Two-steps-forwards-one-step-backwards. That’s a game Leopold van Asten has become pretty good at throughout his career, juggling success with setbacks. This year though, Leopold made not only one step forwards - but more a giant leap when he jumped his way back on to the Dutch team and could head for the European Championships on VDL Groep Zidane. Now Van Asten looks forward to 2016, hoping for a ticket to Rio - of course in his own composed and matter-of-fact way.
We meet Leopold at the breathtaking Stoeterij Duyselshof, which he has been lucky enough to call his home stable for the past 15 years. Located in the little town of Duizel in the Netherlands, the stable offers everything a rider could dream of in the most idyllic location. The property belongs to Wim van der Leegte - owner of VDL Groep and a passionate horse man - who Van Asten has been working for since the idea of Stoeterij Duyselshof was born.
Back in 2000, when Van der Leegte started his adventure at Stoeterij Duyselshof he sensibly chose to ask the then 24-year-old Leopold if he would like to work at the showjumping stable as the main rider. “Wim wanted to start up with a young rider. At this time I was working for Henk Nooren, and had gotten some good basics to bring with me to Duyselshof,” Leopold says about how he ended up with what seems like a dream job.
Although far less experienced than other candidates for the job, Leopold had already proven his talent as a junior and young rider. With horses being a part of his life since he was a little boy, it was no coincidence that Van Asten chose the career he did though. “My father competed at national level, and when I was five years old I started at the local riding school. After a little while, I was given my first pony,” Leopold tells.
Van Asten was an eager little soul. To get to his first shows he would ride his pony to the centre of the village where he lived. There a collecting point had been organised for a big truck to pick up him and the pony. On they went with other kids and other ponies, and off they went to the shows. Soon, Leopold was joined by his younger brother Mathijs as well. “Then it got a bit more serious, and our father started taking us to the shows and supporting us in every way he could. Our parents have been amazing to the two of us,” Leopold says.
The support proved fruitful. As a junior rider Leopold won the Dutch Championships and also went to the 1993 European Championships on Henk Nooren’s Candeleria, before she was sold. Then followed Johan Heins’ Kitty IV, who van Asten ended 5th with at the European Championships in 1994. So, it came as no surprise that Leopold chose to work with horses rather than continue with additional education at university. “I was 19, and I got the opportunity to work for Henk Nooren - and of course I took it," he says.
“I learned a lot while working for Henk, not just about riding. It was the whole package from A-Z; from managing the stables to training the horses. Henk was always busy, so I quickly understood the importance of taking responsibility and to take care,” Leopold says.
With this as his basics, the route to success following Leopold's arrival at Stoeterij Duyselshof was short. In 2003 he became Dutch Champion on VDL Groep Think Twice, and went on to jump at the Dutch team at the European Championships. The year after Leopold did his first Olympic Games - with VDL Groep Flèche Rouge - in Athens. “It all started with Think Twice,” Leopold says looking back. “I was lucky because there were made a few investments in some good horses from the beginning. But, soon we started playing with the idea to do our own breeding for the sport. We started up breeding around ten foals a year and then also bought some, building up different blood lines. Now we breed with our own mares that were good in the sport, and we have some fantastic young horses coming out of these mothers like Spiritivo out of VDL Groep Think Twice, Casanova out of VDL Groep Navarett and C Tara Z out of VDL Groep Comtessa - and there are lots more to come,” he smiles.
Today, Stoeterij Duyselshof is a giant affair. It consists of Leopold’s beautiful sport stable that houses around 10-12 horses depending on the circumstances and then - a short drive away - is the yard where the young horses are trained and the breeding stud itself. The stable for the younger horses houses no less than seventy horses, all with the best blood lines in the world - and right by is the stud where the young horses stay in perfect conditions until they are three years old and ready to get into work.
