Scan the weekend results of any major show jumping class (anywhere!) and you’re likely to find the letters ‘VDL’ attached to the name of at least one horse at the top of the list. Like spotting a Mercedes or BMW logo on a bumper, you know when you see those letters, you’re getting the real deal. But as any good horse person knows, horses are way better than cars. It’s just a fact.
A recent example of VDL Stud’s prowess when it comes to producing killer horses: at the Longines Global Champions Tour (LGCT) of Shanghai earlier this year, Jur Vrieling and VDL Glasgow vh Merelsnest (say that three times fast) rode to a third place finish in the LGCT Grand Prix. Three weeks later they rode on the Netherlands team that finished third in the Nations Cup at the prestigious CSIO5* Piazza di Siena Roma.
“[Glasgow] is a horse with a fantastic character, a lot of scope — he’s always trying to do his best. [You wouldn’t even know he’s a stallion]; he’s so easy to work with, you’d think he was a gelding,” Jur says. “He’s a very polite horse, and really, he’s how every horse should be.”
Jur Vrieling and VDL Glasgow vh Merelsnest. Photo by Sportfot.
The striking, dark bay stallion is not the first VDL progeny the Dutchman has had the opportunity to produce to the highest level of the sport. For the last 25 years, Jur has been the go-to rider for VDL stallions, beginning early in his career with newly broke youngsters. He eventually graduated to approved four- and five-year-olds and then on to VDL’s competitive stallions — including famous names like VDL Zirocco Blue N.O.P and VDL Bubalu. In 2012, Jur and Bubalu won team silver in the London Olympic Games, and two years later, team gold at the 2014 FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France.
“In the beginning, when we started, the horses were not as good as they are now. In the last [few] years, they’ve improved so much, only breeding with the best mares and the best stallions,” Jur explains.
A Promising Hobby
The VDL story officially began in Holland in 1972, when the family patriarch, Wiepke van de Lageweg, a successful cattleman, decided to try his hand at hobby horse breeding and bought a broodmare. A couple of years later, Wiepke discovered Nimmerdor (yes, that Nimmerdor), a young stallion whose 18 approved KWPN sons (including the famous Heartbreaker) and 39 approved grandsons would go on to establish the VDL name. In 1996, the growing stud farm received a major boost when another of its stallions, Jus De Pommes, won both the individual and team gold medal for Germany at the Atlanta Olympics with Ulrich Kirchhoff in the irons.
Today, VDL Stud stands more than 50 approved stallions, with 80 to 90 broodmares and an extensive international sales business. Each year, VDL breeds as many as 90 of its own foals, purchasing an additional 120 to supply its various sales, breeding, and competition divisions.
“We probably sell 200 [horses] a year, otherwise you end up with too many,” says Wiepke’s son, Janko, who works alongside his two brothers, sister, and in-laws in the family business. The operation divides its young horses among its main farm, near Leeuwarden in northern Holland, and various associated stables nearby.
“The three sons are super riders and they work really well together,” Jur says. “Sometimes, you see when you have a family business, that the sons can fight or something, but for them, it’s the opposite. They’re best friends and they do it together and they’re really loyal — they want to do the best for the people who breed with them and they want to do the best for riders like me.”
Breeding a Superstar
Like many top breeders today, VDL is really selective about its mare lines, prioritizing those that have either been successful in the sport themselves or have a full-sister performing well at the international level. “They have so much knowledge about the mare lines and what works well with what stallion,” Jur says. “Horses that have just jumped 1.20m or 1.30m in the sport, for them, aren’t good enough. They want better.”
(I am glad this much is not expected of us in human dating life.)
Callan Solem aboard VDL Wizard. Photo by Sportfot.
“[VDL is also] extremely sharp in selecting the horses and then taking a hard look in the mirror as to whether they’re good enough or not. Even if the horse has done unbelievable things, its offspring has to be good.”
This last piece of the puzzle has been a key aspect of VDL’s expansion over the last four-plus decades. Jur says that no matter how good a stallion of theirs might be, its ability to produce not just foals, but competitive foals, is essential to the VDL model.
