It's a quiet Wednesday morning in Wellington, Florida and the sun is shining, as it does so effortlessly in this neck of the woods. I had been playing phone tag with my friend Martin for a couple of days, trying to organize a good time for me to meet him and take some pictures of the farm he rents just off Pierson Road in Wellington. This given week was particularly busy for the top showjumper, with multiple shows running concurrently. The coordination effort involved to manage and operate this schedule with different horses showing across 3 different venues is impressive. I’m quite honored that Martin has made it a priority to meet with me.
For a man who was wearing “the armband” only a few weeks prior to my visit (he respectfully gave it back to his good friend Steve Guerdat, ‘for the time being’, he jokes), Martin is as humble and approachable as they come. He is sitting down on the bench polishing his boots.
“Kate! Make sure you get a picture of this to show my mom, I don't do this so often!” he laughs coyly.
The barn is neat and tidy and there is an established sense of order. Not in an authoritarian way, but more in a relaxed, respectful manner. Martin hardly seems like the type of boss who would ‘crack the whip’ with his staff. He gives me the impression that he would be a pretty chilled guy to work with. Calm and kind, I get the sense that his staff all work well together because there is a cohesive sense of respect. There is no hierarchy here. Every time I am around Martin I am humbled by the way he always treats and talks to each person equally. There is very little ass-kissing or pecking order going on here. There are friendships.
The tack room is adorned with well-polished tack, neat rows of saddle pads, and a plethora of bits. Side-by-side ‘his’ and ‘hers’ riding jackets make a cute picture (Martin shares this barn with his girlfriend, Paris Sellon). I poke around in the kitchen, snoop around in the fridge (carrots and water - seems as if both horse and rider are set here). By the time I get back into the aisle, Martin is already on Silver Shine, an impressive grey gelding.
‘How did that happen so quickly?’ I wonder. I get a sense that a lot of what makes up this insanely talented and driven athlete is a lot of precise and efficient behind-the-scene moves. No diddle-dallying, no small talk. Get to the point, get to the top.
I watch Martin slowly disappear into the expanse of the massive grass ring at Lassergut, the gorgeous farm Martin and Paris rent while in Wellington. This year was Martin’s second year doing the WEF circuit.
“Yeah, it’s an amazing show, obviously, but for us Europeans, it’s incredibly expensive." He goes on to say that his decision to come each year is based on his current string of horses. “But also showing in a place like Wellington has advantages. I was able to make a lot of new contacts, and last year I met a new owner for me that has already bought two horses... so that’s an aspect that counts too”.
No diddle-dallying, no small talk. Get to the point, get to the top.
Silver Shine, who is working quietly under Martin’s expert leg and seat, is quickly becoming Martin’s number two.
“Silver Shine will be my number two horse for the Olympics,” Martin mentions as he trots away.
‘Wow’ I think, that’s a pretty big demand for a horse that has only stepped up to the 5-star Grand Prix level last year. But again, if there is someone that can make this happen, it's Martin. Plus, the grey gelding goes with his look.
At the big championships, of course, it’s a different grey horse that showjumping fans are used to seeing Martin on. His main man Clooney 51 didn't make the trip to Wellington this year; Martin explained that he didn’t see the point in showing him as much with the Olympics on the horizon. I’m curious to know what a training program for a horse as accomplished as Clooney looks like. With Martin away in Florida, what does the 14-year-old Westfalian’s week look like under the guidance of his team back home in Switzerland?
“I am lucky to have my dad (Swiss Olympic showjumper, Thomas Fuchs) at home overseeing the program. Clooney is ridden 6 days a week, with Sundays off, and he goes on the walker and is turned out in the grass field”.
Martin informs me that Clooney only jumps once a week over small gymnastics. This surprises me. I rode extensively as a junior but never at this level, and had always assumed that Grand Prix horses would be training over intricate courses etc., but I guess at this stage there is little ‘training’ and more conditioning necessary.
“I do a lot of dressage work with him."
“Really?” Not sure why this is so surprising to me. I guess it’s hard to fathom a rider being that good in two disciplines!
