They say age is just a number, but that depends on whom you ask. From ball players to celebrities to tech start-up giants, society, on the whole, loves the wunderkind. The fresh-faced ingénue, the high school phenom that goes straight to the pros, the 20-something Silicon Valley billionaire — it’s a tired story, to this writer’s mind, and all too often, it misses the more interesting tale.
It’s the tale of the ceaseless grind, the callouses, the falls, the rainy days, the disappointments, and overcoming all to finally earn your moment in the sun. At age 36, France’s Félicie Bertrand is still a young athlete in show jumping terms (a recent JumpFax poll revealed that 36 is, in fact, the average age of all winners of Rolex Major events since 2013). But for Félicie, it’s a pursuit that’s encompassed the whole of her lifetime.
“My mother is a breeder, and my father always had an equestrian [background], so I was almost born in the stable,” Félicie says. “It was never a question asked that I would do anything else.”
A native of Paris, Félicie spent her early years at the La Croix Saint Antoine stable in Val d'Oise, 35 miles north of the city. When she was a junior, she moved west to Normandy to train, and has remained there ever since. Ten years ago, Félicie took a job as a young horse rider for Geneviève Mégret and family, owners of the Haras de Clarbec breeding farm and a number of top French show jumping horses. Though Félicie eventually moved down the road to set up her own shop, she retained her relationship with the Mégrets and the ride on a number of their horses. In late 2017, that number grew to include a diminutive chestnut mare named Sultane Des Ibis.
“I started riding Sultane in October 2017, and as soon as I got on, I thought to myself that we would get along well. [We] won one of our first events in our second competition together. We have a lot in common, both in terms of our size and a bit of our [personalities], too,” Félicie jokes.
“This is a very easy mare — she is very easy to get along with, and very nice for everything, but when she is not happy, she makes it known! In the ring, she transforms into a warrior.”
And she needs to be. Hovering just above 16 hands, the fine-boned, 13-year-old Selle Français mare by Quidam de Revel regularly scales 1.60m fences nearly as tall as she is.
Last June at the 2018 Mediterranean Games in Barcelona — their first major competition together — Félicie and Sultane jumped a series of clear rounds for France, leading the team to a silver medal finish. Two days and more clear rounds later, they also took home the individual gold medal.
But it would be Félicie’s victory early this year in the 1.60m CSI5*-W Bordeaux Land Rover Grand Prix that would truly thrust her and Sultane into the international spotlight. Returning to ride in a jump-off field that included the likes of Ludger Beerbaum (GER), Simon Delestre (FRA), and Bertram Allen (IRL), less than one second would ultimately separate Félicie’s time from second-place finishers Bertram and GK Caspar.
In her first major press conference following the class, “World of Show Jumping” reported that Félicie broke down in tears. “She’s an incredible mare, so sweet, so small, so precious,” the French rider said of her partner. “[I] can’t even imagine she’s able to jump things like that. She has an incredible desire to give so much … she’s magical.”
One of the people there watching at the kiss and cry that day was Félicie’s 10-year-old daughter, Léa, herself an aspiring show jumper who is already logging plenty of wins in the pony ring. According to Félicie, her victory that day was as much about the people who have been by her side from the beginning as it was anything else.
“I obviously wanted to have a good result [in Bordeaux], for sure, but I didn’t think I could win the grand prix because the competition was so tough, and I was missing the experience at this [level]. So winning this big prize was very emotional for me, and for all the people around me that give me confidence.”
That confidence seems to be growing. One month after Bordeaux, Félicie and Sultane followed up their performance with a CSI3* victory in Montpelier; they also added a top-five 1.50m finish in Le Touquet to their resume in May, and, most recently, third place at the CSI4* 1.55m grand prix at St Tropez. Most impressively, since taking over the ride on Sultane, Félicie has catapulted more than 400 points in the Longines Rankings — and as of this year, into the top 100 in the world.
From a purely practical sense, Félicie says, this fact has changed her life, opening new doors to formerly difficult ranking competitions. Yet Félicie admits that finding herself in this position, now or at any point in her career, is an ambition she never really fostered. “It’s true that competing at the highest level isn’t an end in itself. I was satisfied with what I was doing [at the level I was doing it previously],” she explains.
“Having tasted it, [however], I admit, it is quite exhilarating, and it makes you want to do it again, for sure,” she laughs.
And who wouldn’t? To work so hard, day in and day out, and to finally earn that moment — a major five-star win, indoors, in front of thundering crowd of her own countrymen, on the little mare with the giant heart — is its own Hollywood ending, to be sure.
“The victory gallop [during the prize giving in Bordeaux] will remain etched forever in my memory,” Félicie says. “Every time that I needed her, [Sultane] answered.”
Following the interview for this story, Félicie celebrated her 37th birthday. May this year be as fine as the last!
Photography by Sportfot.
Written by Douglas Crowe
Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.