“We can no longer ask horses to make undue efforts” says the ringmaster for the next Olympic Games in ParisIngrid
Well-being of the horse, equestrian sport in Lorraine and Luxembourg, feminization of riding… Discussion about these subjects with Gregory Bodo, native of Moselle, who will have the honor to draw the show jumping tracks for the Paris Olympic Games.
Gregory Bodo is part of a very small brotherhood, which counts less than thirty chosen ones on the whole planet: he is a “level 4 ringmaster“.
This level 4 is the highest grade that this “maestro” could reach, and which offered him a golden ticket to exercise his talents at the next Olympic Games in Paris. For 20 years, this Lorraine native has been internationally acclaimed for his horse-friendly show jumping courses.
If this mission of ringmaster does not say anything to the general public, it is nevertheless fundamental. If the ringmaster misses, the show jumping event can quickly turn sour for the riders and their mounts. As he reminds us, the “tracing” of the tracks is a creative mission but one that is heavy with responsibility, not forgetting that this sport drains a lot of money…
Gregory Bodo agreed to talk to us about this sport and more broadly about the evolution of the equestrian world.
High level equestrian competition is not the most popular of sports. Despite this, it is said to generate a huge business?
Gregory Bodo: “Yes, the economy around horse riding and high level equestrian sport is insane! It is similar to Formula 1 motor sport: you have stables that are just as important, with colossal financial and marketing capacities. The business of selling horses is now globalized, Arab, Asian and American investors can buy horses for 3, 4, 5 million or even more. There are no limits anymore.”
And the Old Continent, in all this?
“It is currently the leader of the countries in show jumping and dressage. Of the ten best teams in the world, 75% are in Europe. The leading nations remain France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands…”
You speak of “horsemen”. And the women? You know that they now represent the majority of the licensed riders.
“Yes, moreover I said horsemen without discrimination, obviously, the female practice is now central. In 2022 in France, we were on more than 60% of female practitioners. Not in competitive sport, but in leisure sport, that is to say, especially in small riders who ride ponies, then club horses, who make first competitions …”
But does that mean that competition remains a male citadel?
“No. In fact, we must remember that horse riding is the only sport in the world that offers a mix of men and women. So at the Paris Olympics, for example, men will be competing with women, in the same events, with different horses but on equal terms. But it is true that at high level, women are in the minority. I can’t tell you why, because they perform just as well as men. Is it more related to a preparatory course, to a gateway to the high level which made them give up on the hardness of the job, on the search for sponsors, on the mental, on the finances… I can’t answer for them on that.”
Let’s get back to your mission as track manager. Can you explain what it consists of?
“The ringmaster is the one who has the most important role. I say this without minimizing the role of the judges, stewards, paddock stewards, etc., but because the track marshal is the one with the most elaborate technical skills and knowledge. His role is to lay out a show jumping course, according to the rules, the direction we want to give to the sport – if it is a low level or grand prix event – , and he has a pedagogical role, because through the courses he draws, he must allow the riders and horses to improve.”
In short, you have both great freedom and great responsibility?
“Yes, the ringmaster is an architect, a director. We’ll give him a totally empty, bare arena, we’ll provide him with an obstacle park, decorations, flowers, rivers, etc. And it is him, with his imagination – because nobody can impose anything to him – who will draw the course with his hand on his blank sheet. For example, on the first day of the competition, I will set up a warm-up course, and on the last day, I will have to make more of a “show”, a spectacle. Not forgetting the financial aspect, what we call the endowment of the events. To give you an idea, I have just come back from the World Cup in Basel, where there was a 375,000 euro prize money in the grand prix. And above all, today the course must be respectful of animal welfare.”
Without sacrificing the “show”?
“Yes, we must encourage competitiveness, so that the best can be crowned, but it is not easy because the genetics of horses have evolved, they are faster, more powerful, more reactive, more respectful of obstacles. The riders are also at a high level, and the courses have become more technical. In spite of this, today we can no longer go beyond the limits of the animal. Animal welfare is central for the ringmaster, he has to find a balance on the whole course, integrating subtle difficulties not for the horse, but for the rider, because it is the rider who has to make the effort.”
Do you have any examples?
“We’re going to play with the colour of an obstacle, its placement, the distance in the lines, so that the rider has to rack his brains to figure out if he’s putting in one more or one less stride. It is also important to know that the weight of the bars and their diameter have been lightened enormously. And of course, there is the height of the obstacles. Before, we could jump 1.7m, 1.75m, with very massive obstacles and much less safety, so we saw many more falls and injuries. Today we are back to obstacles of 1.6m maximum height. We can no longer ask the horses to make undue efforts.”
You have been selected as co-leader of the track for the 2024 Olympic Games. Is it the ultimate consecration?
“Yes, I have the level 4, which is the highest level that we can have in the ranks of head of track. There must be between 25 and 30 in the world. And this gives me the opportunity to access the biggest competitions in the world, but especially to be designated by the international equestrian federation on world events such as world championships or Olympic Games. And the Olympic Games is the summit. I can tell you that there are a lot of foreign ringmasters who have an impressive CV, and who would dream in their career to be able to trace the Olympic Games once.”
Can you already give us an idea of your obstacle course for these Paris Olympics?
“We still have to do many meetings to know what is possible to do, but I can already tell you that we will reproduce monuments of Paris on the ground. We will make the rider travel in the middle of the greatest cultural and historical buildings of the city of Paris. Palace of Versailles, Eiffel Tower, etc. Traditional obstacles have no place in the Olympics, we are aiming very high.”