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WoSJ Exclusive: Eric van der Vleuten - a true horseman

Friday, 31 December 2010

We meet Eric van der Vleuten early in October, during Kingsland Oslo Horse Show. Eric has come here, almost straight from the WEG in Kentucky – the World Cup opening in Oslo being the weekend after the Top Four final.

The 47-year old rider has been on top of the sport for three decades. To us he is somewhat of a legend; we have followed him on the international circuit since we were kids - and we look forward to hearing about how he has managed to stay so good over such a long time.Eric and his WEG-partner Utascha. Photo by Jenny Abrahamsson.

Our appointment with Eric is to take place after he has ridden VDL Groep Cannelina (Carthago x Sir Shostakovich) – his 10-year old grey mare owned by Stoeterij Duyselshof – in the 1.45 class. As we walk towards the warm-up area, Eric is still walking Cannelina off after their clear round. During the weekend we have noticed that van der Vleuten - unlike many off the other riders – often walk the horses off himself, and he takes his time with them before he hands them over to his groom. When he jumps off, he helps to take Cannelina’s back boots of himself, and carefully places them in the groom’s backpack.

We sit down with Eric behind the arena, getting down to business. Eric is calm as always, almost quiet – and it makes everything easy as we start out.


Eric tells us that he started riding at a young age, first off all because his father was riding as a hobby and had his own horses. Due to this, Eric became keen to ride as a little boy and has always been interested in horses. As many of us; Eric started off on a pony, and worked his way from there.

Sadly, at the age of 14 Eric lost his father. This could have compromised the Dutch rider’s career, but faith wanted it differently as Eric through his local riding school had met Piet Raijmakers – today a legend of his own of the sport. Piet was only seven years older than Eric, but took the 14 year old boy under his wings and like Eric puts it “treated me as his own son”. Raijmakers helped Eric to get some horses to ride, and in many ways Piet has much of the honor when it comes to how Eric was brought into the sport. 

 Later – in the early 80’s – Eric finished school and started working with horses full time. Still a young boy, he started to ride for someone in the area where he lived. Their sponsor was Expo Group, and this provided some good horses for van der Vleuten. Eric stayed here for 5 ½ years. During this period, Eric proved himself to be a very competitive junior and young rider. Even so good that he won the Dutch Junior Championships in 1980 and 1981, and then the European Championships for Young Riders in 1982 – the latter on Expo Visar - an in addition claiming the team silver medal for Holland. After his success, Eric moved on to working for the now famous rider and trainer Henk Nooren – who at that time already had been participating on the Dutch team at the Olympics in Montreal in 1976 and in the World Equestrian Games in Aachen  in 1978. Van der Vleuten went on working for Nooren for 3 ½ years, but in 1988 he decided to start out on his own. He found a suitable place in Mierlo, which is a small town outside of Eindhoven. This proved to be a very good choice for van der Vleuten – and this is still were the Dutch rider holds his fort together with his family and team.


In 1990 Eric participated on the Dutch team in the World Equestrian Games in Stockholm together with Expo Matchline, and ended up as nr. 21 individually out of 75 participants. The Dutch team finished in fifth place.  In 1998 Eric was back on the Dutch team at the WEG in Rome, this time together with the horse Vink Flower III. It ended with a respectable sixth place for the team, and Eric was nr. 37 individually.

Eric’s answer to when he decided to make a career out of his riding is short and simple; “That already happened when I was a child. I had it in me at an early age – I think you have it in you, or you don’t”. It was thus not hard for Eric to choose his career-path.Eric in action with one of his top horses Kaid. Photo by Jenny Abrahamsson.


Something that has made Eric so successful over the years – this year he was yet again a member of the Dutch team at the WEG in Kentucky together with the KWPN-mare VDL Groep Utascha SFN (Lux x Indoctro) – is probably his philosophy when it comes to riding. “I keep it easy for the horses when I ride. I’m definitely not a strong rider, so to keep it simple is important. Also, I think it’s vital to maintain the personality of the horse – to keep them who they are,” Eric explains. It’s hard not to become overwhelmed by Eric’s humble attitude towards his horses, and the fact that he is a true horseman becomes clear during our conversation.


