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Nicola and Olivier Philippaerts: On success, strengths and sticking together

Wednesday, 06 February 2019

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson Nicola and Olivier at home together with two of their top horses J’Adore van het Schaeck and H&M Legend of Love. All photos (c) Jenny Abrahamsson.

With four boys aged fifteen to twenty-five, all making their mark on the international showjumping scene, it is safe to say that Ludo Philippaerts has done a good job of securing that the business he established 25 years ago stays within the family. Anthony (15), Thibault (17) and the twins Nicola and Olivier (25) are all following in their famous father’s footprints, with the two latter already being the darlings of the younger generation of showjumping fans world-wide. 

World of Showjumping meets Nicola and Olivier at home in Meeuwen Gruitrode, Belgium – and discover that the two are ready to take their father’s showjumping empire to the next level. 

One could fall onto the conclusion that it has all come easy for Nicola and Olivier. After all, Ludo – their father – is one of the most successful showjumpers of all times and owns one of the most well-known stables in the world. However, the boys have been brought up without being shielded from their father’s business. Although there was always a pony or horse at Nicola and Olivier’s disposal – to encourage them to ride if they wanted to – they have both had to see some of their best horses being sold along the way. Early on they had to learn that in order to pay the bills, horses come and horses go. 

The biggest sacrifice however, was made by Ludo himself – who in 2009 sold his best horse Winningmood, that went on to have huge success with Portugal’s Luciana Diniz. The purpose of the sale was to kick-start Nicola and Olivier’s careers, making it possible for their father to buy them both horses to get their junior years off to the best possible start. “That is how we got horses such as Carisma and Sunny Girl,” Olivier says. “My dad sold his best horse to make it possible for us.”

For the two boys, it started as it does for most. “We had a small pony to share – Fritz,” Olivier tells. “We were around six years old, and that is when it all began. My dad always made sure we had some ponies in the stable, in case we wanted to ride. We did a lot of sports when we were little; football, basketball, tennis and combined it with riding the ponies. Until we were 11, we competed at small local shows and then we stepped up to national level. Slowly, the riding took over. The first time I competed at the Belgian Championships for ponies, at the age of 12, I won and qualified for the Europeans – and from there on it escalated. When I was 14-15, it was pretty clear what it was going to be,” Olivier smiles. “It was the same for me,” Nicola adds. “I got a really good pony when I was 12-13, that I became Belgian Champion with and did the Europeans with.”

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson Nicola and H&M Chilli Willi

It was Nobel de Virton, Carlos Z, Carisma and Cabrio vd Heffinck that placed Nicola and Olivier firmly on the international showjumping map as juniors and young riders. With Nobel de Virton, Nicola took individual silver at the European Championships for juniors in Hoofddorp, Netherlands in 2009. The year after, Olivier became European Champion for juniors with Carisma in Jardy, France and in 2011 it was Nicola and Carlos’ turn in Comporta, Portugal. There, the boys also won the team gold for the young riders – this time with Olivier riding Cabrio vd Heffinck. 

In 2010, shortly after the European Championships, Carisma was sold. Two years later, Carlos followed. “It is always a step back when you have to sell a good horse,” Olivier says. “While some horses stay for the sport, others get sold – that is how we make our living. We have to do the business to do the sport, that is the way it is.”

But a sale is not something the Philippaerts-twins see as a setback, rather the contrary. “We cannot afford to buy the horses as ready Grand Prix prospects, we have to buy them young and produce them ourselves,” Olivier says. “This is one of the aspects of our business that I enjoy the most. We go on the road and we find a very good young horse. We buy it, we produce it and then one day you compete it at the highest level – maybe you even win a Grand Prix with it. If you end up selling the horse, it just means you were successful in what you did,” Olivier continues. “This is, I believe, our strength – finding good young horses. All In (Peder Fredricson), Carisma (Danielle Goldstein), Carlos (McLain Ward), Faustino de Tili (Kirsten Vanderveen), Harley vd Bisschop (Bertram Allen), Winningmood (Luciana Diniz) – that is just some of the horses that come from our stable,” Olivier says. “And like our dad always reminded us, if we don’t sell we can also not invest in anything new.”

