She is only 18, but Lisa Nooren already has a five-star Grand Prix win on her conscience as well as a heavy load of medals from the under-21-Europeans all the way through the ranks counting from ponies to children to juniors. Oh, not to forget that she in 2014 became Dutch national champion both for young riders and juniors – collecting two gold medals on two different horses.
But, if you think the success has gone to her head she will prove you wrong. When we ask Lisa if she has any Olympic ambitions for 2016, she starts giggling in a way that might suggest that our question is a bit ridiculous. “That is a little too soon,” Nooren laughs. “I focus on the Young Rider Europeans, that feels a bit more realistic.”
Lisa Nooren is indeed everything we hoped she would be.
She is a mix of mature, reflected, caring, warm, funny and girlish. She also has an infectious kind laughter and smile that both will make you feel comfortable in her presence. And, she is anything but selfish. When she won the five-star Grand Prix of La Coruna in December, she donated a part of her prize money to JustWorld International that she is an ambassador for. “Seeing as I had won such an amazing amount of money it seemed like the only appropriate thing to do was to share it,” Lisa says. Next to holding all these likeable qualities and being a brilliant rider, Nooren would also impress you with her qualities in the kitchen. She loves to cook (her signature dish is not for those on a low-calorie diet as it involves pasta with a lot of mascarpone), which is a passion she shares with her mother Nicole and her sister Tess.
It comes as no surprise that Nooren has turned out to be one of the most exciting riders this circuit has seen for quite a while. As the daughter of legendary Dutch rider and trainer Henk Nooren, it was perhaps in the cards that this was the way it would turn out for Lisa.
Her first childhood memories are from the horse back, sitting in front of her dad in the saddle. “Even when I was tiny, I was around in the stables. I would love to pick out the horses’ feed and stuff like that. Then I got my own little pony, Picnic, so I started riding around with her a little bit. My older sister Billy eventually stopped showing, but my middle sister Tess was still competing so whenever she went to the show I would tag along with Picnic and ride around at the show grounds. Gradually, I started to get bigger ponies than Picnic and while my older sisters stopped riding I continued,” Lisa tells looking back.
“From what I heard from mum and dad, I was always crazy about horses. If I was not taking care of a real horse, I was taking care of a stick horse. I was never forced to ride, I just really enjoyed it,” she says about how horses became her big passion in life. “I could never see myself without horses in my life, for sure not.”
Talented, passionate and crazy about her horses. But, what is that final important ingredient that brought it all together for Lisa to go to the top so early on in her career? “She has a basic good talent, but I would say like many others,” her father Henk says as we sit around the Nooren-family’s kitchen table at their beautiful farm that is located on top of a hill in Engis, Belgium. “Then she was lucky to be born into a family that did the sport. Also, we always used people from the outside to help even from when she was 6-7 years-old. We have a gentleman from Hungary, Mr. Mandi, and he came here every second week for years, and still comes, to help. So, it has been constant surveillance – perhaps nuisance – of always correcting the smallest mistakes in the technique of her riding. Then with the help of a mental coach we also managed to get that part right, so that suddenly she became cold enough to perform. I am quite sure that many young people with the same talent as her, given the same chances, would be able to do the same thing. But, she was just born in the right place.”
The mental coaching is perhaps a bit under-estimated in the sport of showjumping, but is something Lisa was forced to take seriously during her time on the ponies. “The thing was, whenever I went to a bigger championship I would freeze and it would always go wrong,” Lisa explains. “It never went well; I would always kind of chicken out.”
“But, I kept going and we decided to start on the horses – I was 14 then. I went to my first Europeans for children and won with Ubalia. It was a good thing, because we were a bit like ‘Lets see what happens’. So, I went back to ponies and got a really nice one called Rock Dee Jay from Irish friends – the O’Reilly-Hyland family. I went to the European Championships with him and won individual silver. After that I went back to horses and continued from there.”
It was during this time that Lisa started to work with the well-known sports psychologist Esther Müller. “I really needed to work on the mental part,” Lisa says. “Basically we have been working on my mind so that whatever happens, especially if something goes wrong, I can snap out of it and keep going again. Not that the whole course becomes a drama,” she laughs. “It’s not like a ‘close-your-eyes-and-imagine-yourself kind of thing’, it is much more helpful than that. I have learned techniques to not get distracted by stress, and stay focused.”
The mental coaching for sure did the trick, because from Lisa’s time on the ponies it has been onwards and upwards. In 2013 she won double bronze at the Europeans for juniors on Zigo, and the year after at the Dutch Championships she did some incredible performances to take gold in both the junior and young rider division riding Royalty des Isles and Flying Saucer respectively. This year, she will ride two divisions again and compete in both the national young rider and senior championships.
In December, at the age of 18, Lisa did what many riders work for their whole career: winning a five-star Grand Prix. In La Coruna, on the incredible stallion VDL Groep Sabech d’Ha Nooren could tick of another major achievement-box. “It was unbelievable. Surreal, really,” she says.
When talking about Sabech d’Ha, Lisa’s eyes shine a little extra. “With Sabech I never have to worry, he will always try – and I know this,” she says. “He has an incredible character. I never think about what can go wrong; he would never be naughty and he loves to work. He is just always happy to do things for you!”
