Marten is a professional dressage rider
Galloping from lecture hall to paddock
It’s seven o’clock in the morning when Marten goes into the stable at his family home to feed his three horses: Killer, Johnny, and Fynona. After that, the twenty-year-old horse rider takes them out for training for at least two hours. ‘I normally make sure I’ve trained all three horses in the morning, so that keeps me busy the entire morning’, Marten explains.
He does this every single morning.
Depending on his schedule, Marten spends the rest of the day studying. For this, he travels back and forth between Winschoten and Groningen, a thirty-five-minute drive Marten calls ‘reasonable’. During the week, he trains in different locations around the Netherlands and even in Germany. On the weekend, competitions await. Online classes during the pandemic made his life easier, saving time on travelling to Groningen. Especially since he had to take care of five horses at the time.
‘The combination of study and horses is tough’, Marten says, shrugging his shoulders. ‘But that’s the way it is.’
His commitment to the riding sport affect more than just his studies: ‘We haven’t gone on vacation in years.’ However, Marten tries to compensate for this with his horse-riding competitions. ‘We make big competitions and championships feel like a vacation’, he explains. He, his family, and his horses travel across Europe so he can compete.
Even if you have an excellent rider and horse, you need chemistry
Although he started comparatively late with the sport, Marten won three European championships in 2021 in his age group, surpassing his dream of simply participating in a championship. He was also crowned the Netherland’s biggest riding talent by the KNHS, the Royal Dutch Equestrian Sports Federation.
For this Talent of the Year award, he won the votes of all three different parties: national coaches and trainers, the press, and the public, which made him particularly proud. ‘Of course, I am very happy because it’s such a big prize’, he says. ‘All the training here at home, combined with my studies, has paid off.’
Home is in the town of Winschoten. ‘A very special place for me. I started here with a small pony’, he says. All the hours of training, the handling of the horses, ‘that all happens here, so it is very important to me’. Compared to a stressful day at university, it is ‘always very quiet and really relaxed’.
Marten wasn’t into horses at all at a younger age, he confesses. But his parents were passionate about horse riding and at some point, he got bitten by the bug, too. He tried various disciplines including jumping, but he specialises in dressage. ‘This is where my greatest strengths lie,’ he knows, ‘especially in handling and teaching horses. You need to explain things to horses repeatedly, sometimes even hundreds of times. I do that very calmly and patiently.’
It could almost be called a team sport, he says, because you can only be successful if you and your horse are partners. ‘Even if you have an excellent rider and an excellent horse, it still won’t work if they don’t have chemistry.’ This harmony between rider and horse is also what is being judged on in a competition. ‘How beautiful, how flowing, and how harmonious it looks.’
His breakthrough came with Fynona, an elegant brown muscular mare. ‘I’ve been with her for about four and a half years now. I had a lot of training and competitions with Fynona, so I have a very good relationship with her’, he says while petting her.
Trying to explain their special bond, Marten says that ‘it is mainly that I understand what Fynona means, and vice versa. I actually think that’s the ultimate goal of harmony; that the horse only needs very small clues to understand what I mean and that I can feel what the horse needs in the moment.’
Fynona steals the show, you either have it or you don’t
Riding a horse competitively requires focus every second, he says: every movement counts. Standing next to his mare, he starts singing her praises. ‘She has an aura when she enters the competition area. You either have it or you don’t. She steals the show. She has this kind of presence that just comes naturally. I, as the rider, don’t have to do anything to bring that out.’
Besides Fynona, Marten also trains his two other horses, Killer and Johnny. A single horse is not enough for professional riding, he explains. Riders usually start training horses when they’re about four years old; most horses retire at the age of twenty. ‘If I were to focus on only one horse, I wouldn’t have anyone left if they retire or get injured. You need to hedge your bets.’
This means extra work for Marten, but he doesn’t mind: ‘The most beautiful thing about it all is the time you put into getting better. Through our partnership, we become more than the sum of our parts.’
Combining professional riding and studying means constantly trying to strike a balance. Sometimes, he has to make sacrifices. ‘You have to make choices’, Marten says. As for horse riding, he spends time every day studying, to get better and learn more. About his business administration studies, he says: ‘I really enjoy it and its different aspects. I try to apply the same passion to my studies as I do to my horses.’
It’s quite a narrow way of life
But combining his passions leaves him with a very tight schedule and little time for leisure activities, like hanging out with fellow students in Groningen. For friendships, he mostly relies on the people he still knows from high school.
That is not the hardest part, though. ‘For me, the most difficult times are when there are exams.’ He cannot just take a week off from his sport, as his horses still need training every day. Some professors understand this struggle and are flexible, giving him the chance to ‘miss one more tutorial and just do an extra assignment’, Marten says gratefully.
Now that classes are mainly on campus again, finding that balance has become harder. He’s faced with the dilemma of where his priorities lie and how he sees his future. When it comes to riding, he has clear views about his ambitions. First, he wants to concentrate on the Dutch championship in March, for which he qualified recently. ‘Eventually I hope to reach the highest level, the Grand Prix.’
But there is more to life than horses for Marten. ‘Horses are amazing and it’s really my passion, but it’s also quite a narrow world and a narrow way of life,’ he says. He’s not 100 percent clear on what his future holds just yet, but he knows he will be pursuing a master’s degree. ‘Combining my love for horses with something else, like my studies, is what’s best for me.’