Like the four times Olympic rider Ludo Philippaerts, his two oldest sons, the twin brothers Olivier and Nicola, represent two of the most promising riders of their generation. EQUILIFE visited the Philippaerts brothers in their lovely home in Belgium.
By Therese Stub Alhaug. Photo Lena Saugen.
History was made as the 19-year-old Olivier Philippaerts and his powerful stallion Cabrio Van De Heffinck won the CN International Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows in 2012. Not to mention he was accompanied by the American veteran Beezie Madden that came second, while Olivier’s father himself, Ludo Philippaerts, was third.
—It was incredible, Olivier says as I find myself resting my eyes at a big photo from the winning day, placed on the wall in the beautiful “office-lounge” at the Stud Farm Dorperheide in the northern part of Belgium. The picture reveals intense happiness, but still one can only imagine how Olivier felt that day, winning one of the most prestigious competitions in the world being only 19 years old. Not to mention how proud his dad must have been, taking part in the ceremony as the third best. But the story doesn’t end there as there is one more of them.
This is real twin power. For sure the Philippaerts brothers has gained a lot of attention and respect in the showjumping world. At the age of 21, they have already won some of the biggest showjumping competitions in the world. The year before the win at Spruce Meadows, Olivier’s twin brother Nicola won the five-star Falsterbo Grand Prix. Two years later he won the World Cup in Gothenburg. On top of that, the giant Swedish fashion brand H&M offered the talented twin brothers a unique sponsor contract this year, which has really put the two good-looking boys in the spotlight this season.
— Being a part of the H&M-team together with experienced riders like Peder Fredricson and Malin Baryard is a great honour and a good opportunity for us, Nicola says as I am watching the huge H&M “Philippaerts” model placard hanging on the wall in the indoor arena.
— Being a part of the H&M-team together with experienced riders like Peder Fredricson and Malin Baryard is a great honour and a good opportunity for us. Nicola Philippaerts
One could believe they had done nothing else except modeling all their life; still, the modeling part is less important. Their talent and personality are a real catch for H&M. Not only are the boys great riders, but they are also extremely well behaved, humble and grounded. Being born in a busy sport- and trading stable, they know very well what the business is about. And for the Philippaerts appearance and good manners clearly are just as important as results.
THE LEGENDARY DARCO
More pictures and winning trophies fill the room, dated from the early 80 ́s until today, and for sure there is one special horse that catches my attention. The legendary Darco. Actually, a lot of the Philippaerts success can be drawn back to this intelligent and legendary dark bay stallion, one of the top 10 showjumping breeding sires in the world, ridden by the boys’ father Ludo Philippaerts up to Olympic level. Darco has produced many offspring that have been jumping successfully around the world; to mention one, the exceptional King Darco, who competed in the Atlanta Olympics with Ludo. Nowadays, after the famous stallion passed away, the Philipaerts brothers continue to compete on Darco ́s talented offspring. As we speak, Nicola’s own stallion; H&M Forever Darco, is being groomed, getting ready for our photo shoot. Another winning combination.
— Yes, the win in Spruce Meadows was fantastic, Olivier continues with sparkling eyes, as he manages to catch my attention again while I immerse myself in the Philippaerts equine history. He continues:
— First of all, it was unexpected to win there. I think everybody wants to win that Grand Prix.
Like Aachen, Calgary hosts the most prestigious Grand Prix in the world; known for its high level of difficulties as well as its considerable price money.
— Winning that Grand Prix certainly gave a huge boost to my self-esteem and my riding career in general, Olivier says. And even better, my horse liked it too. In fact, there is no other ring in the world where he jumps that well, Olivier says about his charismatic white stallion, Cabrio Van De Heffinck. Olivier’s eyes shine as he describes his four-legged mate:— When he comes into the ring he really likes to show off. His ears peak forward, his body grows bigger, and he starts neighing. He is a special character, that horse, Olivier says.
— It was very intense. Seeing your dad win and being so happy, made us motivated for the sport. The atmosphere and the audience at these big shows, where all riders dream to participate, it’s incredible Olivier Philippaerts
Similar to their dad, the boys hold a great competitive spirit that clearly motivates them to go for the sport. And it was exactly moments like this – the big wins, that captured the two boys’ attention towards the sport when they were young, as they frequently traveled to big international events with their dad.