Opposite of what you might think, Lisa’s golden boy was never meant to become her top horse though. “It was just pure, pure luck, nothing else,” her father Henk fills in.
“We were in St. Lo to look at a few horses. The parents of our groom at that time had brought us some horses to see, and Sabech was one of them,” Henk continues. “He was jumping the 7-year-old classes – and was a cute horse – but nothing more, so we did not pursue it.” Then a few months later, by coincidence, Henk saw the now 10-year-old stallion again while someone else was trying him. “I was in Normandy on a terrible rainy day, at a big stud looking at lots of horses. So, after five or six horses I was already soaking wet and was hiding under a shed waiting for the next horse. Then I see a girl in a red rain jacket flying around on this stallion, but I did not really pay more attention to it. Then one and a half days later the same groom came and asked if I saw the stallion from his mum while I was at the stud; I did not even realize it was the same horse we had seen before. A week later I asked our groom if his parents sold it to the people who tried him, but no he was not sold so I asked if they would send him to us and we would look at him again.”
That is how Sabech d’Ha ended up at the Nooren’s stable. No love at first sight. No this is it. “We were convinced that we had a really nice and sweet 1.35 / 1.40 amateur horse,” Henk says. “The following two months after his arrival I was still convinced about that.”
But even Henk Nooren can be wrong. “Then Lisa took him to the first show and came back and said ‘Hi dad, perhaps he is a bit better than we thought’. And then he just kept growing with her!”
“For me, it has been amazing to grow up with him,” Lisa says. “What has been new for me, has also been new for him – a bit nerve wracking in the beginning perhaps.”
“It’s been a process, and they went through it together,” Henk says. “When we went to Geestern last summer and walked the course for the Grand Prix, Lisa looked at me and said ‘Dad, those are big fences’. Because, we are not the kind of people that jump big at home – so yes, for us those were big fences. At the same time, I never thought that it was either too big or too early for any of the tasks they were given. And sometimes you just have to laugh about it together, because there always has to be a first time for everything! When we are done laughing we do the same that we would do with a 1.30 course – prepare, discuss and talk about it. That’s it, and then you forget about the height.”
Lisa’s beautiful, fearless and light way of riding have impressed many and indeed flows through the blood in her veins. After all, she is her father’s daughter. “Dad has had a huge influence on my riding,” Lisa says. “What I learned very early was that you will never get there by forcing a horse. Even if we had a difficult horse, we would always take our time. The light riding comes from my dad, it is a style that I have always lived with. And my biggest example and who I always would like to resemble is Marcus Ehning; his style of riding is fantastic.”
Being trained by her own father is something Lisa has found quite uncomplicated. “Before I could perhaps get annoyed at times; I sometimes felt I was under constant surveillance – but now we have developed a very good relationship and I get along very well with both my parents. I feel like it is more a partnership now, which for sure also has come with age.”
Last year, Lisa got another age-advantage and got to finish her compulsory time at school. “Mum and dad pushed a bit for me to study more, but then for me it seemed that right now it would be difficult to do both studies and riding at the same time,” she says of her choice to ride full-time. “That can always change though,” she adds very unconvincing while laughing “But, at least I am hoping for this year that they will forget about that study-part!”
With a daughter that has a showjumping future as bright as a diamond it is hard to see why her mum and dad would wish to put Lisa back on the school bench. Having also received the support of the Dutch VDL Groep and Stoeterij Duyselshof courtesy of Mr. Wim van der Leegte, Lisa’s dreams looks set to come true. “We started working with Mr. van der Leegte in the autumn of 2014. The support of VDL is amazing. I feel with their help I will be able to attain my goals of doing big championships one day. Later on they would like me to come to Stoeterij Duyselshof, which is for sure my plan for the future – but I still have a lot to learn so for the moment I stay here until I can find my way on my own,” Lisa says humbly.
Currently, Lisa has five horses that are co-owned out of the partnerships with the VDL Groep, and her 2015 Frankfurt-winner VDL Groep Centora de Wallyro is one of them. “Centora is now 9-years-old; and I had her since she was 7. Even though she is big, she is very fast and has such a winning spirit. At home she is so lazy and slow though – but once she comes into the ring a completely different horse which is really nice about her. Centora is a bit special though, so I will have to be a bit careful about how fast I go with her,” Lisa reflects.
Another future star includes the 8-year-old VDL Groep Urane de Talma, that Lisa thinks the world of. “Urane is French bred by Argentinus, and very special. She is small, quite skinny and has her own special way of jumping. In September last year she won the young horse final in Donaueschingen, and she also did some other great things through the year. Seeing as she is so special we decided to give her a little break so that she could develop a little bit more at home, to get stronger,” Lisa says.
As to her current situation, it would be hard to find a happier 18-year-old. “I have never enjoyed anything this much,” Lisa says with a huge smile on her face. “I get to ride all day, and it is really what I love to do. I just feel a lot happier now; every day I get to ride my horses – it really clears my mind. And to be able to feel the progress from day to day, and that it comes from me – and not somebody else riding my horses – is really something special!”
Text © World of Showjumping by Jannicke Naustdal // Pictures © World of Showjumping by Jenny Abrahamsson
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