Holland’s Rising Star: A Conversation With Sanne Thijssen

Sanne Thijssen competes at La Baule CSIO5*. Ph. ©Tiffany Van Halle

At Stal Thijssen in Limburg, The Netherlands, detached from the hustle and bustle of the competition scene, Sanne Thijssen is up and working in the early hours of the morning with the rest of the grooms cleaning the boxes. She is easily one of the most exciting talents that Dutch show jumping has seen in years, but there’s no room for being too good for a job when there’s stable work to be done.

The daughter of show jumper Leon Thijssen, the 18-year-old rider grew up in a family surrounded by horses. By age 14, she was riding in her first international competition. 2016 saw her break into the Longines FEI World Rankings top 100, and take part in her first CSI5* competition. On top of that, she went on to earn team silver on the European Young Riders Championships and was part of the winning team at the CSIO Nations Cup in Wierden. She concluded 2016 with 58 top three placings and 22 wins in CSIYH* to CSI4*, earning her the prestigious Rabo Talent Prize.

Having recently finished school, Thijssen now helps her father run the family business and is fully set on breaking into the top 50. We Spoke to Sanne about her role in the business, how her father has helped shape her career and her step up to the CSI5* classes.

Noelle Floyd: Can you tell us a little about how you started riding?
Sanne Thijssen: A really long time ago, when I was seven years old, I did my first pony show. After that I started to ride ponies but I never did international shows for ponies. When I was 14-years-old I started trying show jumping with horses and, did a few national shows. When I was fourteen and a half I started with my first international shows on horses in The Netherlands.

NF: How is the system different in The Netherlands with coming up the ranks with ponies and afterwards moving up to horses, compared to the USA? 
ST: Here in Holland, it starts a lot smaller. You go from 30cm to 40cm to 50cm—every time 10cm bigger and then there is the possibility to go to national and international shows if you want, but I just went straight to the horses which is another possibility. I think in the USA everything starts a little bit bigger for the younger people and they move to horses quicker then here in Holland.

NF: You come from an equestrian family, how are they related to your success? And how do you balance your father Leon being your father, boss and trainer?
ST: Of course my father searches for the horses which is a big part of my success. We normally get young horses most of the time between three year olds and seven year olds and then we train them as good as we can and see which ones turn out. Sometimes we have to sell those horses for the stable, but I think my father is doing a good job because he found a lot of good ones. Working together with my father is sometimes a bit difficult because he is my father and my trainer, so normally to your boss you don’t say a lot back but to your father you do. So at times it’s difficult to be ‘brave’ maybe that’s a big word, but to find a balance is quite difficult.

NF: You’ve won many grands prix together with Con Quidam RB, Can you tell us more about him and the other horses you have?
ST: Quidam (HOLST. Quinar x S. Capitola B) is now 11 years old, we did about three five star grand prix classes so I hope now we can go for some of the Longines Global Champions Tour grand prix. He has so much quality, so I think he can make it for sure. That is if he’s not sold, but normally he is not for sale, so for me it’s safe to have him. Before him I had a mare Ulena (KWPN. Baloubet du Roet x Olena), she won so many classes it’s not normal but she’s now 16 years old, so now she is on the field retired.

NF: Looking back to last year, how did you successfully combine both school and the sport? Do you plan to study more in the future?
ST: It was really difficult because I had a lot of shows during school and that means always travelling and when I was 17, I did not have a driving license so my mom had to bring me everywhere. During exams especially, it was difficult because then I could not do some shows, so to find a balance was hard, that’s why I was really happy when I was finished. Now that I’m done I don’t plan to study any more because I think I found my work with horses—they are everything for me.

NF: Last year you received the Rabo Talent Award against the top riders in The Netherlands, how did that feel?
ST: Of course it was really good for me, I think I can also say a big thank you to my mare Ulena because she made this happen for me, she won so many classes that it wasn’t possible for me not to receive it! It’s really not normal what she did for me, she really is a special horse.

NF: You have many grand prix titles under you belt now, what has been your most memorable win?
ST: I must say the Eindhoven Derby last year with Ulena, as I was the youngest person to win the derby. It was in Holland so you have the public behind you and it’s a different feeling then a grand prix, but riding a difficult derby course with your own mare and being the youngest person ever, it’s really a special feeling.

NF: This year you’ve stepped up to 5* classes, what has that process been like?
ST: In the CSI2* you think that the CSI5* classes are the same just a little bit bigger but then you see it in person and you can see it’s big, a lot more technical and you need a horse that is careful and can jump the big fences which is hard to find. First I thought “ah it’s just 20cm bigger, easy” but then I realised it’s really not that easy.

NF: How does it feel being part of last year’s winning team Valkenswaard United on the Global Champions League?
ST: It’s of course very cool, they already have one under 25 rider Bertram Allen so it’s a great feeling for me to also be part of the team. Now hopefully we can win a bit! The league is part of the biggest shows in the world; it’s not the Olympics but the Longines Global Champions Tour come pretty close after that. It’s really hard actually to qualify for the classes, which means you really have to be on a team because you cannot just go for your own result. It’s a totally different world compared to a CSI2* show.

NF: What are your goals for 2017?
ST: Hopefully now I can do some more five star shows because I now have some really good horses that can jump the big classes. My plan is to do Hamburg, Monte Carlo and Monaco so I hope I can go for a few good results and get some more experience with other CSI5* shows this year.

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