A steep snow-covered mountain and a flat grand-prix arena where top-caliber horses negotiate a course of large obstacles may seem to have little in common, but Olympic jumping silver medalist Peter Leone knows there is quite a harmony in the sporting action that takes place at both locations.
“The beauty and detail of a well-ridden jumping round is similar to a beautifully skied run where the skier becomes part of the trail,” says Peter, who has made a career competing with horses but still finds time to hit the slopes.
“When a particular portion of a ski run is skied extremely well, it looks beautiful and effortless, like the skier is hardly doing anything,” he adds. “It’s the same thing when a top rider jumps an incredibly difficult course. It looks so beautiful and easy because the detail and skill set are so extraordinary. It actually transcends sport and becomes an art form.
In competition, athletes in both sports compete against the clock, racing around or down their respective courses to pass through the timers first, an “obvious overlap,” Peter says.
For all those reasons, he believes that ski-racing fans would enjoy and relate to the competition of the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League, a series of 14 events on the East and West Coasts, Canada and Mexico that has riders vying for a coveted spot at the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final in March 29–April 2, 2017 in Omaha, Nebraska. In each qualifying class, riders guide their horses over a first-round course of jumps up to 1.50–1.60 meters tall (approximately 4-feet-11 to 5-feet-3). Those with the least number of rails down and within the time allowed then compete over a shortened course. Horse-and-rider partnerships with the fastest time and least number of rails down win.
“As a skier, the sport of jumping is an automatic draw,” Peter says. “Tapping into the instincts of being a skier is so helpful, especially when competing against the clock, not only as a rider but as a coach teaching a student to win”
Growing Up Skiing
Peter grew up skiing with his older brother, Armand, and younger brother, Mark. The trio also has ridden together as a team that represented the U.S. in FEI Nations Cup™ Jumping series, where national squads from around the world compete for one of the most coveted prizes in this equestrian discipline.
The brothers’ late parents, physicians Armand and Rita Leone, believed in having their sons experience a variety of sports. So off they all went to Quebec, where Peter learned to ski as a child. In his youth, the ski trips were more frequent than they are today, but the now 56-year-old competitor, explains that the event schedule wasn’t as busy in those days. Whenever he has the chance, though, he returns to the ski slopes whether it be in the province of Quebec or the challenging Rocky Mountains out west.
The trails he selects there are never easy. “The faster and harder the better,” Peter says. “Just like in riding, if you ride to not get hurt, you most likely will. It is the same in skiing. It’s all in or not at all.
“You have to have respect and manage risk. Part of that is not skiing or riding defensively. The way to minimize risk is embrace the performance, embrace the challenge, embrace going into the fall line and attacking the mountain. The competitive rider must embrace jumping into a line of fences and going forward to the next jump, not landing and pulling the horse, because ‘I’m not so sure I want to jump this triple combination.’”
Asked why he enjoys skiing, Peter rhapsodizes, “It’s the exhilaration of being outdoors atop a huge mountain in breathtaking beauty and battling the elements of cold and snow to nail a great “run” or boogieing in the bumps or GSing in a sweater and sunglasses—the experience is heaven!
“Skiing gave me the opportunity to apply and express myself to experience an athletic joy that is personally fulfilling. It has become one of those simple life activities that makes me feel ‘just plain good.’ I get the same pleasure out of riding. Another wonderful thing is you can do both sports for a lifetime. In most sports [when you reach a certain age] you can’t do anything but watch.”
But he also advises, “You have to have respect for the physical challenge ahead of you. In skiing, it’s you and the mountain. With riding, it’s you, the horse and the challenge of competing that make equestrian sport so special. A horse is not a piece of equipment. He has good days and bad days, which adds to the challenge of performing successfully.
Peter draws parallels between the two sports: “The physical activity of it, the thrill of applying your skill set to the unknown. No matter how many times you ski a particular trail, it’s always different. The temperature, amount of snowfall and the condition of the snow make the same mountain and its ski trails different every day.
“Almost everything I’m saying about the two sports is interchangeable. Whether you go down a friendly trail or one of the most difficult trails on the mountain, each day—the sun, the wind and whether the trail had been partially groomed or not groomed—changes the challenge. That adds a component of the unknown that makes it exciting,” he says. “It’s the same thing with the jumping. Even the same arena is different from competition to competition, depending on the weather conditions, the time of day, how bright the sun is, which creates shadows in front of and behind the obstacles, or how hard the wind may be blowing, which makes the jumps move or blow down and creates distractions outside the arena due to tents flapping and umbrellas popping open.
“When you’re skiing down a pitch, you need to work with the snow, the bumps and the turns as they present themselves. Sometimes the snow is slow, because it’s a little bit moist, sometimes it’s hard-packed and fast due to cold temperatures or extensive trail grooming.” In jumping, “When you jump in a grass field that got rained on for the last two days,” traveling across the ground is more laborious and results in a slower speed.” Jumping out of very wet ground requires more power from the horse due to the mushy and deep conditions – this is another example of how the challenge changes constantly in this case due to the weather.
In today’s sport we frequently jump on modern all-weather surfaces and with “the super footing we have these days,” the course and stridings between the jumps ride differently. He noted often a line that would ride in seven strides in a previous era now would be ridden in six strides because the horses easily can lengthen their stride on the new state-of-the-art surfaces.
Peter, who also coaches other riders, finds common ground for his explanations of how to handle a jumping course “whenever I work with a riding student who is a skier. They understand carving a turn and a high turn where you initiate your turn maybe 15 feet before the actual pole you’re making the turn around.”
Although no longer is involved in the ski racing he enjoyed as a youth, Peter notes, “Tapping into the instincts of being a skier makes me a better rider, especially riding against the clock. When you compete, it is the skier in you that helps you win.”
For more information about jumping and the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American League, go to www.practicalhorsemanmag.com/worldcup.