Joker Arroyo is an accomplished rider from a legendary political family in the Philippines. She is named after her activist father Joker Arroyo (a love of card games factored into his name). He was instrumental in overturning the Marcos regime. After graduating from Yale, Joker represented the Philippines in many international competitions earning numerous individual and team medals. She divides her time between Manila and Europe.
Winter Hoffman: You share a homeland with renowned Philippine boxer and Senator Manny Pacquiao! You are the national record holder in the Puissance Event, having cleared 1.74m on your horse Without a Doubt in 2005. How did you come to love horses and riding?
Joker Arroyo: I’ve always loved animals! We’ve had dogs in the family since I was an infant, and I was always in the company of my pets growing up. My mom often thought that I preferred the company of my animals to people, and she probably wasn’t (and still isn’t!) wrong… I had a particular fondness for dogs and horses, so it was a natural progression to take riding lessons when I was of an appropriate age. My parents thought it would be just a phase I go through, as many little girls often do. It started as, “You can take lessons, but no jumping.” Which evolved to “You can jump, but only small fences.” And then became, “You can jump a bit more, but no competitions.” Well, we all know how that turned out – 24 years later (and certainly many more to follow), here we are!
WH: Is it possible to instill courage in a rider?
JA: Courage is a funny thing – hard to describe and difficult to quantify. I think the quality of raw fearlessness is very unique, something that few possess, and is a trait that one is born with – you either have it or you don’t. Even in children at a young age, where the notion of danger is still a very fluid, unfamiliar concept, you still see some children who are more “fearless” than others. But even in the most wary, the most watchful, courage can be cultivated from desire – the desire to improve, and the desire to accomplish. That desire motivates an individual, and can help overcome whatever apprehensions they may have. And so, having said all that: while I think it is impossible to instill absolute fearlessness in an individual, courage can nevertheless be “created” through motivation, the nurturing of a passion in a rider and encouraging them to advance and achieve. Then, even in the face of situations that cause anxiety or stress, one can find the will to continue.
WH: Is it possible to instill courage in a horse?
JA: Horses, like people, all have very distinct personalities, as we all know. Just as some people are remarkably brave or remarkably wary, horses can be the same way. It is impossible to make a naturally suspicious horse utterly fearless one day; it goes against their very nature, their upbringing, their genetic makeup. But you can certainly make a horse trust its rider, and from that courage can develop in a very concrete way. If a horse can genuinely believe, indeed trust, that you will do them no harm; you will not put them in a situation where they will be in danger; and that they will be loved, whatever the outcome of a situation, given that they (by nature) are already so kind and so generous in spirit, they will make the effort to try, even if perhaps every instinct in their bodies tell them not to. The story of Jappeloup is exemplary, and inspiring – the early days of his career were challenging, to say the least. But after great deal of time invested in the relationship between the horse and his rider, we later saw one of the greatest combinations the equestrian world has known to date.
WH: Is it possible to make a rider competitive (ie. give them that blood-thirsty “go for the jugular” desire to be #1 in the world), to beat the other riders? Your father was a tenacious politician and activists in the Philippines please tell us about him and how he influenced you.
JA: My father was a brilliant, incredible man. When he passed away in 2015, it was an absolutely devastating time for me. I miss him every single day. Everything he did was a lesson and an inspiration for me. He was a man of conviction, and always did what he believed was right, and never what was easy, even if that meant being the lone figure standing up to many. He was instrumental in toppling the Marcos dictatorship in the 1980s, and in the early years of the Philippines’ democracy post-dictatorship – and all this he did out of love for his country. He was a proud Filipino, and that is something that I will always hold very dear to my heart. Representing the country as an athlete, for me, is a privilege and not a right. And to have been granted that privilege is an honor that must not be taken lightly, and treated with the utmost respect. Therefore, in everything that I do as rider and as a human being, I do with the view of representing the country to the best of my abilities – to bring honor to the country, in whatever way possible. Whether that be winning a medal at a major championship, or simply being hardworking and dedicated to my sport on a daily basis, I want that to be able to reflect on the people of my country in the best way possible. In the same way that when Manny Pacquiao wins a boxing match, we are proud. Or when we read a story about a Filipino nurse that has touched the lives of his or her patients, we are proud. Or how a Filipino nanny working abroad has been able to save enough and send enough money home to send their first child to university, we are proud. That we continue to do things, as individuals and as Filipinos, that we can be proud of, and give our countrymen a reason to be proud, in whatever small way. For that fuels the spirit of a nation, that we continue to instill belief in one another, and motivate one another to be better – because we CAN be better, and we CAN work together to build a better, stronger nation.
