From 0 to 70 in Under Six Months: The Rise of Chris Von Martels As An Olympic Contender

photo by Mathilde Blais
Chris & Divertimento - Photo by Heels Down
Chris von Martels & Brittany Fraser at the Pan Am Games- photo by Ashley Holzer
Chris & Divertimento - Photo by Susan Stickle


Canadian Dressage rider Chris Von Martels made his name known throughout the world last year, earning the Individual Bronze and Team Silver medals on Zilverstar at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto,  and being named Canadian Equestrian Athlete of 2015. Chris started riding at 13, rose through the FEI Junior and FEI Young Rider programs and in 2003, founded his sales and training business, Von Martels Dressage,  in Ridgetown, Ontario and now mainly based in Wellington, Florida.

Recently, Chris added a new horse to his string; the talented Divertimento, a 14-year-old Westphalian gelding previously ridden by Swedish Olympian Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfvén. Chris began leasing Divertimento from Lövsta Stuteri, Antonia Ax:son Johnson’s stables, in December 2015. A short six months later, Chris and Divertimento went from 0 to 70; consistently delivering scores over 70% and becoming a real contender for Canada’s Olympic team. Chris took the time to speak with me about his last six months with Divertimento and their pursuit of competing at Rio.

Learning from the Pan American Games.

The Pan Am Games was a fantastic experience for me. Aside from the success that I did have, it was very much an amazing experience to be on that team, [being] in your home country was also very special.

When you’re on a team at a major games, you have a lot more riding on your shoulders. You have the responsibility of representing your nation, to do your very best, but I feel you gain so much of an edge when you know you have your whole country behind you, cheering for you, rooting for you, wanting you to do your very best. It’s a real proud feeling.

Keeping the Olympics in mind.

The Olympics have certainly been on my mind since I was a kid. It is and has been my goal and my dream for as long as I can remember, but it’s very important [in your journey to get there] when you’re at a major games or a major competition, you need to have your long term goals, but you need to stay focused for your day-to-day events as well.

Two horses, one owner. How Divertimento’s owner may end up with two horses at the Olympics.

The owner of Divertimento, [Lövsta Stuteri’s Antonia Ax:son Johnson] in Sweden, loves to ride. She’s the owner of Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven’s other top Grand Prix horse, Don Auriello. Of course, there have not been confirmed team selections yet, however, she is their number one rider at the moment. She’s ranked 6th in the world, so it’s very possible that she’s going. That is a true hopeful for Sweden.

Getting to know Divertimento: Not rushing anything

Divertimento is really an amazing horse. He has a lot of power, he’s a very sensitive horse. He’s also a horse that truly tries very hard to give his most and very best. He’s one of those horses that, when you really have his trust and confidence and you’re working together, he can give a performance that’s equally as good as the top horses in the world.

Getting to know him and getting to know one another, it goes both ways. I have to get to know him and he has to get to know me. Whenever you have a new horse, there’s, I think, a very big transition period, or learning curve, to really know what works and what doesn’t work, especially a horse that’s a Grand Prix horse. There are a lot of advantages in having that, but at the same time, you also need to really learn the aids properly, which works for that horse can be different from another horse. But quite frankly, it’s mostly taking your time, going day by day, not rushing, and being happy with the small gains and small breakthroughs, kind of going a month at a time until you are a real combination.

Finding support from long-time coach Ashley Holzer

Ashley [Holzer] is, of course, an amazing trainer. I’ve worked with her for over 10 years now, I believe. The great thing is, Ashley has had multiple Grand Prix horses throughout her career. She also knows me very well. I think that it’s very important that whoever your trainer is, that that trainer also recognizes your abilities, your strengths, and your weaknesses and is able to give you support where you need to have the support. But also, let you do your own thing to a certain degree, as well. I believe that when you have a professional teaching another professional, it’s very important that that other trainer, that other professional, still allows you to do things a bit in your own style or your own philosophies. Ashley and I, I think we train in the same exact style and school of thought. She’s supportive, extremely experienced, and I have total confidence when she stands in the ring with me.

Going from 0 to 70

Our competition results have been steadily going up, we had our first 70% breakthrough awhile ago, then again in Tryon we won the Grand Prix special with a 70%. We’ve been very consistent and over 70 in the last three competitions.

We’ve had a lot of great success recently, in the last four shows, but our real “aha” moments have come in the last short while at home training. Where, I believe, we’ve had significant breakthroughs. It just comes back to that real confidence with one another and [we] have learned what works and what doesn’t work. I feel, right now, we are in the best shape that we have been before any competition, by a long shot actually.

It’s very rewarding to ride a great horse like that every single day. I’m very fortunate because I have a few, very talented horses in my stable. At the same time, when you have a horse like that, that has that much quality and that experienced, you really are able to focus on improving your grand prix career and hopefully become a 74-75% combination on the world ranking list. Having a horse of that ability, I do believe those goals can be met.

Divertimento and Zilverstar: Similar yet different

They’re very different in many ways but actually similar in other ways. They’re both very sensitive and they both are real -I like to call them- competition horses, horses that really like to go into the arena and give their very best. Divertimento is the type of horse that really remembers from day-to-day, which is a great thing but can also be a difficult thing. If he’s afraid of something or he has a hiccup in his training, he will certainly remember that from day-to-day. Whereas Zilver[star] is extremely sensitive, he is very much day-to-day, every single day he is ready to go to work.

Zilverstar should be making his [Grand Prix] debut sometime over the summer, which we’re all very much looking forward to.