Thibault Philippaerts has an impressive record for his age. In an interview with Rolex Grand Slam he looks back on the best moments of his career and tells what his future ambitions are.
What are you goals for the rest of the year?
I’m going to CHI Geneva for the U25 class and then Mechelen in Belgium at the end of year and I am really looking forward to these shows!
What are your plans, dreams and ambitions for 2022?
I have some really lovely horses, but most of them are younger and so they do not have much experience. I was trying to build them up this year, so next year I would like start jumping bigger classes on them. My main aim is to go to the European Championships for Young Riders. This is the last year that I will be eligible to compete, and I would love to go with a strong team and have a chance to win a medal.
You’ve had a great career so far – what has been your proudest moment?
When I was 13-years-old, I won Individual bronze at the Pony European Championships, I was thrilled with this result as it was a big surprise to do so well there. However, I think my proudest moment was winning Team gold at the Junior European Championships in Fontainebleau. It was such a special team because we had all been friends for so long, so to win Team gold together was unbelievable. It is an experience I still think about to this day, and I think I will think about it for a very long time.
How did you deal with the pressure of being on the cusp of those achievements – how do you deal with pressure at such a young age?
I do not really get very nervous, so I don’t find dealing with the pressure too hard. In the moment, I don’t really feel the pressure, but after a big show has finished, I realise the pressure has gone and it is a relief. But the big moments are what we live for in our sport, and we are lucky to be able to compete in championships or Grands Prix, so I think the pressure is a privilege.
Who has inspired you the most throughout your career?
There are so many riders who have inspired me; however, I think the person who has inspired me the most is my father. I have everything to thank him for, he has given me countless opportunities and chances with my ponies and horses. What he built at home and how he has provided horses for me and my four brothers is incredible. Despite always being away at shows, he is also able to keep the stables and business running successfully at home. To be able to be successful in the sport as well as in business is very difficult, so I find this very inspiring and I hope one day I am able to do it myself.
You come from a show jumping dynasty – was there ever a thought that you and your brothers wouldn’t pursue careers in show jumping?
Our parents never really pushed us to have careers with horses. Growing up, we did a variety of sports, such as football, tennis and running. But we were with the horses every day; I think that we were born to do it. We love the horses and have the want to do it every day. I also love the relationships that you can build with the horses.
What keeps you motivated and hungry for success?
Watching the big shows and of course having my brothers and father there makes me highly motivated. These shows always have such special moments and atmospheres, and I would love to be able ride in the Majors one day. All I want to do is to work my hardest to be able to compete at the top level every week, as well as being able to have an incredible relationship and connection with my horses.
Is there a horse that you have had a particularly special relationship with?
When I was 16-years-old, I had a horse called Jaimi van Dorperheide. She was very special to me, as we bred her ourselves and she was one of the first horses I was able to compete in bigger classes with. She was extremely talented and very fast, but she also had an incredible character – she was so intelligent. We had such a great partnership together and she really was the horse that started everything for me.
Can you tell us a little bit about the horses that you have at the moment?
I have a great string of horses right now, many of them are younger but I have one older horse called Aqaba De Leau, who was third in a 3* class in Italy recently, and she has also jumped in some bigger classes this year. She is a great horse and she always tries her hardest to jump clear – I am very lucky to have her. I have a nine-year-old called Cap Du Marais, who we bought in the middle of the year. He doesn’t have too much experience, but he is now jumping in some bigger ranking classes, and I think he is one for the future. I also have two promising eight-year-olds who I think have a lot of potential. I am very happy with the horses that I have now. I think they are all very talented and special, but they do need some more time to mature and get more experience. I think that next year is going to be very exciting.
How does it feel to have fans back the shows?
I love having the fans back, they make the sport even better. They create such an amazing atmosphere; it is really not the same without them there. I think that it motivates me to perform better, and some horses definitely love the atmosphere and will rise to the occasion. I prefer riding in front of a crowd, to hear the fans cheering is amazing.
Do you perform better when there is a crowd there?
I am a bit of a showman, so having a crowd at the shows motivates me to do better. I really like it when there is lots of noise and people.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
The best piece of advice I have been given is to never give up. Every rider will experience ups and downs, and this normal. I think you have to keep going and keep trying to improve and get better. You also need to keep believing and trusting in your system of training your horse and yourself, and I think it will work out in the end. When it is all going well it is easy to be motivated, but it is also easy to be disappointed and struggle when things do not go so well. With horses you have to enjoy and love the moments when it does go well; they are animals, and anything can happen. I think this is the special part of our sport, the relationships and connections that we have with our horses. The horses are our friends, and when you have that connection, they will fight for you. It is incredible when everything comes together in one moment, and you have to remember to cherish those moments.
As a young rider, what does the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping mean to you?
The Rolex Grand Slam has the best shows in the world and I always love going to them to watch my brothers compete. It is my dream, one day, to compete in them myself. Every rider dreams of competing in them and everyone involved with horses wants to be part of it.
Who do you think the next Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping winner will be?
It is very hard to win, so it will take a very special rider. But I think that Ben Maher and Explosion W could win. They are so incredibly talented; their partnership is unbelievable and they have proved they can win on the biggest occasions.
Do you get competitive with your brothers?
Yes! We are very competitive with each other. My dad is actually the most competitive, though! He stopped riding for a while, but now is back competing in the same shows as us. He will tease us when he beats us or goes faster than us. We always want to beat each other, and this motivates us to be better. But we are also always there for each other and we really care for each other – we are really one big team. I learn so much from my brothers and my father through their experience, but of course if we are in the same class we want to beat each other.
How do you decide which horses go to which family member?
This can be tricky because there are five of us [four brothers and a father], but it is actually easier than people think. Often, we decide by who needs the horse and who the horse fits the best. But usually the horse finds the rider. We will also switch horses around between us. So far, we have managed this process very well and I hope it continues in the future.
Do you have any superstitions before you compete?
Not really; however, if a show goes well, I will keep the same tie until a show or class doesn’t go well – then it goes in the laundry. I don’t really have any lucky charms.