The star of Kars Bonhof is rising. The 26-year-old stable rider of Team Nijhof had a convincing year and was even selected for the European Championships in Milan with the KWPN stallion Hernandez TN N.O.P. Although they didn't actually participate, this year he is setting his sights on the Olympic Games. Thanks to a group of other stallions, the passionate rider is thriving with Team Nijhof.

It was certainly not a foregone conclusion that Kars Bonhof would start working at the prestigious stallion stable in Geesteren about four years ago. "I had nothing to do with breeding, and riding stallions wasn't my immediate preference. So, without great expectations, I had a conversation with the Nijhof family, and I was pleasantly surprised. In terms of ambitions in sports, we turned out to be completely aligned. They are true horse people, and they give me all the space to further develop. The decision to work for them has proven to be one that I have not regretted for a single day," says the rider enthusiastically.

Start at the Juniors
The expression 'what is good comes quickly' seems to apply to Kars Bonhof, but his sporting successes are indeed the result of years of preparation, intensive training, and, above all, a long-term vision. When all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, success follows. When people hear Kars' last name, many immediately link it to trainer Wim Bonhof. "That's my father's cousin, and I've trained with him regularly in recent years. He still helps with the dressage work every month. My parents rode as a hobby, and they made sure I could start with ponies. My father works as an accountant, my mother works at the Morssinkhof family's stable. Since the moment my ponies were sold, she started working there. By now, they appreciate that I have been able to turn my hobby into my job, but it's not like they stand by the ring every weekend." The transition from pony to horse was not without challenges, but Kars already achieved success at the Juniors. "In the year I turned eighteen, I started riding at the Juniors. At the beginning of the year, I rode in the 1.30m, and later that same year, I was selected for the European Championships in Wiener Neustadt with Tennessee V, whom I rode for his owners." That marked the end of Kars' studying life because, after one year of HBO Business Administration, he gave it up. "For me, it was already certain that I wanted to continue in equestrian sports. Fortunately, it turned out well. First, I rode with Jurgen Stenfert, and I learned a lot from him. Then I started at Wassim Anzarouti's Sham Stables. I rode there for four years and achieved several good results." In 2016, at the age of nineteen, Kars won his first Big Price at the seniors with the Calido I daughter Casina at Jumping De Achterhoek. Two years later, he participated in the European Championships for Young Riders in Fontainebleau with Zentos (by Zento). Even then, Kars did not hide his ambitions. Reaching the world's top is his goal. "At some point, my best horses were sold at Sham Stables, so I had to take a step back in terms of sports. Not long after that, I received the offer from the Nijhof family," reflects Kars.

Sports enthusiasts
The first contact with the Nijhof family came through Henk Jr.'s son, Cameron. "I had known Cameron for a while through soccer. Every Monday, we played soccer with a group of riders and horse guys, but I had never delved into their business. When they proposed to sit down for a discussion, I was a bit sceptical because it's a stallion stable, but that turned out to be unnecessary. They are true sports enthusiasts, especially Cameron, who is so driven. I immediately got good horses to ride, and I really enjoy riding stallions now. It brings a different kind of pressure, but stallions often have something extra." An additional advantage, as Kars has now experienced, is that the breeding stallions are not sold quickly or at all at Team Nijhof. "If the stallions perform well in both sports and breeding, they are not being sold. That gives me as a rider peace of mind and the opportunity to pursue long-term sporting goals. That is definitely an advantage of riding so many approved stallions." It's easy to guess who his favorite is: his top horse Hernandez TN N.O.P. This KWPN stallion, bred by Willem Dekker, quickly developed into a Grand Prix horse with Kars. "Things have gone very quickly with Hernandez in the last two years. It started at the beginning of 2022 at the Sunshine Tour, where he immediately caught the eye. Thanks to that, we got the opportunity last year to participate in the EEF Series, which is a Nations Cup competition at the three-star level. There, we gained a lot of experience and could show how we perform under pressure. My focus is on the outdoor season with Hernandez, and last year we could start strong again in Spain. He made a good impression on the national coach there, and then we achieved a good result at the Dutch Championships. From that moment on, things moved quickly."

Back in form
After making their debut at CSI5* level in Rotterdam and Dublin in the summer of 2022, they also competed in their first World Cup event in the same season, performed well in the CSIO4* EEF Final in Warsaw, and finished sixth in the Sires of the World in Lanaken. Kars and the Kannan son continued their strong performances in 2023, starting again in Vejer de la Frontera. After notable achievements in Rotterdam (fourth in the Grand Prix) and Falsterbo (double clear in the Nations Cup and eighth in the Grand Prix), they were even selected for the European Championship in Milan. This would have been Kars' first championship at the senior level, but it didn't happen in the end due to a minor injury. However, the duo is now back on track. "I got Hernandez when he was eight years old and built him up very gradually. Due to an infection, his eye was damaged and had to be removed when he was seven years old. He is naturally a sensitive horse, and as a result, he became quite anxious. His quality and ability were clear to me early on, but the question was how well he would continue to develop. I took my time, tried to give him a lot of confidence, and never got angry, as that would have had a abortive effect on such a sensitive horse. He is super cooperative, so I trusted him. We started at 1.20m, and once he had confidence in me, things progressed very quickly. However, he doesn't perform as well indoors; the obstacles often come up quickly around the turns, which is not ideal for him." With gleaming eyes, Kars carefully looks ahead to the major championship scheduled for this summer: the Olympic Games in Paris. "Of course, that's my big dream, especially with a horse like Hernandez. But everything has to fall into place, especially since only three riders per country can be fielded. We participated in some beautiful competitions last year, such as Dublin and Rotterdam, so that definitely whets my appetite for more. We'll do our very best, and then we'll see where the chips fall."

