It was a sun dappled, spring afternoon in Northern, Germany, an idyllic backdrop to the prize giving ceremony taking place at the Global Champions League (GCL) of Hamburg.

For Jennifer Gates, the moment was extraordinary in more ways than one. Riding Capital Colnardo, the 23-year-old and her Paris Panthers teammate (and partner), Nayel Nassar (EGY), had just earned a major podium finish following strong, back-to-back rounds over two days of competition. Alas, when the podium exploded into the obligatory champagne fight between the Panthers and the top two placing teams, Gates—struggling to open her own bottle—was drenched in the crossfire.

“Apparently I need to learn how to pop champagne bottles because that’s a podium thing and I’m the biggest rookie… help!” Gates joked, good-naturedly, on her Instagram.

Popping bottles aside, the American U25 rider ought to cut herself some slack. Halfway through the 2019 season, it’s clear Gates is having a renaissance, not just in her own riding, but in the expansion of her Evergate Stables operations, currently based at three primary locations in Florida, Belgium, and New York.

For the past 12 months—a gap year following her graduation from Stanford University last spring—Gates has concentrated fully on her riding, recording consistent results on the five-star circuit. Her GCL team, the Paris Panthers, is currently ranked top-10 in the League and Evergate’s breeding and Europe-based young horse sales operations are in full swing—with a crop of potential, future grand prix winners already on the ground and in training around the globe.

It’s a far cry from her days “chipping around” the small pony ring at Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, BC. But the lessons, she says, remain as relevant as ever.

New Eyes, New Ideas

If there is a common thread entwined throughout Gates’s equestrian endeavors of the past year, you might say it’s her partnership with Dutch Olympian Harrie Smolders and a new perspective on risk.

Gates has never been one to shy away from growth opportunities. As an undergraduate, she spent four years at Stanford juggling the competing demands of a degree in human biology and an A-circuit competition calendar. She took three months off riding—a lifetime by equestrian standards—to study marine biology in Australia. And she once voluntarily jumped out of a moving plane.

But for the better part of her riding career, competing on the international stage wasn’t on her radar. “I’m not a very confident rider usually,” confessed Gates just three years ago. “I never saw myself jumping these big [Grand Prix] classes ever.”

In 2019, her once distant goal of trying to “jump a 5* Grand Prix” has been an every other weekend reality. With Smolders, her coach of the past 12 months and Paris Panthers teammate, Gates has made a habit of diving into the deep end of elite sport on the notoriously difficult GCL circuit. For a rider who made her World Cup debut at Thunderbird Show Park in 2014, it’s been a season devoted to self-improvement.

“The level of the sport in the Global Champions League is second to none.  I wanted to get involved because it was the best way for me to push myself as an athlete, to be jumping in these classes against some of the best in the world. Gaining experience over difficult tracks and trying to be competitive against some of the fastest riders has helped me so much in my journey,” says Gates, who as the U25 rider on the Paris Panthers rides alongside teammates Yuri Mansur Guerios (BRA), Darragh Kenny (IRL), and Gregory Wathelet (BEL), in addition to Smolders and Nassar. 

“That doesn’t always mean that I place high—in fact, it’s very, very rare [that I do]. But I feel like that’s where you grow, when you push yourself.” 

Embracing the Present

While Gates has concentrated on expanding her comfort zone as an athlete this year, it’s her work behind the scenes, notably with Smolders, that’s giving her the tools to succeed.

“[Harrie is] really present and super attuned to what the horses need,” says Gates.

“He has great long-term vision, and adjusts the schedule and plans for every horse based on our goals. However, just because we planned on a certain show or a specific timeline, doesn’t mean that is always what we do—being adaptable is important. He’s also incredibly patient with the horses at home, and works with the team to customize the training plans, nutrition, and management to the individual needs of each animal.

“He’s a wonderful mentor and coach, and I just feel really lucky to work with him and get his guidance, and that my horses get to have his guidance as well,” Gates says.

Jennifer Gates competing at Thunderbird Show Park CSIO 5*

Complementing Smolders’s thoughtful coaching is her work with Mental Performance Coach Peter Crone, who has helped Gates adapt the way she thinks in the show ring. The shift has been dramatic.

“I wouldn’t say I’m more confident than I’ve ever been, but I’m more present than I’ve ever been. Before, I would have been worrying about having rails or making a mistake on course. But now, I’m not as focused on the results—instead, I’m thinking about how the horses feel underneath me, trying to support them at every jump. ” Gates says.

