Jeroen Dubbeldam pictured at home with the horse that gave him the first big up of his career: De Sjiem - the 2000 Olympic gold medallist who now enjoys his retirement. All photos (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
If there is one rider in the world that knows about the ups and downs of showjumping, it is Jeroen Dubbeldam. Only 27 years old, he won Olympic gold in Sydney on De Sjiem – without doubt the biggest up of his career, and then he went on to win the Grand Prix of Aachen the following year also riding the legendary De Sjiem. Then followed a few quiet years as De Sjiem was retired – before the Dutch rider bounced back to claim team gold at the World Equestrian Games in Aachen in 2006 riding the very aptly named Up and Down. Another few quiet years followed, before Jeroen came back again – and with full force. This time aboard Simon. Winning the CN International Grand Prix on Simon in 2010, and then ending third in the 2011 World Cup Final – contributed to Simon being the best ranked horse in the world in the autumn of 2011.
And it also contributed to the next big down for Dubbeldam. In November 2011, Simon was sold and Dubbeldam's dreams of going to the Olympics in London were shattered. But as always, Jeroen bounced back – now on Utascha SFN. Well, as the circle of Jeroen's life goes, Utascha was sold at the end of 2013 – but with the next super star up his sleeve, Zenith SFN, Dubbeldam really doesn't look all that worried as we meet him at home in Weerselo.
And why should he? Not only does he have Zenith SFN looking extremely promising – he also has the very talented nine year old Counselour in the stable. Funny enough, this horse is by the stallion Judgement that was ridden by Simon's current rider Beezie Madden, who also together with husband John at one point owned Counselor before he found his way to Europe.
Jeroen has another talent in the stable as well. This time we are not talking about a four legged one though. Sjaak Sleiderink – one of the Netherland's most talented riders at only 21 years old – is another reason for our visit, having caught our eye with his extremely good riding.
"Riders come and riders go, but then I found Sjaak – who I am so happy with," Jeroen smiles. "Well, that's not quite true, because really it was Sjaak who found me! He came here six years ago to get lessons. I spotted his big talent quickly, and I needed a jockey like him here so I asked if he could come permanently. In the beginning he did it next to school, and started up with a few of his father's horses as well also riding some horses for me – and then after three years he started to work full time for me," Jeroen explains.
"I was fifteen back then, so I came here on my scooter! Those were some long days, with school and riding. I am so happy I don't have to go to school anymore," Sjaak laughs of how he pained himself through the final years in front of the books. "For me the choice was simple: When you get a chance to come here you should take it," he adds when talking about his choice of career.
There is no doubt that it was a good choice. Sjaak won team gold at the European Championships for juniors back in 2009, team silver for juniors in 2010, ended 5th individually at the Europeans for young riders in 2012 and got team silver in 2013. Stepping up to the senior ranks, Sjaak has already proved that he has what it takes – notching up impressive wins against some big names on the European circuit.
Jeroen is clear on the fact that Sjaak is not a spoiled rider; "I am not a sponsor, and what he is doing is mainly on our dealing horses. The first choice here in the stables when it comes to the horses belongs to me, and it's already hard enough to find horses here for myself to do the real sport. So, he gets the second choice – but is still doing extremely well," Jeroen says of his protégé. "When I retire he gets the first choice," Jeroen jokes. "Still we try to find a balance with which horses fits us as well," he adds.
They may look very similar – even when it comes to the hair style – but both Jeroen and Sjaak are all about holding on to their own style, especially when it comes to what happens on the horse back. "I think it's important that Sjaak does not copy me. That's dangerous. Everybody rides the way they do," Jeroen says. "I don't teach Sjaak by standing on the ground and telling him what to do. Mostly we discuss the sport, the management and different situations. That's how you learn – watching and listening, being stand-by to what is happening. Sjaak is a talent and I don't have to teach him how to ride to a fence, but he needs to learn all the other things around – how to make a plan with the horse and manage the shows, the veterinarian aspect and all these things. It's more about this philosophy than about the riding. Still; a talent also needs to be steered in the right way," Dubbeldam adds.