“You have to sell to keep on going,” Nicola says. “To sell Harley vd Bisschop last year was a very difficult moment for me, the horse had an exceptional season. For my career, it made a big difference to have a horse like him. But, we are a business stable and we owned him half with someone else. We had an agreement with the other owner to at one point sell, and this was the right moment. That being said, it is still emotionally hard – Harley was here for five years, and of course you develop a special connection with a horse you had for so long and that did so much for you.”

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson Olivier and H&M Extra

Both Nicola and Olivier are actively taking part in their father’s business, and they both enjoy it. “We are more involved in the business now than before, as our father has been busy with my younger brothers at the shows,” Nicola explains. “Our father mostly searches the horses and buys them, while we take care of the sales. Olivier and I are a lot at the bigger shows and meet a lot of clients, so it is natural that way.”

With four boys all in need of top horses, as well as having to make sure the business goes around, Ludo is certainly kept busy after having retired from the sport in 2015. “We buy a lot,” Nicola explains. “At this point we have fourteen seven-year olds, and twelve six-year-olds,” Olivier adds. “We buy them from all over Europe. We don’t go on the road to look for types for me, Nicola, Anthony or Thibault, we just try to get the best six and seven-year-olds we find,” he continues with Nicola shooting in: “Whatever jumps clear and is fast!”

“Our dad decides who rides which horses and tries to give the right horse to the right rider. Sometimes it can change in between, but that does not happen so often,” Olivier explains. 

“I think our dad has a very good eye for the young horses,” Olivier says. “He can really look through the horses. An example is H&M Chilli Willi. When I saw him, I always doubted him for the big sport but our dad was always sure he was going to be a real Grand Prix prospect. In the end it turned out that way, as it usually does.”

The Philippaerts have also developed a system for the younger horses that seem to work very well. “From they are six to seven, our younger horses don’t do that much. Normally they mostly do national shows with our rider Stijn Timmermans who does a great job with them. When they are eight one of the four of us normally get them to ride, they start doing more – maybe up to 1.45m level. As nine-year-olds, they can do a bit bigger classes but it is a difficult age – you can easily do too much and then it can come back to you when they get older. So, we prefer to be careful with them until they are ten, then they are normally good to go,” Olivier says.

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson Olivier and Nicola at home in Meeuwen Gruitrode, Belgium

With fifty-something horses at the stable in Meeuwen Gruitrode, the four Philippaerts-boys and Timmermans don’t have a dull moment in the day. However, with both Anthony and Thibault wanting to step up to ride bigger classes, it gets more and more challenging to find enough quality horse power for all. “Obviously, it gets more difficult now that our brothers also want to ride at the highest level,” Olivier says. “Thibault turns 18 this year, and also need a horse than can jump the big classes.”

To make sure the business adapts to the needs of the four Philippaerts-boys, the family is now in the final stages of getting the permits to build another equestrian complex on their property. “We plan to build another place just next door, down in the fields that we own – with 60 boxes, and an indoor and an outdoor. Hopefully it should be ready in two years. If we all four want to ride, and all want to live from this we have to make it bigger,” Olivier says. “What our dad achieved here since he built this place 25 years ago is nothing but impressive,” Olivier continues. “Most people build once in their life, now he does it again.”

Working together as a family is something both Olivier and Nicola enjoy. “I think it’s nice. It’s not always easy, but to work together and go together to the shows as a family is something special,” Nicola says. “We need to stick together, can you imagine if we all go our separate ways – that will make it a lot more difficult,” Olivier laughs. “We are stronger together. But we have a big challenge ahead of us, we have to grow our business if we are all going to make a living out of it. At the same time, we need to keep the company under control and make sure it does not get too big.”

