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Henrik von Eckermann and Janika Sprunger: “You have to make a plan for your horse, not for yourself”

Monday, 26 September 2022
Interview

Photo © Nanna Nieminen/WoSJ
“Without our great horse owners and the staff we have, we would never be where we are," Henrik von Eckermann says. "We are very fortunate with the people we have around us.” Photo © Nanna Nieminen for World of Showjumping.

 

Text © World of Showjumping

 


 

When World of Showjumping last sat down with Henrik von Eckermann and Janika Sprunger in March 2019, the two were settling in together in Bonn, Germany. Fast forward to 2022 and the couple has relocated to Kessel, the Netherlands, where they have built a beautiful facility. They’ve had a son – Noah, Henrik has won Olympic team gold, he has been crowned double World Champion and is ranked world number one on the Longines Ranking. Even though the recent achievements mean a lot to the couple, in Von Eckermann’s own words, “nothing has changed” – their day-to-day life goes on as usual.

“For me, it feels like a relief,” the Swede explains about the huge success he has enjoyed over the past three years. “You work and work, and of course you want to achieve something. Success is a reward for the work done, and once you have reached a goal, the feeling of satisfaction is huge – but then you go for the next one.”

Step by step from the bottom up

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson/WoSJ
"While I was working at Ludger’s, that was my universe; it was all about the sport for me, and my life would break down if there was a bad result," Von Eckermann says, here pictured with Coupe de Couer at the 2011 Europeans in Madrid. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

The Europeans at Windsor in 2009, the Europeans in Madrid in 2011, the London Olympics in 2012, the Europeans in Herning in 2013, the World Championship in Caen in 2014, the Rio Olympic Games in 2016, the World Championship in Tryon in 2018, the Europeans in Rotterdam in 2019, the Tokyo Olympics in 2021… Von Eckermann had plenty of experience in the bag going into the World Championship in Herning – and an exceptional horse under him in King Edward (Edward 28 x Feo). “Going to Herning was a completely different experience than going into my first championship,” he says. “In our sport, the more knowledge and experience you have, the better. I have built myself up step by step from the bottom; I did not have success very quickly or easily. While I was working at Ludger’s, that was my universe; it was all about the sport for me, and my life would break down if there was a bad result. This has changed – but how much I want it, has not.”

I have built myself up step by step from the bottom; I did not have success very quickly or easily

“When you get older, you see life differently,” Von Eckermann continues. “In our sport, we lose more than we win. However, losing should not be thought of as purely negative; you can get a lot of information and knowledge from your mistakes –  about what to do, what to change, and how to react. You have to believe in what you are doing though, and in the timing of the events in your life. I think that every horse and every person I have worked with along the way to this point, have – in their own ways – contributed to what is happening now. Going to Herning, I had a good feeling with King Edward, but I told Janika: “If it is not meant to be, it’s ok”. The setup at our own CYOR Stables and what we have built together has given me peace and a different mindset to competing.”

“With horses, you can have the best feeling, everything can look perfect and it can still go wrong in one second – we know that,” Sprunger fills in. “Going to Herning, that was the part that stressed me out. However, our life does not depend on the competition results.”

King Edward – a made champion

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson/WoSJ
"Now, everyone says that King Edward is the best horse in the world, which he for sure is, but he has been made into that," Sprunger says. "He was not born like that, no horse is." Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

Prior to the World Championship in Herning, King Edward and Von Eckermann were the clear favourites for the sought-after title. King Edward had already written his name into the history books after jumping clear throughout the whole of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, and the title from Herning has only added to the excitement around the little gelding. While one could argue that he was born a star, both Sprunger and Von Eckermann highlight the amount of work that has been put into developing the ultra-talented gelding into the phenomenon he is today. “Everyone said he should win in Herning,” Sprunger tells. “During the Olympics, they were the best couple, but due to the format, they did not get a medal. After that, anything else than him winning the World Championship title would honestly have felt like a disappointment. Now, everyone says that King Edward is the best horse in the world, which he for sure is, but he has been made into that. He was not born like that, no horse is. I don’t think there are many horses like him out there, but I do believe there are many good horses that just never get a chance. For me, that is a huge thing to remember. Also, if there is a great match between a rider and a horse, so much more will be possible for them.”

You can go and buy a really good horse, but if you cannot manage it and bring it forward, that horse will only remain as good as it is in that moment

“No horse is born the best and that is something many people don’t think about,” Von Eckermann fills in. “You can go and buy a really good horse, but if you cannot manage it and bring it forward, that horse will only remain as good as it is in that moment. This is why the best riders are the best riders; they can make a good horse better. Having the right match is also the fun part of our sport. There are horse-and-rider-combinations out there that have an incomparable connection between them.”