— It was very intense. Seeing your dad win and being so happy, made us motivated for the sport. The atmosphere and the audience at these big shows, where all riders dream to participate, it’s incredible, Olivier explains.
So that’s how it all started for the boys. When they were six years old, they got their first pony. At the beginning mostly for fun in combination with other sports, but at
a certain point, they both chose to devote more time to the horses.
— Still, my parents never pushed us to ride, but when we decided to focus more on riding they supported us in every way, Nicolas explains, giving his parents lots of credit for their success.
From that point, the Philippaerts success accelerated fast. Their mother, Veronique, followed the boys to the shows on the weekends, and was responsible for them at home, while Ludo traveled worldwide competing. At the age of 13, the brothers competed successfully as juniors. Olivier became European Champion, while Nicola took home the team gold medal at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. Then again, as a young rider, Nicola became European Champion, while Olivier won the gold medal in the European Championships. But it didn’t stop there. Later they have achieved numerous results, with highlights like the victory of Nicolas in Falsterbo in 2012, in Gothenburg 2014, and for sure Olivier’s incredible win at the Spruce Meadows to mention just a few. Certainly, their list of merits is fantastic.
Being brothers and competitors – do you sometimes find it hard to handle each other`s success?
— Well, we both always want to win and to be the best, and for sure you get motivated to beat the other one – but always in a good way, that pushes us the little extra that makes us even better. If I don’t win, I hope for Olivier to win and the opposite. We are competitors as well as we support each other, Nicola says.
Being successful at senior level, competing with high-level riders that have enormous experience, can for many young riders be a challenge. Still, the two brothers seem to blend in well:
— Well, surely you need to work for it. But if you really want to get there, you will. It’s all about falling and standing up again. The shows are one thing, but what really matters is all the work that people don’t see, like the everyday work in the stable, riding lots of horses, meeting clients and preparing for shows on and on again, Nicola explains.
With a dad at the top of the sport, the two twins have learned a lot from his riding, which has served them well. In addition to Ludo training them, their uncle has played an important role as their trainer for many years. And not to forget their mother who did a lot of the teaching when they were kids. Today they also have a dressage trainer coming every week.
— It’s important to get inspiration from others. I sometimes go to Ludger Beerbaum, to get instruction. He is a great rider and manager. When you see his riders and horses – it’s unbelievable. They all turn out good, which means he must have a very good system. He is the best example of good management, Olivier says.
— The shows are one thing, but what really matters is all the work that people don’t see, like the everyday work in the stable, riding lots of horses, meeting clients and preparing for shows on and on again Nicola Philippaerts
BUSINESS AND SPORT
Being successful in the sport is most important for the boys at the moment. But still, they are conscious about the business part as well. After finishing high school, they both did some economy studies, but to combine their busy show life with studies where almost impossible. So when they turned 19, it was all about learning from doing.
— In fact, we have to. Even though we mostly try to concentrate on the sport these early years, I still call on the administration now and then, and help out when there are clients coming over and so, Nicolas explains. – But at a point we need to combine these two, sport and business, Olivier says pointing to his father’s expertise and experience. At the moment, Olivier administrates another stable close by, as they needed more space with the two younger brothers growing up. This way they have already developed their business a little.
MENTAL TRAINING & MOTIVATION
Things have changed in the show jumping circuit the last ten years. For the riders, it’s a matter of mental strength as well as talent as the sport is getting tougher and tougher.
— Mental training helps me to stay more focused, Olivier says telling me he’s seeing a coach regularly. – In fact, I just had the last appointment this morning before we met. But you learn a lot from the horses also. Like patience. It takes a long time to get to know a horse; you can’t rush it. And you really need to be able to handle periods without winning, he says.
Patience and motivation are the keys to a lot of success in all sports. Also with horses. For Olivier, the competitions are a great part of his motivation.
— When you get to go to the best shows in the world, and you get success from time to time you get motivated. Like when you enter a ring like in Aachen, you feel the atmosphere, the high level of difficulty, and the people – it really gives you a kick! And when you win something like that, you get motivated for another six months, or a year, Olivier says.
— When I work my horses at home, I keep heading for the big moments every day in my day-to-day training. This way I stay motivated. But for sure the traveling itself can be a bit exhausting sometimes. Especially in periods when you have fewer horses, or you don’t have success, Olivier explains as he cites an example from his own career.
