Dutch Master

I have had the great pleasure of meeting and attending training clinics with Albert Voorn many times. In 2019 I interviewed him for EQy magazine 2019 Issue

Olympic silver medallist Albert Voorn is a class act – not only is he a brilliant showjumping coach and a visionary rider, this outrageously outspoken character is known for telling it how it is…

By Henrietta Forrest, images Lotta Bergman

I first met Albert Voorn at a clinic at Balcormo Stud in Fife. At the time I was trying to juggle my showjumping career with a busy job. I had washed my grey horse the previous night, then shot off to work in the morning before racing home, only to find that my horse had used the time to turn himself a fetching shade of green and brown.
With no time to spare I loaded him up and headed to the clinic. Walking into the arena I was met by an immaculately dressed man who took one look at us, snorted in derision and remarked in clipped Dutch-English tones, as immaculate as his attire, that it was a pity that I had not cleaned my horse.
I bristled. Did Mr Voorn not realise what a supreme effort it had taken me just to get there? Then I had a quick word with myself: this was a man at the top of his tree, so maybe I should button it and get on and ride. The lesson got underway and my animosity vanished as I started to enjoy myself. By the end I was a complete convert to Albert and his methods.
Over the years I‘ve got to know the exacting Dutchman a little better (although I’m not sure he ever gives too much of himself away) and have come to admire his precision and his firm belief that his method of training showjumping – which varies a lot from most other trainers – is the correct one. But mostly I have come to admire his supreme ability to project his calmness and confidence onto riders during lessons.
Fast forward several years and many lessons with Albert, my horses and I now turn up looking shiny and neat. More importantly, I have learnt a great deal. An intelligent conversationalist he holds many controversial views on showjumping and equestrianism in general and is unafraid to speak his mind, so I jumped at the chance to grill him for EQy.

Your training style is different as you stress the importance of riders allowing the horse to carry itself as it pleases when jumping. Tell me about this? Was there a lightbulb moment for you?
I was having a good show with my horses but I had one horse Wembley that I was not happy with; he won the odd class but the rideability was not there. That afternoon I sat watching riders and had a hunch that Ian Miller could help me with Wembley. We both rode him, then we discussed things. It was Ian that let me see the light that afternoon. He came to my place, gave me advice and said ‘you ride this way, there is no problem anymore’. That one lesson changed my riding from black to white. I saw Ian ride my horse, he explains the things he does and I say ‘holy Macaroni!’ If someone shows you something that is much easier than what you do, how stupid must you be not to copy it. But you have to also understand that not everyone has the same level of intelligence.

So from that day you have continued to fine tune that knowledge into your system of riding and training others?
Absolutely. It was between two international shows: at the first show I rode X and at the second Y, so riders at the second show said ‘you are a different rider – how can you change in this short time?’ At the first show I was the leading rider and in the second I was second in the Grand Prix but with a totally different riding style.

Do you still look for things that you can incorporate into your training and riding?
I look on a daily basis. I see so much on the internet and Facebook but it’s a long time since I found something easier or better than what I do, so you come to a point where you say ‘I know it by now’. But I still keep looking.

Your style is very different – do people pick it up?
People are often attracted to it but often have their own trainers who do not approve of my system. This may sound arrogant, but there aren’t many people who have my knowledge of riding, especially difficult, sensitive or complicated horses. So, very quickly instead of trying to understand and adopt my system trainers get a little bit defensive and criticise riders who are really into my system. They’ll say: ‘Oh you ride like a cowboy’ (after watching Western Riders, Albert advocates cantering horses with the reins in one hand). I sit in silence with other trainers at dinners and hear them explain what they do, then I see them sitting on a horse and I think ‘hmmm your mouth is better than what you are doing’. There is no point in going into a discussion if people are not on the same level.

Is it frustrating when riders that train with you haven’t stuck to your system?
Honestly? It goes over the top of my head. For example yesterday I finished my last day of three in a place here in New Zealand and one student had the best three days ever – she was unbelievable – then she asks me ‘how do I train?’ We just went three days and she still asks this! I don’t understand.

You are a great advocate for the horse and you have been outspoken about some organising bodies, suggesting that showjumping is no longer an honest sport. What do you mean?
It is particularly bad at the moment; people are not getting the same chance. For example if you go to a 2* show the Grand Prix is 1.45m – now we have judges so we jump above 1.50m and people who are building up a horse for this level are then left behind. What I mean is that if you enter a 2* show you are there for that level but they are building bigger and wider. I strongly believe that horses that have done 3* and up should not be allowed in a 2* Grand Prix. When I go to a show and the class is 1.35m then that is what I want to jump, not 1.40m or 1.50m, but 1.35m. It is happening all over the world – judges and officials don’t stick to the rules because they don’t want to sit all afternoon and watch 25 clear rounds and that is why they put it up. They have such a big mouth when it comes to horse welfare and all that crap but they themselves do not live up to the rules.

If you get to a 2* show for example and the course is bigger and wider than your horse is prepared for, do you still jump?
No! Many people do because they are there and just hope for the best, but they should be more careful that what they ask is doable for their own horse. I’ve been in so many meetings with riders where we are all on the same page, but then the only one that doesn’t ride is me.
Secondly, in sport – if horse riding is a sport, because you can be drunk and overweight and still win – everyone should be equal. It is very simple: you should not have a rider that is pre-qualified because they won the World Championships a year ago, which pre-qualifies them for the Grand Prix. It should not be that Nick Skelton can do one little round somewhere and qualify, while everyone else has to compete many times to qualify for the same Grand Prix. Everybody should be treated the same way to have a fair chance but they don’t do that.

