Daniel Bluman chose Apardi as his mount for the Rio Olympics (shown here competing in the Global Champions Tour in France this spring). | © Pierre Constabadie/Arnd.nl
Daniel Bluman is not afraid to gallop down to a 7-foot-3 wall and trust his horse to clear it. He is undaunted by foreign crowds or unfamiliar riding systems. He looks beyond national borders and across oceans for the best possible instruction—even if that means scrapping everything he knows and starting over again from scratch. Already a veteran Olympian and World Equestrian Games competitor (representing his native Colombia) at the age of 26, this rising star is game to do whatever it takes to reach his lifelong goal: become one of the best jumper riders in the world.
Daniel takes Casual Pleasure, an 8-year-old Westfalen gelding, for a stroll around his farm in Wellington. | © Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA
Perseverance is in Daniel’s blood. His Polish-born grandfather was a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to Colombia after being liberated at the end of World War II. Daniel grew up in Medellin, the second-largest city in Colombia. “It was everything you’d see in a typical city here—good neighborhood, nice school, surrounded by mountains and countryside,” he says. His passion for horses was inspired by his older cousins, especially Ilan, who was a multi-time Colombian national champion in the Children and Junior Jumper divisions. “He was really good and I really looked up to him, so that kept me wanting to get better and better.”
Daniel began taking longe lessons at age 3, riding on a vaulting-like cinched saddle pad instead of a saddle, so his balance developed quickly. He was riding small horses (there are no ponies in Colombia) on his own by the age of 5. “When I was growing up, the level of the Children’s and Junior Jumpers was really strong globally, but the really good riders left to continue their careers outside of the country. Most of the trainers who stayed did not have the technical knowledge to make you a really proper rider. So we compensated by not being afraid. Riders in Colombia are pretty gutsy and effective—but not so much pretty.”
Daniel celebrates after a show- jumping round aboard Sancha in Wellington last year. | © Shannon Brinkman/Arnd.nl
There are no hunter or equitation classes in Colombia, so Daniel went straight into the jumpers. By age 6 he was competing in the 0.60- and 0.70-meter classes. He quickly learned one of the most important lessons of his career: “You’re only as good as the horses you have. My parents supported us 100 percent, but it wasn’t with horses that were very expensive.” His cousins became a great asset. When they graduated to higher divisions, they passed their outgrown horses—mostly Thoroughbreds and Thoroughbred-warmblood crosses—on to him.
Coming to America
When Daniel was 10 years old, his parents decided to move to the U.S. to escape the Colombian economic recession as well as ongoing armed conflicts between government forces and rebel groups. The family moved to southern Florida, where Daniel and his brother, Steven, could go to school and learn English while their father commuted back to Colombia to maintain his textile company.
“That was the most important turning point in my life,” says Daniel. “I wouldn’t be where I am now in the sport if we hadn’t moved.” Living only an hour away from Wellington, home of the Winter Equestrian Festival, he says, “I got to see the big guys doing the grand prix—McLain Ward, Margie Engle. I was able to learn from watching and from competing against the best riders in my age group—Brianne Goutal, Addison Phillips, Aimee Aron, Hardin Towell, Charlie Jayne.”
Daniel’s cousin Ilan Bluman, also a successful jumper rider, is a key member of Daniel’s team. | © Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA
Daniel began training with a local Venezuelan trainer, Francisco Martinez, who provided him with many riding opportunities. “He always kept me mounted,” he says. “After school, I would go directly to the farm and ride all the way until 7 or 8 at night, riding everything there was to ride. And because he had one groom for 16 horses, we also had to tack up and wash the horses and wrap them. So he taught me how to be a horseman in many ways.”
Francisco also gave Daniel some clients’ horses to compete. “He gave me a lot of different horses to ride and let me know that I had a shot at it. That gave me a lot of confidence.” Even so, he says, “I still felt very South American in a lot of ways. I was a very short 10-year-old doing jumper classics like Marshall & Sterling. Ten-year-olds in America don’t do Children’s Jumpers. And I couldn’t have looked more South American. In Colombia, we wore white breeches every day. There was no beige. So when I first came here, I was the only one wearing white breeches in the Children’s division. And my jacket was red. Now, looking back, it’s kind of funny.”
