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Summer 2004
Peter Wylde, a member of the United States Equestrian Team, riding Fein Cera at the 2002 World Equestrian Games. He won the individual bronze medal, and Fein Cera was named best horse.
Photo by Mary Phelps
High Performer
A strong partnership built on patience propels rider Peter Wylde, A88, and his horse, Fein Cara, to the Olympics
A headstrong horse meets a man determined to ride a winner. Together, they overcome adversity to reach the pinnacle of their sport. This time, it’s not a best-selling book or Hollywood movie, but a story of Olympic proportions. Peter Wylde, A88, will play out the story this summer in Athens when he represents the United States in the Summer Olympics atop Fein Cera, the horse he nurtured into one of the finest show jumpers in the world.

Making the team for the Olympics is the ultimate reward for what has been a lifetime dedicated to the sport of show jumping. “Getting to go to the Games is only part of my dream,” says Wylde. “Winning a medal is the other half. But this amazing sense of accomplishment in just having made the team justifies so much that I have done in my life.”

Of course this is not to say that if he hadn’t made the team he wouldn’t be happy with the life he has chosen. “If I had a crystal ball and could have seen that I would never make it to the Olympics, I still would have made the sacrifices I have, but this way it does make it all seem worth it.”

The Olympic berth, which Wylde qualified for in May, culminates a remarkable career on the United States Equestrian Team (USET) and a relationship with a horse once pegged as too hot to handle.

He met Fein Cera (pronounced “Fine Sara”) in 1991, when Alison Firestone, another top U.S. rider (who will serve as the alternate on the team for Athens in case one of the other four riders or horses are unable to compete), sent the then nine-year-old Holsteiner mare to him to sell. “She was a very hot, very sensitive horse with a lot of adrenaline,” Wylde recalls. “When Alison bought her she knew she was one of the best young horses in Germany, but the two just didn’t get along well enough.”

Wylde worked to harness the horse’s energy and mold her for the competitive stage. They didn’t jump for several months; instead, Wylde spent hours practicing only at the walk, trot, and canter. He knew she had plenty of talent to clear the jumps—that came easily.

But she needed to work on communication so when they did begin jumping again, Cera would be sensitive to Wylde’s subtle aids: his leg—telling her to go faster—and his hands, signaling for her to slow down. With the jumps coming up as quickly as they do in show jumping, there is no room for error.

At first, Cera was testy and resistant, throwing her head or trying to speed up. But Wylde knew only patience, not force, would win out. Slowly she began to respond to his cues and trust him. When it came time to jump again, there didn’t seem to be any height or difficult combination of obstacles that Cera couldn’t handle.

Wylde’s style of riding “is very well suited to Fein Cera,” says Conrad Homfeld, a colleague who was a pivotal member of the last U.S. team to win the gold at the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. “He’s a very empathetic rider, which was well suited to her hot temperament, and he also had the patience to put the time into working with her.”

Sensing he had a special horse, Wylde convinced a syndicate of friends and sponsors to buy Cera for him to ride instead of selling her away. Soon, everyone was rewarded.

“Other talented horses had come into my life, but Cera is in a whole different category,” says Wylde. “She knows me and I know her, which counts for so much at this level of competition.”

Among their achievements in international show-jumping competitions, Wylde and Cera won sixth place at the 2000 World Cup Final and a bronze medal at the 2002 World Equestrian Games, where Cera was named best horse of the competition.

“It was a huge honor to have taken this horse that no one wanted to buy and turn her into the best horse at the World Equestrian Games,” says Wylde. “I regard that as my best award as a rider, more so than my bronze medal. I take a lot of pride in that achievement.”

As Cera’s victories cumulated, other riders inquired about purchasing her. With price tags for top grand prix horses reaching into the million-dollar range, the investors who owned Cera considered the offers. Fortunately for Wylde, an American buyer purchased Cera and granted him the opportunity to continue competing with the mare through the 2004 Olympics.

This past winter Wylde and Cera placed third in the World Cup Qualifying Grand Prix in Geneva (Switzerland) and fifth in the World Cup Qualifying Grand Prix in Olympia (England). The United States Equestrian Federation named him High Performance Athlete of the Month for December 2003.

Wylde’s equestrian career began in Medfield, Massachusetts, when he rode a friend’s pony. “As a child to be able to get on a pony and go tearing through the countryside galloping and jumping was just a thrill,” he says. His first few horse shows solidified his passion for the sport, leading to his winning the top competition for riders in New England under the age of 18 in 1981 and the following year winning the ASPCA Maclay Finals at Madison Square Garden.

At Tufts, he majored in history and sociology, and decided to curtail his riding: “I made a commitment to myself when I started at Tufts not to compete during the school year. I wanted to participate fully in what Tufts had to offer and that meant not just my studies, but meeting and spending time with interesting people whom I knew I wouldn’t be as likely to meet after school when I went back to riding full time.”

Wylde did compete on the Tufts Intercollegiate Team, and went on to win the prestigious Cacchione Cup at the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association National Finals in 1985. The day after graduation, Wylde opened Bondurant, Inc., a training stable in Medfield. For the next six years he trained riders and also competed himself in grand prix classes. After traveling to Switzerland for a year of intensive training, he returned to the States when he was offered a position running a New York stable and competing on world-class grand prix horses.

Four years ago, Wylde went back to Europe to set up a stable in Maastricht, Holland, where he is now based. His stable has grown to include 12 horses and he has also taken on a few select students. With European students, owners, and companies sponsoring him, he has surmounted a hurdle faced by many Americans in the sport.

“When I first came here there were some people who were skeptical of me because I was an American,” he says. “But I put my head down and just kept showing up at the horse shows and consistently putting in good performances, and I think people have come to respect me.”

“Peter gave up a very successful and lucrative situation in America to put himself in the center of the sport on the international stage,” says Homfeld. “He saw that in order to achieve international success he had to be willing to pack up and move his life over there. Other riders don’t have that same kind of dedication and commitment to the sport.” Adds Firestone, “He really loves this sport and puts everything he has into it, which is the difference between a good rider and a great rider.”

Currently he stands eleventh in the world rankings (another U.S. rider is now sixth). Last year, the United States Equestrian Team awarded him the Whitney Stone Cup for his distinguished competition record while also serving as an ambassador for the sport.

As for what lies ahead at the Olympics, Wylde is eager to ride against the best in the world, and notes that the USET team is ripe for a win.

This time around he hopes that an unlikely horse who met the right rider will end up in the pantheon, just like in the movies.

Kim Ablon Whitney is the author of the new novel See You Down the Road.