“Funny enough, it’s [also] what I have been working on with Harrie this season—the fact that the results will come with time, and patience, and presence. His whole philosophy with the horses is [about giving them the time they need].

“From a results perspective, it’s been a fun year, but even more significant in terms of that mental perspective.”

Looking to the Future

Gates may be focused on the present, but her breeding operation has its sights set firmly on the future. Again, she credits Smolders as the impetus behind Evergate’s expansion into young horse development.

“[Harrie] has shown me how important early development is for horses, and how to ensure they are each on the right career trajectory. Being involved in this process with him has inspired me to pursue working with young horses, and bringing them up to be competitive mounts for either myself or my teammates,” Gates explains.

The growing operation, started a few years ago with Gates’s retired show mares, is based in Belgium. Evergate currently stands two stallions: her beloved Selle Français, Pacific Des Essarts, who retired from the sport this spring; and her current competition mount, the 14-year-old Holsteiner, Capital Colnardo.

“You don’t know what you’re going to get, but it’s always an exciting process to see the horses develop. Seeing the process from the ground up has been incredibly eye-opening, especially knowing that you potentially have a superstar in your [own] stable. And, if they aren’t the right fit for  someone our team, we’ll find them great, loving homes with another rider.”

A New Chapter

Come August, Gates will no doubt find further opportunities for growth as she takes on her next five-star sized challenge: medical school at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (ISMMS) in New York City, where she hopes to one day specialize in pediatrics or primary care. Becoming a physician has long been her life’s ambition, but it’s one that she confesses she nearly gave up on in her freshman year at Stanford.

“I really struggled through my first quarter of chemistry at Stanford, and I thought to myself, I don’t think I’m cut out to be a doctor if I can’t learn this material,” explains Gates. After some soul searching and an eye-opening chemistry prep course, however, the show jumper ultimately decided she wouldn’t give up her career aspirations without a fight.

“I changed into this growth mindset and thought, I might not be good at this initially, but if I go to office hours every day, and do extra practice problems every day, and fully dedicate myself to this, then I can be successful. Chemistry is difficult, and hard for many people (like myself) to understand at first—but I realized it is not that I wasn’t good enough, it was just going to take some extra effort to learn.”

She credits her many years in the sport with helping her develop that mindset.

“With riding, there are always going to be times in your career where you don’t feel like you’re good enough, or in the right [place]. But having that conviction that it’s just about doing the work and staying present, whatever scenario you’re in—whether it’s a round where you were eliminated or fell off, or a show that was great—and taking those experiences and continuing to push yourself, for me, it’s a great analogy for school as well.”

New York City is a far cry from the cool, misty mornings of the European horse show circuit, Gates’s home away from home for the last few months. But the rider, for her part, is looking forward to the transition.

“I always knew that I was going to have one or two years to really focus on the horses before transitioning into this next phase of my professional life. I absolutely love the sport, but have always felt that I wanted to do something else as a primary career,” Gates says, adding that she hopes to keep competing as much as possible in the coming years.

“I enjoy staying busy and pursuing things that I love. Horses will always be part of my life, but medical school will be my priority. Right now, I’m looking forward to a few more competitions before the semester starts!”

Thunderbird Show Park, a venue Gates has frequented since the start of her show career, is one of her planned final stops before school starts. It’ll be a homecoming of sorts for the Seattle-native.

“I have so many fond memories of going up [to tbird] with the barn I rode with growing up. It was just a highlight of my summer, every single summer—the Tidball Family, Chris Pack, and everyone who works there are so accommodating and friendly—you always feel so welcome,” says Gates.

“tbird has been home to many of my career milestones, and every time I return it feels like being back on home soil. I have experienced so much here, both in terms of successes and learning opportunities. It reminds me how far I have come over the years, and of what can be accomplished with hard work and dedication even if not every result is a top placing.”

Champagne showers, notwithstanding.

Thunderbird Show Park’s Summer Fort Festival is the third and final week of of the 2019 Summer Series and features six international classes. The week concludes on a high note Sunday, Aug. 25 with the $145,000 CSI4*-W Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Vancouver, presented by Celebrity Cruises, where a field of 40 of the week’s best performing combinations will vie for lucrative prize money and coveted qualifying points for the 2020 World Cup™ Final. The event is the first of 14 legs on the 2019/2020 North American League calendar. Watch it live on FEI TV!