Things to know about Sweden's world number one jumping rider Henrik von Eckermann

Swedes take equestrian sports more seriously after the nation's Tokyo 2020 team gold with von Eckermann set for more success on board King Edward, with the FEI Jumping World Championship 2022 his next challenge.

By Rory Jiwani
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Henrik von Eckermann helped Sweden to team gold at Tokyo 2020 in 2021, the nation’s first equestrian jumping Olympic title since Paris 1924.

Now the 41-year-old is seeking a first major individual crown, at the FEI Jumping World Championship 2022 concluding on Sunday (14 August), having been mixing it with the very best over the past decade.

He and his horse King Edward have struck up a partnership which has taken them to number one in the world rankings, while data analytics company Equiratings make the 12-year-old gelding the fourth best jumper since 2010 based on his performances last year.

Those include six out of six clear rounds in Japan with King Edward one of just three horses in history to go through an Olympic Games without having a fence down.

Ben Maher’s late switch to Faltic HB for the World Championships – with his Tokyo gold-medal winning partner Explosion W not fully fit – means von Eckermann has a great chance to win a first major individual title at the Paris 2024 Olympic qualifying event.

“You could say, for sure, that 2021 was the year of King Edward, but I think he has an even better year to come.” - Henrik von Eckermann speaking to World of Showjumping

Horses over hockey for animal lover von Eckermann

Born in Nykoping, von Eckermann and his two brothers grew up on the family farm.

He told Rolex Grand Slam in 2019, “My mother had one or two horses that she would ride in the forest. My parents would go to Gothenburg Horse Show every year and, when I was younger, I would go with them and think about how much I would love to compete there one day. I always loved being around animals and horses on the farm.”

Having started riding aged 14, von Eckermann began training at the stables of four-time Olympic gold medalist Ludger Beerbaum in Riesenbeck eight years later.

His breakthrough success came at the 2013 Global Champions Tour in Cascais, Portugal, taking victory on Gotha FRH.

But medals and trophies are not what drives the Swede. His love of horses and animals are the overriding factor.

“To be able to communicate with them in this way, it becomes a partnership. Winning is a very small part of it all. It’s the journey that is so important.

“At the end of the day, winning is just a crown. It’s never the same, every day is different. There isn’t any other sport like it. Some days are great and some days you end up falling in the mud. You never know what could happen.”

When asked what he would do were he not a professional rider, von Eckermann says he thinks he would have liked to have been emulated another famous Swede called Henrik – goalkeeping legend Lundqvist – and been an ice hockey player.

Shifting attitudes towards equestrian sports in Sweden

Sweden has long been at the top when it comes to jumping, but it has not received the sort of coverage enjoyed by the likes of football and ice hockey.

But that team gold at Tokyo 2020 in 2021 may have changed that for good with the performance earning them the coveted Bragdguldet for most significant Swedish sports achievement of the year.

Von Eckermann told World of Showjumping last November, “As riders we have been fighting hard for our sport’s status in Sweden. When Rolf-Goran Bengtsson won the Jerring Award (best Swedish sports performance of the year) back in 2012, there was a huge public discussion. Everyone was sort of laughing, making fun of riding and saying it was not a real sport and that the horses should have the prizes instead. Even in the media, they were making a joke of it.

“Then Peder (Fredricson) won the Jerring in 2016 and 2017, and it was pretty much the same. But there was a small shift and the attitude started to move slowly in the right direction.

“Now with our Olympic team gold, the general attitude in Sweden has changed dramatically. The press has been writing in a whole new tone, making it sound as if those people who have been making fun of our sport should be ashamed. Even reading the comments, they were mostly positive.”

That competition came down to a thrilling jump-off with the United States, with von Eckermann, Fredricson, and Malin Baryard-Johnsson just getting the better of Laura Kraut, McLain Ward, and Jessica Springsteen (daughter of rock music legend Bruce).

All six riders had clear rounds, but the Swedes took gold by 1.3 seconds on total time.