As we know, in this sport you often loose more than you win, and it’s a question of having the right horse fit at the right moment Olivier Philippaerts
— Even though the two last seasons have been good for me, 2013 was a bit hard, as my best horse, Cabrio Van De Heffinck, didn’t seem as happy as normal. So I gave him a half-year break, and put him in the field for three months. This put me in a temporarily situation where I had only younger horses on a lower level to compete with. But these moments will come again, and you need to be prepared for that, he says. Every rider has these moments – or down periods. As we know, in this sport you often loose more than you win, and it’s a question of having the right horse fit at the right moment, he says staying quiet for a minute.
— I learned a big lesson this year. When you feel that the horse is not ready, you have to learn to take a step back. I also learned to build up new horses, which is a huge part of this game, he says.
Nicola confirms: When things don’t go your way, there is always a hope in good young horses – a hope that they will make it one day. But it is hard to find the good ones, and it takes a very long time to bring them from 6-year-old to Grand Prix level – maybe five years.
Is this maybe what keeps you going?
— Yes, perhaps, that is also the nice part – the fact that you start over and over again. It keeps you running. And if you are happy with what you do – you can be happy every day.
BROTHERHOOD & FRIENDSHIP
The two boys are comfortable sharing their experience. They both come out as pretty calm and relaxed, even due to their busy schedule. A bit of the old school types, gentle and polite. When you see the Philippaerts brothers at shows, you often observe them together. If you didn’t know them, you would think they were best mates. And they are. Even though they define themselves as different characters, they obviously enjoy spending their time together, sharing the same friends and doing social things together. – We’ve always done everything together – school and riding, Nicola says.
As I am getting to know the two of them a little, Olivier seems to me, to be the big brother of the two. Well, surely they are twins, so this is just my own observation as his appearance is typical for a “first- born”. He tends to be a bit more meditative. Reflects before he speaks, while Nicola acts a bit more directly and is more easygoing. Still they have lots in common. They both exalt each other:
— I believe you can tell a rider’s character by seeing him ride, Olivier says. – We are very different. My brother has a strong character, a bit more explosive temper than me. He handles pressure at the right moment. The more pressure the better he will compete. This is one of his strongest sides. I myself, ride the best when I am relaxed and focused. I tend to think a lot about what I can improve with my horse and with myself. I guess I am more of a quiet person. But that way we learn a lot from each other. After all we head the same way, as we both want to win, he says.
— Yes we both have a strong mentality and want to win, like our father; in which is maybe our strongest side as riders, Nicola adds.
Days off are rare for riders at this level, where the pressure is constant and the season never stops. Nicola Philippaerts
The two brothers are definitely a good team. But do they see themselves working together in the future as well?
— I think we will continue working together. But we never know what happens. Maybe one of us wants to do something on our own. But certainly, it would be nice that way, Olivier says.The two also spend time together at their free time – if they have any. But what would they like to do if they had a week off?
— I enjoy traveling to new places seeing different things, and I get to do that a lot when going to the shows. But don’t keep me at a beach for more than three days, I get bored, Nicola says laughing. Olivier agrees: — I rather go skiing than lie in the sun. I love skiing!
Even though holidays are rare for the boys, the Philippaert family enjoys a one-week holiday together after Christmas each year.
— Still, one week is enough, Nicolas says smiling. Days off are rare for riders at this level, where the pressure is constant and the season never stops. But, when you love what you do, you handle it, Olivier says in a convincing way.
— I think we will continue working together. But we never know what happens. Maybe one of us wants to do something on our own.But certainly it would be nice that way. Olivier Philippaerts
What would you do if you didn`t do horses?
— I would do car racing, Olivier says with a big smile. – In fact, I love sports in general, and I like watching good athletes whatever they do. You can always learn from them.
Nicola, on the other hand, thinks a little, before he answers. – I have never thought about what else I would do in life. When you have done this your whole life, you don’t think about it that way. This is my life now. Besides, I really like being around horses in general.
STUD FARM DORPERHEIDE
Outside the spring is taking in at Stud Farm Dorperheide. The garden is itself a piece of art; with fish swimming in a pool, tropical birds singing in a big cage under the trees while a giant bird is enjoying his view from the top of the roof. When stepping into this beautiful garden, it’s almost hard not to believe there are fairies in it too. A beautiful bronze statue of a horse is placed by the entrance and greets you when you arrive through the big white gate leading to a beautiful New England- styled house. Outside two curious donkeys are enjoying their life wandering around and eating grass. Between the stable and the forest the horses relax behind wooden fences.