At the end of the Florida circuit, many of the other top riders moved up north to continue their competition tours. Because of his family’s limited finances, Daniel had to stay in Florida year-round. “But I was able to compete in Wellington in January, February and March. That was always a big deal.”
Ups and Downs
When Daniel moved up to the High Junior division at the age of 13, he began riding with veteran grand prix champion Debbie Stephens. “That was another turning point for me,” he says. “She took me under her wing and Americanized me. She dressed me up in American-style breeches and jackets and ties. She introduced me to big riders. And she polished my riding style, made me ride in a more proper position. Most importantly, she gave me that American touch that is famous worldwide—the discipline of keeping things clean and organized.”
Daniel trained with Debbie for two years. She took him to shows he hadn’t been to before and gave him sales horses to compete in the Junior division. “That took me to another level,” he says. He won several classes in Florida and Kentucky, including the 2004 $2,500 Junior Jumper High, Power & Speed class at WEF, with Christine Firmin Didot’s horse Gullit Shagal.
Later that year, though, Daniel’s family decided to move back to Colombia, which he describes as a “total tragedy” for his riding progress. “I was hitting the best moment in my career, competing all over the United States with the best riders at the time,” he explains. “At that point I knew that maybe someday I could be a professional rider. It was very difficult. But family was more important. That’s how I was raised—family first.”
Soon after returning to Colombia, Daniel traveled to Simi Valley, California, to compete in the 2004 FEI Children’s International Jumping Final. Riding a borrowed horse, a grey Holsteiner named Lorin, owned by the Dotson family, he won the event. “But after that,” he says, “my level really collapsed. I got stuck. I went back to the same trainer and tried to do the best I could. I kept riding every day, but I didn’t get any better. It was a shocker. It was like taking a step back.”
Every winter, the Blumans returned to the States to compete at Wellington for a few weeks. This was especially discouraging for Daniel. “All the riders who were competing against me years before were skyrocketing. They started jumping their first grand prix and did Young Riders. And I didn’t. Actually, I started jumping even lower than I was jumping when I left. So that took a big toll on me—but it was also motivation for me to get back.” One of the challenges, he adds, was the frequency at which Colombian horses went lame. After spending time in the U.S. system, he could see that these problems resulted from bad footing, a less sophisticated training program and inferior horse care.
Back in the USA
After those three years in Colombia, Daniel’s family returned to Florida, just in time for him to finish his last six months of high school. He then enrolled at Florida Atlantic University, where he earned an associate degree in business. Meanwhile, he trained with grand prix rider Todd Minikus as a working student for six months and then began working with Venezuelan Olympian Pablo Barrios.
In 2008, following Pablo’s recommendation, the Blumans purchased a talented investment horse named Secret, who became Daniel’s first grand prix partner. “He was a fantastic horse,” he says. “I sold him six months later for a big profit.” With that money, he bought a truck and trailer and started his own training business. “I said, ‘OK, now I’m going to do it the right way. I can go north in the summer like the other guys.’”
Fatalis Fatum helped Daniel earn valuable experience in the international classes. | © Sportfot
The focus of Daniel’s business then was the same as it is today: buying affordable young horses and training and selling them for a profit. However, he made an exception to this rule when Pablo found him a 14-year-old Hanoverian gelding named Fatalis Fatum. An experienced grand prix horse with plenty of miles still in his tank, the chestnut with the big white blaze became 18-year-old Daniel’s ticket into the international ring. “With him, I jumped everything there was to jump around the country.”
Fatalis Fatum and Daniel at the Palm Beach Winter Equestrian Festival in 2009 | © Sportfot
Daniel’s transition from national competitions to the “big jumps” of the international level wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. In 2009, he rode Fatalis in the American Invitational. “I think I knocked down every fence there was to knock down in that stadium. I ended up retiring. And my whole family had come to watch. It was terrible. The horse was not really ready for that level—and neither was I. But it was a good experience.”
Undeterred, Daniel went on to compete Fatalis in Kentucky and then won three grands prix in a row that fall in Toronto, Saugerties and Culpeper. “That boosted my confidence to think, ‘OK, at least at the national level, I can do it.’”