Interference is clearly not Jeroen's thing – unless something is an obvious disaster. "I would like to make a rider out of Sjaak that is an independent one. So if he is doing the right thing I do not interrupt. And still if he does something that I think is wrong, I don't go at him immediately – I wait to see the outcome, because maybe he is doing something that feels right and then who am I to judge? In my opinion this will make him stand on his own two feet when or if the day comes that he leaves here," Dubbeldam says.
For Sjaak the training at home is the most important thing he has learned during his time at Stall De Sjiem. "The flatwork," he says when asked about his most important lesson learnt. "When I went to the bigger shows in the beginning when I was here, I quickly found out how important the flatwork is." Jeroen quickly adds; "You know, he was so good until a certain level – without knowing what he really did to get the results he got. But if you want to make the last steps to the top sport, it takes more and he had to learn things he had no clue about. The talent can get you quite far, but not to the top – that takes more."
Having a mentor like Jeroen obviously gives an edge, as he himself once went through all the same things that Sjaak now has had to go through. "When he came here, Sjaak rode on his feeling only. All of a sudden he was asked by me to ride on an idea and teach the horse something. Then he got a little bit confused as he was used to riding on his talent," Jeroen explains. "That was a hard time," Sjaak adds. "It took like half a year for me to adjust. I could not ride a good round anymore, but after coming through that tunnel I managed to get my feeling back and think at the same time – and then it started to go really well.
"I had exactly the same situation," Jeroen says looking back. "I came back to the Netherlands from Switzerland having been at a dealing stable were it was most of the time about the quick results, and then I went to Hans Hoorn where the horses were not for sale – all was done in a long-term perspective – and I experienced the same as Sjaak. You start doubting, and you think that you are not good enough. But if you keep on going then you get to a point where it gets much better."
"He is the best boss I could have had!" That is what Sjaak says of Jeroen. "I know that Jeroen could have used my top horse Zhivago himself, so I really appreciate that he gave him to me. Jeroen is a very relaxed person, and he never gets angry. He might get disappointed, but never angry."
The admiration goes both ways, and Jeroen has only good things to say about his stable jockey. "Sjaak is very good at getting the horses on his side; they like him. He is not a spectacular rider, but he makes the horses very clever and makes them jump economical. Sjaak's rhythm and eye for the fence is very good, and he gives the horses a lot of confidence. You never see him fighting with the horses – it can sometimes be hard to see if he was good or not when he comes out of the ring, and that's something I like. It's hard not to be distressed after a bad round, but it's much better – there is no point in being frustrated with the horses as they will just go against you."
Like Jeroen, Sjaak has had to get used to horses coming and going. "I am getting used to it," he smiles. "Last year I lost my two best horses within a few months; first La Toya was sold and then Breitling. It was quite hard, as I lost my best one for the top level and my most promising one. But that is part of the business and something you need to get used to," Sjaak adds. "Those are the hard moments," Jeroen confirms. "It took a few months, but then I got Zhivago and the eight year old talented Barista SFN followed so now it's looking good again," Sjaak smiles.
As for Dubbeldam's ups and downs – it is currently all about the ups. In his stable is the new super star Zenith SFN – a horse belonging to the Springpaarden Fonds Nederlands, and a horse that looks destined for a great future. "Zenith has all the scope needed and he is very careful," Jeroen says of the 10 year old gelding's qualities. "The problem with him in the beginning was the control as he has a lot of blood – and that was a little bit what I had to fight against last year. Now it is what helps me, as I have found the right way to cope with it," he adds.
It was in Falsterbo last year that Jeroen felt he got a breakthrough with Zenith SFN, and from there on the pair has gone from strength to strength. "After Falsterbo I really started thinking he could be something special. And since then he has been jumping consistently good. I have a great feeling with him. When it was clear that Utascha was leaving I thought 'let's see what he does if I bring him up a level' – and then his first serious Grand Prix was Frankfurt in December last year and he was third straight away. Then I took him to Mechelen, and he jumped unbelievable – ending fourth in the World Cup. I hoped he would stay like this, and I went to Amsterdam as well as Neumünster and he was good again. Until a few months ago, I didn't think of the teams the coming summer – but now I am starting to change my mind I have to say!"
