“There are never any guarantees in sport or life, but I’m going to try my very best.”
Callan Solem is looking at the open road somewhere between Florida and Pennsylvania when she makes that statement. It’s the kind of simple observation that sticks, and it comes at a good moment. It’s less than 24 hours after another road, one that could lead to Rio De Janeiro this August, has suddenly taken a big turn in the right direction for Solem. This week the the 38-year-old rider’s name was included on what could be the most important list of her life: the USEF Olympic Short List for the Show Jumping Team. She earned her way there with a breakout 7th place finish as the highest placing female rider and leading lady rider at the 2016 Longines FEI World Cup Finals on March 28th, but the release of the list on April 13th made it official, and made the road a lot more real for Solem and her team.
Not that she’s letting the Short List change her plan, or her mindset. She’s driving herself home to Pennsylvania from her winter base in Wellington, an 18-hour drive that she’s knocking out over one very long day, “pacing myself” she says.
When she returns home to her Pennsylvania base, she’ll continue pacing herself as she and her team tackle the plan towards a possible ticket to Rio. Everything is centered around Wizard VDL, the 13-year-old KWPN gelding (Gentleman x Ahorn) that has become the biggest horse of her career after a lifetime of training riders and developing show jumpers on the East Coast. Wherever the road takes her next, there’s no doubt that Solem will keep trying her very best. Read on:
Q: Now that the short list is out, are you letting yourself take a minute to enjoy being on it?
A: I’m so grateful to the whole team and everyone who has been helpful to Wizard and me. I’m so excited to be on [the short list], but mostly it’s important for us to keep working and stay in the present to make the appropriate plans for him so that he can continue being successful. So I’m trying to stick with going one day at a time.
Q: You’ve long said that making it to the Olympics has been your biggest dream; how does it feel to be one step closer?
A: I really am grateful to be at this point. It’s certainly new for me, but also, I’d never jumped in a World Cup Final either. Even though I haven’t done many championships I’ve been riding 12 horses a day for 20 years, practicing and trying to get those skills to ride in a championship.
I think for a lot of people it seems like I came out of nowhere, and while I can see that perspective, [the Olympics] have been a goal of mine for such a long time, that even when I didn’t have a horse of Wizard’s caliber to ride, the skills are still the skills. And it’s stuff you can practice every day on every horse. No matter the horse, if you ride it better, things go better.
Q: Moving on to the reality of the situation; everything in your program just got a whole lot more important. How does your team feel about the summer ahead?
A: I’m really fortunate with the group of people that surround me. We have an unbelievable farrier, an unbelievable vet, an unbelievable staff and grooms and managers.
Everybody is really excited to give their best to this goal. Really, it’s in honor of Wizard. We all really want to give him the best chance he has. He really does love to do this, and there are a lot of people who wouldn’t agree with personifying a horse in this way, but I ride him and I know – he really likes it. He wants to jump clear rounds. The bigger the crowd and the bigger the event, he really likes it. It makes me want to work harder to be the rider that he deserves.
Q: Can you talk a little about Wizard’s groom Holly Osman; how does her connection with him make a difference?
A: She’s amazing, and she and Wizard know each other so well. As he and I do in a different way. She does everything that she can to make him comfortable and happy. She’s not worried about when her day gets to be over or when she’s going to have her day off, she’s interested in making things right for him. She and I are a good match in that way because we’re both the same. We communicate really well with things that need attention. Holly know how much he gives to the sport and she appreciates it. She would just do anything for him and it makes a big difference.
Q: You’ve worked with owners Collin and Virginia McNeil since 2010, correct? How have they supported this effort?
A: This was the first thing that we did together, we bought Wizard right in the first month that I started working for them in 2010. We went to VDL and we tried him and got him. Since then they’ve been just the best owners that you can possibly have simply as far as being patient. Things didn’t go quickly for Wizard; he had a really hard time acclimating to the US with his immune system; he actually had colic surgery the second day after he got out of quarantine. So it was right away a hard luck story for the first few years. But they supported him and they supported me when it would have been so easy to say ‘this is not fun anymore.’ They and I really always did believe in the horse and I think that’s really important.
They deserve the success they’re having now, because a lot of people would have not stuck in there with us.
“They supported him and they supported me when it would have been so easy to say ‘this is not fun anymore’.”
Q: Wizard has had a break since Sweden. How did he spend his time off?
A: He got turnout, but he’s not allowed to turnout in regular paddocks because he jumps out. The farm we rent in Florida is amazing and has a medicine paddock. Holly sits with him in there an hour and a half two hours per day, and he was also in light work on the flat. He came out of it wonderful and stronger than ever.
The World Cup Finals didn’t even feel hard for him, which was so remarkable. It was sort of the best part of the whole thing, I didn’t feel at any point that I was at the end of him or asking him anything super special.
Q: There are four observation events that everyone is looking towards now. How will you decide which shows to do?
A: I think it was sort of a collective decision, everyone sort of talked together. He’s going to do [the observation events at] Rome and Rotterdam, the second tour, just to give him a break. He’s actually the only horse on the short list that went to from Florida to Europe and back to Florida, so I want him to have a break.
Q: Describe how you are balancing your business with your Olympic push during this special year:
A: At the end of last Florida, in 2015, the McNeils restructured the business with this sort of thing in mind. We did at one point have a huge business and it was so hard for me to do all of it well. I don’t want to do any of it badly, and we knew that this was the time to focus on the top level of the sport. Wizard was ready for it and I’m so happy that it seems to be paying off. It is a lot easier to do good work when your attention is focused.
In the three weeks between Rome and Rotterdam, I’ll go back and forth to keep things going with the horses at home while Wizard stays in Europe. With only taking the one horse I have to at least come home to practice!
Q: You’re known as a hardworking East Coast girl who has earned your own way in this sport. What advice do you have as a role model to those riders working to get to where you are now?
A: I really think that you have to keep showing up. That’s the most important part. Whatever horse you’re jumping in the 1.10m jumpers, you have to give that the attention it deserves.
I did an interview for Swedish TV before the last day at World Cup Finals and they were asking if I was nervous and I said ‘no, well, yes, but it’s not new for me.’ Anytime you tack a horse up, it’s a big responsibility for you to do the very best you can. Whether you’re breaking a baby or jumping a grand prix, whatever you’re doing, they don’t sign up for this and it’s your responsibility to do right by them.
Being that serious about it is routine for me. I respect horses in general very much, and it’s something that I want to do my best for. For sure everybody gets tired, but I really want to be there to see them in the morning. I care about them, and when you love something and care about it, it doesn’t seem like a hardship. This lifestyle is on paper and in practice very very difficult. But if you really love the process, it tides you over when you haven’t had a career of horses like Wizard. It tides you over to enjoy those moments.