It’s a glorious day, even by Swiss standards, bright rays of morning sun bouncing off the pine forests, the meadows a trippy shade of green, the sky blue enough to drive the blues away. I’ve always admired the fairy-tale geometry of Swiss chalets, and even had occasion to stay in them. But never have I had the privilege of seeing a handsome horse peek out of one. That will remain my abiding memory of visiting a very distinguished rider—one might argue, the most distinguished of them all—at his home in the Swiss countryside; someone who, reputedly, preferred the company of horses to humans.
“Blood. That’s what I look for in a horse,” says the slim, mild-mannered man, a gleam in his eyes. That’s a somewhat sanguine word to describe that elusive quality that distinguishes an ordinary horse from a winner. “Pedigree is not so important,” he adds. Advice worth filing away if you have equestrian ambitions, for Steve Guerdat knows what he’s talking about. Mildly contrarian advice, too, considering the current World No. 1 in equestrian show jumping and the 2012 Olympic gold medallist in individual jumping hails from a venerable riding family.
Showing us around his sprawling estate in Aadorf, an hour out of Zürich in the blissful countryside, Guerdat seems unaffected by his stature. It’s just one of the many things that makes this dashing and slightly shy man so endearing. Another is his unequivocal love for horses, manifesting in everything from his insistence on straw for their stalls (as opposed to the less comfortable but easier-to-maintain wood shavings) to never pushing them unduly, the casual nuzzles and the passionate way he holds forth on them. He, quite literally, shares his home with them, for it was in the small stable on the ground floor of his house that I had glimpsed that horse.
In show jumping, timing is everything. And, yet, in Aadorf, time seems to stop still. This is horse heaven, right here on earth. No one seems in a rush to get anywhere, although a frenetic weekly tour schedule hovers in the background. The horses thrive on their diet of natural feed, a far cry from the fancy but far less healthier commercial stuff, are allowed to graze on fresh grass and trot about in the fields daily, and a few lucky ones even enjoy a comfortable retirement once their competition days are over. For someone like me, who until a few minutes ago knew next to nothing about equestrianism, it’s a window into a fascinating world.
The facilities are impressive. The main stables and an impressively large indoor arena with sand footing, which helps to keep the horses spry in winter, are a short walk away. There’s even a ‘horse walker’, something of a technological marvel.
There are huge grounds and show jumping practice facilities besides.
Guerdat also happens to be a Rolex Testimonee, and that’s the reason a clutch of trailblazing international journalists are getting to spend an intimate morning with him. Rolex has a long and distinguished history of supporting equestrianism. The association began in 1957 with Pat Smythe, Rolex’s first equestrian Testimonee, said to be the greatest show jumper Great Britain ever produced. Today, Rolex’s family of equestrian Testimonees transcends generations, gender and the three Olympic disciplines of show jumping, dressage and eventing.
The watch company also supports key events in the sport, including the four historic Majors, which together form the Grand Slam of equestrianism.
The Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping is a global initiative originally created in 2013 by three equestrian Majors: the World Equestrian Festival, CHIO Aachen, Germany (the most distinguished event in the equestrian calendar, the one against which all others are measured), the CSIO Spruce Meadows ‘Masters’ in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and the CHI Geneva in Switzerland. In 2018, the Dutch Masters, held in ’s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands, became the fourth Major of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping. Widely regarded as the ultimate show jumping challenge, the Rolex Grand Slam rewards the rider who wins the Grand Prix at three of these shows in succession. It may well be the most coveted prize in equestrianism.
Since 1996, Rolex has been the presenting sponsor of CHI Geneva. Then there’s the Royal Windsor Horse Show, which has been around since 1943. Rolex became the official partner in 2016, a year made significant as the show included 90th birthday celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II. Throughout its association with equestrianism, Rolex has pushed the boundaries of excellence by partnering not only with the prestigious majors, but also with innovative and iconic shows. Last year saw the inclusion of the prestigious CSIO Roma Piazza di Siena, an event which is steeped in history.
