Written by: Pamela Young
After 16 remarkably successful years as coach of the German eventing team, Christopher Bartle has returned to his roots in England
Chris Bartle jokes about his life falling into two segments; black-and-white and colour. The former refers to the early days of this English public school and university-educated Yorkshireman’s career in the 1970s and ‘80s when photographs of his dressage exploits, including a second-place finish at the very first World Cup Final in s’Hertogenbosch, were largely recorded in monochrome.
His colour phase has been defined by the sport of eventing, both as an athlete and as a coach. At the age of 46, Chris won the world-famous Badminton Three-Day event when the winner’s purse (£25,000) was a quarter of what it is today.
Teaching, however, has been his livelihood and in 2001 his instruction was sought by the German Equestrian Federation. As national coach for the German eventing team alongside Hans Melzer, he masterminded a superlative success rate. This included individual and team gold at the 2008 Hong Kong and 2012 London Olympics, a clean sweep of medals at the 2011 European Championships and team gold in 2013 and 2015, team and individual gold and silver at the 2014 WEG in Normandy, and in August last year, team silver and individual gold at the Rio Olympics.
When Britain’s long-time eventing performance manager, Yogi Briesner, announced his retirement last autumn, an opportunity arose which Bartle, 64, found too irresistible to turn down. In January, he bid goodbye to the Germans and replaced Breisner as the British Eventing team’s performance director. “It’s a dream come true to coach Team GB,” Chris told Horse Sport. “It’s a daunting challenge because expectations are so high, but it is a challenge that I relish and look forward to.”
What made the German eventing team so successful during your tenure?
They were a great bunch to work with. All of them started with a solid base, were open to training, disciplined, and interested in the details. While the squad was small, we had an abundance of quality and very good support from the federation and from everyone on the ground. I guess what I brought into the mix was a different way of looking at cross-country riding and jumping training and relating them to dressage. I am a strong believer in dressage training working to improve jumping and cross-country performances and the riders were very open to that.
What are the most difficult aspects of managing a high performance team – and the most rewarding?
It’s not a team competition as in football where you have a lot of very qualified individuals interacting
on the field of play at one time, so it’s more a matter of getting three or four individuals to perform at their best for the team – which may mean sacrificing their individual ambitions. The rewards come when it all comes off and the individuals achieve their goals at the same time as the team achieves its goal.
Do you look at competition from a different perspective as a manager than you did as an athlete?
My time as a competitor was all goal-driven – what can the horse do? Where are we with that? The same applies to a team. Stick with the system. Get the best out of your horse or get the best out of the athlete to get the best out their horse.
What are the decisive factors in team selection?
As a coach I make a clear, objective assessment of the riders’ potential results in all three phases and set out the risk factors for any particular combination, like lack of experience, coping with pressure, coping with a championship atmosphere, etc. The selectors must make the political decisions to take risks or play safe according to what the goal is. My personal view is that we are there to win, not to take part.
I can imagine life must be pretty hectic for you. What does a typical day and work week consist of?
It rather depends on the time of year. Once we get into March and the season begins it’s pretty intensive. I am training riders of all levels from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. most days. I could be teaching dressage or jumping or cross-country schooling or analyzing videos. It’s very varied, which makes it interesting. Every weekend I’ll go off to competitions with my students or squad members. I get up at 6:00 a.m. daily, as there is a lot of sorting out and a lot of emailing and arranging to do, and there is still more to do in the evening.
How did you get started with horses?
My mother was from Belgium and she rode, not competitively, but she was trained in classical dressage by Nuno Oliveira. She decided to start a riding school here at home in Harrogate so all four of us kids started on ponies. Most of our riding was done during the holidays when we were home from boarding school. My earliest memory is our first ponies, Adam and Eve. They were pretty much unrideable. I remember Adam bucking me off so many times I quit riding. But it was all here for us; we had indoor shows and stars like Harvey Smith and Graham Fletcher coming to them.
Can you identify the turning points in your career?
When I was at school I got interested in steeplechasing. I tried being a jockey and I did race as an amateur in professional races, but I was a bit too tall and too heavy. So I turned to eventing. Wily Trout started off eventing, but when he got a tendon injury my trainer, Hans von Blixen-Finecke, thought he showed promise as a pure dressage horse. Having seen Reiner Klimke in competition I thought ‘if he can do that, I can.’ My Mount Everest in dressage was competing at the Olympics. Once I had accomplished that, my next goal was making it to the Olympics in eventing. I got as far as Sydney, where I was the reserve.
Were there sacrifices made along the way?
Nothing compared to the sacrifices made by my family who supported and tolerated and allowed me to be selfish and pursue my competition career. I think possibly the reason my elder children never got obsessed [with horses] was because they saw how much it takes over your life.
What prompted you to quit competing as an athlete and take on a management role?
All along I made my living as a riding instructor; I had the experience developed at home and around the world and lots of guinea pigs. When the Germans approached me, I had coached the British Eventing team in dressage for the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics. It wasn’t until 2008, though, that I gave up competing myself. I realized I wasn’t able to do the training and preparation that I needed to do to be as competitive as I wanted to be because of my coaching commitments.
Besides horsepower and an ultra-competitive nature, is there another ingredient that gives certain athletes the edge?
I always say that what makes a champion is the will to win, the willingness to take risks, and the mental toughness to never, never, never give up.
How would your friends and family describe your personality?
Stubborn, strict, and persistent – and a risk-taker.
If life hadn’t taken you where it has, would you have had another profession?
I’ve always taken an interest in economics and social sciences and what’s going on in the world, so I think I would have been an entrepreneur and run a business.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
Is it boring to say home? I travel so much that home here in Yorkshire is my favourite place.
Where would you most like to go that you haven’t been?
I’d like to go to South America as a tourist and walk the Inca Trail before my legs won’t take me!
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Scottish whisky. Something peaty and smoky from Islay.
If you had three wishes,what would you wish for?
That Brexit hadn’t happened, that Donald Trump wasn’t elected President of the United States, and that I had had a grand prix show jumper earlier in my life with which I could have gone to the Olympics.
If you could invite four guests, living or dead, to a dinner party, who would they be?
Given my interest in economics and politics and if I could be a fly on the wall, I would have Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, Winston Churchill, and the Duke of Edinburgh around a table.
Do you have a life lesson to share with us?
I’ve always told my children and others to live your dream, because you only have one chance.
“What makes a champion is the will to win, the willingness to take risks, and the mental toughness to never, never, never give up.”
Birthdate: Feb. 19, 1952
Hometown: Harrogate, North Yorkshire, Great Britain
Occupation: British Eventing performance manager; managing director and resident instructor at the Yorkshire Riding Center.
Offspring: Naomi (32) and Tom (30) with first wife Sue; and Poppy (11) and Sam (9) with second wife Alison.
Top Horses: Wily Trout (dressage) Word Perfect II (eventing)
Major Accomplishments: 6th individually in the dressage final at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and 2nd at the World Cup Dressage Final 1986 with Wily Trout; team gold 1997 European Championships and 1st Badminton 1998 with Word Perfect.
Coaching Record: During 16 years as national coach for the German Eventing Team his squads won 26 medals, 15 of them gold.