Most riders, upon entering the ring for a big class, will show their horse a tricky turn or a potentially spooky obstacle.

Watch Gregory Wathelet (BEL) and you’ll see him do both those things, then pick up a big gallop and sweep the arena before heading to the first fence. But it’s not the atmosphere he’s familiarizing his horse with—it’s the rhythm.

“I’m the kind of rider who likes to ride with rhythm. So in the first round I always put the horse forwards because, for me, the sport is forward. It’s not pulling or waiting,” he explained.

“And for sure, when it’s a jump off then I start from far away to get the rhythm because I find if you—it depends on the horses, but for most of them—if you start too late that they get a little bit stressed and confused. So, if I start like 50 meters before, they are already in the rhythm and then you can start with a good rhythm and keep it. That’s normally the plan.”

It’s a plan that has produced consistent results for Wathelet this Desert Circuit season at Desert International Horse Park (DIHP). The Belgian Olympian has won six international classes over three weeks of competition, including two with Berline du Maillet Z. On Friday, he collected his latest win with the $145,100 Pomponio Ranch CSI4* Welcome Prix 1.50m.

Forty-two horses contested the Alan Wade designed track. Of the 15 combinations to advance to the jump off, Wathelet qualified two mounts—Berline du Maillet Z and Clarity—and set the time to beat early in the order in 36.34 seconds. It proved uncatchable.

It was a good jump off,” said Wathelet, “at the end there were many clears, almost too many. Maybe the time allowed was a bit too easy.

“I knew with 15 or 14 riders it is going to be fast and I know that my mare is very fast. I saw the jump off of Conor [Swail and Theo 160]. It was fast, but I knew I could take him because it was the same amount of strides. I can push with my mare and then I get a bit faster.”

Wathelet took a risk with a sharp inside turn from fence one two and galloped into the double. “I know she’s so careful and clever that I can do it. And then the rest [of the short course] I did the plan a little bit more safe,” he explained.

Week VI of Desert Circuit has brought an influx of world class talent to California. World No. 5 Conor Swail (IRL), Olympians Kent Farrington (USA), Tiffany Foster (CAN) and Katie Laurie (AUS), and World Championship veteran Erynn Ballard all qualified horses for the jump off on Friday. The strong field didn’t play into Wathelet’s strategy, however. He’s been building the 12-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare to Friday’s class.

“The horses [have gone] well since I am here. Why should change something? For sure, I did the plan for that mare to jump that big class because I know she has to fight for it. She’s so careful but I cannot jump three days in a row that kind of class. That’s why I did the plan.

Show jumping continues through the weekend with the $38,700 Pomponio Ranch CSI4* 1.45m Classic and $50,000 Whittier Trust National Grand Prix on Saturday and $216,000 Adequan CSI4* Grand Prix on Sunday at 1pm.

Feature image: ©DIHP/Megan Giese Photography