Albert Voorn: show jumping’s wild card

Dutch Olympic show jumping maestro Albert Voorn has a lot to say about show jumping. He’s convincing, intelligent, occasionally belligerent, but always entertaining

Albert Voorn

Is it true you bought your first pony at the age of eight with money you had saved yourself?
Yes. My father was a gardener and my mother was the daughter of a farmer. When I was six, my grandfather gave me a little pig and said ‘Albert, take good care of this one, this little pig will be your future.’ I bred from the pig and sold the piglets and with that money I bought my New Forest pony foal. When the pony was three, with the help of my neighbours, I rode it.

When I was 12, I had a very good instructor, an old gentleman called Mr Boef. I would ride my pony for an hour and a half to get there. He would lunge the pony to show me how it is done, then I would have a half-hour lesson on the pony, then we had a cup of tea together and I would ride home.

You won your first Grand Prix in your early 20s, but would it be fair to say your career hasn’t always gone smoothly?

If you want to achieve the highest level in sport you have to swallow a lot of things. There is not one rider who can make the owners happier than I do, in the way I treat them, but I want to be treated the same way. For me mutual respect is the biggest value there is, and the moment that they don’t have that, it blows up. When I was very young, about 25, I had an owner who wanted to go to an international show. I didn’t consider the horse ready to go and he said, you take it and I said, I won’t. He said, well I’ll sell everything. So then I had an empty stable and had to start from new again. This is where people dislike me in my country. I’m outspoken.

Are you still competing?

Yes. I have a nine-year-old mare by Staccato that I think a lot of – when I trialled her, I thought this is the horse who is going to win me the gold in Tokyo. As long as physically I can do it, I will try to ride.

Albert has a complicated relationship with the Dutch Federation, but would love to ride in Tokyo 2020

And your son, Vincent Voorn, is also a top show jumper?
Yes, he was European Champion, twice, junior and senior, leading the team to the gold medal at Manheim. But for the last two-and-a-half years, we have not communicated. I had a beautiful property that we built for my son, at his request. I gave up my career for it and we built the house and stable of my dreams, in the south-east of Holland. Then my son decided to go elsewhere; without negotiation, he just left. Because the whole financial picture was made for both his income and mine, I was left hanging on a rope. He has broken my heart in so many pieces that the glue has not been found to repair it.

I was forced to sell and left with just a small amount to buy a little house. I rent four stables in a yard that is 400m away from my house and at the moment I have one horse. It’s no problem when children do what they want to do, as long as they don’t lose respect for the people who have given up their own careers to give them everything possible. It doesn’t matter in this case that it is my son; if he thinks he can be so disrespectful to his parents then I cut the strings.

Who have been your most influential trainers?

Mr Boef, the gentleman I went to with my pony when I was 12. I think about him daily, about the basics. Another person that had a great influence on me was Franke Sloothaak. And then the man who changed my life from black to white was Ian Millar, in one afternoon. He taught me that we need to allow a horse to jump in the shape and way that the horse jumps best.

What has been your impression of the New Zealand horses and riders so far?

It’s the same everywhere. The good riders are as good as anywhere, but then to make the last step up to the next level it comes down to money, dedication. But if I lived in this country and the money was available, I could build up a team that would very easily be competitive at any championship.

But your World Cups here are low. World Cups should not even exist if it’s not 1.60m. If you want to develop your country to a higher level you should be intelligent. Because you guys do not have the quantity of riders, I would always give a two-rounder over the complete course and the time of both rounds for the placing, or then a jump-off. Then you develop something.

Outspoken, but entertaining

You seem to be regarded as controversial in your own country – why is that?

What they don’t like is the truth and the truth is very simple, it comes back to respect again. To give you an example, in 2012 my horse Tobalio had performed very well, and because of our performance we made it into the Olympic Squad. Then I received a package of paper, telling me now I’ve entered into the Olympic Squad I can’t do this, I must do so and so, all kinds of rules. I read it and said, I must be dreaming, so I put it to the side, then I got a reminder that I hadn’t signed yet. I invited one of the representatives for lunch. I said ‘Are you guys dreaming? I’m now 50-something. Finally I made it again. Finally I have found an owner to give me horses and invest money and time. Finally I am there at the highest level and you are going to tell me what I can and cannot do? This is how you treat your athletes? It’s unacceptable, I won’t sign it.’ So they said, okay, you are out of the squad. That is why I am so much behind Andrew Nicholson. Now, when I see the colour orange, or the Dutch flag, I have to puke.

It’s totally ridiculous. You can make riders sign a contract when you give them a salary and when you pay for the horses they ride. But as long as you, as a federation, rely on what the riders do and what the owners invest, you should be on your knees begging them. We are paying your bills – it’s because of us you’re there. The federation is there to serve riders and that is what it should do, nothing else.

What exercises do you advocate for the show jumper?

Circles and transitions because that is what show jumpers need. We go left and we go right. We go faster, we go slower. All the other stuff is not necessary – you only create tension between the horse and rider, because the majority of riders don’t know how to do it and the horse doesn’t want to do it. When you see the practice arena, do you see harmony? No, you see wrestling between horse and rider.

I asked the crowd yesterday why do they ride, and they said because we love horses. But no, they don’t. Because love is unconditional, but you guys love the horse that wins the most ribbons more than the one that doesn’t, so it’s not about love – it’s that you want to perform, and you use and abuse an animal for your ego. That’s why we ride horses.

Horses suffer, especially horses that are ridden by people who need to learn, those horses suffer most. Because riders always jump higher than they should and they always put the horse in a class he should not be in, because they want to be part of the Grand Prix. And they love their horse? I don’t love any horse, but I do respect them. It’s not that the one who wins me the gold medal gets better treatment than the one that only jumps 1.10m. I treat them all the same because we owe that to them.

  • This story was first published in the December 2016 issue of NZ Horse & Pony