Santiago Varela Designs With The Horse In Mind

Santiago Varela Designs With The Horse In Mind

This article was originally published on June 5, 2018.

During a show as prestigious as the Longines FEI World Cup™ Final in Paris, much fuss is made over the horses and riders, their performance statistics, and the daily results. But what about the individual responsible for creating the challenge so gamely accepted by entrants?

For the World Cup Final and many other show jumping competitions around the world, including the Tokyo Olympics just two years hence, that person is Spanish show jumping course designer Santiago Varela, who has been designing since before he was legally old enough to drive a car.

Varela, born in Madrid, doesn’t remember a life without horses. He started riding when he was four years old and began designing courses at age 15 at Club de Campo de Madrid, where he would also serve on the organizing committee for over two decades and still designs for the CSI5* competitions. At age 20, he stopped riding but continued his career as a designer. “Perhaps because I was a better course designer than rider,” he laughed.

Today designing is Varela’s second job. He is the CEO of Isolux Infraestructure, a multinational infrastructure concessions company. However, “when you like the horses you need to stay involved in the world” and he has found many ways to do so.

“You need to test things for the riders but the horses need to always have a fair solution for them.”

Varela achieved FEI Level 4 Course Designer in 2013 and has traveled the world for his work, including venues in Gothenburg, Rotterdam, Paris, Calgary, Wellington, Omaha, and Barcelona. Alongside his extensive course design experience, he is a member of the FEI Jumping Committee and on the Board of Directors for the Real Federación de Hípica Española. He is also an FEI Level 4 Technical Delegate and worked in that position at the 2016 Rio Olympics and 2014 Caen World Equestrian Games.

Through the years Varela has developed an approach to designing courses that carefully considers the space, the nature of the competition, and the materials available. However, the most important aspect of designing, for him, is to look after the horses.

“You need to test things for the riders but the horses need to always have a fair solution for them. Without a fair solution for the horses they cannot resolve anything,” he says. “They need to have the opportunity to show how good they are, but to do that you need to at least keep one way to resolve the test for horses.”

It is this mission to preserve the horses that is the root of why he enjoys the job of course designing. “When you see how horses work during the weekend – how they start the show and how they end the show – when they arrive at the last day of the show and they are still jumping well it is a special feeling for the designer.”

In Paris earlier this month, USA’s Beezie Madden made history, becoming a two-time winner of the World Cup™ Final after adding only four penalties across three rounds with Abigail Wexner’s 12-year-old stallion Breitling LS (Quintero x Armonia). Varela’s courses were praised by riders as challenging but safe and produced incredible sport.

“From the first day until the end I believe that everybody had an opportunity to win. It was a good competition for the horses and difficult for the riders. If you see the whole picture of the show I think it was a great show,” Varela says. “At the end Beezie was the special rider of the week. When the winner has a win like that it is always a great time.”

In March, Varela was announced as the course designer for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. He says he is “more than pleased” to have been selected. He considers the job an incredible honor and of great importance.

“When you start to design you never dream you will be an Olympic course designer,” Varela says. “It is super exciting and a huge responsibility because at the end, the Games are very special. It is a time that everybody [in the world] can follow your sport.”

Feature photo by Thomas Reiner.

Read this next: I Found My Way Back to Riding and Realized It's Not All About the Ribbons Anymore