The closer we get to Axel and Nena Verlooy’s farm in the Belgian countryside of Grobbendonk, the more beautiful the scenery gets. When we finally turn up the last little lane we’re so off the beaten track that we think we’re lost. But a helpful man – who looks like a figure out of Postman Pat – gently tells us that we are indeed on the right road, just continue over the little bridge (where we wonder how anything bigger than our tiny rental car can get through), over the pond and then follow his directions and we’ll be at Axel and Nena’s. So, we follow his instructions through hens and cockerels – past a castle and some big Belgian Ardennes horses and suddenly we spot Harrie Smolder’s truck and know that we are where we should be.
Driving through the gate at the Verlooys’ farm, we are met by two dogs that make sure to let the owners know that there are visitors at the yard. A quick phone call later and we’re inside Axel and Nena’s office and meeting room that overlooks the stable and the indoor arena, and that is decorated with lovely photos of showjumping horses – current ones and sold ones, prizes and trophies as well as a tv screen that shows recent images of Harrie and Jos competing at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida.
It’s hard not to feel at home at the Verlooy farm. Axel and Nena have created an atmosphere that feels familiar and homely, and there is little trace that this is actually a hectic trading stable where horses come and go to new owners. On our arrival Nena shows us around, and the atmosphere is actually so relaxed that many of the horses are still sleeping – even though it’s well beyond breakfast time.
We get to see the stallion Emerald who’s more interested in his nap than us. He is the talk of town, and “our big hope” as Nena puts it. We also say hello to Harrie’s famous partners Powerfee, Walnut de Muze, Oliver and Regina Z. On the latter Nena laughs; “If she likes you, she likes you. If she doesn’t like you, she eats you!” We stroll over to the youngsters that are out in the field – past the lovely outdoor arena that is surrounded by green hedges. Most of the youngsters are beautiful Emerald-yearlings, and eventually they get so curios that they sneak over to us to say hi. In a separate field there are also two Highland cows – that Axel brought home from Scotland, where Nena is from. “He brought them back in a horse box,” Nena laughs. And then there’s the white little Shetland Sophie who is forty years old! The Verlooys’ farm is far from machinery; it’s a family farm, with animals and people who all belong there.
“My family has been here for forty years,” Axel lets us know. “Then – 25 years ago – I took over from my father. In the beginning this was meant as a place where I could do my hobby, which was riding, but it developed and became my business. It was just a small part of the stables that was originally here, and the rest we have build and extended ourselves,” he says of the yard.
So, for Axel it started like for most of us – as a hobby that grew into something more. “As a pony and junior rider I went to the European Championships, and as a senior rider I won the Grand Prix of Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Milan. In 1984 I competed at the Olympic Games,” Axel tells us. “I rode about 25 Nation Cups for Belgium I think, before I stopped riding five years ago. Then the business part of it took over, and I got too busy buying and selling horses,” he explains. “It difficult to combine that with competing at five star level; the sport is so professional now that a rider needs to focus on the sport. The sport is much more advanced now – in my days a double clear in a Grand Prix was enough for top three,” he smiles.
Axel now runs his company Euro Horse. Harrie Smolders is employed as a rider, and Axel and Nena’s sixteen year old son Jos is also an eager and talented showjumper who already has competed at the European Championships three times in the pony, children and junior divisions. According to Axel “all he wants to do is ride”.
On the question on how he finds all the horses sold by Euro Horse, Axel tells us that he drives a lot around Holland and Belgium himself to look for good horses. Then he has contacts and scouts in the two countries that always are on the look for new talent. So, what does Axel look for in a horse? “I look for the best! Horses that are going to make it today need blood, they need to be clever and they need to be athletes. Today’s courses demand such horses.” And when he finds that type of horse, Harrie is often the test pilot to see what the horse has in store.
Axel sells around 150 horses every year, mainly to America, Brazil, China and Saudi Arabia. “We mainly have regular customers. Maybe we sell ten horses every year to customers that randomly see a horse with Harrie at a show; the rest we sell to our already existing contacts,” he explains. “They all look for different things, but some order by color,” Axel laughs.
“Dealing is the biggest part of the business, but it’s important to have the competition stable as well. We try to keep a few good horses for the sport, and Harrie’s competition horses Oliver, Powerfee and Walnut de Muze where all sold to an external sponsor called Exqius so that Harrie could keep the ride on them. Regina Z belongs to my father, and Emerald we own ourselves,” Axel explains.
Emerald is a hot topic these days. The eight year old Diamant de Semilly-stallion that the Verlooy family bought from Joris de Brabander as a six year old, has caught the eye of many. “It looks like he will become a star. We have done things quietly with him though. He won the stallion competition in Belgium as a seven year old, and was second in the World Championship for six year olds at Zangersheide. Emerald has been used a lot for breeding as well, but this year he will only be available on frozen as it’s easier to combine with top sport. This year it’s all about getting him ready for the big sport; give him experience and let him see the big rings. You don’t want to put them out in the Grand Prix classes too young. Our main goal for him is the WEG in two years, and the Olympics in 2016,” Axel says of the striking chestnut.
We ask Axel what he thinks is important to succeed in this business – considering where he is today, he should know. “You have to sell good horses,” he smiles. “And the horses need to keep going good after you sell them. At our yard Harrie produces horses that people can actually ride after they buy them. And this is a small world, the word gets around – mouth to mouth is still the best way of selling horses so we need happy clients! Bringing nice horses that jump good to show is of course also good advertisement for us, but you need to be able to stand behind that horse after you sell it. If it somehow doesn’t work out with the new rider, we will fix that,” he adds.
So, how come Axel chose Harrie to ride his horses? “Harrie is dedicated. He is also a winner. He comes here from Holland every day, and every day he works the horses well and properly. He is a hard worker, and has been with us for ten years now – not many riders stay that long.”
Our conversation comes to an end, and we move out to the stable to find Harrie. Reflecting over how at home and welcome we have felt during our hours at the yard, and how long Harrie has been there for – we ask him about working for Axel and Nena. “It’s really good to work here. I have quite a lot of freedom, and don’t have to deal with all the administration. They have the right people here in the right places, and know what their strengths are. I don’t have to worry about anything, but can instead focus on my riding and getting the horses better,” Harrie smiles.
No wonder he’s stayed for ten years. Actually, after our visit, we wouldn’t mind either.
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