As to the nine year old Counselor, who is a real eye catcher, Jeroen says; "I have a great feeling with him. But I have no set plan for him this season – I don't want to force anything with him, so I will take it as it comes!"
One of the downs last year was when one of Jeroen's best horses Quality Time TN got injured, and forced to take a long break from the sport. "Quality Time has been out since June last year, but hopefully he will be back in the summer to compete. Then he could also be an option for this year's teams as he has the experience and routine needed," he says adding that the 12 year old stallion has been breeding very good – "He produces good and sharp jumpers, we have a few ourselves," Jeroen explains.
Looking back on all the horses that Jeroen has had through his career, they seem to have one thing in common – a lot of blood and sometimes a little bit of a head to deal with. Does he like the horses that way we ask him? "I don't know if I like them, but I had them," Dubbeldam laughs. "We never really spend crazy money on the horses in this stable, so what we have found is horses with a lot of possibilities but that maybe are a bit too special for somebody else. It's not like I wouldn't have preferred to have an uncomplicated one, but somehow I end up with a little bit of the special ones."
It comes as no surprise that there is a special place in Jeroen's heart for De Sjiem and Simon. "De Sjiem brought me so much early on in my career," Jeroen says of his Olympic gold medallist – who still walks around in the fields in the stable, that is named after him, eating grass looking to have a very happy retirement. "When I started my co-operation with Bennie Holtkamp – my father-in-law – the first horse we bought together was De Sjiem! Back then he was seven years old, and that is how it all started. He was the horse that brought me sponsors, and the chance to be independent economically," Jeroen tells.
"But as to natural talent and quality, Simon was a better horse," Jeroen states almost seemingly guilty to say so. "Simon was complicated though – he was over-careful in the beginning, and he ran a lot into the fences and got too deep and too high making life hard for himself. So, it was not so easy with him – but in the end he was the best horse I was ever on. I was quite sorry I didn't get to ride him at the Olympics; that was really painful," Jeroen says of one of the biggest downs of his career. "Yes, those two horses were the most special ones. De Sjiem because I won so much with him and Simon because he was so amazing to ride."
As to all the ups and downs, Jeroen says; "Well, my career has somewhat been like that. I can have a really good horse, and then I can be gone for a few years because it is sold or retired – and as I never have a lot of horses I start all over again and build up a new one. That's something I like to do though. You make a new horse, and sometimes they get sold and those are of course the downs. But I was never a rider that had to be on the road every week; I like to be at home and work with my horses."
"I liked the sport more ten years ago," Jeroen answers quickly when asked about the development of showjumping. "For sure it is great that the sport is growing, but as pure sport I liked it better before – everything around is so much more important now. Ten years ago there were maybe ten shows a year that you knew were important. Now you have three or four shows in a week, sometimes even more than one five star shows in one weekend," Dubbeldam comments on the busy calendar. "Before you had the World Cup Final, Aachen, Calgary and the championships – and there you always found the best of the best. Now that is not the case anymore, and I it find a little bit of a pity. The exclusivity of the events is fading. What is the most important event to win? Nobody can answer this anymore. Nowadays so many more riders can live from our sport and that is of course a good thing, but has the sport become nicer? I don't know."
Jeroen knows what is the most important for him though. "I am a championship rider, and that is what I like the most. To be successful at any kind of championship is what matters for me. In that way I am maybe old fashioned. It gives you a good feeling that you can do well for your country, but for me it's also that the championships – European, World or Olympic – should be the biggest thing of the sport. My year is based on working towards the championships; I want to be a part of the team, and that is always my goal."
And with that being said, Jeroen Dubbeldam leaves the door open for the next big up.
Photos by Jenny Abrahamsson/Text by Jannicke Naustdal - copyright © worldofshowjumping.com 2014.
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