The following year brought more firsts for Daniel: his first Nations Cup, his first five-star grand prix, his first trip to Spruce Meadows in Calgary and his first World Equestrian Games. But it also brought a near-career-ending setback. While at Spruce Meadows, Fatalis colicked severely. “After surgery, they gave him a 50/50 chance,” says Daniel. Once again, he was reminded that you’re only as good as the horses you have. “He was really the only good horse I had. I actually thought of quitting and going back to Colombia to work in the family business so I could make money outside the horse industry to support my riding.” (Fortunately, Fatalis recovered and went on to jump many more rounds over the years for both Daniel and his brother.)
Daniel was already discussing the possibility of moving back to Colombia with his parents when a new opportunity arose. A Mexican rider agreed to trade a grand prix jumper named Puertas Paraiso for one of Daniel’s promising young horses. Puertas Paraiso had chronic lameness issues, but Daniel managed to get him sound by swimming him twice a day and riding him less frequently. “I was able to get back into the grand prix ring and I got really lucky and qualified for the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky that summer.”
Once again, Daniel, who was only 20 at the time, was a bit out of his depth, but he welcomed the opportunity to compete on the world stage. “I really stood no chance at all. I was going to lose for sure. But it was great. I got my first chance to see the Europeans I had never seen before live. It was very scary at first, but then very good. I was one of the youngest riders in the competition. I had one down in the first round and then in the Nations Cup I had three down and circled once. So it wasn’t really good, but I competed and it was a great experience for me.” (He retired Puertas Paraiso from competition afterward due to his soundness problems.)
With this international exposure, Daniel began to attract sponsors and investors, who helped him continue his buying-and-selling business. Together, he and his biggest supporter at the time, Leonardo Aljure, purchased a young mare he found in Mexico while visiting friends, Sancha LS. “She wasn’t an expensive horse,” he says. “We thought she was going to be more of a Junior horse or a speed horse. She was always very careful and had great quality, great bloodlines, but didn’t seem like she was going to be able to jump very big. She was very nice and fun to ride, so I bought her and started training her. And the season of 2011 in Wellington she stepped it up.” At the end of WEF, Daniel and Sancha jumped one of only three clean rounds in her first 1.50-meter class.
With this new star in his string, Daniel was even more determined to succeed at the international level. So he went straight to the rider ranked No. 1 in the world at the time: Canadian Olympic gold medalist Eric Lamaze. Daniel had watched Eric and the brilliant stallion Hickstead at Spruce Meadows and was mesmerized. “They were just amazing. The whole thing was just magical. They were a huge inspiration to me.”
Serendipitously, a mutual friend introduced Daniel to Eric on the golf course. Daniel jumped at the chance to ask his idol for help preparing for the Pan American Games, for which he and Sancha had qualified. “He very generously agreed. He and his sponsors, the Zieglers, invited me to train with them on their farm in Wellington.” Once again, Daniel immersed himself in a new training and horse-care system, learning everything he could. “They had a top-of-the-art facility with top-of-the-art grooms, managers, everything. Eric taught me so much—how the business works, how he thought the ideal plan was to make a business in the United States but also compete in Europe to keep your level up. That’s when I made the decision to try to do that. It was important to me to stay close to my family in Florida, but I had to find a way to compete in Europe as much as I could.”
Partnering with Sancha, Daniel rode in his first Olympic Games in London in 2012. | © Arnd Bronkhorst
With Eric’s support, Daniel and Sancha placed seventh in the 2011 Pan Am Games. The following year, they accompanied him to Europe, along with another of Leonardo’s horses, a young Holsteiner stallion named Clyde (who was later gelded after being sold). Competing in Europe was “terrifying,” he says. “It was a completely different system with all those amazing riders and horses that I had only watched on TV—very scary stuff. But I had Eric by my side and he made me feel really comfortable.” A few top placings in Europe—including a four-star grand prix win in France with one of Eric’s horses—combined with big wins at WEF and Spruce Meadows qualified Daniel for the 2012 London Olympics, where he rode Sancha to an impressive 20th place individually.
“The Olympics were great,” says Daniel. “But after that, Eric decided to take a break from riding, so I had to go back to my usual life, back to reality, the clients, the sale horses. No top-of-the-art facility. The dream was over. Sancha took a long break because she was so young—she was only 9—and I wanted her to relax.” But the lull didn’t last long. That New Year’s Eve, he received a surprising phone call from one of his lifelong heroes, legendary Brazilian Olympian Nelson Pessoa. “It was almost midnight in Colombia and he was in Europe, so it had to be very early in the morning there. He said he had watched me in the Olympics and thought I had a lot of potential and would like to train me.”
