like to play this little game where I look at a young and successful person and think “what was I doing at that age?” It’s probably not very healthy to compare the path of my own life’s journey to that of others, but it is nothing short of an inspirational kick in the breeches to examine the qualities of people who have accomplished a lot early on in life.
For instance, when I was 16 years old, I was a high school student with a horse and suddenly faced with the pressure of paying for my own competition expenses, given that I could now drive a car (so go get a job, Mom said). When Sweden’s Alexander Zetterman was 16 years old, he was starting down the path to a professional riding career. He has since earned a team gold medal at the European Championships for Juniors, ridden at the 2014 World Equestrian Games, appeared in over 25 Nations Cups, and has an FEI record with as many pages as years he’s lived (29).
I met up with Alexander earlier this year, during the Mediterranean Equestrian Tour (MET) in Oliva, Valencia, Spain. He’s the quiet and observant sort, at least until he starts talking about his horses, then he transforms into a storyteller. But when the competition begins, he’s all business.
8:00 a.m. CET: Alexander arrives at the barn and greets the horses. Each of them has a stuffed animal, or a “mascot” hanging from each stall. Every horse has a different animal depending upon their personality. I’m particularly taken with a friendly gray with a “My Little Pony” character hanging on his door.
Knowing he often doesn’t have time for lunch, Alexander has already eaten a big breakfast and exercised this morning. His two grooms have done morning chores and are getting the horses ready for the show day. Alexander has an average of about ten horses in his program at any one time, which he said is very manageable.
“It’s only me and I’ve got two employees,” Alexander says. “If I’m going over 12 horses then I need to get another rider. Even more than 10, you need another rider and that means another groom. I just moved down to France and am just trying to get my feet on the ground down there. After a while, hopefully, I can expand a bit more.”
8:15 a.m.: One of MET’s most unique and beloved features is its proximity to the ocean (500 meters to be exact). Even better, there is an area of the beach where horses can be taken to ride in the sand and waves. It’s a popular spot in the morning hours for trot sets, quiet hacks, and even a little swim.
“Sometimes it’s hard to stay motivated. You can come down to the beach and come back fresh and it’s like you have a totally new horse. It’s so nice they let us do this,” Alexander says.
It’s a 10-minute walk from the show grounds to the beach down a quiet neighborhood street. Alexander’s horse, Wyclef Jean, a gray 6-year-old Swedish Warmblood who would ultimately pick up several wins on the MET Spring tour. Gleaning confidence from other horses enjoying the cool dip in the surf, he allows the waves to lap at his legs and then happily stretches his legs on the shoreline.
9:00 a.m.: Returning from the beach, there is still plenty of time before Alexander’s first class of the day. He takes the next horse for a warmup on the flat in the nearby covered arena. “That’s where I do all the work, where I spend most of the time. It doesn’t get more exciting than that. Riding, riding, riding again.”
The arena is massive, with a high ceiling allowing the breeze to float through. A grove of orange trees lines the perimeter, replacing the typical eau de barn fragrance with sweet citrus. Next door to the covered ring, there are several smaller areas sectioned off accordingly, complete with all-weather footing, designated for lunging only. It’s a flurry of activity here.
Alexander admits this is his first year attending MET. “I should have come here much earlier,” he says, and not just because his girlfriend, a veterinary student, lives in Valencia.
“I always go for a tour in the first part of the year. Last year I went to Italy and it was snowing really bad,” he explains. “This year I decided to come [to MET] in January. I really loved it and knew I had to come back.”
Interested in visiting MET yourself? You don’t have to wait until spring. MET’s autumn tour starts October 1.
11:30 a.m.: Alexander’s first class of the day is the 1.40m with Mecca, an 8-year-old Swedish Warmblood mare. She’s gray also (I’m noticing a theme). Alexander playfully calls her the black sheep of the family. The first time he rode her, he says, the then 7-year-old moved more like a green 4-year-old, all wiggly and with a four-beat canter.
“The mare is built a bit funny. When I got her, I thought it was a joke, but they said just jump her and she went clear. Took her again, she went clear.” With time her four-beat canter became a nice round canter, and she kept producing clear rounds, all the while endearing herself to Alexander. “I really love her.”
12:00 a.m.: Alexander’s next class is the 1.45m riding Lucky Lisa, a fine-boned 9-year-old Swedish Warmblood mare (bay this time). It’s the big class of the day, and spectators crowd the nearby coffee stand and pack the tables at the cafe that splits two of the competition rings. Alexander and Lucky Lisa jump clear in the first round. Edwin Smits wins the class.
Alexander’s impressive string of horses is no surprise, but the result of years of hard work to establish himself in the sport. He left school when he was 16 years old to pursue horses full time. “It’s difficult to do 100% in school and the horses. I used that time [after leaving school] to improve and get a good foundation. I went to [train with] Markus [Beerbaum] and Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum. I got a good foundation that’s good for the rest of my life.”
Does he regret the path he chose? “To some extent, but not that I go around thinking about it all the time. For sure, if I have a son or daughter I would definitely tell them to go to school. It’s always a good thing. To have a good education is very important.”
2:00 p.m.: Come for the competition, stay for the food. From gourmet Spanish cuisine to quality cafe fare to ultra-fresh sushi, no one goes hungry at MET. Despite a multitude of languages heard in the South of Spain, good food transcends any language barrier. Nevertheless, Alexander is keen to be more communicative in his home base of France.
“I like France. It’s a good horse country … I just have to learn the language.” He finds time in his day to practice French through an online program called italki. Just pick a teacher and a time that suits you and learn a new language through video chats with a native speaker. The flexibility of the program is perfect for a busy guy like Alexander, no matter where he is in the world.
3:30 p.m.: Alexander’s final class of the day begins — the 1.40m. This time he’s riding Miss Svea, a bay Swedish Warmblood mare.
We learn that bad weather is expected over the weekend. (“I haven’t even looked at the weather forecast,” Alexander quips. “It seems like every day is just sunny anyway.”) The show organizers have rearranged the following day’s schedule to accommodate, but no one seems worried. The first thing every rider says they like about MET is how well organized it is.
“I’ve been to many tours and obviously there are a lot of competitions going on at the same time. Sometimes the starting times get mixed up and there’s always someone jumping ahead of you in the start list or somebody just [dropping] out so you don’t really get time to warm up or you misjudge your time,” Alexander laments. At MET, however, the schedule is such that there is always time to walk courses and warm up. No one seems rushed or frustrated with their position in the class schedule. “Here, they have a very good system … It’s very efficient.”
5:00 p.m.: As the day winds down, the bar known as The Club adjacent to the largest of the three competition arenas starts to fill up. People meet up with friends, play a game of pool, and sip drinks while watching a few rounds on the covered patio. It’s a relaxing way to end a long day. Today, Alexander’s parents are visiting. On Sunday, there will be a party at The Club to celebrate the close of another week of MET competition.
“You go to some tours where you get sick of it, but here you have the nice weather, the beach, plus it’s so clean and organized,” Alexander says. “The competition has been just perfect for me — tough but not too tough. It’s what my horses were ready for … I’ll always come back here.”
Photography by Leslie Threlkeld for NoelleFloyd.com.