In 2008, Andreas Helgstrand left one of the most sought-after equestrian jobs to build his own business from scratch. We met up with the Olympic rider for a talk about superstar horses, hip-hop, and the downsides to dressage fame.
Photography PHILIP ØRNEBORG Text SUSANNE MADSEN/ The Horse Rider’s Journal No.10
Looking at Andreas Helgstrand as he passages across the arena on the strapping Akeem Foldager, you’d never guess the Danish Olympic dressage rider very nearly ended up tackling fences for a living. “While I was apprenticing to become a master rider, I was definitely a better jumper than dressage rider. I was on the show jumping team as a junior and did the European Championships. But then my dad gave me his stallion Rainman. I trained him for Grand Prix and thought hey, this is actually fun. I realised I could never make a living from show jumping because even though it’s fun at events, it’s so mind-numbingly boring on a day-to-day basis,” he says with a cheeky smile.
“What I love about dressage is that even if you make one mistake on a good horse, you still have a chance to win. Jumping isn’t like that. One fault and you’re out, and so much depends on luck,” he notes. We’re sitting in the quiet VIP area overlooking the arena at the JBK Horse Show in Odense, Denmark, and outside it’s a crisp October afternoon. Helgstrand has swapped his breeches for grey knitwear, jeans, and a pair of deck shoes and is enjoying a rare afternoon off. The day before, he won the 4-year-old qualifier on Sezuan, the sensational black 2013 Champion Stallion in Danish Warmblood, who broke all records by scoring ten times 10.00 for his 2012 Performance Test. The day after our interview, they won the finals with an impressive 9.680. “I’ve never had a horse like that and I probably never will again,” he says of his mount by Blue Hors Zack.
Six years ago, Helgstrand’s working life had a completely different setup. As Head Master rider at the world-renowned Blue Hors stud owned by LEGO CEO Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, he was riding Grand Prix horses and working on the stars of tomorrow, but he wasn’t taking home the kind of paychecks that would allow him to buy a horse like Sezuan. “Setting up my own business has been the biggest decision of my life to date. To leave a job that’s so secure – well, you’ve got to be a bit crazy to do that. And I think a lot of people would say that I was.”
In September 2008, two days after returning home with stallion Don Schufro from the Olympics in Hong Kong where Helgstrand and his fellow Danish riders Anne Van Olst and Natalie zu Sayn-Wittgenstein won team bronze, he drove over to Kirk Kristiansen’s home to hand in his letter of resignation after nearly seven years at the stud. He had deliberated whether to quit some months before the Games, but decided it would be unfair to his employers and teammates. “It was a really, really hard thing to do to Kjeld and Camilla, who are the nicest people,” he says.
“From the moment you walk out that door, you’re on your own and there’s no way back,” he says, smiling as if he’s reliving the terror and excitement all over again. So why did he decide to throw caution to the wind? The idea came to him on a holiday. Helgstrand had helped Lotte Vagner, wife of property tycoon Ole Vagner, find a new horse, and as a thank you, Vagner had invited Helgstrand and his wife Marianne out to the Caribbean. “One evening, we were sitting on Ole’s boat and I asked him ‘How would someone be able to afford a boat like this?’ He said ‘Well, you won’t get one by working for someone else.’ I started thinking about what I’d be doing in ten years. I’d probably still be riding around, but that would be it. My fear has always been to end up in a bleak situation where I’d blown all my money and not built anything. So I told myself that wasn’t going to happen.”
With the help of Ole Vagner, Helgstrand was able to launch his business. “It’s not like he handed me a bag of money. But he vouched for me when we went to the bank,” he stresses. In August 2009, Helgstrand moved his family into a sprawling, idyllic property north of Aalborg in Jutland and opened Helgstrand Dressage. Today, at the age of 36, Helgstrand has built a burgeoning business with a team of twenty-seven employees, and there are 100 horses in the stables compared to the initial 14.
One of those horses is Akeem Foldager, the picture-perfect gelding he co-owns with ECCO owner Hanni Toosbuy Kasprzak and Patricia Florin. The latter educated Akeem to Grand Prix before handing over the reins to Joachim Thomsen and now Helgstrand. “He’s a crazy good horse. One of the best in the world, without a doubt,” he says. But it’s not all been rainbows and roses, which is why Helgstrand pulled Akeem from the World Cup in Odense. “He’s had some breathing problems and we cannot figure out why that is. It makes him a little heavy and sluggish. We’ve done loads of tests and we know he reacts quite strongly to birch pollen, but you’d think there wouldn’t be any birch in the air this time of year. It’s quite the mystery. But he’s otherwise perfectly healthy so we’ll figure it out.”
At the moment, Akeem is going for hacks and enjoying some downtime. “I had to work very quickly to qualify for the European Championships when I got him. And on and on it went. The horse barely had a day off, so he probably needs some whoa,” he says, pronouncing the last word as you would to slow down a horse. Unlike everything else at Helgstrand Dressage, Akeem is currently not for sale. “Now that we’re a bit more home safe with regards to finances, I can start to say ‘Okay, I’m going to save this horse for a little while longer.’” He hopes to qualify Akeem for the World Championships in France next year – and win the World Championships for young horses with Sezuan.
