Photo: Cealy Tetley 2023

Karl Slezak, a member of the Canadian Eventing Team, is one of those people who immediately puts you at ease. His calm demeanour and friendly approach draw you in and make you want to hear more about his life.

When talking to Karl, it’s easy to forget you’re chatting with one of the most recognized and highly ranked Canadian Eventing athletes. He currently ranks in the top 2 percent on the FEI World Rankings for the sport, with multiple wins at CCI4* level Eventing competitions spanning his almost thirty year career.

With the Paris 2024 Olympics fast-approaching, Karl is excited and “cautiously optimistic” that he and his equine partner, Hot Bobo (a 11-year-old Irish Bay Sport Horse mare), are top contenders to represent Canada at the games.

Setting the Stage for an Olympic Debut

Karl and Hot Bobo are currently qualified to attend the 2024 Olympic Summer Games. Their most notable finish along the road to qualifying was their win at the Cosequin Lexington CC4*-S as part of the Land Rover Kentucky Three Day Event in April of last year.

This result was certainly a highlight for Karl who was, “excited to win, not just for my career and business, but for getting one step closer to my dream of riding at the Olympics.”

karl-slezak-front | Mad Barn USAPhoto Cealy Tetley 2023

Karl and Hot Bobo didn’t stop there. In a further testament to their dynamic partnership, the combination placed fourth at the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, in October 2023. The Pan Ams were also a huge success for Karl and his teammates: Mike Winter, Lindsay Trainsel, and Colleen Loach. Together, these four won a team gold medal, proving to the world that the restructured Canadian Eventing Team is on a promising path forward.

Karl and Hot Bobo aim to continue their success this spring. With TerraNova CC14*-S and Ocala International CCI4*-S under their belt, and Tryon International CCI4*-S on the horizon, this pair is taking steps toward their Olympic goal and will head overseas to compete in Europe in early June. If all goes well, the duo will remain in Europe and compete for Team Canada in Paris, France in July during the Summer Games.

Alongside Hot Bobo, Karl is equally excited about his other mount, a 12-year-old gelding, Chevalier (owner: Carol Wiley), who is proving his worth as an up-and-comer in the Eventing sphere. With planned events to showcase their talents, Karl hopes that Chevalier will also qualify and be in contention for the 2024 Olympics.

If Karl is chosen to represent Canada in Paris, this won’t be his first time attending the Olympics, but it will be his first as a competing athlete. In 2004, Karl and his horse at the time, Private Ryan, qualified for the Olympics in Athens, Greece.

Unfortunately Ryan suffered an injury that prevented Karl from realizing his dream. Instead, he attended the Olympics as Garry Roque’s (his former mentor and coach) groom — an experience, Karl explains, that was still incredible. “One of the most memorable parts of the Athens Olympics were the Opening Ceremonies. I was front row. It was very emotional and impactful for me. It was a moment that further solidified my desire to make it to the Games as an athlete one day.”

A Commitment to Team Success

Karl’s decades as an Eventer have propelled him to the top of the world and he is quick to point out that his success is, in part, due to the support he has received from the Canadian Eventing High Performance (HP) Program. As a tenured member since 2002, Karl believes this newly revamped HP Program with its updated team-driven philosophy is what Canadian equestrian sport needs to continue building its competitive momentum and success.

The new leadership at the helm of the HP Program includes Rebecca Howard, the Technical Advisor and Chef D’Équipe, and Dr. Emily Gilbert, HP Chair. These leaders, along with his fellow teammates and the entire support crew, have ignited Karl’s excitement for seeing the team thrive and grow.

“The creation of a new mission for the HP program, the injection of experts, and the success of the current athletes are all helping create an effective model for cultivating a long-lasting program. I see this as a game-changer for our sport and one that can excite younger Canadian riders to continue Eventing,” Karl predicts.

Under the guidance of the Eventing High Performance Advisory Group (HPAG), the Canadian Eventing riders are training with a renewed team spirit — one that fosters a synergistic mindset. As Karl puts it, “The HP program is developing a team mentality throughout the year, long before we get to a big competition so we can practice being a team and build trust with one another. It’s like muscle memory, so we are all coming into competitions already mentally prepared to compete with our teammates.”

The creation of a new mission for the HP program, the injection of experts, and the success of the current athletes are all helping create an effective model for cultivating a long-lasting program. I see this as a game-changer for our sport...
- Karl Slezak, Team Canada Eventing Athlete

With Canadian Eventing athletes spread across the globe, another pillar of the HP Program is ensuring effective communication. “With Mike [Winter] in England, and the rest of us split between Canada and the USA, we are challenged by both time and geography. Rebecca and Emily keep the lines of communication open and provide more opportunities for all of us to be together, such as clinics and dinners, to help bridge the gap and build that team energy and camaraderie, ” Karl explains.

“Eventing has a dual mindset. We are competing as individuals most of the time, and if we are lucky, we make it onto the team. Rebecca and Emily do a great job to help us all recognize the big picture and ensure we are all on the same wavelength. It helps, too, that we all get along really well.”

Karl echoes the sentiment shared by his fellow team members that effective leadership of the HP program allows the riders, “to focus on what they’re good at and still feel supported, while other supporting members can focus on and excel in their roles.”

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It’s All in the Data

A key focus of the new HP Program is improved data analytics to guide more precise training regimens. Supported by Mad Barn, the program introduced a game-changing tool: heart rate monitors (HRM) to collect detailed information on horses’ fitness levels and performance.

