No matter where you are in the world, Irish course designer Alan Wade’s name is synonymous with greatness.

Designing his first track at age 12, he’s now built courses for the world’s most prestigious show jumping venues and events, and is regarded as one of the best in the business. But his rise to greatness ironically came as a result of a lack of greatness in the saddle.

Humble beginnings

If you ask Wade, he’ll tell you he became a course designer, “because I wasn’t quite good enough as a rider.”

Raised in an equestrian family—his father, Tommy, was an international show jumper and the Irish show jumping team chef d’equipe—the bar was set high in the Wade house.

“I was the one they put on sales horses and ponies. If I could ride them and get them sold at home, anyone could ride them,” he smiled. “I would have been quite good at riding—better than most of the population—but I wouldn’t have been good enough in our household.”

Wade opted to take up course designing instead. His father proved to be an excellent teacher when it came to the fundamentals of building a track. While many parents bring home snowglobes and souvenirs to their kids from their travels, Tommy brought young Alan course plans to study from international shows. 

Wade got his start putting courses into action at the local gymkhanas in Tipperary. 

“We’d have one-day shows during the summer and they’d recruit volunteer help just to get them set up. They were official show jumping shows, but it was just at farms around the area. There was always a shortage of help, so that’s where I started. That’s where I learned my trade, out in the field. I’d pick out a couple arenas and try to have courses in a big open field. It sharpened me up. It was good sport.”

Built for the occasion: Notable courses of Wade’s career

Now an FEI Level 4 Course Designer, Wade has designed for the FEI World Championships, the Nations Cup at the Dublin Horse Show, the Rolex Top Ten Final, the FEI World Cup Finals, the CSI5* Major League Show Jumping Finale at Desert International Horse Park, and many others.

A few specific tracks stood out in Wade’s mind as courses that really worked

In 2017, he built the FEI Jumping World Cup Final in Omaha, NE. “The second day—the jump off class—was a very good class,” he said. “It worked well everywhere. It wasn’t too big. It just worked. The [riders] were just tipping, having a rail here and there, and no one was under pressure. We had five or six clears.”

Also prominent in his memory was the first team qualifier at the 2018 World Championships in Tryon, NC, which he built in collaboration with Steve Stephens. With many of the world’s top combinations, and over 120 starters, the task was not small, and neither was the build. 

“We only ended up with a handful of clears, but there were so many four faults in that track,” Wade explained. “There were very few that didn’t get around, but there were very few clear rounds. When everyone walked, they were very happy. And then when they started to ride it, the delicacies in the ride and the distance questions started to come into play. It rode differently for different times of the day. It wasn’t huge. We just had the jumps in the right spot, the delicate material in the right place, and the correct track.”

It’s not only the five-star, 1.60m events that Wade remembers the most fondly. Additionally, he recalls, “a five-year-old qualifier I built for the [Dublin Horse Show]. It was a big grass arena. Even if I built that today it would work. It was a difficult track, it was full height and I made a fence myself they had never seen before just for that. That was one of the first [jumps] I had freehanded. I was happy with the way that day turned out. With over 100 in the class, only seven or eight [jumped clear].”

A mastermind at work

Ten-time Olympian Ian Millar once described Alan Wade’s courses as “subtly difficult.” But the Irishman’s philosophy for achieving that delicate balance is quite simple. 

“The better riders should be rewarded for their abilities to know the test is there and to solve the test with the animal they’re competing on,” Wade explained. “I learn every day but I still continue to stick to what I was taught and what I believe in. I try to produce a ring in the best fashion I can as a course designer.”

Unanimously, what riders tend to like most about Wade’s tracks is how their horses learn and grow as a result of jumping them. His style suits the horses—undoubtedly some more than others—but he’s a horseman above all, something he also learned from his father. 

“I was brought up respecting the horse. They were looked after first and foremost. My father was a great horseman. If we had an unruly horse, he’d have him doing what he wanted in two minutes just by being a horseman. That’s in my DNA.

“I feel the horses can improve over my courses through the course of a week,” Wade continued. “And if they have a rail down there’s normally a simple reason for it. I try to look from the horses’ perspective. I do try to be fair to everyone and I try to be consistent. From 1.0m to 1.60m, it’s the same thought process. I’ll draw it, I’ll put it on the computer and change it, and I consider elements like the sun and the in-gate.” 

Designing in places like Thermal, CA, the sun is of particular consideration. “Starting at 8 a.m., you have to be very careful with the low sun. [I build the course so] there is no fence jumping into the sun with the shadows and all that. In the afternoon, you have to be careful of the opposite of the ring.”

The often giant video boards also play a role, and the in-gate almost always plays a devilish role in one way or another as a class unfolds.

Another factor, the time allowed, is a hot topic currently, with the still-recent change from four seconds to one time penalty to a one-to-one format. Wade’s approach is characteristically straight forward. Once he’s set the time allowed, he rarely alters it.

“If I do change it, I never go down with the time,” he stated. “If it’s too generous, that’s my fault. In my opinion, to go down with the time, you’re actually raising the heights of all the fences on the course. If you go up with the time, you’re reducing the heights of every fence on the course. One second in an international class doesn’t sound like a lot, but it means you can add strides in two places. That could have a big difference on the result. But it’s not an easy thing to get correct consistently.”

As for feedback, Wade is always open to it.

“As a course designer I’m open to complaints. If the [riders] see something they think is wrong, or if they’re any way worried, I always like to check. My courses are basically simple lines and it’s all in front of you. I’m not trying to hide anything. I joke with hunter designers that you could build a hunter derby course on most of the lines I use.”

When it comes to course design at the highest level, one could say Alan Wade has won the game. But there are still riders out there trying to outsmart him every day.

“I had this discussion with an international rider two weeks ago. He said, ‘I have to beat you.’ I said, ‘You don’t have to beat me. If there are 40 people in the Grand Prix, you have to beat the other 39. Maybe you have to solve the test in the first round, but you’re still not beating me. I’m only here to provide the test, you know, to showcase the sport, and to showcase your ability.’”

Whether they “beat” Wade or not, jumping his course is a game most show jumpers enjoy playing. A true artist of the show jumping ring, Wade all but guarantees top sport, always keeping horsemanship front and center. 

“As a course designer you try to control everything so it’s safe, but at the end of the day there are some things that you just have to do your best, and do what you think is fair for the horse and everyone in the competition.”