Paris Olympics’ Course Designer Brings French Flair to Winter Equestrian Festival

February 12. 2024

France’s Gregory Bodo is world renowned as a course designer but it was not until Week 5 of the Winter Equestrian Festival [WEF] that he set foot on US soil for the first time - and in a year when he will be designing the show jumping courses for the Paris Olympics.

“I’ve pursued course designing for 30 years,” said Gregory, who started taking an interest in his equestrian vocation at the age of 15. “Therefore the Olympics is a bit like the holy grail. I think it’s a good stepping stone for starting to travel a bit more in countries that I don’t usually go to - for example the USA. For me this is the first time.”

Gregory is adamant that he is not in the U.S. to share his vision for the design of the Olympic courses. “I have not come to Florida to prepare the riders for the Olympics. I came to build courses as I usually do,” he said. “I rest loyal to my convictions and my philosophy for course design. I came with my ideas and I implemented them as I normally would. I didn’t come here to test things that we are planning for the Olympics. Not at all.”

That said, it appears that he has a certain flair in his designs that riders have noticed. “Myself and Cian [O’Connor] we have jumped Gregory’s courses before so we had a good idea of how he builds,” said Ireland’s Darragh Kenny after winning the Saturday Night Lights $385,000 FEI 5* Grand Prix in which Cian took second. “He builds very technical, very delicate - very much about the rider and how they ride.”

Some US riders were experiencing Gregory’s work for the first time at WEF and the Frenchman is hoping he brought something novel to the show. “I will be happy if I bring something new to the riders,” he said. “There are many riders here who are used to my work because they show in Europe but there are others - American riders - who are not.  I spoke a lot to McLain [Ward] the first day, I had never met him before as he doesn’t really show in Europe - a lot of the big riders I rarely see.”

Fate put Gregory on the road to his passion for course designing when he lived across the street from an equestrian center, in the northern France town of Metz. “I was always drawn to the horse world - to the horses,” he said of himself at seven years old. “So I started riding a pony and then grew into riding horses. I was a decent show jumper and had some very good results.”

In his teenage years he began to take notice of the course designers coming to the equestrian club for competitions. “I was intrigued as to how they did their work,” he said. “Back then it was not like today. There were no computers. They used paper and pen, drew the designs and I always liked to analyze why they designed a line to follow, why they put an oxer or a vertical in a certain place, how they measured the distance and all those elements of course design.”

Gregory asked the course designer - aka ‘chef de piste’ in France - at the equestrian center if he could help and a two-year apprenticeship ensued. “I was pretty good and he noticed,” said Gregory. He then pursued an internship and passed an exam to secure the highest possible level of national qualification as a course designer at 18. His career took off from there.

Gregory Bodo makes his horse show debut in the USA at WEF. Photo: Sarah Eakin for Paper Horse

When at WEF he took into account the special elements of the horse show. “I maintained my system of working,” he said. “And after that I tried to adapt to the American system that is here in Wellington with 12 weeks of competition -  when the horses are ‘at home’ every week and they know the place by heart. These are elements that you need to consider.”

Kent Farrington, who has not jumped a Gregory Bodo course before, was first to appreciate the differences when he won Thursday’s Grand Prix qualifier. “Kent said in his interview after his win that it was not the norm here to have a jump off like that,” said Gregory.  “Going all over the ring with the big gallops and turns that were at the same time, quite tight. So you needed a horse with a lot of experience and one that is fast. 

“For the first round I built a course with an open movement at the start of the course so that the horses were really opening up and then I put in a measure to shorten the stride and to put them off balance. If they are off balance and the rider cannot preserve the same rhythm, you will instigate faults. I also try to find things that are a little delicate, very strong, very big but delicate and subtle. I prefer to work like that. I don’t want the horses to go hard all the time. I like to see the little faults here and there. It is better in the final analysis to have a course where the faults fall a little bit from everywhere and not only in one place.”

The course design for the Paris Olympics is underway but in the early stages. The jumps have been approved by the Olympic Committee and Gregory and his team are working on early plans for the layout in the team competition.  “It’s the first draft,” he said. “Little by little it will come together and at the end of April, beginning of May, we will finalize it. It is a lot of work.”

For Gregory, it is clear that course designing is his passion and watching him move around the International Ring at WEF, placing plants for the final touches, it is clear that attention to detail is important. He also recognizes that show jumping is a crowd pleaser.

“In the jump off I’m also thinking about the excitement for the spectators - they have to see a great sport,” he said. “It’s the climax of the competition and those that have taken the risks and those that have been quick and have the best connection with their horses will win.”

Written by Sarah Eakin for Paper Horse.