France is well known for being a country where classical dressage got its most important impulses from masters such as Robichon de la Guérinière, Baucher, L’Hotte or Decarpentry and many others who did not write down their knowledge.
Until after World War II France was also one of the world’s most successful dressage nations having had team and individual Olympic champions as well as medal winners well into the 1950s.
As dressage in France was still mainly practised by military riders and only a few civilians competed at higher levels, success in this equestrian discipline was dependent on the military owning the proper horses. Because it obviously didn’t at that time the discipline fell into a "slumber" in the 1960s. Countries like Switzerland and the Soviet Union established themselves as dressage nations instead.
With disappearance of France from the scene a certain kind of timeless elegance was missing in the strict world between A and C. This style the French call “légèreté” (lightness) and they often displayed it with highly elegant horses like the 1932 Olympic champion Taine.
Off the track
Just when France disappeared for a long time from the highest eschelons at the end of the 1950s a very special horse was born in the country which would bring the Grande Nation back into the limelight of international dressage: Cramique xx.
Sired by Lavandin xx and born in 1959 the chestnut gelding represented the most noble type of thoroughbred imaginable and started his sport career where he belonged: on the racetrack.
Owned by Madame de Saint Quentin Cramique xx turned out to be quite successful as a steeplechaser and even won the “Grand course de printemps” at the Hippodrome d’Auteuil in Paris before health problems typical for this strenuous sport occurred.
“Cramique joined the Cadre Noir in the mid 1960s. Unfortunately for his steeplechase career, but fortunately for Colonel Brau, l’ Adjudant-Chef Wattier and myself his tendons were too weak to stand steeplechasing anymore,” said Cramique's long-time rider Patrick Le Rolland.
As her horse was failing as a steeplechaser Madame de Saint Quentin asked Colonel de Saint- André what she could now do with Cramique. The Colonel, an Olympic dressage rider back then and the head master at the Cadre Noir from 1964 – 1972, advised her that with a little bit of work her thoroughbred could become a good dressage horse. Without knowing it that wise advice became the very beginning of the French Renaissance on the international dressage scene.
Cramique moved from Paris to the École de Cavalerie in Saumur and there an experienced rider took him in training. Colonel Brau, who had represented France in the 1956 Olympic dressage competition, began retraining the chestnut.
Nowadays it seems strange that an institution like the Cadre Noir took a pure bred thoroughbred horse in specialised dressage training, but in the 1960s it hadn’t been something so out of place as it would be today. Remember thoroughbreds like the German Champion Brilliant xx of Willi Schultheis and Rosemarie Springer, the winner of the 1960 Aachen Grand Prix, Rath Patrick xx of Patricia Galvin-de la Tour d’Auvergne (USA) or Marios xx of Wolfgang Müller and Gerhard Brockmüller (GDR). They were amongst the best dressage horses in the 1960s and the French had always liked sensitive horses. Moreover for his breed Cramique had an exceptional height standing 170 cm tall.
Colonel Brau did not face big problems in the gelding’s training, which followed the old principles of the Cadre Noir. The school was once directed by the former ecuyer-en-chef Comte d’Aure, who gave the horse back its grace and freedom of movement with a rider on board. Their aim is one which every dressage rider tries to realise, but only very little horses in the past or even nowadays completely regain this natural grace and beauty under the saddle. Cramique would become exactly one of these glorious exceptions.
His sensitivity and eagerness matched the training philosophy to do everything without force.
“Cramique had been a very attentive horse, very friendly and brave who always tried to make it right. But at the same time he was also easily frightened and a bit nervous,” said Le Rolland.
The following years Cramique's training enabled the horse to carry more weight on his hind legs, to raise his shoulders and as a result move with very good self- carriage and a fine rein contact in the best French tradition. Being only 9 the chestnut competed in his first French Championships and won it with Adjudant-Chef Jean Marie Wattier in 1968. He repeated the feat a year later with his trainer Colonel Brau.
Cramique was now the best dressage horse in France, but judged by his age and ever increasing ability his best years were yet to come. All it needed was a young rider who matched the character of this sensitive horse to continue its career.
In 1970 the ecuyer-en-chef of the Cadre Noir, Colonel de Saint- André, decided to give the best dressage horse of his group to a rather young member, Patrick Le Rolland. Le Rolland had enrolled in the Cadre Noir six years ago and “as my Dad was the most gifted and talented rider of his generation he received the order from Colonel de Saint- André to ride exclusively in dressage,” Le Rolland's son Thomas explained.
Of course it had been Le Rolland’s outstanding talent which led to this decision, but there was also another aspect which should not be forgotten.
“Patrick Le Rolland was a brilliant rider and there was the hope that he and this very talented horse would appeal to the international dressage scene, aiming for the Olympic Games," Christian Carde, the later écuyer-en-chef, reminisced.
From the very beginning the new combination understood each other very well and fulfilled the expectations immediately by winning Cramique’s fourth French championships title in 1970 and by placing a very good 6th in the Grand Prix kur at the CDI Rotterdam in Holland.