Three days previously, Sweden had all three riders in the six-horse jump-off for individual gold.

Only Fredricson won a medal this time, taking silver behind Britain's Ben Maher, with von Eckermann fourth and Baryard-Johnsson fifth.

But it was still a great event for Team Sweden and one which has performed wonders for the sport’s popularity at home.

“All in all, our success in Tokyo has been great for the status of our sport in Sweden.”

Von Eckermann’s bumpy road to success

Since that first GCT win, von Eckermann has been a regular in the business end of top competitions as well as suffering the odd mishap.

In March 2017, von Eckermann was riding Mary Lou in the CSI5* Paris Grand Prix when the right stirrup broke, causing him to fall. Fortunately both he and Mary Lou escaped unscathed.

He told Horse and Hound afterwards, “It was disappointing, but sadly these accidents happen, things break. If it is not the stirrup, it is a rein or a bit and so on.”

While they are guaranteed for a lifetime in normal use, von Eckermann had been using the same stirrups since 2012 with the manufacturers saying, “Henrik was riding up to 10 horses a day at Ludger Beerbaum’s, besides riding in Grands Prix every weekend.

“Henrik is tall and rides short on his stirrups, which accentuates even more the pressure.”

At 1.86m, von Eckermann is lofty by equestrian standards and he now replaces those stirrups more regularly to avoid a repeat.

He suffered another equipment scare last November at the Prague GCT Super Grand Prix when King Edward managed to get his tongue over the bit at the start of the vital second round.

Von Eckermann explained to Horse and Hound, “King Edward has a lot of energy and nerves. Normally when the gates open I try to trot in, but I waited and then the doors were closed behind him so he got a bit of a shock. Just to make himself calm, he wanted to go backwards so I said, ‘OK, we’ll go in backwards!’”

With his tongue out of place, von Eckermann’s reins had no effect but the problem was soon remedied.

“So for the first five or six jumps I was riding on no rein. But then luckily I felt it go back.”

They jumped another clear round to take yet another victory in a spectacular 2021 campaign.

From “perfect mare” Mary Lou to "machine" King Edward

Von Eckermann’s partnership with Mary Lou was one that propelled him into the top division of international jumping riders.

Karl Schneider competed on her in 1.45m competitions but knew she had the potential to go to the top 1.60m events.

Enter von Eckermann who had recently left Beerbaum to set up on his own.

They helped Sweden to silver at the 2017 European Championships and silver again at the World Championships the following year, as well as bronze medals at the 2017 and 2018 World Cup Finals.

In 2019, they claimed the Dutch Masters and the Royal Windsor Grand Prix but an injury sustained in Geneva that December proved to be a career-ender.

Von Eckermann told Mares of Macha, “When you let her and she took you, she had a massive stride and then you could go so fast to the jumps because she didn’t worry about the poles.

“She’s the perfect mare. Her mind is one of the best things. Mary Lou is one of the biggest keys in my career. Without her, I wouldn’t be where I am today. She was the horse that brought me to the top.”

Now he appears to have formed an even greater team with King Edward.

Unlike most horses, the 12-year-old Belgian warmblood competes barefoot – without shoes – and he was ridden by von Eckermann’s partner, Swiss Olympian Janika Sprunger, before she became pregnant with their son Noah.

Von Eckermann suspected the heat in Tokyo would help settle King Edward and so it proved with the horse clearing every fence in six perfect rounds.

He told FEI, “The heat is good for him because he’s a bit tense sometimes. He’s a very electric horse and the heat is just taking that edge off.

“He is a machine, an unbelievable animal. I don’t need to jump him much outside. I only lunged him in the morning and then jumped maybe seven jumps on him. If you take that over several days, I save a lot of energy and keep him fresh.”

Fourth place in the individual competition in Tokyo was a disappointment with von Eckermann reflecting, “I will always remember that as the day I lost the medal, but I also didn’t want to think about what I could not change.”

Now he has a chance to make amends at the Herning 2022 FEI Jumping World Championships, and confirm Sweden's place at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.

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