At just 34, Michael Jung is the stuff of eventing legend.
He’s the current world #1, a four-time European champion, a two-time Olympic champion, and the former individual (2010) and current team (2014) World Equestrian Games champion. Last year, he became the only the second eventer in history to capture the Rolex Grand Slam. And when he’s not contesting the most difficult cross country courses in the world, he competes at the 5* level in show jumping and in Grand Prix dressage.
We caught up with the German wunderkind at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto to talk about his passion for horse sport, the importance of dressage, and the career change he has no plans of making.
HN: You’re so spectacularly successful in all three of the Olympics disciplines. What’s the draw to eventing specifically?
MJ: The most important thing is the cross country, that makes it so much fun. You gallop with the horse many minutes, many kilometers, through the different cross country [terrains]. And also the training because you spend so much time together with the horse for the dressage, for the conditioning, for the show jumping. You get a very big partnership and that is the greatest thing, I think.
HN: Eventing is an adrenaline sport. Do you consider yourself a thrill seeker?
MJ: Of course.
HN: A few weeks ago, you shared a post on your Facebook page highlighting the wide discrepancy in dressage scores in eventing—it was a five to six percent spread. Why do you think that’s happening and how do we fix that problem?
MJ: I’m not really sure. When you watch many, many dressage [tests] and you see the judge gives the same marks for a good flying change as for a bad flying change, it makes no sense. It makes you very disappointed because you train and put so much time into the sport. When you prepare for a 3 or 4* competition, you train so many years and then you go to the competition and the judge is just playing with the results. That’s frustrating.
HN: Do you think it’s because dressage is just so subjective or is there more to it?
MJ: I think sometimes they are just not really concentrating. When a judge has a different idea to the other judge and [their marks] are always a bit more down or more high or something, that’s not a problem. But when he’s so much up and down, so much different [than the other judges], and really not strict in [applying] the same rules—when they give [one score] for a mistake in a flying change or a medium trot to one rider and different points to another one with the same mistake—it’s just stupid.
When you see that you think you don’t have to train, you don’t have to prepare the horse. Just go in and go out and maybe you have a good result and maybe not.
HN: Brazilian Olympian Ruy Fonseca commented on your post, suggesting that 6% score differences should be reviewed via video footage and readjusted. Do you agree with that?
MJ: I think that’s too complicated.
HN: You show in pure dressage too. Do you see those same kind of point discrepancies?
MJ: Sometimes. But it can really change a lot in eventing. Sometimes [the judges] are really good in the job. Other times you think they are doing it just for fun and not really concentrating. They are not realizing how much the people, the rider, the horses trained for this competition.
HN: Dressage seems to be a contentious issue in eventing. Famed British Olympian Lucinda Green attributes the rise in fatalities on cross country since 1999 to the increased dressage requirements in competition. Jan Tönjes, editor of St Georg magazine, says that your mastery of “the art of dressage” is what makes you the master of cross country. Which do you think is true? Or more true?
MJ: I’m not sure. I like to train the young horses and I like to do the different things—one time the dressage, one time the jumping, one time the cross country. For me, it’s the nicest thing to train the young horses. All horses have different good things [strengths] and bad things [weaknesses]. You always have to think how you can make it easier for the horse.
HN: A lot of the top show jumpers say that their success in the ring comes back to the flat work. Do you think eventers feel that way?
MJ: Eventing is like a treble sport with these three disciplines. You have to train all three things. That makes it a bit more complicated because every horse will have one or two good disciplines and one not so good. You just have to manage it.
Normally, in eventing, you start with a young horse and you train many years and bring them up to a higher level, then you are learning about each other and getting a good partnership. You have to find a way where the horse is happy with everything.
HN: I guess I’m wondering if you think focusing on dressage will make the other two phases easier for the horse?
MJ: I think so. You need the dressage in every situation. You need it in the show jumping. You need it in the cross country. Everywhere. When you’re galloping in the cross country, you’re galloping down the hill, up the hill, on different ground. You need the control over the horse, over the body, over the weight—everything, in every situation.
HN: Eventing has been under the microscope in recent years because of the number of horse and rider fatalities. And there’s you, who’s so highly skilled in all three disciplines. How does the sport make more Michael Jungs?
MJ: I don’t know. I think, at the moment, we have a really great team. We have really nice people in the stable. Every little detail is very important. The horse has to feel very happy in the stable, on the transport, at the competition. I think the mentality of the horse is very important. We also have really great breeders, owners, sponsors, friends, my parents, my family—at the moment we have a great team and I think that’s the most important thing.
HN: Speaking of your family, your father, Joachim, said in the Horse magazine that you “would not grow old in eventing” and may eventually focus on show jumping. Is there any truth to that?
MJ: No, I don’t think so. I will do a bit more in show jumping, but I like the eventing sport so much. I’ll do it always, I think.
HN: As a show jumping fan that breaks my heart a little.
HN: In terms of your incredible record, is there one victory that means more than the others?
MJ: No. You just keep going and have fun with the horses and with what you do. I hope that I’m healthy enough that I can do it many years. I like to train the horses, help other young people—that’s what I like.
HN: It sounds like you don’t spend too much time staring at your medals.
MJ: It’s very nice and good motivation when you win big competitions. But we riders know that one time you are at the top and you win everything and the next moment you are nothing. It depends on the horses and the people who help you in the stable. It can change very quickly. So I enjoy the moment, but we are [always] working on the basics.
HN: Advice to live by. Thank you, Michael!
Catch Michael Jung compete tonight in the Horseware Indoor Eventing Challenge at 7:00pm ET on RoyalFair.org.