Eric prefers his horses a little hot, not cold. Horses with quite a lot of blood is important to the Dutch rider, as it brings many of the qualities Eric rates highly; amongst these are carefulness and temper. “It’s also vital that the horses have a good mentality – that they want to do their job and like to be competitive! This is quality to me.” The sympathetic rider is also interested in bloodlines and the breeding of a horse, but as Eric says “I don’t exclude any horses due to their bloodlines.” He has preferences though; “I appreciate the breeding we have in Holland – the KWPN are on top of the world breeding rankings. Our breeding brings quality horses, and we have some of the best stallions in the world such as Nimmerdor, Indoctro, Concorde, Heartbreaker and Lux.” Van der Vleuten has also had the privilege to ride some of these stallions, as he for many years has been one of the KWPN’s test riders at licensing’s and stallion shows.  “But I have to highlight that the mares that are used for breeding are very important as well. Quality is hard to reach by the stallion alone”, says Eric.


Eric and Cannelina. Photo by Jenny Abrahamsson. Some of Eric’s best horses at the moment include the 12 year old SF-gelding VDL Groep Kaid (Brett Saint Clair x Royal Ardent) owned by  Stoeterij Duyselshof, the 10 year old grey Holsteiner mare VDL Groep Cannelina and a small new 7 year old Darco-mare called Donna Evita. Van der Vleuten also has some good up-and-coming young horses at home. But the best of them all is probably the nine year old KWPN-mare VDL Groep Utascha SFN owned by Springpaarden Fonds Nederland. She was Eric’s partner at the WEG, and also on the Dutch winning team of the Meydan FEI Super League in Dublin this year. 

Eric’s horses all have different tasks; Utascha and Kaid are given the biggest ones, while Cannelina mostly does the 140-150 classes. Then he has a speed horse for the smaller classes, in Oslo and Helsinki Donna Evita was given this job. “She has previously been ridden by my son Maikel. I like her a lot; she suits me as she’s hot and sensitive. Time will show if she can do the bigger classes,” Eric says modestly.


Utascha, clearly one of Eric’s favorites - although he’s careful about mentioning one horse over another - brings up another issue; the initiative Springpaarden Fonds Nederland. “Without SFN Utascha would have been sold a long time ago,” Eric says. “The Springpaarden Fonds Nederland has a group of six selectors – among these Henk Nooren and Emile Hendrix – that select young horses for the Fonds. The horses are usually between the age of 4 and 7, and must ultimately be good enough for the top sport. The Fonds also has a group of professional riders [incl. Eric – editors comment], and the selectors choose which horses that goes to these different riders,” Eric explains. “We are lucky if 3 out of 7 horses make it to the top – that’s how tough this sport is,” he adds. The ones that don’t go this far, are usually sold. “The initiative was created about 4 ½ years ago, and it is a strong contributor towards keeping the best horses in our country. It is extremely important to the Dutch showjumping sport,” Eric adds.


When we ask the Dutch rider about the best moments of his career, he stands out as very humble towards what he has achieved. As an illustration he chooses not to look further back than 2010. “This year, our victory in the Super League in Dublin was the best moment for me. Before Dublin, we were in real danger of being relegated to the Promotional League – but due to our win we managed to secure our place by ending up as nr. 6 overall. It was a lot of pressure on the riders, and we all wanted to stay in the Super League,” Eric says seriously. “If you’re not in the Super League you miss many of the best and biggest shows. That’s not something you want to happen. For us, staying in the Super League was more important than the results at the WEG,” van der Vleuten explains. In his typical down-to-earth manner, Eric goes on to tell us that the Dutch team both in Dublin and Kentucky consisted of four up-and-coming and relatively young horses – the oldest horse Exquis Walnut de Muze was 11. “For 2011 we will probably have a few good horses,” Eric says. “During the WEG you could see that some of the horses on the team lacked a bit of experience at that kind of level. In addition Marc Houtzager’s HBC Tamino had been out for over a year.” Eric explains that some of the Dutch riders also have a few good 8 year olds coming up, and his son Maikel has a very promising ride in his 2002-modell VDL Groep Verdi - a stallion by Quidam de Revel x Landgraf I.  “Hopefully it will be easier for us next year, with more horses available. But it’s tough; you have to keep up with both the Super League and the Global Champions Tour. It demands horse material, and to have enough horses is not always easy,” Eric comments.