Andreas Helgstrand was only in the fifth grade when he decided he wanted to work with horses. Growing up on the island of Amager, southeast of Copenhagen, he swapped childhood football and ping pong with riding lessons at the local riding club in Dragør – St. Magleby, which his family later bought in 1992. His father Ulf Helgstrand is an avid horseman and the President of the Danish Equestrian Federation, and Helgstrand’s pony years were spent competing in show jumping. At the tender age of sixteen, he packed his bags and moved across the country to become an apprentice with renowned master rider Søren Vallentin. “He’s a really, really great guy and he’s taught me a lot, also on a personal level.”
After graduating in 2000, Helgstrand did a stint at Anne Van Olst’s yard in Holland, followed by a position at Stall-K in Norway. At the time, he was still jumping, and it wasn’t until Blue Hors came knocking that he hung up his show jumping boots for good. “I was lucky that renowned trainer Lars Petersen left Blue Hors. Looking back, in terms of a job like that I didn’t know anything. But Kjeld was so nice. When I went for the interview he told me ‘Andreas, we’re not looking for a new Lars Petersen. We’re looking for a new Andreas Helgstrand. We’ll help you.’ And that was a pretty great thing to say.”
Quitting Blue Hors, he says, meant quitting the Olympics “and all that. But I’ve done that and at some point I will again. I don’t want to ride every weekend all over Europe. You could also try to have a life besides horses!” So, what does that entail? “Yes, what do you do when you’re not riding?” he laughs. “Well, we try to go on holiday during the summer and in winter, also for the kids. Being able to get away for a few days is key.” His sons – William, 7 and Alexander, 10 – have a couple of ponies to share. “The older one loves to ride, but the little one fell off so now it’s back to football.”
But all the success and attention Helgstrand has enjoyed since opening his yard has also had a downside. In February 2013, a story broke that money had gone ‘missing’ in the 2012 sale of Grand Prix mare Uno Donna Unique. The mare was co-owned by Helgstrand and Danish breeder Joan Andreasen, who sold the horse to Edwin and Arlette Jasper-Kohl of Gestüt Peterhof in Germany, where she was to be ridden by Patrik Kittel, their rider at the time. Andreasen was later made aware through equestrian news website Horses International that the amount she had been paid was €900.000 less than the price quoted to the buyers. Subsequently, there was also a dispute over Kittel’s commission fee.
“Stuff like that is upsetting,” Helgstrand says. “With regards to the deal, I kept to the written agreements negotiated between parties beforehand.” He’s hesitant to elaborate as a solution was reached, and says he’s keen to put the whole thing behind him. But in August 2013, he found himself at the centre of another media storm when a Danish tabloid newspaper called to enquire about an ex-groom. According to a Danish trade union, the groom wasn’t earning a proper hourly wage, something they had caught whiff of when he handed in his payslips at a new job. “He worked for us for two years. He was a very nice guy and gave us presents when he left. I picked him up from a job where he made under a third of what I paid him and encouraged him to go after the job he got next which paid more than what we could offer. When I spoke to him he said ‘I’m so sorry, I can’t stop them’.”
For someone who’s just experienced the full effect of the tabloid machine, Helgstrand is surprisingly calm. “It’s important not to get mad,” he says. “We work hard and I share the success with my wife and my team. People will do anything to trip you over when you are successful but we are dedicated to our business and our horses. That’s where we place our energy and focus.” At this point, his wife Marianne briefly joins us. Marianne is a key part of Helgstrand Dressage, riding horses in the morning and working in the office on afternoons. “It’s always full steam ahead with Andreas. There’s always something going on and you’re never bored,” she says before her husband adds: “I don’t think I’d be able to run this without Marianne. You need to have someone you can unload your thoughts onto – someone who understands.”
Is there anything he’d like to change about the equestrian world? “A request could be ‘mind your own business’ rather than concentrating on what everybody else does. That’s what I do.” His wife has a pretty funny description of the rivalry in the horse world. “Marianne always says it’s like gangs – people wearing yard logo patches on their jackets and sticking to themselves. It’s a shame when we could be one big family. I am more than capable of being happy for someone else if they have a good horse,” Helgstrand notes.
Above all, he loves riding because in the end, he’s only up against himself. “You’ve got the horse of course, but you’ve only got yourself to blame if it’s not working. I played football as a kid and I remember feeling annoyed when someone on the team messed up. I much prefer to get angry with myself.” After all these years, does he still get nervous before a test? “Absolutely. I’m as nervous as I’ve always been. Now that I’ve got Sezuan who’s really, really good there’s also a lot of pressure. Can you maintain that level and get pretty much 10 on average? In the end that’s going to be impossible.”
Out of all his rides, there’s one that comes closest to perfection: “Definitely Matiné in 2006. That was a big moment, when everything changed for me. She was such an incredible horse,” he says of the late, great grey mare. Their silver medal World Championship kür has 12.4 million views on YouTube, and then there’s the spoof version with a hip-hop soundtrack, which has been viewed 2.6 million times. Helgstrand clearly needs to actually do a kür to rap at some point. “Yeah, that would be fun! Maybe at a gala show or something. I think that’s a pretty good idea,” he says, eyes twinkling. When that magic moment happens, remember you read it here first.•