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson/WoSJ
"We have always thought about what would be best for this horse, we have not been selfish in this regard," Sprunger says. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

“Additionally, it is one thing to bring a horse to a high level – that is not so hard – but to keep them there, and to develop the very last steps, that is complicated,” he continues. “And the best horses, they change as well. King Edward will change as he gets older and if we are not there to adjust to this, the downhill will be steep. You can bring a horse to their first peak, then something happens, something changes; you have to be alert to adjust and create a path forward. Only with experience, will you know how to adjust.”

The more quality you have in a horse, the more precise you have to be; the less mistakes they tolerate

“When it comes to King Edward, we believed in the horse all the time, there was no doubt,” Von Eckermann says. “Of course, the progress of any horse comes with ups and downs, things that from the outside might look bad; like in Doha, where he ran away from a fence. You could get nervous when something like this happens, but it didn’t bother me – we knew the horse just needed experience. The more quality you have in a horse, the more precise you have to be; the less mistakes they tolerate. You work, work and work, the results might be a bit up and down, but eventually you come to a point where the horse understands you and you understand the horse, and that is when the results start coming. This is how I have learned to work: At Ludger’s, we worked with the horses until we felt they were ready to go. The Olympics gave King Edward an unbelievable experience, whereas for some horses, a championship like that can be tough and heavy. For him, it was the last experience he needed.”

Barefoot

Photo © Nanna Nieminen/WoSJ
“Having a horse barefoot means more work than when they are shod: You have to pay close attention to the surface, maintain the hoofs weekly, keep the sole really strong," Von Eckermann says. Photos © Nanna Nieminen for World of Showjumping.

While there was never any doubt of King Edward’s talent, his jumping style and confirmation worried Von Eckermann and Sprunger, and the gelding often appeared to have excess pressure on his front feet without showing signs of actual lameness. In search of solutions to make him more comfortable, the couple experimented with pulling off the shoes back in 2020 and King Edward has been jumping barefoot ever since. His success has made more and more people consider riding their horses barefoot – a trend Von Eckermann has followed with frustration. “I am sure King Edward would not have had the same career with shoes,” he says. “I took the shoes off between the two shows in Doha in 2020. The first week, he did not feel great, and I said there is no way this horse is going to hold if we keep jumping like this; I was sure he would get injured. Julien Epaillard – who rode some of his horses barefoot already then – was in Doha and after speaking with him, we decided to give it a go. I am sure it was one of the biggest keys to this horse; he would not have been a World Champion if we kept the shoes on, there is no question about it.”

We always think of the horses as individuals and taking the shoes off is for sure not going to work with all of them

“However, it is not for every horse,” Von Eckermann points out. “Having a horse barefoot means more work than when they are shod: You have to pay close attention to the surface, maintain the hoofs weekly, keep the sole really strong. We always think of the horses as individuals and taking the shoes off is for sure not going to work with all of them. You have to see what suits each horse. It is completely wrong to pull off shoes without the knowledge about it; in some cases, it can even be cruel to the horse as some of them can be extremely sensitive in their feet. It has been frustrating to follow the simplified conclusions that have been drawn from the success we have had with riding barefoot.”

Better together 

Photo © Nanna Nieminen/WoSJ
"Everything we do, we do it together. I might have the success in the arena, but without Janika I would not be there. I don’t feel like ‘I did this’ – we did this," Von Eckermann says. Photo © Nanna Nieminen for World of Showjumping.

Bringing King Edward to the top of the sport has been a joint venture for Sprunger and Von Eckermann, and a cause for constant speculation. Von Eckermann took over the reins three years ago and has since then not attended one press conference where the question of his partner possibly taking back the ride did not come up. “People who ask this don’t understand what it is like to share something like this,” Von Eckermann says. “Everything we do, we do it together. I might have the success in the arena, but without Janika I would not be there. I don’t feel like ‘I did this’ – we did this. And it is not to just say something that sounds nice, this is how it truly is. After all the success, I feel even better and more proud of our achievements together and I hope that one day, when Noah is older, he can be proud of us.”

Everything we do, we do it together

“Getting asked that question again and again is the weirdest thing; I could not be happier, I am for sure their number one fan,” Sprunger fills in. “Being a part of their story makes me so proud. I am a big believer in timing, and having a baby was not as simple as it may seem, even if it collided with Henrik getting the ride on King Edward. We have always thought about what would be best for this horse, we have not been selfish in this regard. I believe it was the way it was meant to be; the match they made and me getting pregnant. As I saw Henrik and King Edward grow together, it became another way for me to enjoy the sport. I can still feel all the emotions; it has been way more amazing than I could have ever imagined.”

If you sit back, you’re already losing

Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson/WoSJ
“I have been lucky, but as a rider, you also have to want to make it happen," Von Eckermann says. Photo © Jenny Abrahamsson for World of Showjumping.

