When Germany’s Simone Blum cleared the last fence of the individual final at the FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Tryon, N.C., this past September, she made history becoming the first female show jumper to clinch an individual gold medal during the WEG era. As the news broke, Gail Greenough was deboarding a plane hundreds of miles away in Toronto, and her phone began to ring off the hook.
“It was crazy,” Gail says. “Even before I read the messages, I figured Simone won because of the amount of activity [my phone was getting].”
What is the link between these two women? Well, if orange is the new black, Simone is the new Gail. Before the World Equestrian Games began in 1990, each FEI discipline had its own individual World Championship, and Gail became the first woman to win show jumping individual gold in 1986. Simone, aboard her own DSP Alice, became the first female to achieve the feat since.
“It took too long, as far as I’m concerned!” Gail says. “I couldn’t be happier for Simone. It’s really exciting that another girl has won!”
Simone Blum and DSP Alice winning at WEG 2018. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.
Much has changed in the sport and its climate since Gail jumped four clear rounds in Aachen, Germany, aboard four different horses to claim her championship title. The “Final Four” format, in which the top four ranked riders switched horses and jumped a course aboard each of their competitors’ mounts, ended after the 2014 WEG. A greater emphasis is now put on the horse and rider combination over the individual rider’s ability. And it’s not a surprise to see a woman achieve at the height of the sport anywhere in the world.
“Interestingly, Simone is German, and when I won I was in Germany and no one there could figure out how a girl could win a World Championship,” Gail recalls. “The Monday after I won, I did an interview at a TV studio in Germany and there were four German men asking questions. Through an interpreter, they kept asking how I could have won: ‘How did this happen?’ It was so crazy to them. To have a German female win [this year], I think it’s even more appropriate.”
"The best combination should win, be it a male or female [rider]."
Gail admits she was a bit “naïve” to the significance of her barrier-breaking victory. After all, in North America, she was used to competing alongside great male and female riders, from Nick Skelton and Eddie Macken to Katie Monahan Prudent and Leslie Burr-Howard.
“It surprised me, because I grew up thinking that I wasn’t any different from the boys – very naïvely, apparently!” she says. “No one was more surprised than me that there was so much to be made of the fact [that I was the first female champion]. In Canada, it was just like the States. When Beezie [Madden] and McLain [Ward] are jumping off, you’re not thinking McLain is any better because he’s a guy. It’s just the way we grew up. In Europe, it was different. There were not so many female riders then.”
Gail Greenough and Mr. T's groom, Sally Moreland, are presented with a bouquet of carrots. Photo by Jayne Huddleston.
Withstanding the Test of Time
Gail’s partner at the World Championships was Mr. T, a Hanoverian gelding whose rise to the top might have been even more of a surprise than his rider. Gail acquired him as a seven-year-old through a trade with renowned dealer Paul Schockemöhle; the gelding’s original rider, British show jumper Caroline Bradley, tragically passed away from spontaneous heart failure when she was 37 years old.
"I grew up thinking that I wasn’t any different from the boys."
“I was looking for a second horse for the indoor circuit,” Gail recalls. “I was on the [Canadian] team and needed a speed horse for Washington, New York, and Toronto. Our second or third show would have been at Madison Square Garden, and Nick [Skelton] was there and said [Mr. T] was quite green for what we were doing. So, we cantered around slowly for the speed classes, and I developed him as an eight-year-old. When he was a nine-year-old, he started winning, and as a 10-year-old he won the World Championships.”
“Careful, scopey, brave, [and] fast,” Mr. T was a horse that Gail believes would still be competitive in today’s modern sport.
“He was more blood than he let on,” she says. “What I’ve noticed is that the horses and riders that rise to the top of the sport rise as a team: horse and rider, two together. [Simone] took the time to develop that horse and make it hers, and the horse and her together won. I think that’s what’s most important in the sport.”
Gail is also quick to point out that, while Simone was the first to repeat her feat, other female riders have come close. In 2006, three of the four riders to reach the Final Four at WEG were women. While Jos Lansink of Belgium did come away with individual gold, Beezie Madden (silver), Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (bronze), and Edwina Tops-Alexander gave a valiant chase, as the results had to be decided with a jump-off (Beezie, by the way, had the winning time but unfortunately had a rail with her legendary mount Authentic). If that final were held four times, there easily could have been four different winners.
“I really think [the results] depend on the week,” Gail says. “I would hope it wouldn’t take as long [to have another female champion], but I’m not going to place a lot of importance on it. The best combination should win, be it a male or female [rider].”
The Beauty of Equestrian Sport
What does Gail remember from her World Championships victory?
“The venue was fantastic, the jumps were really big, and I had a very good horse,” she says. “It was a very good week.”
Gail was 26 years old when she jumped at Aachen for Canada; it was her first team appearance in a major championship. When she made the Final Four, she faced off against Pierre Durand (FRA), Conrad Homfeld (USA) and Nick Skelton (GBR). She broke two records in one show: Not only was she the first female rider to win individual show jumping gold, but she was also the first woman to reach the Final Four at all. She jumped clear rounds aboard Mr. T, Conrad’s Abdullah, Nick’s Apollo, and Pierre’s Jappeloup de Luze.
Gail Greenough and Mr. T. Photo courtesy of Equestrian Canada.
“In the Final Four, what I did was just relate each horse to a horse I’d ridden in the past,” Gail says. “I watched a lot of video on the horses, because you only got two jumps in the schooling area. I did a lot of homework, and I tried to ride [the horses] the way they wanted to be ridden and not change anything.”
Gail recognizes clear differences in male and female riders – “Males are physically stronger; it’s just a given” – but she doesn’t differentiate much between the sexes. She takes pride in the fact that equestrian sports are the only Olympic events in which men and women compete against one another as equals.
“That’s the beauty of the sport. What makes this sport so special is that we do compete equally!” she says. “No other sport does that.”
Gail may no longer stand alone as show jumping’s only female individual World Champion, but she’s happy to share. After all, she still holds one more distinction: No other North American, male or female, has claimed the individual title.
“Between McLain, Eric [Lamaze], and others, there are so many great North American riders,” she says. “Those riders win around the world. They’re Olympic gold medalists. I thought that’s been an interesting fact.”
It’s been several decades, but Simone Blum has already proven it: It’s really just a matter of time before records are broken.
Feature photo of Gail Greenough and Mr. T by Jayne Huddleston.