The Danish dressage star tells Polly Bryan about his early obsession with dressage, his passion for training and how his family help him keep perspective
Daniel Bachmann Andersen is one of those people who, after an hour in his company, makes you feel both inspired and somewhat mediocre in comparison. The 29-year-old has achieved more in his life than many people twice his age – top-10 placings at the European Championships in 2019 and the World Equestrian Games (WEG) in 2018, individual fourth at last year’s World Cup Final – and has two hugely exciting prospects for the Tokyo Olympics later this year. As head rider at the eminent Blue Hors Stud near Billund in central Denmark, Daniel is living the dream he has been single-mindedly focused on achieving since the age of 10.
“I started out like everyone else, at a riding school. My mum rode once a week – it was meant to be her time to herself – and from the age of about six I was begging to come with her,” Daniel explains. “Then we were lent an ex-riding school pony belonging to a friend, and when I turned 10 my parents bought him for me. I remember finding a big bow and the ownership papers hanging on the stable door.”
It was the same year, 2000, that Daniel’s dressage aspirations began to take hold, inspired by watching the Sydney Olympics where Morten Thomsen, a dressage rider based in the same village, helped the Danish team finish fourth.
“At one of Morten’s clinics back home, I walked straight up to him and asked if his horse could do piaffe passage, because I was keen on dressage and had read about that,” laughs Daniel, admitting he has never been shy. “I started going to his place after school and at weekends, riding my bike from school.
I helped with everything: mucking out, riding a bit. I was so into dressage. I never felt drawn to anything else the way I’m drawn to dressage – the ability to train a horse was always so special to me.”
When Daniel told Morten of his plans to become a professional rider, the two-time Olympian had just one piece of advice – go to Germany. He helped make it possible for Daniel to go to the yard of great trainer Rudolf Zeilinger and undertake a bereitership (formal apprenticeship) at the age of 16.
“I was so excited to have been given the opportunity – it was all I wanted,” says Daniel. “I started out with an old grand prix horse, learning all the movements, and I was also given a four-year-old to ride, but at first that was it – the rest of the time I just did stable work. But I kept working, and eventually was given another horse to ride, then another, and another.”
The hard work paid off when Daniel rode his first international grand prix at the age of 18. After six years working for Rudolf, he moved to work for Andreas Helgstrand for two years, before landing the gig that riders across the world would envy, at Blue Hors.
‘I thought I was world champion back then’
With his affable manner and ready smile, the tall, blonde Dane is charming and easy to chat to. But it’s impossible not to pick up on the ardour and strength of ambition that has propelled his career. He admits he has always had great confidence in his own ability – “sometimes too much” – ever since he was a precocious 10-year-old.
“I thought I was world champion back then,” he chuckles. “Over time I have learned to be a little more humble, but to be honest my confidence has helped me get to where I wanted to be, and to keep me fighting for it.”
Daniel also owes his rise to stardom to good old-fashioned hard work.
“I worked my ass off all the way to move up through the system,” he says. “To do this job, you have to invest everything, put in whatever it takes.”
It’s Daniel’s partnership with the Blue Hors stud’s flagship stallion Zack that has helped him reach the highest echelons of the sport. He teamed up with the Rousseau son, now 16, in his early years working at the stud, and the pair have established themselves as one of Denmark’s star combinations and are strong contenders for a place on the Tokyo team.
Daniel maintains it was the World Cup circuit that has really boosted his career with Zack, and indeed it was his appearance – and seventh-place finish – at the Paris final in 2018 that made the dressage world sit up and take notice of him.
“I’m very thankful for the World Cup series – you ride for yourself, experience the big set-ups but without the extra pressure of being on a team,” he says, explaining that on his first team appearance, the 2015 Europeans riding Blue Hors Loxana, he was “not mentally ready”, and that spending the subsequent years focusing on the World Cup helped him cope much better when he was selected for WEG in 2018.
He’s not a fan of the new, short grand prix that has been trialled at the Olympia World Cup qualifier the past two years, though.
“It’s not a good move – I think that a shorter grand prix takes away the foundations of dressage,” he says.
“It gives the horse no opportunity to breathe, with hardly any short sides, and it all gets very hectic to the point where you can’t see the horse’s natural gaits anymore.”
If this new floor plan were to be rolled out across more shows in the future, would he try to avoid riding it in competition?
“Oh no – it’s not that bad!” he laughs. “But I still don’t like it and I hope that will not happen. I don’t think that’s the way to give the sport more time on television or make it more interesting – it’s more about making dressage more visible, to help people understand what goes into the training, the communication with the horse, the hours and hours of work – and how exciting it is. We all have to work harder at selling our sport, through the great stories we have.”
For Daniel, dressage is all about what happens in the background, rather than the few minutes spent in the ring. This year, he is not contesting the World Cup series, instead spending the first part of the year training at home with both eyes firmly on the Olympics. He has both Zack and his son, the less experienced but phenomenally talented 12-year-old Blue Hors Zepter, in line for selection.
A fine line
“Even when I was 10, it wasn’t competing I was thinking about, it’s the training I’ve always been obsessed with, the changing and maturing of horses,” he explains. “A lot of younger riders especially are so focused on shows that they forget the most important part of dressage, which is training. Today, I love shows, but I prefer the time spent at home.”
I watch Daniel schooling what he considers one of his most exciting prospects, the tall seven-year-old Zack son Znickers. Watching him ride, in his quiet, undemanding manner, is mesmerising. He feels passionately that horses should be allowed to make mistakes, and that they should never be punished or made to feel they have done something wrong.
“There’s a very fine line between being a perfectionist – which I am – and being demanding,” he explains.
“You can’t insist everything is perfect in training – the education of the horse is like building a house in that it needs to be built brick by brick. If you rush it, the foundation breaks and everything falls apart.
“The horse needs to know what is right, rather than what is wrong. I’m not perfect, but when a mistake happens I try to evaluate very fast and be critical on myself rather than the horse.”
It’s a mature approach, but Daniel has already been ahead of his years. He married his wife, Norwegian dressage rider Tiril Ånerud, in 2014 aged 24, and has juggled his budding dressage career with bringing up two children, Filippa, seven, and Fredrik, four.
“We had to put a lot of effort [into the marriage] as I was away a lot, but now I’m more settled in the top sport I don’t have to ride at as many shows and my relationship with my wife is better now I’m home more,” he says.
“Filippa is already riding every day and very keen. It would make me proud if she became a top rider one day, but I don’t mind if she isn’t – she’ll always be the same for me,” he says, a smile creeping over his face as he thinks about his daughter.
“Kids help to put things in perspective. They don’t care if I’m fifth, sixth or 10th in the world – they just care about whether I’m there,” he adds. “As I’ve grown up I’ve really understood the value of a family.
“This sport is crazy tough, and I can relate to riders who have struggled with mental health. If you can’t go home and talk to someone, or get the help you need, you can stop believing in yourself.”
He tries to avoid reading too much of what is written about him, on social media and in the press, although he makes a point of responding politely to anyone who may criticise him directly.
“Animal welfare makes our sport so complicated,” he muses. “In other sports athletes can push themselves to the limits, but with horses it’s hard to know how much to push without going too far. You learn that through education, and by knowing your horse.”
Daniel is a consummate professional, a family man who’s also fully focused on his goals, which are centered as much around the welfare and education of his horses as they are on winning medals. But that said, don’t be surprised if he turns out to be the man behind a Danish Olympic medal this summer.
Ref Horse & Hound; 19 March 2020