“Our parents are the pillars in our lives,” Nicola says. “Our dad spent a lot of time with us at the shows when we were younger, but so did our mum in the beginning – back then our dad was riding himself. From junior level, he became more and more involved. He did everything possible for us to get our career off to the best start, and he gave us all his experience and knowledge at a young age,” Nicola says. “With his connections and his name, it for sure made it easier for us but it also came with pressure,” Olivier adds. “Our mum, she has also always been there – making sure there is always a family dinner when we come home.”

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson Nicola and J’Adore van het Schaeck

The parenting part is definitely another achievement for Ludo and his wife Veronique. Both Nicola and Olivier come across as having their feet firmly connected to the ground, supporting each other through ups and downs. The two twins confirm that although they are “very close”, they are “very different”. “I find it very hard to explain your own personality,” Olivier says. “But out of the two of us, I think I am more outgoing, and Nicola is more reserved.” Nicola quickly confirms: “I am shyer towards people I don’t know,” he says.

“When we come in the ring, we both want to win – it is as simple as that,” Olivier answers on the question on whether or not there is competition between the two. “However, that competitiveness also pushes both of us to wanting to become better. But, we were never jealous of each other in any way. That being said, we both did well and were equally successful – maybe it would have been different if only one of us was doing good and the other one was struggling behind.”

The Philippaerts-twins leap to global fame got a good push when the two partnered up with H&M in 2015. “H&M is an exceptional sponsor and supporter of the equestrian sport, and have been so for many, many years. We have been extremely lucky to become a part of their team,” Olivier says. “We are so fortunate to have them supporting us,” Nicola says. “It’s also great people to work with, and we have a lot of fun being part of the H&M-family!”

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson Olivier and H&M Legend of Love

Despite being only 25, the Philippaerts-twins already have nearly a decade of success behind them. Both have won prestigious five-star Grand Prix classes, been selected for the Olympic Games – Nicola and in 2016 and Olivier as reserve in 2012 – as well as competing at the European Championships and World Equestrian Games. What more do they wish for with so much accomplished already? “Hopefully I can still try to ride at the Olympic Games a few more times, that was something very special,” Nicola says. “But what really motivates me on a daily basis is to have good horses, and a good group of people around me. I enjoy the competition, the moment it has to happen – when you are in the jump-off at venues such as Aachen and Spruce Meadows – that is what you live for, because it takes a lot of hard work and effort to get there.” Olivier joins in, saying: “I really, really would like to win a championship medal one day – especially with the Belgian team. That is something no one forgets, it’s one of the biggest achievements in our sport. But my daily drive, that is to bring the younger horses to top level. Doing this sport, I also think it is important to remember to enjoy the moments and not move away from your successes too quickly. When you win a Grand Prix it unfortunately easily gets forgotten, suddenly you are at the next show and complain about having two fences down.”

Through the ups and downs, there is nothing Nicola and Olivier would rather do than showjumping.  “It’s a fantastic lifestyle,” Olivier says. “We get to travel the world. However, it is also a particular lifestyle. Last year I spent 44 weekends at the show, that is a lot. It can get exhausting, so sometimes you have to force yourself to take a break. But still that is the way I like it, and I enjoy doing it.” Nicola agrees: “There has not been a moment of regret, although it is a 24/7 job! We make a living out of what we love, and to wake up and be able to do that – what more could you wish for?”



The horses that made our careers



Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson Nicola with Carlos

Nobel de Virton (Prima d’Or x Dairin, born 2000): 

“I won my first international medal with Nobel de Virton, at the European Championships in 2009 we went off with the individual silver. After, my father took him over and competed him at five-star Grand Prix, Nations Cup and World Cup level.”

Carlos (Chellano x Voltaire, born 2002):

“Carlos was the horse that really kicked off my career internationally. The year I was 17, I won the three-star Grand Prix in Lisbon with him and was double clear in the Nations Cup there, and just before that he jumped double clear in the Nations Cup in Lummen. The same year, we won double gold at the European Championships for young riders in Comporta. In 2012, after he won the five-star Grand Prix in Falsterbo, he was sold to Emilie Martinsen and then in 2014 McLain Ward took him over – and the two of them had huge success together.

