In World of Showjumping’s new series 'The Next Generation', we will focus on determined young talents that aim for the top of the sport through dedication and hard work.
One of those belonging to this group is definitely Gilles Thomas who was awarded Belgium’s ‘Talent of the Year 2016’. World of Showjumping met the soft speaking 18-year-old during Jumping Mechelen, where Gilles did his first ever five-star appearance. Of course in style, as he won one of his classes and placed second in another.
Gilles was born into a horse family. When she was younger, Gilles’ mother used to ride at championship level and his aunt is married to Belgian rider Marc van Dijck who runs Stal Nieuwenhof near Brussels – and that is where Gilles spends his days.
“My uncle Marc means everything to me,” Gilles says. “Most of the horses I ride are from him – he is my trainer, my uncle and a friend. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for him. All my family support me a lot, and my mother helps me every day with the horses. It is really nice to do everything together as a family,” Gilles tells about his daily life.
“I still have two years left in school – if all goes well. It depends on my school schedule when I ride, but most of the days I go to school first and then ride in the evening. During the weekends I go to shows. I do everything in the stable myself: I like to brush the horses myself and take care of them, I think it is nice. And I believe that when you spend time with your horses and see them properly every day, you get to know them so much better,” Gilles continues.
This year Gilles was crowned double European Champion for juniors, and also won the Belgian Championship in this age category. He also won a 2* Grand Prix in Lier, and his incredible year was wrapped up by being named ‘Talent of the Year’ in Belgium. Looking back at the list of other riders who have won this title before him, you’ll find names such as Jos Verlooy and Pieter Devos – both of them hugely successful in the sport. “It was very nice to get this award at the end of such a good year. To look at the names who have won this before me and then at where they are now, is a great motivation,” Gilles says.
At Stal Nieuwenhof there are about twenty horses, but there is one that is a little bit closer to Gilles’ heart than the others: Conaro (Con Capitol x Quinar). “Last year I won the Belgian Championship for juniors with him. I have ridden him all his life; we started in the children’s 1.10m classes when he was a 6-year-old. Doing my first five-star Grand Prix here in Mechelen on him now that he is a 12-year-old is something special,” Gilles tells about his favorite horse.
This modest rider has long-term goals. “Next year is my first as a young rider, and I hope to do the championships on that level and also get more experience from the international shows – hopefully also from some more five-star shows. It is my dream to ride at the Olympics – but if Tokyo is a realistic goal, that we have to see later on. But, it is for sure my dream to one day jump at the Olympic Games.”
Being born in a horse family in one of the strongest jumping nations in the world, does not mean things will come easy – and Gilles knows this: “Belgium has a lot of talent, many good riders, great horses and supportive owners. So it is not that easy to make the team, but I like it. Then, once you make the team and you go to a championship – you know that you are there with a strong group of riders.”
Jeroen Dubbeldam and Marcus Ehning are the riders this young talent looks up to. “They are so focused and they school their horses so good, they always stay very calm. Like Zenith for example, he might not have been a superstar – but with Jeroen he rose to that.”
Belgium’s showjumping future looks very bright with talents like Gilles – and as he mentions Zoe Conter as one of his childhood friends, it looks like the Belgian success is all about team spirit. ”Zoe and I live five minutes from each other, and have been going to the same school since we were three-years-old. Zoe was on the team with me when we won the European Championships this summer. I believe this is the secret to the Belgian success: We are all friends. I think a good team spirit does a lot!”
Text © World of Showjumping by Nanna Nieminen // Pictures © Jenny Abrahamsson and Nanna Nieminen (No reproduction without permission)
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