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Eric van der Vleuten – It’s not a comeback if you never left

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
Eric van der Vleuten is back competing at top level. Photos (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

After a few years of absence from the international rings, Dutch legend Eric van der Vleuten has quietly returned to the scene. Or to be more exact; returned inside the ring from the side-line. “I never officially retired, I just stopped riding at the highest level,” Eric says when we sit down for a chat about his comeback. “I was never out, I have been around the whole time.”

“I think it was around 2012, that we realized it was hard to get enough horses for both my son Maikel and myself,” Eric explains. “It was difficult. If you want to do what the top riders do these days – go to a big show every week – you need six good horses. Horses, that can jump big classes. Years ago, if you had a top horse for the 1.45m classes, you could win a lot. But these days, if you don’t have a horse that can jump minimum 1.50m, you cannot do much. So, you need several horses that can jump big classes if you want to go week in and week out to the biggest shows. Years ago, when we maybe had one big event every month you could do it with one horse. Now, if you want to stay up in the ranking, you have to show – and you need many horses,” he continues. “I found that my son should have the first choice, and I decided to focus on other things – for example to do more training. I still kept riding at home and did some training shows, so I did keep going,” Eric tells about a decision to step down.  

“For the past five years I have been training Marta Ortega Perez as well as the Spanish team. One year ago, during the World Cup show in Madrid, Marta told me that she wanted to take a break from riding, as she is very busy with work,” Eric continues. “She asked me to compete her horses and keep them going for her, so I did a bit of both, training and riding.”

When it became clear that Eric would have the ride on Marta’s horses for a longer period, he decided to focus fully on his own riding. “It was a pleasure, training the Spanish team – they are nice people and good riders, but now that I have an opportunity to ride more, I want to focus on that,” he explains. “In my heart, I like to ride. That is in me, I just like to ride. And I am very thankful to have gotten the opportunity.” 

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
“It was a pleasure, training the Spanish team," Eric says – here with Sergio Alvarez Moya.

The 54-year-old has witnessed the changes our sport has gone through first hand. “The level these days is unbelievable. The thing is, I have been in it the whole time, I was never out of it – so I have seen the sport grow. The sport since the time when I first started, it is amazing how much it has changed. When it comes to the horses, I think now you need a real blood horse,” he goes on. ”Years ago you had heavier, a bit “cold” horses, with a lot of scope. Now you need blood horses, that are handy and able to make short turns. It is like you need a pony for a 1.60m class,” he says. ”That is, if you want to win. These days, how fast they go over those Grand Prix tracks – it is incredible.”

Eric also finds that the field of players is wider than ever before. ”Of course it is always difficult to be competitive. Every class is a different class, and one day it is your day and on the other day it is not. It is not that the same riders are winning everything, there are so many good riders now that can win and that is also the nice thing in our sport, I think. In many other sports, you can say before ’OK, out of these five one of them is going to win’. Here, you cannot say who is going to win; it could be 85 percent of the list these days. Also, the materials are so light, so delicate now. If you see old videos from Aachen, you always had massive jumps with big walls and deeper cups. Now-a-days even on those big places they have light material.”

And Eric himself, how much has he changed? “I don’t think you really change a lot. You just go a little bit with the time,” he says. “It happens automatically; you always train what you see on the shows, so of course when that changes, you do too. If the course builders build a certain difficult line on repeated occasions, you are going to train that at home. In that way, you are not really changing, you just go with the time.” 

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.
“I don’t think you really change a lot. You just go a little bit with the time,” Eric says about getting older in the sport.

And even when the times get hard, Eric is a firm believer in sticking to your own path. “I think it is very important that you stick to your system,” he says. “I mean, I have been riding all my life and I have done many things. Sometimes I have tried copying somebody; if you saw somebody years ago riding with great success, you thought you had to do the same,” he explains. “But I don’t think that was good. I think it is important to remember, that you cannot be successful all the time; you have a period where you have bad luck, your horses don’t feel well, they are just not going well. And at that moment, to stick to your own system, to just continue – that is the only thing you need to do.”

“Of course you need to think about the reasons of why things are not working, but I don’t like to change a lot. It is important that you follow your own way of riding and working with the horses. I think everyone does it in their own way – there is no specific style that is better than the other. If you see the riders these days, they all work in a different way – and they are all successful,” he goes on. ”There is no way to say, ’it has to be like this’. Everyone can do their own way.”

Even with the times changing, Eric’s motivation has remained unchanged and simple. “I just like to ride,” he says. “I enjoy riding and if I can do good shows with good horses, I like to do that. At many shows I have to be present anyway, because I go with Maikel,” he tells about his close relationship with his son. ”Now I can help him and I get to ride – there is nothing better. And I love it that I get to ride, because if I am just hanging around the whole day at a show, I get bored,” he smiles. “I like to be active, and if I can ride together with Maikel, that is the nicest thing there is to do.”

On the future, Eric keeps an open minde. “I will see how it goes. I am not pushing to do championships – I just like to ride. Those things, they come on the way; if the horses are jumping well, you never know where it ends. But it is not the main goal for me. Riding is in my heart and physically I still feel that I can do it. The day I feel like I can’t do it anymore, I won’t.” 


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

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