Photo by Andrew Craig. Image Copyright © 2007 Central Equine, LLC.
A horse farm is just a horse farm, an equestrian facility just a site to hold a show, unless, of course, its design is in the hands of Montreal's Robert Jolicoeur, arguably one of the world's most accomplished equestrian designers. Then, plain acreage becomes a gorgeous, state-of-the-art backdrop to exciting, world-class "destination" show jumping and dressage or transformed into tranquil, private homes and farms for horseown- ers and horselovers everywhere. Robert recently took time out of his busy schedule — which now includes designing the new Wellington, Fla., show grounds — to talk with Central Equine about his start in the business, his passions, and today's design challenges.
CE: Did you have horses growing up? Were horses a focal point in your family?
My father had a farm with horses. I realized very quickly that I was not an Olympic rider. We had a young rider, Michel Vaillancourt. My brother trained him, and he became a silver medalist at the Montreal Olympics. He had a lot of talent. And, so I thought, “I better do something else.”
What helps a lot, to be a landscape architect, is the education period of being close to the horses and trainers. Also, when you’ve worked on the show grounds, it makes a real difference of visiting show grounds and working at the show. A very big difference. It can look pretty – it also may be functional, but when you work there, you can understand how nice it is to have two entrances, one for the services – the trucks, the vans, the suppliers — and one for the horses.
My younger brother Pierre is a very good trainer, so he’s part of the horse world. He goes all over America, Europe, and everything. He knows everyone, all the top trainers. He gives me a link to the professional world.
CE: You have an enormous range of accomplishments: riding, coaching, FEI stewarding, course design, equestrian- facility design. What was the time- line for all of this?
It came slowly. At first, I was a rider, and then became a course designer, and then was involved in the Montreal ’76 Olympics, as a course designer. After that experience, I started to do a lot of courses, probably doing 30-40 shows a year; it was pretty demanding all that traveling. And then I realized what I was building — I was building a course — but by the time we finished on Sunday, there was nothing left of it. So in 1978, I went into landscape architecture, studying for four years, and hoping that maybe it could be useful in the horse world. I did some scenic parks, and stuff like that, but basically, my intention, because my passion is horses, was to be involved in show grounds, with nice grass fields – I really like grass fields – and also try to design the farms. People need help there, because these undertakings are very expensive.
You have to understand that at that time, it was the beginning of the [horse-show] industry. The horses were not that expensive, the footing was not that much of an issue. Then, slowly, people started to say, “We need better footing, we need better equipment, we need better places.
CE: Looking back on this, what are your thoughts on your time as a course designer?
Course design is pretty demanding, because you don’t want to do the same thing every time. And, as you know, the courses need to be different; with five to six classes a day. The more you do it, the quicker you get.
A course designer should have in mind, to improve horses and the riders. And I think that’s what trainers want course designers to do. To get better, not to get worse. I think what is important is the sport, and that people learn.
CE: Any comments on course design today?
The equipment is so much better. The rails were much heavier, the cups two times deeper. The equipment is getting light, very light. In the big class, they should not over-use it. I would say that at some shows [this lighter equipment] is overused. It’s not helping the horses. They have to jump so high and so hard to clear the jump, it’s pretty demanding. I think we should be very careful and sure not get too much lighter, because right now, it’s on the border and a lot of places is too light. It’s OK to have a skinny fence once in a awhile, but not a course full of skinny fences.
CE: How do you go about designing a project?
The first thing you should do is create a program. Who are the users? How many of them? And try to verify if you are on the right track for the design and use. Even for a private farm. It’s very important, as people very often start to build without such a program in place. “I want 40 stalls.” “ Why 40? Do you need 40?” “Oh, that’s a good question.”
So many times, people start to build without a program. They kind of gesture, “Put in a building there; put the other one over there.” It becomes incoherent. These mistakes cost a lot of money to fix, and nothing on the farm works. Even for a private farm, you should have a program first.