Trimmed hedges surround the outdoor arena, while a tiny road leads to a giant grass arena hidden at the border of the woods. This certainly is a dream come true for both horses and people, with all the facilities you need running a sports stable. Still, there is one thing, you might notice that is different from other similar sports stables. There is no walker, neither a treadmill. – With a reason! Horses need to be happy – so they should be able to go out in the forest, not in a walker. You have to keep the horse content to obtain results, the boy’s father, Ludo, says with a strong voice. Obviously this is an important lesson Ludo has been teaching his boys as well. The horses at the Philippaerts stable are ridden about 30 – 40 minutes a day, and besides that they go for a walk in the forest and get time in the field. – Horses need to move a lot to be happy, Nicola says confirming his dad’s statement.– They need to like what they do. – Or else they won’t give you that last touch.
Surely the horses enjoy their lives at home. That, I believe, is important to be able to cope with all the traveling that comes with the sport.
– Horses need to move a lot to be happy. They need to like what they do. Nicola Philippaerts
How do the horses respond to all the traveling?
— It’s sometimes difficult to keep the horses motivated and in good shape through the season as the sport is getting more and more global, which means the horses have to travel a lot. First of all, you need to have a very good plan with each horse. Today there are more and more shows coming up, so you need to make a good selection where to go and to pick out the best shows that are good for the horses, Olivier says. Nicola adds: – When you see your horses every day, you get to know each of them very well. You know what they like and don’t like – and you notice if they have good or bad days. Most importantly you know how to deal with that. You get very close, he says.
COMMERCIAL INFLUENCE Speaking of globalization: There are more and more five-star-shows coming up which improves the sport and the price money. Do you see any challenges coming regarding the growing business-part of it all?
— Well, the number of shows coming up also increases the number of riders, which leads to more trading. For the sport that is a challenge. It’s sometimes difficult to keep a horse when big money runs the game. But we also live off these people, so in the future, we need to handle both – to sell when its right, but also know when not to.
Belgium is a leading country in breeding good sports horses. Keeping the best horses in the country is a challenge when big money decides.
– Luckily, there are some sponsors that support this matter, Olivier says expresses his concerns. — It’s a challenge that so much has to do with money in this sport. Sometimes it’s sad for the very good riders that don’t have these possibilities. I think this unbalance will get even worse in the future, so we need to handle this, he says. – Still, when there are more 5-star shows, there are also more shows for the less good riders to compete at a 5-star. That is a good thing – as it opens up more possibilities, Nicola comments looking at the profit side of it.
The financial situation is also something Ludo worries about:
— It’s undoubtedly a big challenge. With more money involved, everybody seems to work for his or her own benefits only. It’s a big difference compared to 25 years ago. But we cannot stop this from happen. Besides, even worse, some riders today buy horses like they buy cars, Ludo says expressing his worries, unafraid of making a statement. – To be successful, you have to be a horseman for real. It’s very important. Today the real horsemen are also missing out. Therefore I try to teach my children that they have to be friends with the horse to get results. You need to love to be around horses, he says. And clearly, the 51-year-old rider knows what he is talking about.
Being second-generation top riders, certainly, the boys have learned a lot from their dad during the years.
— My father always has many things on his mind. He rode on a high level but also sold horses. We have learned a lot from him. Like the importance of having good horses, and finding them – which is something my dad is really good at. Surely we benefit from the experience he has gained from 20 years in the sport. This is probably the biggest advantage we have; Nicola says.
— Most importantly it is to learn to enjoy what you do. This is more important than success. Ludo Philippaerts
Known as Belgium’s best-known showjumping rider, the four-time Olympian won his first showjumping competition at the World Championships for 7-year-olds in 1970. Since then he has won 7 World Cup showjumping competitions, including the one held in London in 1988, and has been a runner-up in the European Championships. Twice he missed out on a medal at the Olympic Games becoming number four. But things change. Almost a year ago he suffered his second serious fall, and couldn’t find his way back again in the sport. To retire was a hard decision to make:
— When you can do all you dreamed of your whole life, and then you have to stop – it’s very difficult, Ludo says to me the day before he is going to reveal his retirement
at a press conference here at Dorperheide. Clearly many feelings are to be sorted out, and for sure it has been a tough decision to make for the world famous rider.