As for making a rider competitive, that’s another tricky question. Of course, we can arm our riders with all the necessary tools to be champions – the best horses, the best support team, the best trainers, the whole nine yards. But when you have two riders with the same artillery both fighting hard to gain that extra 0.01 seconds in a jump off of a 5* Grand Prix, all things being equal, the rider with the stronger inner will will prevail. It comes from within. It can of course be nurtured, given extra attention so that the riders understand the importance of fighting till the end. But there is a big difference from learned understanding and appreciation, and an appreciation that is ingrained in oneself. Yes, being competitive can be trained as a technique – it can be honed and fine-tuned to within the last millimeter. But the competitive desire, that inner fire, is something unique to certain individuals and perhaps cannot necessarily be cultivated.
WH: Did you have that spirit when you competed in the Pan Asian Games in 2011, 2014 and when you won the Team Gold Medal in 2005?
Note: participated in 2005 (Team Gold), 2011 (Team Silver), 2017 (Team Silver) South East Asian Games and 2014, 2018 Asian Games
JA: I have always been very competitive, from a very young age. I excelled in school, with no intervention from my parents, simply because – on my own – I wanted to be the best, and was an absolute perfectionist in everything that I did. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t. But that attitude was always there. (I have since relaxed somewhat and gained a greater overall appreciation for life without turning everything into a competition, and like to think I have become considerably less neurotic – though I’m not sure those who know me will necessarily agree!)
In a team context, all those facets of one’s personality are automatically magnified a millionfold. And furthered again in the context of a major championship – not only do you want to perform well for you team, but also for your country. The feeling is quite intense, very motivating, and often gives you that extra “push” to perform even better.
WH: What is your week like, your schedule?
JA: Depends where I am in the world!
In Manila, very busy. I ride between 4-8 horses a day, and teach between 6-10 lessons a day. I often find myself getting on my last horse at 8pm, which isn’t exactly terrible since the days are hot in Manila, and the temperature is much more pleasant for the horses to work in the evening. In any case, the horses and students alone are enough to occupy my days, though I do try to find time to catch meals with friends so I don’t become too antisocial, and put in another workout on the treadmill.
In Europe, my daily routine is less intensive, but I spend much more time on the road. We’re at home from Monday to Wednesday, and generally from Thursday to Sunday we’re away at shows. My horses don’t show every weekend, but given that they’re at very different levels right now (Ubama Alia is jumping the big classes, and Hamilton B is just debuting his career), I find myself with one horse at a show on one weekend, the other horse at another show the next, etc. I’m looking forward to when the young horse will be accompany the mare to the same shows, so maybe then I’ll get a weekend at home sometimes!
WH: If you could visualize yourself as an ambitious Philippine GP rider today, what goals would you set for yourself? What competition schedule? We often hear about the Global Champion Tour with it’s glamorous venues, what are your thoughts on the tour. Please elaborate.
JA: With my current competition schedule, I am doing a lot of 2* and occasionally 3* shows in Europe. It’s difficult to concretize a plan, since everything depends on how the horses are performing. But in a very general sense, assuming all goes well with the horses, the goal this year would be to regularize my participation in 3* shows and perhaps find additional opportunities to enter 4* shows. I am not particular about venue, for so long as the footing and gear are good (absolutely essential), and the paddock is big enough. There are, of course, certain shows that would be a dream to ride in one day – Valkenswaard, Chantilly, Aachen, Paris (Saut Hermes), Treffen (the Glock show), Wolvertem (the Stephex Masters), a season in Wellington, Spruce Meadows, etc. Too many to name! But I will be patient, keep working hard, and keep dreaming. When the time is right, the opportunities will present themselves!
