Riders who have come up through the ranks the old-fashioned way have certain traits in common.
Most have been forced to move in order to pursue their craft in foreign countries—some at a very young age, others many times over. The majority have had to learn the value of ‘good horses’ the hard way: the true quality gets sold, the lesser ones stick around to try and buck you off. Which leads to another thing these riders have in common: really good war stories.
“I’ve had 14 surgeries. My right shoulder is reconstructed. My right knee is reconstructed with ligaments from a donor. I’ve had my back broken, I’ve had all my ribs broken, I shattered my lower leg when I was 18. When you look at my x-rays, it looks like I’ve been to war,” laughs Nikolaj Hein Ruus, 44.
The Danish show jumper says his most gruesome injury was an open fracture that protruded through his riding boots. His longest recovery was thanks to his now-reconstructed knee, the result of a horse that got a foot through the martingale in the middle of a combination. For nearly half of his career, Hein Ruus has ridden with his left stirrup one hole longer than his right, a parting gift of the shattered ankle he received at age 18 when a horse flipped on him.
“We live and we learn,” he says, good-naturedly. “Some horses, they’re a little tricky, maybe a little dangerous. [The question is], does it have the quality? If it has the quality, then it’s worth the risk. But if it’s sort of a normal horse, then it’s like, ‘No, sorry, no chance! Been there, done that.’
“I’ve ridden quite a few horses that I probably should never have ridden. But when you’re young, and you work for people, if you say no, then they say, ‘Well, there’s the door.’ You don’t really [feel you] have the choice.”
Today, however, Hein Ruus does have a choice. In fact, he has several.
As the new rider for Spruce Meadows CEO & President Linda Southern-Heathcott’s competition and sales outfit, a job he began early this year, Hein Ruus started his season off with strong placings on Spruce’s talented string at the Del Mar National Horse Show in California. Last Friday at Thunderbird Show Park in Langley, B.C., he and the nine-year-old Hanoverian gelding, Cadillac, took third place on the podium in the CSIO5* $235,000 Longines Grand Prix.
“I’m in a little bit of a different situation [now],” Hein Ruus says of his recent change in fortune. “But I’ve paid my dues.”
Born into an equestrian family, Hein Ruus moved to Italy at age three with his parents so his father could train an Olympic rider in dressage. At five, they returned to Denmark, where Hein Ruus spent his formative years until the age of 17 when his parents asked him a simple question: Did he still want to become a professional rider?
“I said, ‘Yes,’” Hein Ruus recalls, “and they said, ‘Well, then, you’re not staying in Denmark. You need to go out and learn from the best.’ So I did.”
One of the best, then as now, was none other than Germany’s Paul Schockemöhle, Hein Ruus’s longtime mentor, whom he worked for during the 1990s and again beginning in 2009.
“In total, I think I was working [in Germany] for 15 years [developing horses]. It was probably the best thing I ever did,” he says. “It’s made me who I am today, learning to be organized, and to produce horses, to [create] the right program for the horses. It was an amazing education.”
While Hein Ruus says it was common for promising young riders to arrive at Schockemöhle with grand prix stars in their eyes, the vision didn’t last long.
“Yes, you will have the opportunity to ride bigger classes, but first, you have to make money for the business, and that’s through producing. You [learn to] get your priorities straight,” he explains.
Hein Ruus parlayed those priorities into his next big move—nearly a world away—to Mexico, where he would eventually take a job with the Pasquel family. During that period, Hein Ruus was given the ride on a talented, chestnut Westphalian gelding named Big Red.
The pair built a successful partnership, earning Hein Ruus his first taste of international team competition and the spotlight that comes with it. In the lead-up to the Rio Olympics in 2016, Denmark came calling.
“They called me right after Saugerties and told me that if they qualify, they’d like to have me on the [Olympic] team with Big Red,” says Hein Ruus, adding that sadly, his home country eventually missed out by a single time fault. The rider still hasn’t lost hope for Denmark’s qualification at Tokyo in 2020, however, and says that his ultimate goal—to become a player for the senior Danish Team—is already a topic of discussion at his new Spruce Meadows home.
In fact, these days, much of Nikolaj Hein Ruus’s future is looking quite rosy, indeed. Late last year, the rider and his wife, Mexico City makeup artist Daniela Martinez, welcomed their first son, Luka. Last month, wife and son secured their visas to join Hein Ruus in Canada.
“We actually have a beautiful house right in Spruce Meadows, so to be so close to my family, and work, it’s amazing. The only people I teach are the riders we have at home, and they’re very easy to deal with, and very eager to learn,” says Hein Ruus, adding that he’s equally delighted to put his hard-earned training skills to work in the service of Spruce Meadows’ exciting young horses.
His admiration is especially evident for the nine-year-old Cadillac, despite a few, initial bumps during their introduction.
“The first time I sat on him, he tried to spin me off,” Hein Ruus laughs. “He tests the rider a little bit. [We] had a little conversation about that, and he was like, ‘Okay, I’ll be a good boy.’
“He’s so intelligent, and he uses his energy so positively. Some horses, they come in, and they buck around, and then you go in the ring, and halfway through, you feel the engine is dying. But Cadillac is totally the opposite. [It’s] a real pleasure to work with a horse like that.”
A big professional break, a string of high-quality horses, a growing family, and a new home… is it any wonder that, at certain moments—and especially after the kind of results he earned last week—you can sometimes find Hein Ruus, lingering at the backgate with a sort of faraway look of wonderment in his eyes?
“I am extremely grateful, because it can be quite a tough business, with a lot of ups and downs.
“I’ve been through a lot, a lot of injuries and hard days, and never giving up, [and then] suddenly, being in a situation like this—I have to pinch my arm and check if I’m actually awake. I had a moment like that [last Friday],” Hein Ruus says.
“I actually wake up in the morning, and I look around, and I think, Yep, it’s really happening.”