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson Nicola with Harley vd Bisschop

Harley vd Bisschop (Dulf vd Bisschop x Coronado, born 2007): 

“Harley came to us when he was seven, I had him until he was eleven and got sold to Bertram Allen. He had an exceptional season last year, winning the Global Champions Tour Grand Prix in Estoril and finishing second in the Global Champions Tour Grand Prix in Madrid. He was also double clear in the Nations Cup Final in Barcelona, that Belgium won. Having a horse like him made a huge difference to my career.”

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson Nicola with H&M Chilli Willi

H&M Chilli Willi (Casall x Lord, born 2008):

“Chilli Willi is my best horse at the moment. He has a break now to breed, and then he goes to Oliva for a few weeks. From there he starts in Doha for the Global Champions Tour. I would also like to do the European Championships in Rotterdam with him this year, that will be very important for Belgium as we still need to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games.

As a six- and seven-year-old, Chilli Willi was quite careful but he did not look all that scopey. He was such a big horse, but still very weak when he was younger. Now that he has grown, his body feels stronger and the scope has developed.

Chilli Willi is very easy going, he is not a stallion at all actually. He has a very good character, a lot of heart and always tries to give his best in the ring.”




Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson Carisma, here with Danielle Goldstein in the saddle

Carisma (Cardento x Maraton, born 1999):

“When I was 16, I got an amazing horse called Carisma that we bought it from Jens Fredricson. She was a different kind of horse from what I was used to, she had blood and was sensitive. In the beginning I struggled, and I was not sure if she was going to suit me but then I figured it out and at the end of the day she was an unbelievably good horse for me. When I was 17, I won the individual gold at the European Championships for juniors in Jardy with her, and after that I got the opportunity to jump the five-star show in Mechelen. Carisma was the horse that really made me step up, and opened a lot of doors for me.”

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson Olivier with H&M Cabrio van de Heffinck

H&M Cabrio van de Heffinck (Cassini I x Calato, born 2002):

“As a young horse Cabrio was not the easiest. He was always very fresh, he had a lot of blood and energy, was very playful – and also had a lot of character. While I had Carisma, he came along as my second horse. When I sold Carisma, he became my number one horse. We grew together, from junior to senior level – and in 2012 I won the CP International Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows with him, which still is the highlight of my career. I jumped my first Nations Cup in Aachen with him, and also on the team in Rome alongside my brother and our dad. Cabrio was a horse made for big grass rings like that, he was not a very good indoor horse. He needed a lot of room, that was what suited him best. Cabrio stayed with us until he was retired in 2017.” 

Photo (c) Jenny Abrahamsson Olivier with H&M Legend of Love

H&M Legend of Love (Landzauber x Corgraf, born 2006):

“Legend, well – she is very stubborn. She is an exceptionally good horse, and when she is in the ring she will do everything to go clear – but you have to do it her way. You have to completely adjust to her, be as light as possible and interrupt as little as possible – you can’t change her. 

Legend is the horse that I am going to keep for the Global Champions Tour circuit this year, I think it suits her very well.”


Coming up ...


Nicola on J’Adore van het Schaeck (Vagabond de la Pomme x Carrera de Muze, born 2009):

“J’Adore I did not have for long, only for eight months. She has developed very well, and came with to Aachen and Calgary last year as a second horse. In Geneva she was third in one of the big classes. Hopefully, she can do a few Nations Cups this year.”

Olivier on H&M Extra (Berlin x Heartbreaker, born 2009):

“Extra is a really sweet horse. He is sensitive, and has a lot of blood and power. 

I want to try to go to the European Championships with him this year, I think he is a championship horse – and I think he is going to be a very good one.”



Text © World of Showjumping by Jannicke Naustdal

Photos © World of Showjumping by Jenny Abrahamsson 

No reproduction without permission, copyright © World of Showjumping

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