As a rider, you are only as good as your best horse and both Von Eckermann and Sprunger are well aware of the fact that they need to keep working on creating a strong string of horses around King Edward. “When I had Palloubet, I was a top athlete, I had top horses, I was winning, I was showing every weekend,” Sprunger says. “However, combining top sport with horse sales is simply not possible if you have to sell the best ones. We would wish to keep all of them, but we are not in that position. I have sold my best horses, but always made it back and I love the process. We are lucky when we can keep the sport our main focus, but to keep this set-up, we also have to focus on our clients and selling. It is our mission to build a strong team around King Edward. Now, I have two promising horses from Tina Pol for myself that I know I can keep, which I am grateful for. This is a new situation that I enjoy, a beginning of a new chapter for me.”

Time can be the key in turning something good into something exceptional

“Everything depends on the horses – that is how the sport is,” Von Eckermann points out. “I have been lucky, but as a rider, you also have to want to make it happen. You have to be so on it, you cannot sit still. I believe that in this sport, if you sit back and stop working for it, you are already losing. King Edward is now 12, and time goes quickly. With him it took two years before he was really in the top of the sport. I believe that with horses, if you go out and you need to find a new star, you will pick the wrong one – it has to come naturally. The hardest part is to find these new, raw diamonds, to pick them out. We don’t have so many horses in our stable, because we believe that when you put all your time into the horses you have, you give them the best chance. If you do too many horses without enough time, you are more likely to miss out on something. Time can be the key in turning something good into something exceptional.”

“It is an expensive sport and there are so many costs that are running in every month, so you need to have a financially safe environment,” he continues. “There is some prize money to win, but I believe you cannot put your trust only on that. We have our goals and we work towards them patiently, believing that the results will come eventually. Of course, while doing so, you need to have a feeling that the money is not going to be eaten up on the way. For me, when I jump on the highest level, I need to be really focused to do it good – really focused. You cannot have your head split on three other things. For many in our business, I believe this is the hardest part; to be so focused on your own thing – the sport – but at the same time, take care of the financial aspects.”

Create your own reality

Photo © Nanna Nieminen/WoSJ
“CYOR is the abbreviation for ‘create your own reality’ – and that is what we are trying to do,” Sprunger says. Photos © Nanna Nieminen for World of Showjumping.

“The work we do, for us it is not a job, it is our life,” Von Eckermann explains about the reality of being a World Champion and an Olympic gold medallist. “The days go on as before, I just think sometimes ‘thank God we made it’. When you have a horse like King Edward, it would feel like a failure if he did not get this kind of success – he deserves all of it.”

I believe a big key to our success is that we stick to what we feel

“I believe a big key to our success is that we stick to what we feel,” Von Eckermann continues. “You have to select your shows carefully and make a plan for your horse, not for yourself. I believe it, because I have made that mistake myself before: I have chosen shows that have not been the best fit to my horse. With King Edward, the World Championship was a clear goal for this year and we went backwards to plan the shows. You have to select the shows you believe suit your horse and your program – not too much, not too little. In this regard I am very lucky at the moment, because I am high on the ranking, so I can choose – and that is a huge advantage. Additionally, you have to be focused when you go to the show: I believe there is only a certain number of jumps in each horse and you have to use them as good as you can and not waste them. You need to have a plan, and even if it does not go 100% accordingly, keep going – if it goes bad, analyse why and do better next time. I have had two bad shows with King Edward, but the reasons were clear, so we stuck to our plan.”

Photo © Nanna Nieminen/WoSJ
“The most enjoyable part for us is that we are in this together,” Sprunger says. Photo © Nanna Nieminen for World of Showjumping.

“However, if we would not have the team behind us that we have, none of this would be possible,” Von Eckermann continues. “Without our great horse owners and the staff we have, we would never be where we are. We are very fortunate with the people we have around us.”

“The most enjoyable part for us is that we are in this together,” Janika fills in. “Even if it is cleaning up our property, everything we do is what we love, and we get to do this together. It is hard work, but we have the same approach. With horses, many roads lead to Rome, and riders we admire might think differently about certain things and it might work for them, but we are lucky to have the same ideas. For sure we argue, but about details, and that I think is a good thing; four eyes see more. Our core values are the same, and that is the main thing.”

“CYOR is the abbreviation for ‘create your own reality’ – and that is what we are trying to do,” Sprunger concludes. “You need to have a goal, know where you want to go, make a plan and make it happen. Sometimes, if people see someone doing better than them, I hear them speak about the others being luckier – I don’t believe in that, I believe in creating your own luck.”

 

No reproduction without written permission, copyright © World of Showjumping.com

 



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