Samuel Matejka is an ambitious young man, who first fell in love with horses when he was only nine years old and has been working with them ever since. In our interview, he told us what it’s like living with horses, what riding has taught him and what it like to be a successful rider. He also reminisced about a funny story from his first ever competition which didn’t go as planned.

Since when do you ride horses? What brought you to horse riding?

When I was nine years old, I was a slim boy and I did many sports – dance, rhythmic gymnastics, athletics. Back then, I didn’t even think that horses existed. But then came the summer holidays and I signed up for a day camp where we could ride horses. I went there daily, even during weekends. I enjoyed spending time with horses so much that I’m still working with them to this day, and I’m 23 years old. At first, I only rode for fun, and learned basics of riding and how to approach horses. My disadvantage was the fact that I was very petite and too weak for bigger horses. I remember to this day, that I completed my first competition on a pony called Bubo. The first competition didn’t go as I would’ve hoped. I fell at least eight times and my white breeches turned black at once (laugh). It got better with time, and I learned from each of my mistakes. I simply got up and carried on.

You do mostly show jumping, why did you pick this discipline?

All riding disciplines, be it show jumping, dressage, cross-country (jumping over natural obstacles), or western are interesting. Since I was little, I was interested in show jumping the most because it could’ve been done anywhere. The first aspect you have to think about when choosing your discipline is the access to riding. If the rider or the riders parents’ don’t own an equestrian complex, you have to take what you can get. When I was twelve, my parents got me my own mare Wavo Alexandra which was only four years old at that time. We finished many competitions together thanks to our mutual training and growth. To this day, she’s a part of our family. My achievements are multiple Slovak vice champion titles, two-times champion of Central Slovakia, and participation in the European juniors’ category. A year later, I bought a new horse with whom I tried dressage and cross-country. We became champions of Central Slovakia in the senior category. So I also did dressage and natural cross-country for a while, but I returned to show jumping which was always the closest to my heart.

How did you become a professional horse rider?

The path to become a professional horse rider is long and complicated. When I was little, I used to cry and scream, mostly when I wasn’t doing as I would’ve hoped. I grew up in Martin, where you couldn’t really do professional horse riding, since there was no tutelage of experienced riders. Unfortunately, this is still a huge problem for children from Western and Central Slovakia in comparison to children from Bratislava. The conditions and opportunities are diametrically different. When I started riding horses, it was still in its beginnings and if a rider didn’t help themself, didn’t have patience and a snippet of talent, they wouldn’t succeed. If you don’t have an experienced trainer, it’s hard to progress and become a professional horse rider. I still have a lot to learn and with every new addition to my stables, there comes a new experience. I’m glad that I – at least partly – achieved it in this field. And this is all thanks to my amazing parents who never cease to support and root for me. I repay them with my excellent results at competitions or a great horse selling deal. I wouldn’t have had a chance to reach this level of horse riding without their support. They support me at every competition, they film my horse jumping performances and create ideal conditions for working with horses. Right now, we own four horses which I train, compete at national championships with and subsequently sell as sport horses. With my parents, we are building an equestrian complex where I would like to raise horses and dedicate my time to talented young people because I know how hard the beginnings are.

You have been horse riding since you were a child. How did you manage to combine professional horse riding with school and work?

Every living creature takes time. Riding a horse isn’t just about riding, but it’s also about the preparation before and after riding. If you think that you just walk into a stable and everything is prepared for you there, you jump up on a horse and go for a ride, you are mistaken. From cleaning the boxes, to cleaning the horse, saddling, riding, and taking care of the horse after the work, it takes up a lot of time. If you work with horses conscientiously, one horse takes up approximately an hour or an hour and a half of your time. There are no holidays, vacations, social life, or free weekends if you own a horse. You need to forget about all of this, if you want to do it thoroughly. Everything that is done halfway doesn’t have a point and it shows in the outcome of your work. When I was in elementary school, I did everything so that my parents would be happy. After school, I spent time at stables until evening and then I did my homework or studied. Luckily, it came easy to me. When I was twelve, I started attending grammar school where it wasn’t as easy, but I had to manage. I was never the best at school, but I kept my grades high just enough so that my parent and I would be happy. You can hardly be the best at school when you do this sport, especially when you go on five-day competitions. And so as not to do things halfway, I opted for individual study plan and I think that is why I managed to graduate successfully. I was then accepted to university of agriculture where I finished first year. After the first year, I knew that I would either study or work with horses professionally. When you have more horses, it is impossible to manage them and do everything meticulously without an assistant rider. At the end of the first year, I decided to leave school and dedicate my time to horses.

