By Virginia Clemens
When it comes to training show jumpers, Ricardo Villa, trainer and international show jumper from Bogota, Colombia, treats them all like champions. “I give each one a chance to excel,” he said. “Some get there and some won’t.” Ricardo has trained many horses over the years in both Colombia and in South Carolina, where he resides now. His best equine student was VDL Bubalu.
“I went to the Netherlands to look for a horse and met Wiepke van de Lageweg, owner of VDL Stud,” Ricardo said. “He showed me Bubalu, who was beautiful with a pedigree to match. His father was Baloubet Du Rouet, and the father of his mother was Nimmerdor – two legendary jumpers.”
Bubalu competed in the first round of the stallion selection in front of the KWPN (Dutch Warmblood Association) licensing committee but was not selected to go on to the second round, so VDL Stud agreed to sell half of Bubalu to Ricardo.
Ricardo bought half of the 6-year-old dark bay stallion and flew him to Colombia. “Even though other trainers said he’d never be a grand prix jumper because he couldn’t do lead changes, I didn’t care about the lead changes because he was such a good jumper,” Ricardo said.
Ricardo trained and competed the young horse, winning numerous prizes, including a Honda Civic, and many titles — the Colombian National Championship in 2008, fourth at the Grand Prix in Lexington, Kentucky, and fifth at HITS Saugerties, New York. “He cross-cantered over the jumps without any problem so I just left him alone,” Ricardo explained.
After winning the National Championship of Colombia in 2008, Bubalu was approved by the American chapter of the BWP (Belgian Warmblood Association) in 2009. At this point, the breeder wanted to bring him back to the Netherlands to sell because as a proven jumper, he had become more valuable.
Bubalu returned to the Netherlands where he achieved multiple wins with Jur Vrieling and the Dutch Team in several Nation’s Cups, including Aachen, Germany; St. Gallen, Switzerland; Dublin, Ireland; Hickstead, United Kingdom; and La Baule, France. The talented stallion was silver medalist at the London Olympics and gold medalist at the World Equestrian Games in Caen, France, with the Dutch team. In 2012, based on his past performances, Bubalu was approved by the KWPN for breeding show jumpers.
Credited with making Bubalu into such a successful competitor, Ricardo will say without any hint of self-praise, “He made me!”
Ricardo didn’t grow up with horses or in a “horsey” family. He always liked horses, but he was the only one in his family to make a career as an equestrian. His grandfather, who came from Italy, did have farm horses and, as a young boy, Ricardo would always run to see them whenever he visited him, but his father was a certified public accountant and his two brothers are both engineers.
“When I was around 8 or so, I was very lucky to be able to take lessons at a nearby riding school with Guillermo Squella, a gold medalist dressage rider with the Chilean team and a great trainer,” Ricardo said. “He taught many very good riders.”
In Colombia, Ricardo’s only choices of breeds to ride were Paso Finos or Thoroughbreds from the racetrack. Under Guillermo’s supervision, he trained Thoroughbreds to jump. “Actually, we jumped anything and everything as long as it had a coat and four legs,” he said. “By the time I was 14, I was really into horses — addicted.”
In 1987, Ricardo attended Westmoreland Davis Equestrian Institute in Leesburg, Virginia, for a year and rode with Raul de Leon and Tad Coffin as well as USDF trainers. “The experience opened my eyes to riding as a professional. I was always lucky to have good trainers that were good with horses,” Ricardo said. “They were real horsemen.”
Ricardo started working for the Country Club of Bogota at age 22, training horses and teaching riding lessons. He stayed with them for 25 years.
During this time, Ricardo was National Champion of Colombia two times — in 2008 with Bubalu and in 2014 with Chandon Blue — as well as enjoying an impressive international show jumping career. He competed in grand prix classes all over the world both as an individual and as a member of the Colombian team. He won a gold medal at the Central American Games in El Salvador in 2002, a bronze medal at the Central American Games in Bogota in 2006, and a silver medal at the Central American Games in Mexico in 2014.
Ricardo also competed at the Pan Am Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2007. His original mount, Café de Colombia, foundered and had to be put down right before the show, so he decided to ride Calico Z in the qualifiers because he thought he had the potential to do the Pan American Games.
“We had a couple of clear rounds right up to the finals and I was thrilled to do so well,” Ricardo related, admitting that it was quite a feat for both horse and rider because he rarely showed the horse since his owner showed him most of the time.
Another highlight of Ricardo’s career was qualifying twice for the Olympics: once with Calico Z for the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and again with Emmerton VDL for the London Olympics in 2012. Unfortunately, Calico Z got hurt and wasn’t able to compete in Beijing, and, because there were only two spots for Colombia in the London Olympics, Ricardo missed out on that opportunity, too. The two spots were filled by two other Colombian riders that the National Federation or FEC (Federacion Equestre Colombia) decided were the best prepared at the moment.
Moving To South Carolina
Colombia produces many good horses and riders. Often, the riders have been trained in cavalry schools, but they have to move to Europe or North America to have more opportunities to compete in international events. After deciding to leave Colombia, Ricardo and his wife, Liliana Montaya, a large-animal vet and equine acupuncturist who worked in both Germany and The Netherlands, began looking for a new home. They sold their small farm in Colombia and moved to South Carolina.
“We moved with six horses, three dogs, a cat and our 3-year-old son on March 15, 2015,” he related with a laugh. “We had to construct all the equine facilities quickly since all the property had on it was a Frank Lloyd Wright-style house.”
In less than a year and a half since his arrival at his new horse training farm in Campobello, South Carolina, Ricardo built a 16-stall barn, paddocks and an outdoor arena with world class, all-weather footing. He sold five of the six horses he brought from Colombia and put that money into his new farm. Now he offers full service and training board as well as accommodating those who ship-in with their horses for lessons. He works with riders of varying levels of experience who compete in different disciplines — hunter-jumpers, eventing and dressage.
In addition to being an accomplished trainer of riders, Ricardo has an innate ability to evaluate horses. “I look for a good mover with a nice temperament; one that’s well-behaved and has athletic ability,” he said. “But you never know — many horses who I thought would be very good turned out to be just average.
“Not until you start working with them and know their personalities, such as if they have the will and work ethic to be successful, will you know if they are going to be special,” Ricardo continued.
A Passion For Training
Training both horses and riders is a special proficiency that Ricardo enjoys. “That’s my life!” he proclaimed. “I like training and working with children and juniors best. I love to see them develop and I’ve had some very good young riders who have been national champions.”
One of his first students at the Country Club of Bogota was a national champion and became a professional rider in Europe with his own farm and equestrian business. “I enjoy making a team out of a rider and his or her horse,” Ricardo said. “A good match between horse and rider is absolutely necessary if they want to be winners.”
See his website at www.vmshowjumpers.com