Eager to learn
Over the past few years, Kars has had several important mentors. "In addition to Jurgen Stenfert and Wim Bonhof, I have also learned a lot from Hans Horn. At some point, he became too busy with his duties as the coach of Israel, and after that, I mainly trained with Willem Greve with the horses from Nijhof. Willem is technically very strong, and he always remains calm. He knows exactly how it works with stallions and always focuses on the long term. We have a lot of discussions, and I can learn a lot from Willem. I also have close contact with our coach, Jos Lansink, which is, of course, very educational. I make the competition schedules in consultation, sometimes with Henk Jr. and also with Jos." In addition, Kars keeps his ears and eyes open at international competitions. "The riders at the five-star competitions are really of a different calibre. It's so interesting to see them at work in the ring and especially in the warm-up area; I learn a lot each time. Those top riders consistently succeed in reaching the top and staying there with different horses. That's a huge challenge, and it's definitely my goal to break into the world's top riders. It has felt quite fast over the past two years, especially thanks to Hernandez, but there are also some good young horses coming up. That gives us good hope for the future."

High expectations
Kars has high expectations for stallions like Poker de Mariposa TN (by Nabab de Rêve), Dorian Grey TN (by Dominator Z), and Cero Blue TN (by Chacoon Blue), which was registered with 91 points by the KWPN at the end of last year. "Poker had a bit of bad luck with injuries, but he will turn nine this year, and I hope we can make significant progress in terms of sport. He will go to the Sunshine Tour and can continue to grow in the shadow of Hernandez. Dorian Grey is a year younger, but I also have high expectations of him. Besides, I have some very good horses turning seven this year; it seems like the best year so far. The horses born in 2017 are from the first year Nijhof purposely kept the better ones, so it's great to see that those choices seem to have worked out well. The Nijhof family selected them at the age of three and tried to keep the best ones, whereas previously, they were almost always sold from the rearing. Cero Blue comes from that year, and he is a truly special horse. I got him to ride when he was five, and I wasn't surprised by the points he received at his KWPN approval because he has a lot of potential. It's great to train such a horse. No one can predict what the future holds, but we are definitely hopeful."

Stallion power
Additionally, Kars has several younger stallions that he rides, and they appeared in the Blom Stallion Jumping Competition, among other events. "With these young horses, I find it challenging to predict who will be the best, but they are all quality horses to work with. The Nijhof family is also critical because keeping a stallion that isn't good enough makes no sense for them. Onassis shows very promising things and gives a good feeling; he is definitely a horse for the future. O'Connor is slightly more classic in type but has a lot of power and is super careful. A year older is Newmarket VM, who continues to develop well. I can't predict where it will end with such horses. The feeling is very good in any case, and I enjoy working with them every day. Of the just four-year-old stallions, I have high expectations of Drummer, who was approved by KWPN last winter. I trained him myself for the performance test, and he has extremely hot blood, especially for such a large horse. That will be very advantageous for high-level sport, as you need that in the Nations Cup competitions."

Performing at the highest level is what Kars has always dreamed of, but he also derives a lot of satisfaction from training young horses. Having mainly stallions to ride at Nijhof brings certain obligations. "Breeders attach great importance to the performance of the stallions, so it's essential for us to make a good impression at competitions such as the Stallion Competition, KWPN Championships, the KWPN Stallion Show, and, of course, the World Championships in Lanaken. For me as a rider, it's nice to perform well in such competitions, but they are not the ultimate goal. The focus here is always on the long term, and fortunately, that aligns well with the vision of the Nijhof family. The goal is to reach the highest level with the stallions. As a rider, I prefer that the stallions cover a lot at a young age so that the focus can shift more towards sport afterwards. The combination of covering and competing is not ideal for every stallion; it also requires a lot from their bodies. Although I'm definitely not an expert in breeding, I understand that it's crucial for young stallions to have the opportunity to prove how good they are as sires with a decent number of different mares. If a stallion doesn't cover anything, he's not interesting for a stallion owner to keep. At Nijhof, they are very down-to-earth and realistic; Hernandez covered the entire season last year, and with Grandorado, they gave priority to sport for a while. You have to look at each stallion individually, and fortunately, they are also willing to give priority to sport when necessary."

Completing the picture
In addition to having several excellent horses and a large dose of ambition, motivation, and drive, the good team at the stable contributes to Kars' success. "At the stable, we have a very good second rider, so I can leave the other horses with confidence when I'm at a competition. We work with a young and motivated team, and things are going smoothly. Regarding the horses and planning, I have a lot of discussions with Henk, but he also gives me a lot of freedom. That gives a lot of confidence. By now, we know what to expect from each other. I'm looking forward to seeing how the horses develop this coming season and hope to show what we're worth with Hernandez this summer. Of course, I hope to take the orange jacket out of the closet several times in 2024. But being able to work with such good horses every day with so much pleasure is and remains the most beautiful thing," concludes Kars Bonhof.

Text: Jenneke Smit
​Image: Jessica Pijlman

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