“They can have the 2 ½-year-old champion [stallion] in Holland, but if it looks like offspring from that one isn’t good enough, then they’ll sell that horse [to a good home] and go on breeding better ones. I think that’s something a lot of breeders would never do. If they have the champion, they stay [behind] the horse for its whole life, whether it has good offspring or not.
“I’ve had stallions in the past — I won’t say a name — but I had a terrific stallion from them and they sold it because the offspring was not good enough, so [their horses] have to be there in all ways,” Jur continues. “They have to be a good show horse, a competitive horse, and one with a future. But also, the breeding is important. If they get 10 foals from a stallion then eight [of those foals] have to jump really well.”
Show jumping is not a stagnant discipline, though. As many breeders discover, the traits they look to produce in their foals from year to year — those required to meet the demands of modern sport — can be an ever-moving target. “When you compare the courses from, for example, the 1988 Olympics and the courses nowadays [on the LGCT], you can see how different they are — it’s unbelievable,” Janko says.
“The courses today are faster, so you need a horse that’s faster and lighter; it’s changed the sport a little bit. With the big, scopey, slow, grand prix horses, they jump with unbelievable scope, but that’s not the horse you want to win grands prix with anymore. You need more blood, but then for championships, you need the scope also. You need [that] combination, which is the idea.”
So essentially, you need the whole package. And boy, does VDL package everything nicely. Better than a Christmas present from Santa himself.
Janika Sprunger and Bacardi VDL. Photo by Sportfot.
Willingness and heart are two more aspects that Janko would add to his must-have list, along with rideability. The latter is a trait essential not just for top show jumpers, but also those horses VDL intends for the dressage, hunter, and equitation rings, as well as for amateur riders — a market that today makes up a significant portion of the stud farm’s sales. “[For amateurs, you want] good-to-ride horses that are strong and always willing and forgiving. There’s not just one type of horse you want to have,” he says.
What’s in a Name?
The majority of VDL’s sales are done on an individual basis, but the company also markets at auctions around the world, including the well-known WEF Sport Horse Auction in Wellington, Florida, where the stud farm has listed horses for the last four years. All those presented on the 2018 auction list came complete with a ‘VDL’ prefix in their name (VDL Cornesch, VDL Durango Z, etc.), though whether their new owners opt to keep those letters is entirely up to them.
‘VDL’ or no ‘VDL,’ the van de Lageweg family works to keep tabs on the hundreds of talented hopefuls that leave their farm for careers around the globe each year — which is another reason the VDL prefix can be helpful. “When they change names, it’s hard to follow the horses sometimes, but you can find them [with the letters],” Janko says.
“Normally when they are at our place and we’ve bred them and trained them and everything, they get a ‘VDL’ behind the name, but some people will give them the ‘VDL’ when they buy from us, and they can do that, too. For sure, [that aspect of marketing] has helped [the business] because it’s like a brand name, no?”
Jur Vrieling and VDL Zirocco Blue N.O.P. Photo by Sportfot.
In the same way that Louis Vuitton’s now ubiquitous ‘LV’ logo — stamped across the French fashion house’s bags, luggage, and accessories — has come to signify not just the brand, but the elegance and luxury it hopes to convey, ‘VDL’ has become the calling card for its horses. For most, those letters, attached before or after a horse’s name, are indicative of its quality and potential, and that’s just what the stud farm intends. “For us, it’s great, but [the buyers], they like it also,” Janko says. “It’s good advertising for the shows in America, as well, when there’s a lot of VDL [horses in the ribbons].”
Of course, such prominent brand recognition can be a double-edged sword, and like any business, VDL is inextricably linked to the results its horses are able to produce from year to year. Yet after more than two decades astride VDL stallions, all it takes is a stroll down the stable aisle to convince Jur that not only is the Dutch operation headed in the right direction, it’s getting better and better with age.
“They’re dream horses — not just one, but all their horses. I have 10 stallions in the stable from them and they all jump incredible. You can’t compare that with the stallions they had 15 years ago,” Jur says.
“They really went out and tried to get the best, and I think the best stallions in Holland, they belong to VDL.”
Feature photo of Jur Vrieling and VDL Zirocco Blue N.O.P. by Julian Portch.
Written by Douglas Crowe
Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.