No matter what your chosen path, launching yourself into a new career is difficult under any circumstances. Now imagine that career is riding professionally on the competitive European circuit, and the circumstances are that you are just 16 years old.
That was the situation that Cecilie Tofte found herself in when she began her own professional business after moving up the show jumping ranks as a young rider in Denmark. That trajectory, which gained traction after her Nordic Champion win in 2008, ultimately led Cecilie to Nations Cup competitions in Hickstead and Dublin, and eventually, to riding strings of sale horses for the likes of Neil Jones and Gilbert de Roock. Yet years into her career, Cecilie elected to change course, giving up her latest riding job in Belgium in order to return home to Denmark to pursue a business degree.
We sat down with Cecilie to learn more about the reasons behind her decision, what it’s really like to make your living on the international circuit, and the advice she has for young riders with professional aspirations of their own.
Nöellefloyd.com: What led up to your decision to ride professionally?
Cecilie Tofte: I started my riding career when I had just turned 16. I started high school, but having already missed two reports after three months due to the busy schedule, my parents asked if I’d like a year off school. And, well, one year turned out to be eight.
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What year(s) did you represent Denmark and where?
My first time representing Denmark was at the Nordic and European Championships for ponies in 2004. Since then, I moved on to join the national team with juniors, young riders and eventually as a senior. My time as a senior rider was during my years with Neil Jones and Gilbert de Roock. The entire idea about a sales barn is to sell horses. So the good horses didn’t stay in the barn for long. Thus, I only got to ride two Nations Cups during my time as a senior rider. But those were at Hickstead and Dublin, which are seen as two of the most difficult shows on the Nations Cup circuit—and oh boy, were they!!
Do you have a favorite competition or horse show moment?
Tough cookie to swallow, but I was more competitive when I had my own horses back in the days. Riding horses that you, first of all, are not completely familiar with and secondly, know that you may have interested customers watching makes you take the safe route. So I guess I wasn’t as competitive during my years at Neil’s and Gilbert’s. I guess my best memory was when I won the Nordic Championship with my horse Hermes in 2008.
How did you come to work with Neil Jones and then Gilbert de Roock?
During my time as a young rider, I trained with Emile Hendrix in Holland and bought some horses from Neil. My family went through a tough time during the financial crisis, which meant for us selling the horses and everything that came with it. Neil helped us a lot during that time, and eventually asked me to come ride for him.
Looking back, I had some really good years at Neil’s place. He gave me a lot of great chances—riding really good young and older horses and going to great shows around Europe. Nevertheless, it required a lot of effort from my side. I wouldn’t say that I was a spoiled brat when I moved to Belgium, but I had been very fortunate to have such supportive parents who also really loved the sport. The work that came with the transition was not for everyone.
Mucking out stalls at 7:30 a.m., waiting for clients at 9 p.m., riding 10 horses a day, taking a truck with seven young horses to a show with just two people. Being both groom and rider. I learned so much about myself and what I was actually capable of—and I proved that I could do it without having anything but myself and my talent. I moved on from riding young horses and local shows to getting the ride on grand prix horses and traveling around Europe, which were some really good years in my career.
Having spent four years with Neil, it was time for new surroundings. I was showing at the Sunshine Tour in Southern Spain when Gilbert approached me. He was looking to expand his business and take on a rider since he had retired from the sport. So I started my last year of riding in spring of 2012 and moved to Gilbert’s stable in Brussels. My last year in Belgium came with lots of ups and downs. I was given a lot of really, really good horses to ride and was able to strengthen my network. Personally, Gilbert and I got along really well, but we had different approaches and ways of riding. This was probably the main reason why we parted ways in April 2013.
Thus, I traveled back to Denmark during May 2013 to get my mind set on what my next chapter would look like. I wondered if I should give school another chance or if I should look for a new rider’s position. Demands for high-end riding jobs are enormous due to the expensive lifestyle horse riding is. And I knew that it would be near impossible for me to cash in on a similar job in the same area of Europe. Eventually, Johnny Pals and Marc Suls approached me with a good offer to come ride a string of quality young horses, which I gladly accepted. I’d developed a lot of different young horses over the years and loved seeing the development I contributed to.
I moved back to Belgium in the beginning of June 2013 and stayed for four weeks. I had reached my limit. The joy of going to the stable every morning was gone, and for the first time, I could see myself back on the school bench. I felt so bad for Johnny and Marc. But once you make up your mind, there’s not much to do about it.
What did you enjoy most about your work?
Making a horse. I loved getting a troubled or green but promising horse that I could shape myself and eventually see the results that I had made.
What did you like the least?
Seeing the best horses get sold before having the chance to show them continuously. But also, the common lack of communication between management and employees in a sales barn—both regarding the daily management but also long-term planning. Empowered employees will always provide better results
What led to your decision to return home to go to school in Denmark?
The tough way of living. During my last year of riding, I had approximately 10 days off. And I felt bad when I eventually did have a day off Turning professional when I was 16 years old also meant that I hadn’t tried a normal life and I felt an urge to see that through.
What are you studying at university and what field do you hope to work in when you’re finished?
Because I started so young in the professional ranks, I also hadn’t finished high school. Which meant that I only graduated in the summer of 2015. I was then admitted to Copenhagen Business School, where I’m currently pursuing my bachelor’s degree in Business Administration and Service Management—which is a very interesting field of study. I have a student job in the global service organization, ISS Facility Service, where I get to work with new innovations and different kind of projects within facility management.
During my last year of riding, I had approximately 10 days off. And I felt bad when I eventually did have a day off Turning professional when I was 16 years old also meant that I hadn’t tried a normal life and I felt an urge to see that through.
Are you riding currently?
No. I guess I sit on a horse maybe once a year when I get to borrow a horse for a hack. I’ve always dreamt about making enough money by myself so that I could buy a nice amateur horse and go to some shows. But having already gone to some of the nicest venues on the circuit, it will be tough going to the local shows in my neighborhood. And I think you also forget the time and effort that must be put into it in order to be fully dedicated. But time will tell, I guess.
What advice would you give a young person who is considering riding professionally for a major barn?
Go for it—but be aware that it will take a lot of strength, sweat, and tears to make it to the top. I’ve learned that my largest barrier was my fear of conflicts and how to address them. I’m still working on that.
–As told to Nina Fedrizzi.
Written by Nina Fedrizzi
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.