“When the horses are around six or seven-years-old, we make a selection of which horses go into my stable for me to bring on further and hopefully into the top sport. Like everyone else I always look for scope, carefulness and that they have the right mentality - you need a horse that wants to jump clear. I can pick first here so to say - I am very lucky in that way - but I am also dependent on the breeding program we have. I try to follow the horses from they are young though; be present when they are in the final stages of free jumping and looking at videos from the shows to see how they develop."
Van Asten believes in this way of approaching the sport; "I believe that having the horses from they are born and being there all the way is a big advantage. You know the whole history of the horses then, what they have experienced and gone through. And when you get them from a young age, you also grow together as a combination.”
Stoeterij Duyselshof is by now a huge success story. But, Leopold has also had to deal with setbacks during his fifteen years there - and it has not always been easy. "My goal has always been to do the five stars and to represent my country. But, as a rider and a horse man you also have to be realistic and accept that this is not always possible. From a sports point of view, it has sometimes been hard - and I have gone through periods of time where I had no luck at all. For example I had such a great horse in VDL Groep Santana B, but she was out with an injury again and again during the years I had her. We tried everything we possibly could for her, and to make it possible for her to do the big sport - but in the end I had to let her go and accept that she had to be a breeding mare here instead,” Leopold says about the mare that has a very special place in his heart. “During this time I found it was better to take a few steps back, pull out of the biggest shows and build up younger horses to move forwards again at a later stage,” Van Asten says.
The tactics definitely paid off. After a few years of patiently bringing up a younger group of horses on the two, three and four star shows Leopold jumped back into the spotlight this year being crowned Dutch Champion and also found himself back on the orange team heading for the Europeans. The one who currently leads him on the way is VDL Groep Zidane, who according to his rider "has been quite a challenge". The now 11-year-old gelding came to Leopold two years ago, having jumped up to 1.50 level with Eric van der Vleuten - who also has a close relation to Stoeterij Duyselshof together with his son Maikel.
“Zidane is special; a horse with a lot of character,” Leopold explains. “Zidane is a super sweet horse, and for me of course an amazing horse. He has all the qualities you need in a top show jumper; he is super careful, scopey and very fast. His biggest issue though, was that he had a lot of opinions and he liked to show them. I quickly realised it was a fine line with Zidane; he needs to respect you - but on the other hand he needs to trust you and be able to relax so you can never put too much pressure on him. Somehow we have found the balance together, and I have to say that my groom Aurelie also has done an amazing job with him to make him what he is today,” Van Asten says displaying the understanding he seems to provide for every horse he has in his stable.
“I am very happy to be back on the Dutch team,” Van Asten smiles as he talks about his summer season which included winning the Furusyyia FEI Nations Cup in Falsterbo as well as getting called in for duties in Aachen. "I love to do the Nations Cups. To represent my country on a team, that is for me the biggest thing of our sport. My focus this year was Aachen, and I made it as a reserve for the team so hopefully - and if everything goes according to plan - I can aim for Rio next year."
And for the next years it looks even better for Leopold. In the stable are talents that thrive from the time the Dutch rider has spend with them; the 9-year-old VDL Groep Beauty by For Pleasure, the 8-year-old home bred VDL Groep C Tara Z by Crown Z and the 7-year-old VDL Groep Spiritivo - also a home bred - by Indoctro. Leopold takes us around to see each and everyone of them; it’s clear they are special to him - having competed Tara and Spiritivo’s mothers at the highest level it feels like Leopold is introducing us to his own family as he takes us around the stable.
Then, a bit unexpected, some big words come from a man who seem to never really use those kind of superlatives. "I love my job here! To ride such talented horses every day is of course an honour. To believe in them, and then get the proof that your feeling was right is another amazing thing I get to experience here. To see a horse I believed in fulfil it’s potential; that is probably the most satisfying part of my job!"
Photos by Jenny Abrahamsson / text by Jannicke Naustdal - copyright © worldofshowjumping.com 2015.
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