Thrilled at the opportunity, Daniel spent that winter training with Nelson in Florida. “He completely changed my career once again. I asked him millions of questions and he just took it down to basics and explained everything to me—from little things like how to place a bridle properly, how the saddle has to fit the horse properly. The dressage was completely changed. He emphasized keeping horses fit and very sound, never showing them more than you need to. He always said that horses have X-amount of jumps in their lives and riders have to use those jumps carefully. If I had to pick one person out of everybody in the world who influenced my life the most, it would definitely be him.”
After training intensely with Nelson for several months, Daniel set up a new satellite base for his business near Nelson’s barn in Belgium. He no longer takes lessons with Nelson, but continues to consult with him whenever he has training questions. “Today, I understand more in depth what he taught me. Many of the things he was explaining to me then I really couldn’t understand because I couldn’t feel it. As I learned more and more, more of the things he told me made sense.”
One of the lessons Nelson, Eric and other top trainers taught Daniel is the importance of having a great team—experienced, knowledgeable grooms, vets and farriers. For example, he attributes Sancha’s continued success to his farrier, Drew Golden. “She didn’t have the best feet when we first got her and he’s made her unbelievably strong.” He calls his vet, Dr. Jorge Gomez, “the backbone of the organization. To have him by my side, giving me his expertise and also his friendship has been key to us making it where we are now.” And he gives special thanks to Camilo Robayo, a close friend since Daniel and he were 14, who shows the stable’s young horses and trains its clients. “He has been my right hand, helping me ride and keep the organization going smooth for the past four years.”
All of this expert input has produced tremendous results. In 2013, Daniel and Clyde won the Land Rover Puissance in Dublin, Ireland, clearing 2.20 meters (about 7-foot-3). He competed in the 2014 WEG with Sancha and then rode her to a team sixth place and individual 11th place at last year’s Pan Am Games. He also picked up some bigger sponsors, who helped to cover his travel expenses.
With the help of investors, he’s continued to bring along talented young horses, including a Dutch Warmblood mare named Believe, with whom he won last year’s $212,000 U.S. Open CSI*** Grand Prix at the Rolex Central Park Horse Show and this summer’s 1.45-meter Speed Class in Chantilly, France, and a Dutch Warmblood stallion named Apardi, with whom he placed third in the Global Champions Tour Grand Prix in Chantilly. Daniel was selected to compete in this year’s Rio Olympics as an individual on either Apardi or Sancha. He decided to take Apardi. (Editor’s Note: The Olympic show jumping was beginning at press time. We will update you on how Daniel and Apardi did next month.)
Even with all of this success, Daniel continues to develop a team that will help him aim higher. He and his cousin Ilan recently moved the Florida base to East Norwich, New York, where they hope to grow their business and attract more investors. Daniel also now buys, trains and sells horses with internationally renowned Israeli horse dealers Ilan Ferder and Tal Milstein. “They have contributed a lot to my recent success,” he says.
Armed with the courage of his Colombian roots, knowledge from the best riders in the world and an ever-improving string of horses, Daniel Bluman is just getting started.
Living in the horse show “bubble,” it’s sometimes easy to forget how much poverty still exists in the rest of the world. But Daniel Bluman never has. “I come from a country that has a lot of poverty, so I’m very aware of how privileged we are,” he says. “We pay crazy amounts of money to show, for the vet, the farriers. With one fraction of that money, you can feed multiple families for a whole year in nations such as Colombia.”
Daniel got involved with the charity JustWorld International when he was a teenager. “I donated the best I could, some money and time, volunteering for charity events. After I started being more successful in my business, I associated with another charity, Fundación Social Antorchas de Vida, which is based in my hometown in Colombia.” Antorchas provides meals, support and academic assistance to students and adolescents living in high-risk situations. “We’ve raised over $150,000 in two years. I thank all of the donors for their generosity.
“I love charity work,” Daniel continues. “I think everyone should take some time to do it. It’s really important.” For more information on Antorchas and JustWorld International, respectively, go to www.blumanequestrian.com and www.justworldinternational.org.
This article originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.