lder riders often joke at their own expense, “I just don’t bounce like I used to!” Indeed, as we age, it often feels like we fall harder and take longer to recover. While equestrian athletes are able to compete at the top level far longer than professionals in other sports, longevity doesn’t come without hard work and self-awareness.
At 49 years old, Swiss show jumper Edwin Smits is painfully aware of the necessity required to take care of himself as well as he does his horses if he wants to stay in the game. A back injury incurred in a fall last year reared its ugly head at CSI5* Basel, and Edwin has been working hard to get healthy — and stay healthy.
“I take a lot more time for my own body now. I’m a bit older so I have to take care of it more,” Edwin says. “I do physical therapy and, if possible, an hour every morning [I go] to the gym where I do some warmups and Pilates exercises. That helps me a lot.”
After the fall, Edwin was sidelined for six weeks — no riding. Two weeks in, however, he started with a light fitness program to regain his strength. “When I started riding again, it still didn’t feel great, but my mind was strong enough to keep believing,” he says. This spring he tested his endurance a bit more, and by the end of March, he felt like himself again. Still, he knew that in order to maintain, he would have to stay on top of his fitness.
“At home I workout and run three times a week now,” he says. That’s before riding and chores. “In the summer season, there is so much to do at our farm.”
Active competitors spend so much time on the road, it can be especially difficult to exercise and stick to a healthy routine. Eating takeout and skipping a dedicated workout (beyond mucking and riding) is all too tempting. But Edwin has realized that diligence in the gym really does make a difference.
“When I’m at the shows I really try to go as much as possible in the morning to do an hour and take care of myself. That’s a really awesome start to the day to warm up well, to warm up properly. It’s very important. We ask our horses to be top athletes and it’s the respect that I have for them — it’s necessary to keep yourself fit for them.”
At shows, Edwin keeps up his fitness by first running 20 minutes either outside or on a machine followed by 40 minutes of core exercises combined with power and balance. He’s a particular fan of Pilates, a low-impact system of exercises that challenges strength, flexibility, and physical control.
“I heard about Pilates and its effects already before but didn’t use it. I felt good and fit before so didn’t think about the importance of it. Well that changed. When you are young your body has much stronger regeneration capacity. At my age now I have to do more to stay fit.”
As long as he’s motivated to compete and has a desire to win, Edwin will do what it takes. “My horse must be top fit, so me, too.”
Drawing on the Energy of Youth
Humanity has long searched for the Fountain of Youth, but some may say that children themselves are the elixir of youth, with their hopeful faces and boundless energy. Likewise, sharing knowledge with the next generation, setting them up for success in this world through lessons learned in one’s own life, provides purpose and relevance. Thus Edwin and his wife, Dehlia Oeuvray Smits, are on a mission to give back to the sport’s youth.
Edwin and Dehlia have a thriving teaching and boarding facility at their facility in Switzerland. She and Edwin, who says that he’s been blessed with a long and successful competition career, also dedicate much of their time to providing young riders with unique opportunities to progress in their own riding education and competitive pursuits.
“I have a fantastic wife who was already living in Switzerland, and together with our sponsor that we had 15 years ago, we built a fantastic place where we also organize shows over the years for young riders. We’re happy to welcome the stars of tomorrow,” he says.
For two weeks every October, the Smits open their barn doors of the Centre équestre de Chevenez to young riders. The show is exclusive to young riders and pony riders, providing an opportunity for the next generation to compete alongside their peers in national, CSI1*, and CSI2* classes with the “ambiance of a five-star show.” Edwin notes past participants include Martin Fuchs, Bertram Allen, Harry Allen, and others who got their start competing at the Smits’.
“For us it’s important that the youth has the future. My wife and I, we had a lot of sponsors and everything. When I see that young people, they really give an effort for this sport, we try to help them also,” Edwin says.
“We really try to create an atmosphere like they’re at some special event. Of course the top stars in young riders are used to it already, but there are so many young people that maybe don’t have this financial support yet to be as successful as the others are.”
From Chevenez, the top finishers have the opportunity to compete at major competitions the Smits have partnered with including CSI5* Basel and CSI5* Geneva. “We can send the best junior and young rider to compete there. It’s a huge step. … And of course if I see a young kid that really wants [it] and has talent but doesn’t have all the possibilities, I see if there are other doors for them.”
The longevity of Edwin’s career wasn’t purely by chance, but through hard work and determination to stay afloat through the inevitable ebb and flow of professional riding. By taking the time to care for himself, Edwin is able to not only continue competing at the top level of show jumping, but foster up-and-coming riders bound to make an impact on the sport.
Edwin’s #1 piece of advice? “Never forget to live and be happy. That makes everything more easy.”
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Photography by Leslie Threlkeld for NoelleFloyd.com.