At only 26, Maikel van der Vleuten has already positioned himself among the world's best riders – currently he is ranked number fifteen in the world closing in on the top ten after his recent Grand Prix win in Madrid. You might think that as the son of famous Dutch showjumper Eric van der Vleuten the success has come easier for Maikel than for many other young riders, but as we discover – Maikel is all about hard work, using his incredible feeling and bringing youngsters up to the top level of the sport. The Olympic silver team medal from 2012 is a proof of the work Maikel has done – it came on his super star VDL Groep Verdi NOP, a stallion Maikel has been riding since it was a four year old. Here's the story of Maikel's journey to the top of the sport.
"It's what my father did before me, and what he taught me to do as well," Maikel says about the work he does with producing youngsters to top international showjumpers. "All the horses I have at top level now, I produced myself and they came to us a four, five or six year olds. Verdi, Sapphire, Eureka, Guccio – who Edwina now rides – I all had them since they were younger. I did the same as a junior and a young rider with my top horses back then – Naomie and Parmala Douche – it is how it works here," Maikel explains.
"In my opinion being able to produce the horses from the youngster classes to top level yourself is something that should characterize a good rider. And with younger horses in the stable, you will always have something coming up if you get horses who retire or injure – we don't have the possibility to buy ready-made top horses, so we make them ourselves," van der Vleuten says.
They developed together Verdi and Maikel; the now 12 year old stallion and Maikel were four and 18 when they first met. Maikel knew that he had something special in Verdi from the very beginning, it was just about being patient, working and waiting for the potential to come out. "The first time I sat on Verdi was at Nijhof's place. He was just done with all his breeding – and at this point he was a little finished in his mind and his body. I made a couple of one meter jumps, and it was difficult to judge how he was – but you could feel it was something special there. We brought him home, and after a while I really started to get a good feeling on him. On Verdi the scope was always there, and he was very careful and had a very good mind as well. Most of the qualities you can see in him now he also had as a young horse," Maikel explains.
Verdi was always quite wild as a youngster, and made Maikel's life exciting on quite a few occasions. "Verdi has always carried himself with his head and front part low, also as a youngster – but the difference back then was that his balance was not there," Maikel laughs about how it sometimes could be a bit hard to stay on. "I always left him the way he wanted to position himself though, he likes that – it is his way of going. He was not a horse you could ride together in a very collected way as a youngster, he was very weak in that time. When he was six, he started to get more balanced and get stronger and the rideability also got better. But Verdi likes to go in his own way, and I ride him accordingly – I don't try to change him. I tried to jump him with his head up more, but it really didn't work out," Maikel laughs. "But of course, when he is in the ring he gets sharp and pulls towards the fences – it's not like he buries his head in the ground. Verdi's bucking he has come up with more lately; when he has finished the track he waits for my reins to go longer and my legs to come around him – and then he throws in a buck or two as a show!"
"I always expected a lot of Verdi. Still I had to wait and see if I could bring that potential out of him," Maikel says looking back. "My father took over the reins on Verdi for a short while, when he was seven, because I had too many young horses and he didn't have enough himself. At the end of the year when he was seven my dad jumped him in a 1.50 at Olympia and then in January he jumped the Grand Prix in Amsterdam already. Then I got the horse back for a smaller show as I did not have enough horses to bring, and I thought I was the luckiest person in the world at this moment! I rode a few 1.40 classes on him at the show, and we were a good match – and that was it. He was mine again," Maikel recalls.
"Verdi and I have a strong bond," Maikel says of being Verdi's rider the last eight years. "When you develop the horses yourself like that, you know them inside out. You get a special connection with them, and they want to work with you and for you. There is a difference there to buy a ready-made one, and just taking it straight out in competition."
"A journey like that also gives you a very good feeling. When you achieve something like an Olympic medal on a horse you produced yourself it gives you a feeling of satisfaction – of having accomplished more than the top result in itself. When you put so much work into a horse, and end up doing something great on it - well, it just makes it feel even more special," Maikel smiles as we sit around the table at his and his father's lovely yard in Someren while it is pouring down outside.
