Swedish dressage rider Therese Nilshagen has certainly taken no shortcuts to the top of the equestrian world. She started her riding career at a young age at a riding school and continued taking lessons until she graduated from high school. At the age of fourteen, she entered her first dressage competition on the riding school pony Rainbow, and the blue ribbon they won together fueled her passion for the sport.

Today, Therese is one of Sweden’s finest dressage riders and a key member of the national team, proving that with patience and perseverance, anyone can succeed in this sport, regardless of their background.

We had a chat with Therese where she shared her journey from being a riding school student at Vällingby Riding Club – to living in Germany, belonging to the equestrian world elite, and riding in the biggest championships.

About Therese

  • Lives in: Germany, competes for Sweden
  • Age: Born on 24 January 1983
  • Occupation: Professional dressage rider & Chief Rider at Dressage Horse Performance Center Lodbergen, Germany
  • Instagram: @therese_nilshagen_

How did it all start? When did you first come into contact with horses?
Well, the very first time was when I went on a pony ride at Skansen, the open-air museum and zoo in Stockholm, with my grandmother and sister. After that, my older sister, who is three years older than me, started nagging our parents to go to a riding school. As the little sister, I wanted to do whatever she did, so when I was about 8-9 years old, I started riding at the riding school, too – and I ended up staying there for a very long time.

At first, I only rode once a week, but I still hung around the stables all the time. My entire social life revolved around the stable, and while the best part was definitely going for my riding lesson, I practically lived and hung out there every day. The highlight was when I turned 15 and got to work in the stables. I was able to work off my riding bill and ride twice a week instead. They also had pony breeding on site, and since I was quite small, I eventually got to help start the Shetland ponies under saddle as well.

“Ever since I was quite young, I was able to find my ways to get some more hours in the saddle”

How long did you ride at the riding school?
I stayed at the riding school for a long time, actually until I graduated from high school. By then I was too old to ride ponies and it seemed like a natural next step to move on when I was offered the opportunity to work with Ann Sophie Mannerfelt and Louise Nathhorst. But the riding school was really the best place for me to be all those years. Since my parents had no plans to buy me my own pony, the riding school was where I was raised and educated as a rider. Some parents might think riding is expensive, but I think it’s time well spent. That way, instead of being out and messing around on the streets, kids can spend their time in the stables.

Today you are one of Sweden’s best dressage riders, have you always been focused on dressage?
Yes, I have always been focused on dressage. The riding school where I rode, Vällingby Ridklubb, was pretty dressage-oriented, so in that way, there was a lot of dressage right from the start, even though we also jumped a few times a year.

So looking back, do you see any particular advantage to riding at a riding school?
As for me, I definitely see a lot of advantages to riding at a riding school. One of the biggest advantages is that you get the chance to ride different types of horses and ponies.  When I started riding in a dressage group, it was a bit different because then you started to focus more on a specific pony. However, as long as you can, I believe you should take the opportunity to ride as many different horses as possible, because it’s really valuable!

When did you start competing?
I started competing in dressage when I was just 14 years old. It was a beginner’s dressage competition on a 128 cm pony named Rainbow and we actually managed to come in 2nd place! Well, there were only four other competitors and one of them was eliminated – but to me, it still felt like I had won the Olympics. This fueled my passion for competing and I remember thinking, “I want to keep doing this!”

After graduating, you started working at a riding school in Sweden before moving to Germany, how did you end up there?
Well, I had big dreams early on. Maybe not as big as the Olympics, but I felt that I wanted to learn more about the art of riding, develop and get better. I had heard that a good way to start was to move abroad and that Germany would be a good country – but I didn’t really know how to get there because I didn’t have anyone to pave the way for me.

Then, while working at Hogsta Riding School, I got to know a girl whose friend had been to Germany. That friend knew that her former boss was looking for someone to hire and asked if it might be something for me. So I called him in a shaky voice, we decided that I would go there to try it out for a few days – and well, then everything went quite fast! I got the job and less than two months later, I moved to Germany.

I had just turned 20 and my plan was to go to Germany, work there for a year and then come back to Sweden to continue my studies. But now it’s been 20 years since I moved here, haha, it feels crazy!

Therese and Dante Weltino

In other words, you’ve lived in Germany as long as you’ve lived in Sweden now. Do you feel German?
Hmm, no I feel Swedish and I’m very patriotic when it comes to sports and such. And it’s really fun to come home and visit family, eat Swedish food and buy Swedish sweets. I love Sweden, but I also like Germany very much and the life I have here with the horses. Right now I see a lot of advantages of living in Germany and I know that I would miss many things here very much if I moved.