The Global Champions Tour is a fantastic business concept. Jan Tops is a genius, and has really done a superb job marketing the sport and making it more accessible to a more general public. And, naturally, it holds a lot of appeal for the riders with the super venues and huge prize money. And I think the setup is also very fair – the best of the best are invited to ride, who merit participation based on their results and performances, and consequently set the stage for a genuinely high level of competition, which the audience will always appreciate. I also appreciate that certain criticisms have been leveled against the GCT, notably concerning the cost of participation – and despite being in that position myself where I simply do not have the means nor can I justify spending such a money to participate in a competition, however much I may wish to do, I do sincerely believe that globally and objectively, we all have to acknowledge that the GCT has done a lot to advance the sport and the way competitions are being run these days. It has elevated the standard at which competitions are being run, and that is something we can all benefit from in the long-term.
WH: What is the most beautiful place to ride in the world or your favorite place and why?
JA: My favorite competition would be the CSI in Dinard, France. I had the opportunity to jump the 2* in 2014. The venue is just lovely. A big grass arena and a big sand arena, both beautifully decorated. The ambiance is festive with good food and good company, as the show is often very well-attended. The town is charming, situated by the sea, with a lovely promenade along the beach and lots of fantastic restaurants. And the weather is always good!
WH: In your travels you’ve worked with several trainers and observed many from other countries can you tell me which ones you were impressed with and how their training styles differ?
You mentioned that you will return to Europe to compete. Tell us about your experiences there and your plans for the future?
JA: I divide my time between home (in the Philippines) and France.
During the winter, since I abhor the cold and cannot tolerate anything below 20-degrees Celsius (what can I say, I grew up in the tropics…), I make a lot of trips back and forth – one month in Europe, one more at home, also because that time period coincides with the show season in the Philippines, and I have to be home often enough to look after my students and horses there. Then generally I base myself in Europe from April till about September, which is a natural time for me to be away as there are no competitions then in the Philippines – and also because the weather is good in Europe!
I’ve been more or less based in Europe for about ten years now; the regular trips back and forth started in late 2015, following the passing of my father, to allow me to spend more time at home with my family and attend to my other responsibilities at home. I made the move to Europe just out of college, and was based in the Netherlands for a year with Sjaak Van Der Lei. I then relocated to the South of France, training with Manuel Henry, for about two years, before spending a short period of time in Normandy, where my horses were stabled at Haras de la Chesnaye. After that I headed to Belgium, where I was based with my teammate from the Philippine Equestrian Team, Toni Leviste. And at the end of 2017, I settled at the stables of my current trainer, Guillaume Batillat, just east of Paris. Each place I’ve lived has been special in its own way, but I’ve always had a particular affection for France, and it made sense to live in a country where I actually speak the language, so it felt like the obvious choice to end up there.
It’s not easy dividing my time, finding the balance that keeps my students busy and progressing, all the while maintaining my own level of riding and competition at a good level. It’s hard to keep the rhythm and connection with my own horses when I have to absent myself for weeks at a time. It involves a lot of travel and I find myself in a perpetual state of jet lag, but even though the rhythm is hectic, it suits me. I’m never bored, and my brain is constantly engaged. I’m very lucky to have such understanding clients, who appreciate the importance my being able to compete abroad on a regular basis and allow me the freedom to do, and to have a super support team around me in France, who keep my horses in top condition when I’m away. It really takes a village!
For so long as I have the means and strength to continue living this way, I will do so. When the time is right for me to make a change, the universe will tell me. In the meantime, I am happy where I am presently based in France, and hope to be there for some time still. The stables are simple, but charming; very calm, and very complete. I have a super trainer with a good program and busy competition schedule, which allows me to continue to evolve with my horses. Everyone is positive, helpful, and respectful of one another, and it makes for a very pleasant working environment. Last year the goal was a good performance at the 2018 Asian Games, which we accomplished. This year we will work towards trying to get Olympic qualification (an absolute reach, but to not try is to have already failed!) in August, and then the Asian Equestrian Championships in December. It’s going to be a busy year, but when is it ever not?
WH: Who is your favorite equestrian author, book or film?
JA: Book-Riders by Jilly Cooper, without a doubt. The book is brilliantly written, with many interwoven storylines, and is really the perfect blend of funny, sad, sexy, and dramatic, all interspersed with just enough showjumping technical details to make it entirely credible.
Film: I’ve always loved International Velvet and The Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit (the original novel by Eric Hatch is also a sublime read, of course, but the film is also extremely well done). I enjoyed Jappeloup immensely, and cried at various intervals throughout the film. And I very recently watched a French comedy called “Turf,” which is not at all to do with jumping but the racing circuit, and it is absolutely hilarious.