With the utilization of HRM data, Karl values the marginal gains he can achieve with his horses, inevitably leading to huge gains for Team Canada: “I used the HRMs a lot last year and the data gained through them has been really beneficial to me. It’s those marginal gains — keeping our horses a little bit fitter, a little bit healthier, and a little bit more mentally sound. All of these add up to make significant gains and impact on our performance outcomes.”

Additionally, thanks to insight from the HRMs, Karl and other team members have adjusted their approach to their horses’ fitness assessment and types of exercises they include in their training. “I have gotten a little more consistent with my training by using the monitors because I have a better idea of my horses’ speed, as well as with how to profile my interval training,” Karl says.

Karl Slezak CAN and Hot Bobo | Mad Barn USAPhoto Cealy Tetley 2023

“Previously I would do a gallop set, then a four-minute walk, then a second gallop set, and then a four-minute walk, then another gallop set. But now I base the intervals on data from the HRMs. If my horse’s heart rate drops too low, then I know I’m undertraining and not benefiting from the exercises as much as my horse and I could be.”

Karl sees the value of the HRM in his day-to-day training. As he puts it, “I can now recognize trends and patterns week-to-week during my training and during competition. I can notice variations in my horses’ output and can start to recognize different variables, such as any stressors, that may be affecting their performance.”

What’s more, all the Eventing athletes benefit from the expertise of the Mad Barn team to evaluate the HRM data and make recommendations to adjust training strategies — giving them a competitive edge. Karl emphasizes how critical this support is to him and his fellow teammates, “[helping] to reduce the pressure on each of us by supporting us and our horses in the best way possible.”

Long-Term Gains from a Nutritional Strategy

Further to the HRM training data, the new HP Program partnered with Mad Barn and their nutrition experts to provide the athletes and supporting team members with ongoing nutritional consultation and guidance.

Karl has been supported by Mad Barn for a number of years now and has a strong loyalty to the brand and its nutritionists. “The fitness level that our horses need to compete at the world-class level is hard on the horses’ digestive system, so they can struggle. Along with that, the horse’s mental soundness usually follows suit: if they are uncomfortable, they don’t perform well. Getting the right support to help optimize the horses’ gut health and keep them happy nutrition-wise is critical. Scott Cieslar, founder and CEO of Mad Barn has been incredibly influential in structuring, balancing, and optimizing the diets of all my horses.”

The fitness level that our horses need to compete at the world-class level is hard on the horses’ digestive system, so they can struggle.... Getting the right support to help optimize the horses’ gut health and keep them happy nutrition-wise is critical.
- Karl Slezak, Team Canada Eventing Athlete

Karl’s strong commitment to the Mad Barn product line was solidified when he witnessed the transformation of a working student’s horse that was stabling at Karl and his wife, Katlyn Hewson-Slezak’s, farm and equestrian business, in Anthony, Florida.

This student’s horse was taking the Mad Barn product Visceral+. At the time, Mad Barn’s product line was not sold in the United States, and after running out of the product, the horse became extremely anxious — to the point where sedation was required.

“A few days later, someone came down from Canada and brought [the student] more, and almost immediately after being back on the product, the horse settled down. That was the first time I had seen such a significant change with any product. Since then, I’ve seen it a few times with this product. I know it works really well,” Karl recalls.

Karl’s horses have benefited from years of collaboration with Mad Barn. “I use W-3 Oil, an energy and essential fatty acid supplement, that is a huge contributor to keeping the horses’ coats healthy and supports joint health and immune system function.”

Staying Cool While the Heat is On

For most of his riding career, Karl has gravitated to the less experienced, greener horses; ones that require more patience and a calm trainer. Karl is passionate about dedicating the time, energy, and compassion these horses deserve to develop their trust and build their confidence.

Karl has trained and developed a fleet of horses over his equestrian career and has had incredible success with many of them. And his relationship with Hot Bobo may just be one of the more special ones he’s experienced so far. In part because she has supported him up to this moment: the precipice of riding in the Olympics.

Karl also reflects on how Hot Bobo has required a great deal of patience and guidance, which has solidified the trust between them. “Bobo is actually quite spooky on the cross-country courses during training. It’s like she’s never been out before. Her being spooky makes it a better ride for me because I can be supportive of it. She doesn’t like to be abandoned. She likes the connection.”

Regardless of training jitters, when it comes time for the big events, Karl and Hot Bobo shine. “While competing, nobody can tell she’s a spooky horse. She looks like a dream ride; it’s almost an effortless round because she is so efficient. I’ve never had a horse that goes around cross-country like her. At the Pan Ams, I just put my knuckles on her neck, and she went so well. She is a fantastic horse.”

A Leader and Coach for the Equestrian Community

Karl is clearly enamoured with his mare and their success together is a testament to how much Hot Bobo puts her trust in him. Karl is confident that if the two of them are chosen to compete at the Olympics, Hot Bobo will shine.

Karl’s philosophy of keeping calm and collected while riding horses extends to his teaching of riders as well. “With horses, the best reaction is minimal reaction; stay relaxed and calm. This is true when supporting riders as well.”

Karl coaches riders of all levels, from beginners to upper-level riders (one of whom is a contender to compete at the Olympics), and even a few “ladies who just enjoy sitting on a horse and chatting about life.”

As an instructor, Karl shares his pride in the sport and how he appreciates riders of all levels because he respects their personal goals. “You adapt to the riders and what they want — just like we adapt to the horse’s needs.”

As Karl takes these next critical weeks to focus on successes at the upcoming competitions with both Hot Bobo and Chevalier, he takes a moment to beam with excitement and anticipation. His hard work, expertise, patience, years of dedication and commitment to the sport, the Canadian Eventing Team, and his beloved horses, are all coming together to bring Karl’s dream of being an Olympian at this year’s Games to life.