Bond for building that Helios magic

If you’ve been following the Major League Show Jumping (MLSJ) dominated Helios all season, you may be wondering what’s in their secret sauce. You’re not alone.

Ask any of the six team members – including Ashlee Bond (ISR), Karl Cook (USA), Eugenio Garza Perez (MEX), Bliss Heers (USA), Simon McCarthy (IRL) or Nicolette Hirt (USA) – and they will probably say the same thing. In a sport where riding as part of a team is the anomaly, it’s good to have like-minded friends behind you.

“When you’re positive and you know you have a team behind you supporting you, it changes your whole mindset,” said Heers after his most recent career victory in the GNP Seguros CSI5* Grand Prix in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. “Stop thinking ‘If’ [and you] you start thinking, ‘let’s go!'”

It’s no fluke for team manager and Israeli Olympian Ashlee Bond; though Bond herself would probably be the last to take credit for it.

“I don’t see myself as a team leader. I’m just getting by [the paperwork and other stuff] that no one else wants to deal with. But in terms of managing us as a team, we all own that role,” she explains. “I feel we are all equal in decision making.

“We’re just a dysfunctional family and it’s wonderful.”

©MLSJ/Atalya Boytner
Simon McCarthy gets advice from his Helios teammates. ©MLSJ/Atalya Boytner

Although Bond admits to being “a bit OCD sometimes” – an ideal tendency to push the paper – it’s her experience on the world stage that has probably had the biggest impact on Helios’ prospects in 2022. Last year, Bond finished in 11 individual at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, an experience that shows not only the importance he places on team building, but also on making the most of the MLSJ format.

“When we were at the Olympics, the Swedish team spent literally every minute together. It is no accident that they ended up winning it all. They are a very small team, but they support each other and lift each other up and make each other better. I really feel like that’s what I’ve been trying to promote.

“I know it’s a much lower level than the Olympics, but [also]having to jump with three people and make it all count is a great experience for the Olympics [where you also] they do not have a drop score. It just gives all of us on these teams a lot more experience dealing with that kind of pressure.”

Bond, now in her second season with MLSJ, was equally pragmatic when it came to selecting members for the Helios 2022 team. “Eugenio and I were teammates last year and we wanted to be teammates again team,” she says.

“Our personalities mesh really well and I think we’re realistic in a lot of ways [what kind of] personalities we would feel good with. We are very competitive and we wanted every person in the team to have the same qualities; no one is angry, no one is passive aggressive, everyone speaks their mind. Everyone is a winner and they are [all] team players. I wanted everyone to be someone who had the same drive as us.”

Eugene Garza. ©MLSJ/
Mark Bluman (left) and Karl Cook (right). ©MLSJ/

A person whose name came up early in the Helios recruitment talks? Californian rider Karl Cook – although actually getting Cook to connect you would prove to have to do something.

“I went and tried really hard to get Karl into the team,” explains Bond, who says Cook was a hard no on her first try. Fortunately, the leader of the Helios team still had an ace up his sleeve.

“I went to his mother [Pomponio Ranch’s Signe Ostby]says Bond. “[She] he was like “What? Tell me about it. And then he was really into it. And I said, “Okay, I’m going to talk to Karl again.”

The second time was the charm, and Bond’s faith has paid off in Cook, who is currently ranked No. 5 in the MLSJ individual rankings, the highest ranking for a member of the Helios team. But don’t expect that to earn him any special treatment among his countrymen.

“It’s always a team effort; we all come together,” says Bond. “We have an idea about who wants to jump [and] what horses they will have at each show. We all agreed at the beginning, before we started this, that we all had to approve the horses we were going to use, so we couldn’t just use any horse we wanted. But luckily, everyone on our team [has good horses]so there was never a problem.”

Also key to Team Helios’ game plan: an agreement that each member participate in at least five rounds of competition and an agreement between teams to save their strongest horses for the finals at Desert International Horse Park in December , where the points are double.

“We want to go out there really strong and hopefully close the deal,” says Bond.

But if this all sounds a little more like practical thinking and a little less like some kind of secret sauce, you’re not wrong. According to Bond, that’s ‘the sauce’ in a nutshell – careful planning, the occasional group dinner and a real appreciation for your colleagues. Taken together, it’s a game plan that works wonders for Helios, not just in the MLSJ standings, but in each driver’s individual game.

“People don’t realize how important it is to have your team [genuinely] rooting for you,” says Bond. “It’s just in my mind to make sure we keep that feeling and make it grow in a completely natural and authentic way.

“I went on a lot of Nations Cup teams for the USA first and then for Israel and I know how important it is to have camaraderie and team morale. And I know what it’s like not to have it, and it’s really damaging,” she adds.

“This team, we’re behind each other 150 percent for every class. For the Grand Prix, we all want to be on the podium together. Obviously we all want to win, but in the end I’m happy if I am [on] there with Helios. I think we all feel that way and it just changes the way you walk. It changes everything.

“I think if more people understood that, it would be more successful.”

Feature image: ©MLSJ

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