WH: Any funny horsey stories; incidents at a show, riders you coached, while on course?
JA: There are many – too many, even! – but one does stick out from 2016. My youngest student, then just 8 years old, had the most adorable pony (= very small). Palomino, white blond mane, about as wide as he was tall – a Thelwell pony come to life, really. So she had just started jumping cross rail classes with this pony, and generally all was well, except the navigation. Being young and a bit nervous at shows, “left” and “right” were often open to interpretation in her mind when she was on course, and remembering the course to begin with was not exactly a sure thing. Add that the the fact that the pony would jump anything it was put in front of, right fence or wrong fence, it would often mean that we would produce “remixed” interpretations of the course. So, to rectify this problem, (and I should preface this by saying that in Manila, the instructors are allowed to be in the arena with their students in the cross rail class) I ended up having to run alongside and jump WITH the pony, to make sure they were headed to the correct fence each time. To make the situation even more comical, I had grooms situated in every corner of the arena to help channel both rider and pony into the correct line of each fence, lest she be led astray… And so, for a brief period in 2016, we have a series of videos of Spice the pony and his little rider jumping clear round after clear round – with their trainer jumping each fence alongside them. They received many ribbons for their efforts; I, however, did not.
WH: I’d like to you to address breeding and bloodlines in showjumping. Who is your favorite sire? Do you have a favorite dam line? Training techniques for the young horses?
JA: I’m very interested in the bloodlines of all horses, but I have to say I don’t have a particular favorite. For so long as they jump…! But most recently, I’ve found the Comme Il Faut progeny quite interesting. Aside from the stallion being absolutely brilliant himself, I find that he does leave a very prominent stamp on his offspring, and it will be interesting to see how they develop over the course of the next few years. And just for the sheer joy of it, I would have loved a paint by Utah van de Rock! But he was just castrated, so I no longer have an excuse to choose my next horse based purely on color.
As for the young horses, it’s all very simple: straight, forward, and calm. Working in that right attitude allows them to develop the musculature in the correct way, and prepares them for the more complex and technical in the future. And beyond that, the most important thing we can give young horses is time. Giving them time to learn, digest, make mistakes, progress, and also consecrating enough time to them so that all of the above is done in a trusting environment. They need to develop confidence in themselves, and confidence in their riders. A horse that believes in itself and believes in its rider is the easiest horse to teach! Combine the right attitude with a horse that has been allowed to develop organically, physically, in the most fundamentally correct way – progress comes without even trying very hard.
WH: Tell us about your current horses?
JA: I currently have four horses, two in Europe and two in the Philippines.
Ubama Alia (in France): 2008, Mare, Nonstopultra x Clinton
She is my “good” mare for the big classes. She is a fairly recent acquisition from the end of 2017, and we’re jumping mostly 2* Grand Prix classes and the occasional 3* show. Most recently I rode her at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, where we finished 17th individually. The Individual Final was 1m55, and considering it was her first ever flight, first ever championship, first time to jump a class at such a height, she jumped some super rounds and showed that she can and will become a very good horse.
Hamilton B (in France): 2012, Gelding, Corland x Campbell
My “young” horse, who is already 7, but was quite a late starter. He did nothing as a 4-year old and only jumping two training classes as a 5-year old, so really only started competing in 2017. He’s green physically and mentally, but has a lot of potential. He’s jumping 1m20 and 1m25 classes at the moment in 1* shows, and has jumped in a handful of 1m30 and 1m35 YH* classes. I remain unsure in which direction to orient his career, as he has a big jump, but also possesses the looks and style to be successful in other disciplines. In the meantime, he continues to gain experience. Let’s see what the future has in store for him.
Concept TM (in the Philippines: 2002, Gelding, Carano x Lagano
This horse has been a very devoted member of team Philippines, having jumping the Olympic Qualifier in 2015 and the South East Asian Games in 2017 (Team Silver). We jumped some good classes together in Europe at the 2* and 3* level, and now that he is in the Philippines, he is enjoying a much less intensive career en route to a well-deserved retirement in the coming years.
