New show jumping world champion Jeroen Dubbeldam is no stranger to the victory gallop. The 41-year-old father of three first struck gold 20 years ago at the FEI European Young Riders Championship in Ireland, where he rode Gerhard Etter’s Kilarney to the individual gold medal. His greatest partnership was formed a few years later when the Dutchman, his girlfriend (who later became his wife) and her father made an inspirational buy – an ornery, seven-year-old grey gelding. It took almost two years and extreme patience to persuade De Sjiem to use his talent in a productive manner. In 2000, everything came together in Sydney, AUS, where Jeroen added the individual Olympic title to his resumé. The following summer, they won the Aachen Grand Prix.
De Sjiem, for which Jeroen’s stable in Weerselo, NED, is named, was retired in 2005, but Jeroen earned his place back on the Dutch squad with BMC Up and Down just in time to play a part in the team gold medals won at the 2006 FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Aachen, GER, and at the 2007 European Championships in Mannheim. He spent the next three years coming to grips with a new horse, Van Grunsven Simon, before re-establishing himself as a heavyweight contender in 2010 at Spruce Meadows, where they won the CN International. Simon’s sale in 2011 to Beezie Madden’s patron meant starting over once again.
Fast forward to Caen, FRA, September 7, 2014. Jeroen admitted he never expected to win an individual medal in Normandy, much less become his country’s first-ever world champion. He was more than satisfied with the team gold medal and the “amazing” performance of the inexperienced Zenith SFN. When it came down to the change-of-horse finale, a unique test of riding skill, he was the only one of the Final Four to ride all four horses clear. That’s an A+ in horsemanship and not at all bad for a kid who never finished school.
How did you get started with horses?
My father was a horse dealer and so was my grandfather, so I grew up with horses. I didn’t take riding seriously at first, because I was more enthusiastic about soccer. I think I was about 13 or 14 when I started to get serious about riding.
Can you identify a turning point in your career when you realized you could earn a living doing this and reach the top?
When I was 17, I got an offer from Willi Melliger to come to Switzerland and train with him. I left school and did that. I think I was naïve to leave school at that age when I didn’t really know if I could make a profession out of riding. However, that was a turning point in my life. Another big moment for me came about six years later when Bennie Holtkamp (the father of Monique, Jeroen’s ex-wife) offered to give me some horses with the long-term aim of really going for the top sport. This was a huge switch for me, because most of the time in Switzerland I was riding dealing horses. Now I was being given the chance to start with a horse and make it successful over a longer period. The first horse we bought together was De Sjiem. He was seven years old then, and he was the horse that brought me sponsors and the chance to be economically independent.
Were there sacrifices made along the way to super-stardom?
Yes, if you really go for the sport your social life becomes a sideline. Your family is at home and you’re always away. It is very difficult to get the balance right.
What’s a typical day like for you?
My days consist of riding six or seven horses and dealing with other aspects of the business and going to shows at the end of the week. Sometimes people come to my place and I help them a bit with any problems they are having with their horses. After the World Championships, I told everyone to come back in a few weeks once everything had settled down! Normally, I switch off the phone when I’m riding, because it’s a distraction and I like to focus on what I am doing – but since WEG I seem to be on the telephone a lot! I’m not complaining. It’s important to do as much as possible to put your sport in a good light.
Horsepower aside, is there another ingredient that gives you the edge?
That’s difficult to say. In my case I really love what I do. To be with the horses; to make a horse and find its best part; to start with a young horse and make a partnership. That’s my thing. I’ve never been a rider who wants to win every class.
Losing Simon must have been a very difficult situation for you. What happened?
Anky van Grunsven’s brothers Wilco and Eric owned him and it came to a point when they wanted to sell him. After all, he was number one horse in the world, he’d won the Masters and come third in the World Cup Final and if you look at it from a business perspective, it was the right time to sell. Unfortunately, it was also only eight months before the London Olympics and I would really have liked to ride in London. We had three very good years together, but you have to live with those situations. Of course, the best position to be in is to have a sponsor, like I did with Bennie Holtkamp, who will keep the horses for you. But if you ride for different owners you know that if you have success there is always the likelihood that the horse will be sold. On the other hand, when one is sold you have the opportunity to start with another and bring them on with the hope of being successful once again.
How would your friends describe your personality?
I think they would say I’m quite relaxed, and quiet… sometimes too quiet.
If Zenith was a human what sort of person would he be?
He’s quite sensitive, very kind and trusting, but he won’t be forced. That’s totally the wrong way to deal with him. You have to be patient with him.
If life hadn’t taken you where it has, would you have had another profession?
When I played soccer I was pretty good and I think I would have tried to become a professional soccer player.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Sunday nights at 7 o’clock I sit down and watch the weekend’s soccer round-up. Does that qualify?
What’s De Sjiem up to these days?
He’s now 25 and in very good shape. He looks fantastic. He goes out in the field every day and in the evening he comes in.
If there was one valuable life lesson you would share with your children Rick, Chris, and Nina, what would it be?
My advice would be to be respectful to others … and to finish school, which I didn’t do. It turned out all right for me, but with an education you can get higher in life.
With so many amazing venues now a part of the show scene, can you pick a favourite?
Aachen will always be my favourite. The ring and the crowd are just amazing. It’s hard to describe, but when you go in that ring something happens to you; it’s different from anywhere else. There are three shows you want to win in your career as a show jumper: Aachen, the Olympics, and Spruce Meadows. I am the lucky one to be able to say that I have won all three. I am so proud of that.