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Henrik von Eckermann and Janika Sprunger: On good times, gratefulness and gut feeling – part one

Wednesday, 20 March 2019
Interview

Photo © World of Showjumping by Jenny Abrahamsson Henrik von Eckermann and Janika Sprunger, at their home base close to Bonn, Germany. Photo © World of Showjumping by Jenny Abrahamsson.

When World of Showjumping meets Henrik von Eckermann and Janika Sprunger, the couple greets us with a big smile on their faces. No wonder, as they come fresh from a ski holiday in Austria where Henrik went down on one knee in the snow and got a yes from the girl of his dreams – who now wears a big, beautiful, sparkling diamond on her ring finger. While the wedding plans are at the very earliest stage, it is safe to say that Henrik and Janika have one exciting year ahead of them – not only on the personal front. Janika, having sold her best horse Bacardi VDL in February, has the challenge to re-group and build up a new string of top mounts while Henrik is ready to face his competitors in April’s Longines FEI World Cup Final on home soil in Sweden coming fresh from his Rolex Grand Slam victory in Den Bosch. 

Here is the first of the three parts of the article. 

Part One – Henrik

Photo © World of Showjumping by Jenny Abrahamsson “You need a bit of luck in life,” Henrik says about shooting to showjumping stardom. Photo © World of Showjumping by Jenny Abrahamsson.

“Together with my family, I always went to Gothenburg Horse Show – every year. Being there, I really started to grow an interest in the sport,” Henrik tells about the significant impact the show has had on his choice of career. It is also where he and his current top horse Mary Lou had their breakthrough together, winning the Longines FEI World Cup in February 2017. 

Although Henrik has been lucky to have the ride on many great horses during his career, Montender, Coupe de Coeur, Gotha FRH, Cantinero – you name them – Mary Lou is the one that occupies a very special place in his heart. A chain of events brought the two together, catapulting Henrik into the world’s top ten and putting him firmly on the map among the best riders out there. 

According to Henrik, the start of his career did not hold any promise of a great future in the sport though. “When I look at the videos of myself when I started…” he laughs. “That nobody told me to stop riding! I was terrible.”

As a pony and junior rider Henrik did not jump anything of significance. “It was first when I was a young rider that I got a horse that took me up the classes,” he tells. “We were at a national show, my father and I, and the horse I was riding was not the most careful one. Twice he put me on the ground. Not like he threw me off, he just hit the poles so hard that he fell over himself,” Henrik laughs. “Then my father said that enough was enough, it was getting dangerous. So, I asked Peder Fedricson – who was my trainer at the time – and he got me a really nice schoolmaster to ride. It was a big-jumping horse, and I could do a few young rider championships with him.”

Henrik’s parents helped and supported him along the way with what they could. “However, they always said that once I was done with my young rider years I had to stand on my own feet,” he tells. “Then I started my own thing, but after a year I felt I was moving away from the sport and more towards the office as well as training other people’s horses. I was not really satisfied.”

Photo © World of Showjumping by Jenny Abrahamsson "You have to appreciate the good times, tomorrow might look different,” Henrik says. Photo © World of Showjumping by Jenny Abrahamsson.

Not really happy in terms of where his career was moving, Henrik was now trying to find a way into Ludger Beerbaum’s stables to steer it back in the right direction. “I knew his groom Malin, and I kept on asking her if it would be possible to come to stay for a short while. That is how it all started,” he says. “At the time I went there, it was planned I should stay for one month because I still had my own business in Sweden running. After coming back home from Ludger, I really saw the contrasts and I knew that if I wanted to do the sport I had to forget about home. Eventually, I ended up staying at Ludger’s for twelve years.”

Being at Ludger’s ended up being Henrik’s education. “That was my Harvard,” the 37-year-old smiles. “There are always stages in life though, and I always go with my gut feeling. When I left Sweden, I told myself I would never have my own stable again. I was so happy at Ludger’s: At six-o-clock I could go home and put my feet on the table. I could focus only on the sport and the riding, nothing else. However, believe it or not – towards the end at Ludger’s I got the feeling I needed to do something on my own again. I was at an age where it was now or never if I wanted to set up my own business. I went to Ludger and told him this, but at that stage I had no idea how it could be done, or where for that matter, so I asked him to give me a bit time to figure it all out.”

It was Karl Schneider who would come up with a solution that Henrik’s gut felt good about. “I had met Karl when I started to ride Cantinero at Ludger’s stable,” Henrik says about their friendship. “When Karl heard that I was looking for something, he offered me to come to his place which is close to Bonn. I went there to have a look, and it was perfect for what I wanted. I also needed a partnership, and I was thinking we could benefit from each other.” 

Approximately two months before Henrik moved in, Karl told him that he had a horse he wanted Henrik to try. “That was Mary Lou,” Henrik says. “I tried her once, and after ten jumps I asked Karl to please keep her for me until I arrived. In the beginning, it was not really good – we had a few stops here and there but nevertheless I was sure she was going to be my next one,” Henrik says. A few months into their partnership, the pair won the World Cup on home soil in Gothenburg – the beginning of a fantastic journey. 

Photo © World of Showjumping by Jenny Abrahamsson Evelina Tovek and Henrik von Eckermann. “Evelina is an exceptional student,” Henrik says. Photo © World of Showjumping by Jenny Abrahamsson.

“I am always going to be grateful to Karl, because without him I would never have had a start like this,” Henrik says. “I had no money of my own when I started, so in the beginning Karl gave me the stables for free and he let me keep the prize money from Mary Lou – he was really generous. Karl’s partner Alex also helped me a lot with office and paperwork, things I had no clue about – and it was a big thing to have that off my shoulders.”

“You need a bit of luck in life,” Henrik concludes. “Without Karl, without Mary Lou – I would not sit here. Together they put me in this situation. I am very grateful to both him and the horse. As we all know, you can be as good a rider as you want – but if you don’t have a good enough horse there is nothing. They made it possible.”

After much success with Henrik, the interest in Mary Lou from various buyers grew bigger and bigger – and so did the offers. At the beginning of 2018, Henrik faced the fact that he could lose his top horse. “That brings me to my next big luck, the Tovek-family,” Henrik says. “Without them, I would also not sit here. Mary Lou would have been sold if it was not for them.”

“Evelina is an exceptional student,” Henrik says of the Tovek-family’s daughter, who has had huge success after joining up with her compatriot. “She is always trying, always motivated – she is very polite and not spoiled at all. The family is easy-going, and very down-to-earth. They are fantastic supporters to have, and we have a super relationship.”

“Starting to train Evelina, that was something new for me. When I was at Ludger’s all I cared about was my sport and myself, nothing else – that has changed,” Henrik says. 

Looking back at the last two-and-a-half years, Henrik reflects on how it all has come together – saying: “There have been many factors that have played a part in my success, and as quickly as they have come they might disappear – that is how the sport goes. That is why you have to appreciate the good times, tomorrow might look different.”

 


Text © World of Showjumping 

Photos © World of Showjumping by Jenny Abrahamsson

No reproduction without permission, copyright © World of Showjumping

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