“I have a couple of dressage riders in Switzerland come and help me, Bruno and Paul.” Martin is referring to Bruno Rennhard and former Olympian Paul Weier. “And this year I went and spent some time watching Beezie (Madden) train. She focuses a lot on flatwork”.
I went on to learn that Martin also stopped by Mclain Ward’s farm while in Wellington and got some tips. I’m not surprised by how humbled Martin is when talking about learning from his peers. To be totally honest, part of me thinks that Martin is somewhat unaware of his stardom. To be ranked world number 1 at twenty-seven years old, in a sport where you normally hit your peak later in your career, is quite a feat. But Martin is like a sponge. He genuinely lit up while talking about his day with Mclain. It is clear to see how much he values and respects his peers.
"To be totally honest, part of me thinks that Martin is somewhat unaware of his stardom."
After a solid 60 mins in the saddle, Martin is back in the barn. He shows me the tack room and points out the new saddle his sponsor, Renaissance, just sent him. I notice how proud Martin is when talking about being sponsored by the company. It is so refreshing to hear the gratitude in his voice.
Sean, his main groom, is over at FEI with The Sinner (Martin's other top horse). I am aware that Martin is needed elsewhere, but he is generous with his time and walks me around the barn, answering my questions. I ask Martin about what his training program looks like outside of the saddle.
“Do you lift weights?” I ask with a smirk, fully aware that it is probably the last thing Martin does.
“Haha, no!” That was a hard no. “I do a lot of stretching every morning before I ride. Also, after long flights when I am traveling a lot”.
I’m a little reluctant to ask the next set of questions about his diet and nutrition. Martin doesn’t strike me as someone who is wild about his eating habits, rather a lucky recipient of a fast metabolism that allows him to indulge in pizza and comfort foods as he pleases. I was correct in my assumption. He does, however, go on to credit his girlfriend Paris with helping him eat a more healthy diet.
“We get to eat a home-cooked meal every day - my mom cooks for us”. He smiles at the thought. He talks about how normal and laid back life back in Switzerland is with Paris. They go on nice walks in the afternoon, relax, and watch movies. A nice contrast to the busy life he normally leads on the road every other week.
I get a sense that Martin is more impressed with the little things. I asked him how he celebrated after his big win at the Rolex Grand Slam in Geneva this year.
“After some required press stuff, Paris and I drove back to our home. We stopped and had a glass of champagne with a friend and then back to have dinner with my parents.”
This doesn’t surprise me. I ask if he splurged and bought something wild with his winnings, or jetted off on a fancy vacation for a couple of nights, and he replies simply, “I bought myself a pair of shoes.”
So what is the biggest motivator for this all-star athlete? When I ask Martin, he pauses and thinks about this question for a second. His reply is multifaceted, his love for competing topping the list.
“I love to ride for an audience, to be competitive.”
He mentions that the financial element is definitely a motivator, but his angle is more surrounding the excitement of competing in a prestigious class which consequently offers a big purse, rather than the prize money itself. It’s clear that his main drive is the competitiveness of the sport.
A couple of months later, Martin and I speak again. A lot has happened - not only in the sport, but in the world, and COVID-19 has rearranged everyone's plans. Martin, like other riders in the sport, is adjusting. It's the first time there are no shows. The Olympics have been canceled. I jump on a call with Martin who is now back in Switzerland to check-in.
“I just heard the Olympics have been postponed,” I feel badly reminding him.
“Yeah. Obviously sad as I have been in great form with Clooney but confident next year we can also be competitive. He will turn 15 next year and is in very good shape, and now with Coronavirus, he will have a long break, so not a lot of jumping, which is good.”
You can tell that he is disappointed but like so many times in this sport, Martin is used to facing unfortunate situations head-on. He is equipped with handling the setbacks and remaining focused. Times are so uncertain right now. Except for Martin and his dominance over the sport - that’s not changing.
Photography by Kate Metzner.
Written by Kate Metzner
Kate Metzner is an London-based photographer and writer specializing in the equestrian world. Having grown up in the saddle, she now finds herself gravitating back to the ring, this time with her camera in hand.