What characterize Maikel's string of horses is that they are all a little special in one way or the other – they all have their quirkiness, and to be honest some of them look not at all so easy to ride. "It's maybe right that I have a few horses that are not the easiest," Maikel replies. "But they believe in me and I in them – and then they put in that extra fight for me. That was the case at the Dutch Championships with Eureka, it was a hole too big for her – but she was full of confidence and did it anyway."
As to Sapphire – one of Maikel's other amazing horses – she is also in the category 'special', not to forget 'miracle'. "At the end of 2011 she started landing over-crossed behind when she jumped, and after examinations it was decided to operate her. When she was finally recovered, we took her to a small show to start her up – and she started doing the exactly the same thing on the other hind leg," Maikel explains of the mare he had since she was eight. "We thought about just using her for breeding instead at this point, but the vet gave her good prognoses so she underwent surgery one more time and she has been sound ever since! Actually she came back better than she was before, and won the Grand Prix in Maastricht last year as well as the World Cup at Olympia," Maikel smiles of his special white partner.
"Sapphire is an unbelievable fighter! When she is in the ring she wants to clear every fence. She has not got the right body to do it, she is too stiff – but she still does it and that has to do with her extremely strong mind. Sapphire is a super careful horse, but the scope only comes with the mentality," Maikel explains of the mare who obviously has a very special place in his heart.
Arera C is another one that Maikel thinks a lot of, although she as many of the other horses he has is a "little special – and very sensitive." According to Maikel the beautiful nine year old mare has all the scope in the world though, and is very careful. "She can be a bit afraid of other horses though, and is a horse you need to stay quiet on," Maikel explains.
It's hard to make it as a professional showjumper, and Maikel praises his sponsor VDL Groep, run by Wim van der Leegte, for valuable support. "It is not so easy to make it as a showjumper, but with support like that I am lucky enough to be able to focus on the riding and on the shows. It is also a great advantage to have somebody behind me willing to invest in young horses with us," Maikel says. A few of Maikel's youngsters comes from Wim van der Leegte's own stud, Stoeterij Duyselshof. "They have a lot of youngsters between three to six years old there, and now and then we go there to have a look. They only breed with mares that have been very good in the sport, such as Parmala Douche Santana, Fleche Rouge, Cannelina and Think Twice," Maikel says.
"We are always busy with getting younger horses in the stable. Usually it is my father searching them, I only have a few days at home here between my shows – and then it is good to be able to focus on riding. My father and I like the same qualities in a horse; a bit more blood, carefulness and it's nice if the horses show some scope – but over the last years we have also done some great things with horses that did not look like having the last scope. When you get the right connection with them they can still do it," Maikel explains.
It comes as no surprise that Maikel and his father Eric are close. Still, they both prefer their own space – they are equally quiet and hardworking people, who like to get on with their jobs without too much talking. "We have the horses in two separate stables here, and my father leaves me on my own – he does not interfere. I don't like being talked in the ear the whole day, so it suits me well. But he keeps an eye on me, and gives advice – but it was always important for him to make me independent and able to assess situations myself. I organize and manage my stable myself, but when it comes to show planning I do that with my dad," Maikel explains of how he and his father work together.
But, it's not only the two of them – the entire van der Vleuten family is involved on the yard in Someren. "My brother works here and rides, and my sister takes care of the office on Monday and Tuesdays – the rest of the week she is busy taking care of her own fashion shop," Maikel says. Does he ever get enough though, working closely with his family? "I can only see the positive sides of it, but I think it is a good thing we are all quiet as persons. Of course we have different opinions, but we never get in a big discussion about anything."
"I always had the right feeling with training and working with my father," Maikel says on the question if he ever thought about leaving to train somewhere else. "I like building something up with him, and I never saw any reason to leave to try something else. It is not that I was not open for other ideas, as a kid I was always at the warm-up looking at the other riders working the horses, picking up ideas for my own riding and putting it into my system. And I still do. But in the end I am very happy with what I have here," Maikel says smiling.
And looking at Maikel's record of results the past three years, it's easy to agree on his point of view. Maikel found a winning recipe, and it consists of all the right ingredients – which makes his achievements taste even sweeter.
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