There have never been more shows, but the sport is being ruined by well-funded riders who have discovered that it’s reasonably easy to get results. So instead of rich riders using professional riders they ride themselves because it is exciting.

How has money changed showjumping?
Money has always been decisive, the only thing that has changed is the quantity of people who have money and want to spend it on the sport. At the top level, it’s always been the case that either someone buys you horses or you can’t go to shows: without money there is no success. Another problem is the ranking book: riders should not rank, it should be a horse/rider combination which ranks so a rider with only one good horse still has a fair chance against a rider with ten.

Is the influx of rich people into the sport good or bad?
There have never been more shows, but the sport is being ruined by well-funded riders who have discovered that it’s reasonably easy to get results. So instead of rich riders using professional riders they ride themselves because it is exciting. They have trainers and every advantage, they fly into a show and they enjoy success. Ours is a pretty easy sport – there is no other sport where you can be so unknowledgeable, ride so badly and win a big class.

Horses often accommodate terrible riding because of their nature. You have said that every time we ride and jump horses we are ‘abusing’ them – will there ever be a day when higher standards are introduced?
How is it possible that poor riders can compete at the Olympic Games? In Holland, if your level is 1.20m with your own horse but I let you ride my Olympic horse, then you still have to start at 1.20m and build up by jumping five clear rounds before you can go up a level. That stops all this rubbish riding. But people with money decide the system so rules are broken all the time. These people want to jump higher than they should, but they are using and abusing an animal for their own pleasure and glory. That should be absolutely forbidden.

At a show in 1999 I saw a rider abusing a horse but the steward was an insider so refused to do anything, so I spoke to the rider myself. All the top riders thanked me, but I told them ‘you’re all bastards, you should have done it, not me.’ You want to be friends with everybody but we need to protect our sport. I’ve done it more than once and they hate my guts.

Is it the same in America as in Europe?
Yes. I saw someone in the US riding a course who was terrible and I said ‘how is this possible? Who is training this person? If it is a professional trainer then his license should be taken away.’ I posted on Facebook but it was taken down because of the comments.

Do you speak to riders who you think should not be riding at the level they are attempting or is that a step too far?
I’ve done this a lot but I’m so hated for it that I’ve given up. When you try to improve the sport but that energy makes no difference and people hate you for it, why keep doing it? At a show in 1999 I saw a rider abusing a horse but the steward was an insider so refused to do anything, so I spoke to the rider myself. All the top riders thanked me, but I told them ‘you’re all bastards, you should have done it, not me.’ You want to be friends with everybody but we need to protect our sport. I’ve done it more than once and they hate my guts.

Does no one else feel this on your level?
No. Maybe in the mind but everyone wants to be so politically correct that they are afraid of hurting themselves by speaking out.

Have you always been outspoken?
I’ve always been the same; mutual respect and good behaviour are important, so I speak out. That is why I was thrown off the Dutch team – my federation asked us to sign contracts dictating how to do things. I thought ‘hang on, they are telling me to do things in a different way that I don’t agree with’, so I invited them to discuss it. The other riders all agreed with me, but in the end they all signed except me, so they threw me out. I was the leading Dutch rider in 2013 but because I didn’t sign they didn’t take me to the finals to punish me.

Would you turn back the clock on any of your decisions?
No. When I look in the mirror I’m proud of myself. No one, and no amount of money, can buy me and make me change my opinions. I’d be ashamed of myself if I let that happen.

Do you still have top horses?
I bought a mare Stakkana to be my last horse but she got a hoof split in April 2018 so I decided to let it heal properly. That takes a year so I hope to be back in the ring at regional shows this April.

Do you watch a lot of showjumping?
I never go to shows or follow the sport unless I am riding. I’ve never been a watcher, always a doer. When I was younger I was interested in other horses and their riders, but not now, although I do follow racing results.

What you would have done if you hadn’t been a show jumper?
A racehorse trainer.

What do you do in your spare time?
Everything is based around horses. My wife drives a vintage carriage, so I’m her groom and personal assistant. We always push harder, are tidier and more organised, so we win. We go to beautiful places together, we chat and we have this horse moving beautifully in front of us, and our gear is spotless. It’s one big enjoyment.

Any other horse sports you are interested in or think should be banned?
Anything to do with horses interests me, except endurance. In endurance it drives me nuts that they dress so scruffy, sit scruffy and ride scruffy. 160km riding with a horse should be forbidden. The FEI should ban endurance but won’t as long as the Middle East piles huge money into it.

What does the future hold?
Showjumping should get rid of the FEI and have our own professional riders’ association, but we can’t because it is the body that represents the Olympics. I hate the corrupting influence of money – in 2012, for example, we had two Saudi Arabian riders who failed drug tests in the Olympic year but were allowed to compete at the Olympics because Saudi Arabia puts so much money into the sport as sponsors. Any other riders would have waited at least six months before their case was heard let alone a judgment made, and they would have been suspended. I said at the time that the two riders would be at the Olympics – their case was settled in two months and they were there.

To read the article and see the whole issue of EQy magazine head here now

See more of Lotta Bergman’s beautiful photography here

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