This is how their official spiel puts it: “Rolex’s affinity with human achievement derives from the pioneering origins of the company and its desire to support individuals whose accomplishments bear witness to the excellence of Rolex watches.” In Guerdat, they have a good match. This morning, he’s sporting a Cosmograph Daytona in 18 ct Everose gold. When we ask him to share some Rolex memories, he says: “I always wanted to win the Grand Prix. I had absolutely no idea what the prize money was. I just wanted the Rolex that came with it.” That first Rolex he gifted to Heidi, his oldest employee and backbone of the stable’s operations. The watch he’s wearing currently is the same one he got after the 2012 Olympics win, and must be a jolly reminder of that memorable moment. He’s won many shows after that, while wearing it, so it’s a lucky charm as well. The new Rolexes he keeps passing on to friends and family, which doubtless makes them a very happy lot.
Guerdat is full of surprises. “When I’m at home, practicing, I never jump my horses,” he says to his awestruck audience. And, he slips in casually, “I hate eventing and dressage [the two other pillars of equestrianism].”
Then it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Guerdat disappears for a while. When he emerges again, he’s kitted out and on horseback. He warms up his steed, a gentle trot at first, then more brisk runs, round and round the greens, until we get dizzy from just watching. To be a success in show jumping, the rider and the horse must share a connection, we learn. They must be partners, if not become one person, so commands can be conveyed instantly. Watching Guerdat in action, it all seems effortless. But it’s really a little bit of magic.
The 37-year-old did have an early-mover advantage. “My parents put me on a pony before I could walk, at two years of age. I started riding every day when I was nine years old. At 10, I started doing shows. At 12, I got my licence to go higher. When I was 14 or 15 I was also a passionate football player. But I had to choose one sport,” he says.
“I haven’t regretted my choice so far,” he adds modestly.
Afterwards, there’s a late breakfast. Guerdat sticks to fruits and berries—he even gave up Coke five years ago—while we dig into dainty desserts and drop alarming numbers of sugar cubes into our cappuccinos.
There’s serious horse talk, veering towards the profound.
How do you know which horse is right for which show, someone wonders. “Each horse has its own personality. You have to be patient if you want it to evolve your way. One of the things with horses is that you have to be flexible. Sometimes you may have prepared a horse for a particular show but it may not turn out to be the right choice,” says Guerdat.
Unfazed by his position at the top of the game, Guerdat dances to his own drumbeat. “I could do a 5-star show every week if I wanted to, but I only do 2-3 of those in a month. I go to smaller 3- to 4-star shows, where the money is less, but I get to try out newer and younger horses,” he says. He’s upset by the commercialisation of the sport in recent years, where some dodgy shows, propped up by money and not talent, have come up. “Real shows are just about the sport,” he says
At dinner the night before, a question had plagued the otherwise sharp contingent of journalists. The answer, as I later discover, is a Google search away, but, since we have a horse whisperer at hand, we simply ask him: Given the punishing annual calendar of equestrian events spanning the globe, do horses end up suffering from jet lag? The answer is ‘no’.
One of the high points of the visit was an encounter with Nino de Buissonnets, Guerdat’s 2012 Olympics partner-in-crime. Once their competition days are over, most horses find a second life in the breeding industry. Unless you’re a gelding, like Nino. But Nino is Steve Guerdat’s gelding, and gets to live out his dotage in bliss. He doesn’t do much these days except potter about his stall and wait for the nice old lady who brings him treats whenever she passes by. I earn a friendly lick from him.
Guerdat hasn’t been to India yet but he’s certainly heard of our gorgeous Marwari horses, with their unmistakable inward-turning ear tips. And I have him to thank for a new-found interest in these magnificent beasts. “It’s great to spend your life with these animals because every day they teach you something about yourself,” he says.