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Christian Kukuk: “Leaps of faith are where you learn”

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Photo (c) Nanna Nieminen for World of Showjumping. “I am in a very good situation at the moment: I have good horses and a good team," says Christian Kukuk. Photos (c) Nanna Nieminen & Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

A lot has changed since the February 1st 2012, when Christian Kukuk started working at Ludger Beerbaum Stables. Riding every day with Ludger himself and riders like Marco Kutscher, Henrik von Eckermann and Philipp Weishaupt, the 27-year-old has this year made a leap into the next level of his career. World of Showjumping met Germany’s rising star at home in Riesenbeck and found it hard to avoid the cliche of “hard work pays off” – because that is what best describes Kukuk’s story.

“It has really changed a lot,” Christian tells us. “I started like everyone else here, from the bottom. I did everything on my own: tacking up, mucking out – everything. And like Philipp, Henrik and Marco before me, I now have my own stable here with my own team. It is a great pleasure for me, to work here,” Christian tells us.

To be surrounded with so many good riders has given him a lot: “I think this is one of the most important things you can have as a young rider: You can learn so much by watching others. All of the riders here have done it for so many years, and it has always been a pleasure for me to watch them. Especially Marco and Henrik – I could see myself in them: The way they were working and riding, their jumping style. Every day that I rode with them, I was watching them closely. I think this has been a super important thing for me as a young rider, to watch and learn from the best,” Christian says.

This season Christian is a part of team Cannes Stars in the Global Champions League alongside his boss Ludger, former colleague Marco Kutscher, Jane Richard Philips and Guido Klatte Jr. “It is a super chance for me. The last years I was always watching the Longines Global Champions Tour on my phone or iPad, and now suddenly I am in there, riding together with them. It is a big step for sure, but I believe that you need to take these big leaps in order to learn. And you have to grow with the challenges you face. Already now I got a feeling that I learned a lot just from these few bigger shows I did – you get stronger and you get more self confidence. And it is a lot of fun!” 

During the CSIO5* St. Gallen Christian did his first ever five-star appearance in the red team jacket of Germany – with Limonchello NT, a horse that he has a unique relationship with. “Out of the horses I have at the moment, I know Limonchello the best – it is a special relationship. I know him since he was a 6-year-old, so nearly four years now. I rode him in his first youngster classes, then I won a Grand Prix with him at the end of last year and now we did our first five-star Nations Cup in St. Gallen,” Christian tells us.

“I am in a very good situation at the moment: I have good horses and a good team. With Cordess, Limonchello NT, Carilot and Colestus I actually have four Grand Prix horses. I can change them around a little bit, not that I have to over use them – which is nice. Like Limonchello, he started in the smaller classes at the beginning of the year and did a step up to the Nations Cups now. Also Colestus has been growing, being placed many times in the past months,” Christian continues. “All my horses are really a different type; Limonchello is a big horse, Cordess is maybe a little bit smaller, Colestus has the sporty, athletic body, Carilot is a spectacular jumper – this makes it fun for me, to work with so many different horses. It does not make it easy, but it is fun!” Christian explains. 

Photo (c) Nanna Nieminen for World of Showjumping "What I kept telling to myself then, was that I want to come back stronger than I was before," says Christian about his accident that kept him sidelined for almost half of the 2016-season.

Getting a spot on the German national team was a great feeling for Christian. “For sure every young rider is dreaming about riding a Nations Cup for their home country – including myself. To be on the Nations Cup team in St. Gallen, I was already happy just getting the chance to be there. That it went so well; I would not have expected that. Of course you hope for a good result, but the first time on this level, for sure you get a bit nervous. It was a big pleasure for me, and a lot of fun and I am really, really happy now!” Christian says.

Born into a family of riders in the town of Warendorf – that is often referred to as the Equestrian Mecca of Germany, Christian was the odd one out: “Actually I was a football player until I turned 13!” he laughs. “My parents and my sister were always dealing with horses, they were riding and going to the shows, but I stayed out of that and just played football. When I was 13, I had to go and help my father at the shows. If I had no football games during the weekend, I went with him. Seeing all that, I got a bit excited about the sport: I got really interested and I started to analyse his rounds, asking him why he did not do that, or this – and then I thought that maybe I should also try riding myself,” Christian tells. “So I asked my father if I could try sitting on a horse – and I had to realize that it wasn’t as easy as I had thought!” he laughs. “I started at the bottom. My mother helped me on the longe for about a half a year. I think after maybe ten months I did my first jumps!”

