If you’ve been following the Major League Show Jumping (MLSJ) league-dominating Helios team at all this season, you may be wondering what’s in their secret sauce. You’re not alone.
Ask any of the six team members—among them Ashlee Bond (ISR), Karl Cook (USA), Eugenio Garza Perez (MEX), Bliss Heers (USA), Simon McCarthy (IRL), or Nicolette Hirt (USA)—and they’ll likely say the same thing. In a sport where riding as part of a team is the anomaly, it feels good to have like-minded friends at your back.
“When you’re positive and you know you have a team behind you that supports you, it changes your whole mentality,” Heers said after her recent, career-best win in the GNP Seguros CSI5* Grand Prix in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. “You stop thinking ‘what if’ [and you] start thinking, ‘let’s go!’”
That’s no accident for team manager and Israeli Olympian Ashlee Bond; though Bond, herself, would likely be the last one to take credit for it.
“I don’t look at myself as the team leader. I just manage [the paperwork and other stuff] that nobody else wants to deal with. But as far as really managing us as a team, we all kind of hold that role,” she explains. “I feel like we’re all equal in our decision-making.
“We’re just, like, this dysfunctional family, and it’s awesome.”
Though Bond admits she’s “a little OCD at times”—an ideal tendency for paper-pushing—it’s her world-stage experience that’s likely had the biggest impact on Helios’s 2022 prospects. Last year, Bond finished 11th individually at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, an experience that informs not only the importance she places on team-building, but on making the most of the MLSJ format.
“When I was in the Olympics, the Swedish team literally spent every minute together. It’s not an accident that they ended up winning everything. They’re a very small team, but they are supporters of each other, and they lift each other up, and make each other better. I really feel like that is what I’ve been trying to foster.
“I know it’s a much lower level than the Olympics, but [also], having to jump with three people, and having it all count is great experience for the Olympics [where you also] don’t have a drop score. It just gives all of us on these teams so much more experience dealing with that kind of pressure.”
Bond, now in her second season with MLSJ, was equally pragmatic when it came to choosing members for the 2022 Helios squad. “Eugenio and I were teammates last year and we wanted to be teammates again,” she says.
“Our personalities get along really well, and I think we’re realistic, in a lot of ways, on [what kind of] personalities we would jive well with. We’re very competitive, and we wanted each person on the team to have those same qualities; nobody’s uptight, nobody’s passive aggressive, everyone speaks their mind. They’re all winners and they’re [all] team players. I wanted everyone to be someone who also had the same drive that we did.”
One person whose name came up early in Helios recruiting discussions? California rider Karl Cook—though actually getting Cook to sign-on would prove to take some doing.
“I went and really tried hard to get Karl on the team,” explains Bond, who says Cook was a hard ‘no,’ on her first attempt. Fortunately, the Helios team leader had another ace up her sleeve.
“I went to his mom [Pomponio Ranch’s Signe Ostby],” Bond says. “[She] was like, ‘What? Tell me about this.’ And then she was really into it. And I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to go talk to Karl again.’”
The second time was the charm, and Bond’s faith paid off in Cook, who is currently ranked #5 in the MLSJ individual standings, the highest ranking for a member of the Helios team. But don’t expect that that earns him any special treatment among his compatriots.
“It’s always a team effort; we all come together,” says Bond. “We kind of have an idea of who wants to jump [and] what horses they’ll have at each show. We all agreed in the beginning, before this started, that we all had to approve of the horses we were going to use, so we couldn’t just use any horse we wanted. But, fortunately, everyone on our team [has good horses], so there’s never been an issue.”
Also key to the Helios team gameplan: An agreement that every member participates in at least five legs of the competition, and an agreement among the team to save their strongest horses for the Final at Desert International Horse Park in December, where points count double.
“We want to come out really strong there and hopefully seal the deal,” Bond says.
But if all this sounds a little more like practical thinking and a little less like some kind of secret sauce, you’re not wrong. According to Bond, that’s the “sauce” in a nutshell—a thoughtful plan, the occasional group dinner, and a genuine appreciation for your fellow teammates. Taken together, it’s a game plan that’s working wonders for Helios, not just on the MLSJ leaderboard, but in each rider’s individual game as well.
“People don’t realize how important it is to have your team [genuinely] rooting for you,” Bond says. “It’s just in the back of my mind to make sure that we keep that feeling, and make it grow in a completely natural and genuine way.
“I’ve ridden on a lot of Nations Cup teams for the U.S. first, and then for Israel, and I know how important it is to have camaraderie and team morale. And I know what it’s like to not have it and it’s really detrimental,” she adds.
“This team, we are behind each other 150% for every class. For the Grand Prix, we all want to be on the podium together. Obviously, we all want to win, but at the end I’m happy if I’m [on] there with Helios. I think we all feel that way and it just changes how you ride. It changes everything.
“I think if more people understood that, they would have more success.”