The van der Vleuten household is not like an average one. There is constant travelling; both for Eric and his 22 year old son Maikel – who also competes at top international level. “In the beginning of the week from Monday to Wednesday, I always try to stay at home. Tuesdays we usually go to a practice arena to jump the younger horses in our yard. From Thursdays I’m found at a show somewhere. Although it’s extremely busy – especially in the summertime with the Super League and GCT – I try to spend one weekend every month at home,” Eric tells us. In the van der Vleuten’s yard in Mierlo they always have one groom and one rider at home to make things go around when Eric and Maikel are away, and normally a student as well.  “Our grooms are important, they take care of everything,” Eric states. There are around 22 horses in Eric’s yard when they’re all at home, and then there’s Eric’s family as well; his wife, his daughter and his two sons.


The life as a top rider sure demands a lot, but Eric has a drive – and as he says himself “I always wanted this.” On our question on how he stays motivated to keep going when things are not on top, Eric explains that he tries to keep focused and that he concentrates on getting things better. “When I was a bit short on horses a few years ago, I knew I had Utascha. I had a top horse coming along; I just needed to use my time wisely.” Eric continues: “When it comes to the training of the horses, I think it’s important not to change too much if things don’t work out. I continue as normal as long as I feel the horses are jumping well,” the Dutch rider says.


As a top rider since the early 80’s, this Dutch gentleman sure knows a lot about the sport. “Yes, it has changed a lot over these years,” Eric says. “The courses are much more technically delicate nowadays than what they used to be. A few decades ago it was more about the height of the fences, and almost every international show had a puissance. Now those kinds of classes are rare,” the 47 year old continues. “The changes demand a different type of horses; they need to be more sensitive, more careful. It’s an advantage with lighter horses with a lot of blood.”Eric with his fellow riders. Photo by Jenny Abrahamsson.


After endless success – Eric has participated at no less than three World Equestrian Games, at European and Dutch Championships, in World Cup finals, he has won several World Cup qualifiers (the most recent in London 2009 with VDL Groep Tomboy who later was sold to Athina Onassis de Miranda) and received an award for his participation in over a hundred of them, been a regular on the Dutch Nation Cup teams for decades and won so many international Grand Prix’s that there is not enough room to mention them here - Eric van der Vleuten still has some clear goals for the 2011-season. “I will ride some of the World Cup qualifiers, and see how that turns out. If I have bad luck in the beginning of the qualifiers, I don’t think I will rush my horses to several of the other shows. We’ll see what happens,” Eric says calmly. “Most importantly I aim towards the European Championships in Madrid in September next year, where there is another chance for the Dutch team to qualify for the Olympics in 2012. Then of course it’s the Super League.”

Eric ends up as number five in the 1.45 class he had ridden on Cannelina, and we end our interview so that he can catch up on the price giving ceremony. Before he disappears we quickly ask him about all the walking off that he does himself – and that so many other riders leave to their grooms; “I like to walk off the horses myself. It gives me a connection with my horses – with their personality,” Eric says before he sets off towards the warm up area.

As we get up from our seats and walk out, three young girls follow Eric with their bright big eyes - whispering in awe as he walks past them. To be honest, we don’t feel much different ourselves as we say our thanks and goodbyes. This Dutch rider truly is something special, a real horseman and somebody that deserves a medal at the Europeans in Madrid. Fingers crossed for that.

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