— The positive thing, he says, is that I can make room for the next generation: Nicola and Olivier and also my two younger sons, Thibault and Anthony, that are making their way in the sport. Together with my wife Veronique, I will give our sons the best support in their careers, he says.
You are a dad, with four sons having success in the sport and sharing your interest. Two of them have already won some of the most prestigious shows one can win. You must be very proud?
— Absolutely. To be honest, I never knew they would come up so fast. I was 24 when I won my first Grand Prix, they where 18. It’s amazing. They improved very early, more than I could ever dream of. What I will miss the most is maybe to compete together with my sons. Like we did in the Nations’ Cups. These moments I will miss.
Clearly, the Philippaerts brothers have been blessed with solid basics – good ponies, excellent horses, good management, and teachers. Still, Ludo is clear about their talent:
— They always come back down on the ground. That is very important. They are realistic when it comes to the business; they know they can’t live off showjumping alone. They are also talented, and they really want to win. You need a strong character to do this sport, but you also get strong from being around horses because of the hard work. Either way.
What is your hope for them for the future?
— Most importantly it is to learn to enjoy what they do. This is more important than success. If you are always frustrated it hits you, and you get negative, Ludo says while he thinks a little. I always wanted to win when I was young- but when you get older; you understand that if you want to keep going, you must not forget to enjoy what you do. In this sport, you can compete for a very long time. That way it’s a very nice and beautiful job, but you have to keep going for an extended time, and it can also be boring being at the horse grounds for long.
Ludo is sitting in his leather chair, nipping to a coffee, surrounded by pictures telling his story. A career on horseback is finished, but will he continue riding?
— I still hope I can ride some young horses at home, and enjoy my riding. But
I will miss the pressure – the power that makes you improve, he says. – Before I always started riding in the morning – now it’s a bit different.
He stops talking for a while and looks down at his hands holding his espresso-cup.
— I am so happy I have been able to do what I love for so many
years – many people don’t have that in their life. All my life I have been happy – the rest I will have to see.
With five family members doing showjumping, and one football, one can question how the family manages to get everything puzzled together. Clearly, with a busy dad that used to go to the shows every weekend a lot has depended on the boys’ mother, Veronique, who without complaints, has assisted the boys through their younger years with school, training, and shows.
– With Ludo traveling it was the only way. And not to forget, the boys’ victories, and Ludos’ victories make me just as happy as it makes them – since we work as a team, Veronique says.
Veronique has a warm and humble personality and a calm presence. Even though it must be stressful at times, having five athletes running down the house, her smile makes her seem overall happy. – I really wouldn’t change one thing in my life, she says.
She really seems to be in control of everything. It impresses me. She also finds time to ride herself, at a pretty high level. With a stable full of showjumpers, one could imagine she would find her way in a jumper saddle as well, but instead, she enjoys her time with her two dressage horses a few kilometers away after she finishes her office work.
— I do some national shows, but I hope to do some small international ones also this season, she says.
CABRIO VAN DE HEFFINCK
In the other stable Olivier is finished riding while Cabrio Van De Heffinck plays with the collar lead and shakes his head. When he stops, he starts scratching the floor with his hooves. Olivier laughs:
— He sure is a special character. He never stands still this one. Cabrio has quite a temper, so you have to compromise a little, he says as he finds some carrots to give him – But he really wants to do his best – always!
Olivier observes his horse from a distance, smiles and looks a bit discouraged at the same time – in a good way. There is certainly a strong bond between the two of them. No wonder. They have spent more than seven years together, winning championships, World Cups and 5-star Grand Prix. The white stallion really has a special character, looking gorgeous and pointing his ears like a dog, begging for goodies. Olivier passes the carrots.
As we leave the farm, I reflect a bit about my visit. The importance of bringing knowledge further on to the next generation is maybe the most valuable thing a real horseman can do.
— He sure is a special character. He never stands still this one. Cabrio has quite a temper, so you have to compromise a little. But he really wants to do his best – always! Olivier Philippaerts
Therese is the editor of Equilife, and is truly dedicated to equestrian sports and horses. She started riding as a little girl, and enjoys her free time with her two horses back home. Portrait interview is her favorite topic, as it has the gift to inspire others through peoples stories, knowledge, training and general life-philosophy, and certainly, their lives with horses.