Circulation and safety are very important. What I mean by that is that from the barn, the major area where you work, you want to be able to see the riding ring. If something happens, you should have an eye on it. You also should have the eye on the paddocks. That’s what we call the flow, the circulation, the safety. After that, you start to plump up the buildings and stuff like that. I think people should have the full vision so that the dream will happen, not the nightmare. Too many times, people haven’t thought about that. “Where is the storage building to be?” “Oh, I didn’t think about that.” You should have a full vision of the project.
When you have a piece of land, you would like to maximize the use of it, yet also it should be aesthetically pleasing. Horses are beautiful and should be presented in a very beautiful way. My mission is to build beautiful farms, and each one is a challenge. I never tried to copy and always try to be innovative, because everybody knows each other [laughter], and we don’t want someone saying, “Well! Robert did this, and it’s a copy!” You just want to be sure it’s really very innovative.
Lately people understand that land is very valuable, and that land is being spoiled with bad projects, or it’s badly treated. We see the laws, and every place the laws make it more difficult to have a project built. We shouldn't fight this. We know that the laws are difficult, but there is a reason why, because some people abused the land, and that in many places the water table is polluted. We are all responsible for it. I agree 100% . I try to be creative in these approaches there is a lot of improvement to be done.
CE: In terms of what, exactly?
To be greener. Minimize the environmental impact, fertilizers, better use of the water. There is a lot of evaporation, loss of a lot of water. Also, energy use. Maybe there is a better way to approach all of this.
Do you design primarily for the Olympic disciplines or do you design for other disciplines? Horses are horses. When you talk about show grounds, you are talking multi-use. State fair grounds are definitely multi-use. A dog show during the day, rock concert at night, then bring the dirt and the horses in.
CE: Do you design products, such as footing, or do developers and designers come to you?
We test new products all the time for building design and footing. Engineers and designers come to us with their new products. We have a lot of projects, and so we can recommend prod- ucts. We don’t sell them. We analyze them for their quality, their durability. And also using the most innovative design and materials as possible, to do it smarter.
CE: Are you finding you are adapting your designs and materials for the changes in climate and, say, the accelerated frequency of the 100-year storm?
Oh, yes, definitely. You just have to address it. If the horses are living there all the time, say, in Florida, you have to take this into consideration. Things like trees are very important. I’ve been working in Palm Beach for 25 years. Some trees are very good in storms, some are not. People don’t think that it’s important. But, you should see it after a storm. What a disaster it can be if you have the wrong trees. You don’t see too many palm trees on the ground after a storm. They move, they go left and right. They’re a native tree, so they are very resilient.
CE: In a storm, what is more damaging, the wind or rain?
Both. You start with the wind. After that, it rains, and then the eye of the storm has the wind coming back the other direction. For some reason, after the last storm in Wellington, all the trees were facing the ocean — you would expect that they would be facing west. The wind came back west, and it made a lot of damage.
CE: In addition to building a sturdy farm, what else is important for a well-designed farm or facility?
The farm has to be safe, functional, safe for driving, and attractive. Don’t forget, for everyone who is working on the farm. You might have to hire one more person if it’s not functional!
The paddock fencing needs to be safe. If the horse can get hurt, it will get hurt. Address poisonous trees and plants. Everything counts.
Water management is very important. Water management for example in Florida is very much of an issue. And, every place it should be an issue. Horses create ‘gray’ water. When you wash them, the waste-water should be addressed, not just dumped somewhere. You can create a pond and use aquatic plants, and it cleans the water. At Wellington, the water table is very high, it’s kind of forcing everyone [with farms] to send the water into a man-made pond on their property. And the pond has to be planted with aquatic plants to treat the water. It needs to be addressed and it’s everybody’s “problem.” With the right treatment, there is no problem addressing any water issues in that area.
CE: Does the shrinking availability of land affect your outlook on design?