Without A Doubt (in the Philippines): 1995, Gelding, Fame of Wondaree x Mr. Microdot
My beloved retiree! He was my first horse for the big classes, back when I was 17 years old. He was an entirely improbable jumper, with the most peculiar technique and the most difficult attitude, but he loved me endlessly and never failed to get me safely over all the fences. He now spends his days eating all day and spending my money, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
WH: What do you look for in a competition horse and what mistakes would you tell a rider to avoid?
JA: When looking for a horse, some things go without saying – carefulness, scope, cleverness. Everyone wants a Big Star or a Cristalline or an Azur ! But for me as an individual, I’m particular about a horse that takes me to the fence. A horse with a kind, intelligent eye that you feel you can “understand” when you look into their faces. A horse with the desire to please. A horse with a canter that covers ground and comes up through the withers. And a horse that loves to jump, that takes pleasure in what it does.
Trust your feeling, trust your instincts. Surround yourself with people who have your best interests at heart, who can help you make the right choices with any pressure or drama. And, most importantly, don’t be in a hurry!
WH: Which of the disciplines helped your riding the most equitation, hunters or the jumpers and why/ please elaborate. Do you think the equitation is important for a rider who wants to be a show jumper?
JA: The early years of my riding were in the Philippines, where the only disciplines “available” were dressage and jumping. Consequently, riders had quite a comprehensive foundation in both, and we continue place a great deal of emphasis on working the horses correctly on the flat at home.
I don’t know enough technical details about equitation or hunters to offer an accurate assessment, and have only a very “superficial” knowledge of both. I have read many articles criticizing how both the equitation and hunter divisions in the US have evolved over the years, but have also seen many very successful riders come through the ranks with either equitation or hunter roots (or perhaps even both). But certainly, as with all things, for so long as the notions of hard work, patience, and perseverance are instilled in the rider’s attitude, surely that can only help one progress. Insofar as the technical aspect is concerned – please do educate me! I am always eager to learn!
WH: How important is a college education for a rider? You were Captain of the Equestrian Team at Yale. How did your time at Yale impact your life and your life as a show jumper?
JA: A good college education is indispensable. I repeat this regularly to all my students. If you cannot ride during college, you can always come back to the sport afterwards. It will be there, waiting to welcome you back with open arms. But the chance at a top-notch education is often once in a lifetime, and we do ourselves a great disservice if we pass up that opportunity. Being at college and having the college experience is completely unlike anything else. It is four unique years where you will make friends, experiences new things, stimulate yourself intellectually, and expose yourself to a multitude of different culture, materials, scenarios, etc. that, inexplicably and improbably, have all managed to find their way in to that bubble that you will be in for four years. And it is just wonderful. Sometimes it is important, even necessary, to step back from the riding to allow yourself to grow as a person, to mature and to enrich yourself in different ways, and to develop your overall outlook on life, and on yourself – all of which will allow you to return to the sport even stronger, even better.
The audience we address here, today, in this article, lives and breathes horses, and will probably do so till the day that we all die – but there are countless other individuals in the world who probably starting their riding careers just as passionately, just as enthusiastically, and later found themselves on a different path in life. And that’s neither bad nor good, but it can happen to anyone! And, in that case, it is good to have options, which a college degree can give you.
While I did compete with the Yale Equestrian Team, the IHSA level is incomparable to the international sport. But I was just happy to be around horses, and around other people that loved horses. I made some very close friends in the process, and have countless memories that I will forever look fondly upon. The entire time I was at university, from 2006-2010, I took a break from competing internationally. I missed the chance to compete at the 2006 Asian Games and the 2007 South East Asian Games, but I absolutely do not regret one moment of it. That “sabbatical” I took from riding did nothing to diminish my love for the sport and my desire to compete at a high level, and I came back to it even hungrier than ever – and picked up right where I left off. With a degree in my pocket!
Thank you Joker for taking the time to answer my questions.
About the author: with a background in filmmaking , fashion and contemporary art, Winter Hoffman brings a unique perspective to the equestrian world. A life long horsewoman she helped her daughter, Zazou Hoffman, navigate her way to a successful Junior career culminating in 1st place in the 2009 ASPCA Maclay Equitation Championship at the National Horse Show and second in the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final with East Coast trainers Missy Clark and John Brennan. Zazou is now an Assist Trainer and professional rider at Meadow Grove Farm in California.