it’s really fun to be on a team.”

Currently studying Economics at Yale, Polle has just one semester left of her education before she will switch to focusing full-time on her show jumping career.

As a student, Polle has always held her riding career in high esteem, gracefully balancing her time in the saddle with her time in the classroom. “I try not to let school get in the way of my riding too much because I have Wings, and really want to focus and do the best that I can for him,” explained Polle. “He’s a once in a lifetime horse. I know I’m never going to find anything like this again, so I’m really trying to keep him in top form.”

Karen Polle and With Wings competing in July at Spruce Meadows.

Polle’s partnership with the talented 13-year-old gelding is nothing new– the pair have been together for six years, ever since Polle acquired the horse from Lynn Little.

After a string of bad luck with injuries, With Wings is currently Polle’s only mount. “He gets my full attention,” explained Polle, who as a self-admitted perfectionist is enjoying being able to fine tune the 13-year-old gelding.

“When he was younger he had a lot of attitude and we had just some days where he just did not want to work with me,” said Polle. “But in terms of the actual partnership and the chemistry, I think we clicked pretty much from the start.”

She’s formed a strong partnership with With Wings and has been successfully campaigning the gelding at the very top level of the sport for years. Their biggest win still stands as last years $250,000 Hampton Classic Grand Prix; they were the only pair to go double-clear. 

“It was really nice to get a win at a top level against the top riders,” said Polle. “I always felt like when we didn’t win it was all my fault. It was really nice to finally get one where I didn’t keep us from the win.”

Polle doesn’t give herself nearly as much credit as she deserves, but for her, it always circles back to her horse. With “Wings” carrying her on such a strong upswing this season, it will be interesting to see where they land next.

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