What are your horse riding achievements so far? Is it your livelihood or are you doing a different job?

I don’t like to talk about my achievements, even though they are a valorisation of your work. But after every competition and win, there comes another one and you have to keep yourself grounded. It makes me happy to see my young horses progress and win. That’s when I know I do my job right. My young horses that entered competitions always did amazing in their respective categories. I also started an internet store with riding supplies. I bring certified brands to Slovak and Czech market, but I also added brands which I’ve been using for years but are missing from the Slovak market. I hope I will do well in this field as well. Besides riding, taking care of horses and the internet store, I spend my time to training horses and riders. I don’t have much time for other activities.

What does a preparation for a riding competition looks like?

Before a rider first enters a competition, they have to complete riding classes, self-study, and train. They have to know the nature and abilities of their horse, so they wouldn’t put themself and their animal at risk. The preparation for competition consists of picking the right type of competition, height of obstacles, venue, and the surface for jumping. After signing up for a competition, the rider must adjust their schedule so that they and their horse prepare for the competition the best way possible. This consists of mental and physical preparation of the horse, its transportation, supplies needed for the competition, food, and vitamin preparations. It is important to keep the horse in a good mental and physical shape during the competition for which the vitamins and supplementary feed are good. During the competition, it is important to get your horse moving, then feed it breakfast and subsequently prepare it for jumping. Before saddling the horse, the rider should check the show jumping course and pace out the distance between obstacles. Before entering the world of show jumping, it is important to get your horse up and running and attend competitions.

How much does a person need to train to enter a competition?

It depends on the physical conditions of a person and on the abilities of the horse. It is important to have an eye for cooperating with horses. This is a common question of beginners who are impatient, and their ambitions are above their or their horse’s abilities. Current horse enthusiasts and their parents think that buying a good horse from abroad is enough and their child will win competitions automatically. That is not the way. Even the best horse can be only as good as its trainer. If an inexperienced rider gets a good horse, there is no guarantee that the horse will work well for a longer period of time. Horse works as good as the rider who leads it. Chemistry between the rider and horse is very important. Also the age of the horse and rider plays a huge role. If you own a mediocre horse, but you are willing to train and work on yourself, it’s not impossible to enter a competition within a year. A horse has to trust the rider.

How do riders pick horses for competitions? Did you compete with one horse or multiple horses?

When I buy a horse, I always look at it as an animal that will serve somebody else in the future. What is the most important to me is its nature and willingness to work. Small temper is also good and when you add competence, it is the best combination for buying and then selling a horse successfully. Professional and occasional rider should also enjoy riding, since this sport not only requires a lot of time, but also money. Being content with your horse is the most important thing. When I pick a horse for competition, I look at its abilities, as well as the surface and difficulty of the show jumping courses the horse needs to finish. If the competition takes place during multiple days, it is good to enter with multiple horses. I personally take two or three horses with me. If you have help, you can manage multiple horses. At national championships, you can finish two competitions with each horse, but at an international championship, you can only enter one competition with each horse.

What is the difference in taking care of a competing horse in comparison to a horse that you only ride for fun?

There is a big time, material, and financial difference. Occasional riding or riding for fun offers the ability to just rent a horse a ride it for an hour. You don’t have to worry about anything else. There is also the option that an owner of equestrian complex rents their horses, and you take care of them. This means that you pay for the box, horse’s food, medical care, shoeing, etc. The most time and money consuming category is owning your own horse. Except for the price of the horse, which is not a small sum, you pay for stabling, horse’s food, shoeing, dentist, vitamins, supplementary food, vaccination, and any other medical treatment. If you want to compete with your horse, you need appropriate equipment, horse trailer and a strong car that can pull the trailer. And I’m not even talking about the equipment for the rider.

What do horses and riding mean to you? What did it teach you?

Living with horses fulfils me. Horses are my way of life. It’s not an easy one, but what is easy nowadays? Horses taught me punctuality, responsibility, discipline, and respect. They became a part of my life. I couldn’t imagine my life without them.

Photo: Vivien Šestinová