It’s a consideration in nice places, like California, where the climate is nice. The farms are getting smaller, so the planning is even more difficult, because it has to be functional. On a very small piece of land, you really have to work hard to get everything to fit. Some people are putting to many horses on a small piece of land, and that’s another problem.
CE: Footing...let’s discuss.
Personally, I like grass fields. I think that the resilience is better, the cushion is better. The sand ring, well, maybe the top footing hasn't been invented yet. There is room for improvement.
CE: When horses are congregated on show grounds, is it punishing for the ground?
There is tremendous stress on the ground. In some cases, there are 200 horses a day in some show rings, and the show goes for 5 days. That equals 1,000 trips, and some big show grounds have two shows in a row, and that’s like 2,000 trips, and if it rains for more than 2 days...
So, it has to be “built” engineered to withstand environmental stresses. There is no more room for mediocrity. At the top show grounds, the horses are expensive and they like to have a very good surface.
CE: But for sand rings, there are other materials, like fabric and rubber that can be mixed in?
Yes, but I pretty much have a classical approach to it. I try to minimize all those pieces of rubber, and stuff like that. I try to keep to a minimum of artificial products. The footing is mostly sand. But there are so many types of sand, and that’s why there are so many bad rings!
Some time ago, someone put in a ring for some top riders, and they weren’t happy with the result, so they asked me to help. I asked the guy what he’d done: “I put in kind of washed concrete sand.” “Well, I don’t think that that is going to work.” “Hey, I’ve been doing rings for 15 years!” “Well, you’ve been doing bad rings for 15 years.” He’s not a horseman!
You make a ring, and because it’s finished, people think it’s going to be there for life. Well, no, because the ring will change. In a few years, you will have to adjust it. Same thing for a grass field. It’s beautiful, but you have to maintain it properly.
CE: How often does a ring need to be “refreshed” ?
I think the first couple of years are fine, but after that, it will start to change on you. Because the horses with their shoes, they beat on the sand, and the sand starts to break up. So, you analyze the sand after a few years. Especially in the big riding clubs, where there are a lot of lessons. The sand in the ring will have become much finer. Then you have to adjust it. You don’t have to replace the sand, you only have to adjust it.
Same with the grass field. You’ve got to do some maintenance. Not the first year, but the second year, right away the second year you have to start to do it. Some aeration, sometimes you have to top dress it, modify your fertilizing program, the way you cut it, you know? Because after four, five, six years, the field will start to deteriorate.
CE: Is footing the problem that everyone says it is?
Yes, it is a problem. But, you know, you could find simple solutions and make it work. It doesn’t always have to be always expensive solutions.
CE: Could a grass field hold up to modern showing?
Yes. If well-built it can. It can hold up to any situation. Now, if you have a private farm, and a grass field, you can ride on it every day. If it rains, a big, big storm, you just don’t ride on that field for a day or two after that. And it’s not an expensive ring. Now, if you want non-stop, any day of the year, and it rains all night, and you want it to be a safe ring, then it’s an expensive ring. It can be built, but then you got to have all the drainage underground, you got to have the soil mix it requires.
CE: What are your current projects?
I’m working on a book with Arno Gego on grass- field designs.
CE: Do you design in North America or world wide? Where are most of your clients located?
In both cases we try to stay mostly in the U.S., well, we try to stay in North America, because the traveling is very hard.
There are new challenges. There are the opportunities the computer opens up, and also to develop the “green” approach. We mention the green concept to customers and they say, “Yes, let’s do it.” There are a lot of simple things they can do to save energy, to save water.
CE: You said horses are your passion. Are they what motivate you?
Yes. And nature, too. I try to put both together.
CE: Design, too, is a passion for you?
A passion to take a piece of property and to make it look nice. It makes for a nice legacy, to have land preserved and to have horses on it and to have people see this as they drive down the road and see pretty land and pretty horses. But, I like what I’m doing. I don’t intend to stop.