Twenty-six-year-old Karen Polle (ポーリーカレン) was born in Tokyo, Japan, but raised in New York City. In 2014, she made the switch from riding for the USA to riding for Japan with an eye toward competing at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games™, Asian Games, and, ultimately hoping to achieve her biggest goal of competing at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Polle began riding when she was 7 years old and her passion for the sport intensified quickly. When she was 13, she made the move to Beacon Hill Show Stables to train with Stacia Madden, competing successfully in both the equitation and jumper rings. Polle went on to compete twice at the North American Young Rider Championships where she won a Team Silver medal in 2010 and a Team Bronze medal in 2011, both aboard Chachette Z. I had the good fortune to catch up with Karen at HITS Coachella where she was competing in the $1 Million Grand Prix.
Winter Hoffman: You are definitely one of the favorites to represent Japan for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and here you are here in Coachella for the Million! How did you come to love horses and riding?
Karen Polle: I started riding when I was 7 years old but neither my family nor I knew anything about horses! I didn’t even know what showjumping was. There was a small barn near our country house in New Jersey that we would drive by every weekend, and one day I asked my dad if I could take a lesson. I was immediately hooked!
WH: Is it possible to instill courage in a rider?
KP: Yes. In my experience, what has instilled the most courage in me is having horses that I feel really comfortable with. For example, I completely trust my horse Wings and I know that he will take care of me no matter what. While I still get nervous before important competitions, having him with me brings me a lot of courage.
WH: Is it possible to instill courage in a horse?
KP: Yes. I think it’s important that we as riders try our best to only show our horses what they can do, rather than what they can’t do. It’s our responsibility to make sure we aren’t moving them too quickly or asking them to jump courses that are too big or technical for them or for the stage that they’re at. This doesn’t mean that the rider can’t make mistakes— of course mistakes will happen— but in general, I’ve found that when horses are consistently put in situations where they are set up for success, they begin to feel confident in their abilities and begin to really trust the rider.
WH: Is it possible to make a rider competitive (ie. give them that blood-thirsty desire to win)?
KP: I’m not sure, actually. I’ve always been very competitive so that’s really the only way I know!
WH: Did you have that spirit when you won Team Gold and Team Bronze in 2010 and 2011 on Chachette Z?
KP: I went into Prix de States as the most inexperienced member of my team, so I knew that I was the underdog. I definitely wanted to win but I also definitely didn’t expect to win Team and Individual Gold that week!
WH: You coach yourself – can you tell us how this works? As the goal of the Olympics is imminent, what is the biggest focus for you? Has anyone helped you strategize or how have you adapted your training program and methods to fit this goal?
KP: Conor Swail has been training me in Florida, and Jeroen Dubbeldam and Wim Schröder train me in Europe. I have two main focuses at the moment: the first is to develop my riding skills as much as possible, and the second is to build up a competitive string of horses. If I can be successful at both, I hope that will give me the best chance when teams are selected. My trainers and I work together to plan and strategize; I probably annoy them sometimes with my crazy ideas. My family is also very involved and they are great at thinking things through with me!
WH: What is your week and schedule like?
KP: I usually ride 6 days a week— sometimes 7 depending on our show or travel schedule. I usually aim to work out 4 times a week but lately that’s been very challenging with my schedule!
WH: If you could visualize yourself as an ambitious American or Japanese grand prix rider today, what goals would you set for yourself? What competition schedule?
We often hear about the Global Champion Tour with it’s glamorous venues, what are your thoughts on the tour. Please elaborate.
KP: My goal is to win as much as possible!! And as I mentioned earlier, to improve my skills and become as good a rider as I can.
As for competitions, I really love Spruce Meadows. I think the GCT shows are also great competitions and would definitely love to do some of those shows at some point!
WH: What is the most beautiful place to ride in the world or your favorite place and why?
KP: There are so many wonderful shows so it’s hard to pick! One of the highlights for me last year was riding along the beach and in the ocean at La Baule.
WH: In your travels you’ve worked with Scott Brash, Paul Schockemöhle, Ian Millar (when she competed at Spruce Meadows), Mario Deslauriers, Todd Minikus and Rodrigo Pessoa and have observed many trainers from other countries. Can you tell me which ones you were impressed with and how their training styles differ?
KP: They’re all incredible riders and fantastic horsemen, and I learned so much from all of them. For example, Scott Brash taught me a lot about focus and building up for a goal. Rodrigo Pessoa had a huge, huge impact on my career — he not only elevated my riding skills to a new level, but he also opened my eyes to navigating the top level of the sport. He completely changed the way I viewed myself and the sport and for that I am extremely grateful.
WH: Will you return to Spruce Meadows this summer (where you won the 5* Progress Energy Cup) or go to Europe where you were thirds in the 5* Rolex Versailles Grand Prix on With Wings? Tell us about your experiences there and your plans for the future.
KP: I will go to Spruce Meadows! I love competing there because the level of competition is very high and the courses are some of the biggest and hardest I’ve ever jumped. I always feel like I leave Spruce a much better rider than when I arrived. My horses also really enjoy jumping on grass, and they get very fit after jumping for several weeks on the big fields.
WH: Any funny horsey stories; incidents at a show, riders you coached, while on course?
KP: I used to have to lead Wings into the ring on foot and get a leg up in the ring. One time, I got on him in the ring, and he promptly spun and bucked me off before the timer started! So I had to get on for a second time before I started my round! It was so embarrassing!!
WH: I know there must be a particular rider/ mentor who has inspired or inspires you- who is it and please elaborate on how they influenced you?
KP: It’s been a real honor to work with Jeroen Dubbeldam. He’s been Olympic Champion, World Champion, and European Champion. He’s one of the most decorated riders in the world and I really admire the riding skill, preparation, and mental focus it must have taken to achieve all of that.
WH: Which of the disciplines helped your riding the most – equitation, hunters, or the jumpers and why? You trained at Beacon Hill Show Stables with Stacia Madden. Do you think the equitation is important for a rider who wants to be a show jumper?
KP: I think the jumpers have helped my riding the most. Because I am a jumper rider, I think the best way to learn has been to compete in the jumpers. The jumpers have taught me the importance of pace and connection and how to be effective.
I had a great experience competing in the equitation with Stacia. She taught me so much about the attention to detail and discipline that is required to reach the highest level of the sport, as well as the importance of challenging yourself and working diligently every day on the basics. Training with her as a young rider really laid the groundwork for my development in the jumpers after my junior career.
WH: How important is a college education for a rider? You graduated from Yale. How did your time at Yale impact your life and your life as a show jumper?
KP: I think a college education is very important and I think it is definitely possible to do both. Yale was great because after my freshman year and with the exception of one other semester, I was able to schedule my classes Monday through Wednesday so I could focus on school at the beginning of the week and then switch my focus to the horses for the rest of the week. It was hard to balance — I didn’t sleep enough and there were certainly times when my riding and schoolwork suffered because I was doing both — but I am so glad I did it.
WH: Thank you much Karen for taking the time to answer my questions. Good luck in your quest to represent Japan in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
About the author: With a background in filmmaking , fashion and contemporary art, Winter Hoffman brings a unique perspective to the equestrian world. A life long horsewoman she helped her daughter, Zazou Hoffman, navigate her way to a successful Junior career culminating in 1st place in the 2009 ASPCA Maclay Equitation Championship at the National Horse Show and second in the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final with East Coast trainers Missy Clark and John Brennan. Zazou is now an Assist Trainer and professional rider at Meadow Grove Farm in California.