I told you!” Edwin Smits spotted me standing near the in-gate at the Mediterranean Equestrian Tour (MET) in Oliva, Spain, and gestured to the tall, grey gelding he sat on. “I told you he is special!”
With a mile-wide grin, Edwin rode Best of Berlin Bs into the arena for the awards ceremony to accept his second place ribbon in the 1.50m grand prix. They produced the first clear round in the jump-off but sacrificed some speed in being careful. Was Edwin frustrated by narrowly missing out on a victory? Not one bit. He was more excited about the performance potential the young horse had displayed. Not to mention he’d won three major classes that week already.
“He’s a horse with all the possibilities, very careful, huge scope, but his rideability and dressage is not as perfect as I want because he came late to our place and there were some holes in the beginning,” Edwin says.
It could be easy to skip ahead and simply manage, rather than fill, those holes. But that’s not Edwin’s M.O. Horses who come to him and his wife, Dehlia Oeuvray Smits, at their farm in Chevenez, Switzerland, are slowly developed beginning with a solid foundation on the flat to then giving them a positive introduction to showing.
“The program we make at home with my team and staff — I think that’s our secret — to take good care of the horses.”
The Importance of Flatwork
Perfecting and regularly reinforcing the basics of flatwork is of paramount importance for horses of all levels. Edwin’s expertise in this area was evident as Best of Berlin Bs, a 10-year-old Holsteiner, practically floated across the surface of the MET arena. The gelding wouldn’t have looked out of place in a dressage court, but that’s a consideration by design.
“Jumping is nothing else than dressage with fences in the middle,” Edwin says. “If you have the control on your horse where you can, out of a relaxed movement, control your horse in its canter and the length of his strides, then I think everything is possible in the ring.”
Of course, it’s always better to establish a foundation in the very beginning than have to revisit it later, but going ‘to school’ with Edwin comes with carefully constructed lesson plans and firm rules the pupils are expected to follow (e.g. no running through a distance and no bucking around).
"Like the children, the first few years they go to a little class, they play, but there are rules. It’s the same with the horses. It cannot be strict; you have to build them up little by little,” he says.
“The young horse has to be not too fresh because if they’re too fresh, then it cannot learn anything. It has to be completely relaxed. That’s the period when the horse goes to this little show, when you can train it, then it has to be maybe a bit tired, but you can see its quality and braveness in the ring.”
Building a Step-By-Step Program
Edwin has had success utilizing a well-established training and show routine at each stage of a young horse’s development, contingent upon the individual’s mental and physical capacity for work. The goal is always to foster a positive experience while upholding a mutual respect for the horse’s abilities and the rider’s rules.
Four-year-old: “The four-year-old horses we are really easy on because they’re just broken in. … Maybe they show once or twice at small practice shows, and if that is enough, maybe they go back to the field again.”
Five-year-old: “For me, horses are not grown up until they are five years old and from there on we do work. It’s better to let them grow first until the body is ready and then start practicing them on dressage.”
Six-year-old: “At six years old we start to be competitive with them. They go to shows, and that year, for me, the young horses [can be asked] more times to go faster, but for sure not winning. There’s no medals for winning with young horses. I think it’s better just to school them and sometimes of course you can train them to go a bit faster. If you never do this, then they are eight or nine years old and you start to turn faster and they’ll get surprised.”
When it comes to horse training, Edwin embodies the old adage, “slower is faster,” and that method is paying off. Just two weeks after we talked, he picked up yet another grand prix victory at Lanaken, and his horses continue to deliver on the international stage.
Photography by Leslie Threlkeld for NoelleFloyd.com.