After finishing high school Christian went on to study for two-and-a-half years and worked in an office. But when riding started to seem like the only career option he actually wanted to pursue, there was only one man he wanted to ask for help: Ludger Beerbaum. “I was, and am, a big fan of Ludger. Growing up, he was always my idol,” Christian says. “When I was sure that riding was what I wanted to do as a professional, it was clear for me that if there was one place I should go to, it would be to Ludger’s. I wanted to learn from the best, in the best stable in the world. I had a good friend in Warendorf, Reinard Wendth, who I told my plans to and he gave me Ludger’s phone number. One day I just called Ludger. He asked me to come over, and I did – for a chat of maybe 15 minutes long. My first day was the first of February in 2012,” Christian tells.

And from there on it has been work non-stop. “Now I normally ride 7-8 horses every day, starting at eight in the morning. At the moment I drive to all the shows myself, so I am at home only about two days a week. I have enough horses to ride at home, so I really need to concentrate on the sport – there really isn’t that much time over for anything else,” Christian tells about his daily life. “What I do, I swim sometimes,” he continues telling about the rare free moments. “This started after my accident last year in Aachen. The rehabilitation programme included swimming, and that was really good for me and my shoulder – so I stayed with that. When I have a chance, I swim every day.”

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
Christian Kukuk with Limonchello NT.

Global Champions League, Nations Cups – you would think that these are the highlights and achievements one values. For Christian however, the win he sets the most value to so far, is one that proved that he had won a battle: With himself. “The most emotional win for me was the Grand Prix of Frankfurt at the end of last year. It was such a special year for me. After my accident in Aachen where I broke the joint in my shoulder, and it was not sure if I can keep doing the sport and all that, I had a hard time. And to finish that difficult year with a three-star Grand Prix win – that was very emotional for me,” Christian says.

“It was the whole joint in the shoulder that I broke during a fall at CHIO Aachen last year. I had a seven-hour operation, it was a lot to fix. If you break a joint, it is never nice – the worst is, that you might not get the normal movement back and this can affect you a lot, not just in the sport career, but in every day life. It was a tough job to get everything back in place,” he says. “But, we did it good. I don’t feel anything anymore, unless after a day that has maybe been a bit harder than others. On a normal day, on a normal horse, I have no pain.”

Having gone through a long rehabilitation, falling off every now and then can still happen, but Christian is not worried about a set back. “Absolutely not, I don’t have that in my head. I know my family worries. When I fall off, it is absolutely not in my head to worry if I get hurt again – and I think, if you have that in your head, it is one of the biggest mistakes you can make.”

Always looking like an iceman, we wonder if he ever gets nervous with the challenges he is facing. “For sure I am nervous. Maybe I am good in turning my emotions down – when I get stressed, I just get more quiet, more focused on what I have to do in those 80 seconds in the ring. Every rider deals with it differently, but I turn to myself when I am feeling nervous,” Christian tells about his mental game. “Next to Ludger, Michael Schumacher is a sportsman I have really looked up to,” he continues. “I used to watch nearly all of his races, but what I was most impressed about, was the way he was dealing with his family and the sport – how quiet he was, how focused on his sport, but still such a nice person. I remember how much he did to help others.”

With dreams of another spot on the German team, maybe even on a championship squad in a few years’ time – it seems to us that Christian will be a force to reckon with. “Maybe I have a strong mentality. I think it comes from my parents. My dad is a really hard worker. He was not a professional rider, but he was always working: First the whole day in the office, and then riding around five horses before or after that. I grew up watching this, so I know how much work it takes and I am prepared. My father is a hard worker and very straight forward; I believe my mentality comes from him. I also believe that I got stronger after my accident. It was a tough time, and some days I might not have had the nicest thoughts in my head. But what I kept telling to myself then, was that I want to come back stronger than I was before. And so far, it worked out.” 


Text © World of Showjumping by Nanna Nieminen // Pictures © Nanna Nieminen & Jenny Abrahamsson

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