What was the biggest difference between Sweden and Germany that you noticed when moving there?
Well, I have to say, the biggest thing I noticed when I first moved to Germany was the way people communicate. They’re not as concerned with sugar-coating things like we tend to be in Sweden. Here people are more direct and have more of a “just tell it like it is” approach. Also, in Sweden, I feel like we have an “everyone should be included” mentality, while here the mindset is more like “if you’re good enough, you can join.” It’s not bad or anything, just different. But it definitely took me some getting used to!

When did you start riding professionally?
Well, it wasn’t until a few years after I moved to Germany. At first, I worked as a groom for a top-notch rider who had some Grand Prix-level horses. As I improved my skills, I was given more opportunities to ride. Eventually, I followed him to a big facility called Gestüt Grönwohldhof and landed a job as a rider. So, I started from the bottom as a groom and worked my way up the ranks.

Eventually, I was fortunate enough to end up at Lodbergen and I’ve been here for eleven years now. Here I really get to live my dream and help run a fantastic business. I also have a wonderful team and supporters who always have my back. They don’t just buy amazing young horses for me to train, but also give me the chance to keep them if we see potential in them. It means the world to me!

You could say that a large part of your success is due to your horse Dante Weltino – when did you first meet?
When I first arrived at Lodbergen, Dante was already there and he was just five years old. He was one of the horses that I tested out for the job, and I could immediately tell that he was a real hot-blooded horse. At that time, he didn’t want to walk, he just wanted to go fast, but I could feel that there was something special about him. I knew that working with him would be a challenge, but I also knew that he had tremendous potential.

So, what would you say makes him so special?
Well, I think it’s his personality that sets him apart. Training him has been such a breeze because he’s always been incredibly positive. Of course, it wasn’t always easy when he was a five-year-old breeding stallion with a lot going on. He’s always had a lot of energy and a willingness to work, but he’s also incredibly kind, which is a stroke of luck! Otherwise, I probably would have kissed the dirt A LOT with him, haha.

“Dante is my once-in-a-lifetime horse, no doubt about it. I don’t think anyone or anything can ever top him.”

Do you have any special memories of him that you’d like to share?
Oh, it’s hard to pick just one! Dante has been a dream come true for me and we’ve achieved so much together. But I would have to say the 2017 European Championships in Gothenburg were particularly special. Winning team bronze and coming 4th individually was a huge milestone for us, and doing it on home soil made it even more memorable. I still get goosebumps thinking about how the crowd cheered us on before we even entered the arena. It was truly an unforgettable moment.

Looking ahead, do you have any long-term riding goals right now?
Now I’ve talked a lot about Dante – but he’s just my heart horse and champion so our main goal is to compete in more championships together. But I have other horses too, and I dream of developing and training as many horses as possible up to the highest level. Riding in championships is always a big goal for me, so I’m aiming for the European Championship in 2023. As for the distant future, I would love to compete in the Paris Olympics in 2024, and if we’re talking really long-term, the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028 is also on my radar.

What inspires you?
You know, we all have our ups and downs, sometimes things don’t go according to plan, and it’s easy to get caught up in negative thoughts, for example when the weather is bad or when training sessions don’t go as planned. But then I find inspiration in people who never give up despite the challenges they face. It’s truly admirable to see individuals who, despite having a more difficult path, persevere and make the most of their situation. We all have different circumstances in life, but those who have it tough and still never give up – that’s what I find really inspiring.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to improve their riding but doesn’t have their own horse? What can you do to develop without your own horse?
If you ride at a riding school and don’t have your own horse, my top tip would be to ride as many different horses as possible. Try to vary your rides and challenge yourself with different horses to get a better understanding of how different horses behave and react to different cues. Additionally, you can try to find ways to spend more time in the saddle by volunteering at the stables or offering to help with chores. You can also see if you can find someone who owns a horse that you can lease.

And remember, if you’re really dedicated to improving your riding, you can make it work, even without your own horse. I’m living proof of that.

Don’t ever think that just because you don’t have the best conditions it’s over for you. In fact, I believe it’s a blessing in disguise to have to put in extra effort and not take everything for granted. My own riding career didn’t truly take off until I turned 20.

Being successful in equestrian sports is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s never too late to chase your dreams.

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