The thoroughbred was a different appearance from many heavier warmblood horses which were at the top of the game at the beginning of the 1970s. Long legged, dainty and of great elegance and aesthetic Cramique matched the appropriately elegant and outstandingly correct sitting Patrick Le Rolland. Almost unthinkable nowadays, he rode in a flat French jumping saddle and still once earned a 10 for his seat and position from the judges.
The only disadvantage which Le Rolland had to cope with was the horse’s temperament. “In general Cramique was a usual gelding, but because he was a pure thoroughbred he tended to unexpected and exaggerated reactions. He wasn’t ill-natured at all, he was a lovely horse, but just frightened now and then and he became easily nervous. I remember one show where the arena was decorated with flowers. Every time I reached the end of the diagonal Cramique would stop and stare at the flowers”," Patrick Le Rolland recalled.
At home in Saumur Le Rolland worked under the supervision of Colonel de Saint-André, “but I also learned by imitating other riders who I had watched.”
Because Cramique was a already a highly trained Grand Prix horse the daily training concentrated on bringing certain exercises to perfection and focused on relaxation.
“We did the normal dressage work. At the beginning Cramique used to rear a bit now and then when he was a bit tensed on one rein. Then he was against the hand which had to be corrected by balancing the horse out and have it on both reins. He slightly tilted to the right and had to be kept straight," Le Rolland reported.
Rise and Fall in 1972
The rise of Cramique continued and reached an unexpected pinnacle before the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. The horse enthused the crowds also in Germany and finished in an unbelievable 3rd place in the Grand Prix of Aachen. This was a feat which drew much attention, not only in France.
Would this most beautiful horse stand a chance some weeks later at Munich against the favourites from Germany and the Soviet Union? The spotlight certainly was again on France at the time. “The result of Aachen was in fact very encouraging and promising for the rest of the season and especially for the Olympic Games”, Patrick Le Rolland added.
Cramique’s strength was not only his overwhelming appearance of elegance and beauty. He executed outstanding flying changes which looked natural and absolutely easy-going like a horse doing them in freedom. His piaffe and passage were light-footed and active, though Cramique lacked some sit in the piaffe which of course made his excellent transitions a bit easier for him than horses who shove the hindquarters more under the body in the piaffe.
Though no team could be sent France still had a top pair travelling to Munich in the autumn of 1972. Patrick Le Rolland took two horses to Munich: Beside Cramique he had a reserve horse, the dark gelding Quipos.
He had also been successful internationally and once even won the CDI Rotterdam ahead of Liselott Linsenhoff’s Piaff, but without question Cramique was the greatest hope for Munich.
The setting was as gracious as the French pair itself: The facade of the Nymphenburg castle with its fountains and gardens provided probably the most beautiful backdrop of all times for Olympic dressage competitions.
However fate hit the Olympic Games and Patrick Le Rolland’s horses.
A terrorist attack in the Olympic village interrupted the Grand Prix for one day and when Le Rolland had his turn, he found Cramique not fit. “It was very strange. During a phase of relaxation I mentioned that Cramique was far from his usual self and irregular. Liselott Linsenhoff, who later became the Olympic champion, friendly told me so before. But I told myself that I have to give it a try, especially at Olympic Games and with judges you never know”, Le Rolland remembered the darkest hour of his career.
According to him Cramique moved his hind legs like they were paralysed, so “I did not ask the most of him when we were in the arena for the Grand Prix”.
However the spectators soon realised that the horse wasn’t really sound for whatever reason and showed their disapproval, especially towards the chief judge, Gustav Nyblaeus from Sweden, who did not eliminate the irregularly moving chestnut for which France had high hopes.
Cramique’s hind legs looked cramped and he only managed to be his normal self in his usually brilliant flying changes. The placings differed between 7 and 29, but the Mexican judge who placed Cramique 7th was an exception so the Olympic dream ended in 23rd place and with a question mark about the cause of his lameness.
Rehabilitation in 1974
After experiencing his highest high and lowest low in 1972 the year fortunately finished in a good way for Cramique. He got a new groom, the brilliant Gaby Petiteau, who stayed with him to his very last day. “Gaby was really a very good groom and Cramique got much attention and affection," said Patrick Le Rolland.
Though Munich had been a great disappointment the popularity of Cramique and Patrick Le Rolland ever increased, especially in their home country.
They had a status which many years later resembled that of the young Nicole Uphoff in Germany, who was admired by young and old alike.
“Cramique had been a beautiful and aesthetic horse, but moreover it was the overall picture we gave. Cramique and me formed a very beautiful pair and I think the public loved seeing us evolve together. Many young riders had a poster of Cramique and me on their walls. But also international jumping riders like Marcel Rozier from France or Francois Mathy from Belgium showed interest. I remember that both riders knew our exact starting time at Aachen so they wouldn’t miss us in action. Rozier told me that he once even almost cried because he became overpowered by his emotions when he watched us perform," Le Rolland disclosed.
Cramique returned to Aachen a year after his triumph there to attend in the 1973 European Championships and this time a French team competed, which finished a remarkable 4th place.
In 1974 the horse was already 15 but still travelled to the World Championships in Copenhagen with a good chance for success. The setting was again in front of a castle and again nothing went according to plan, threatening a successful outcome on the world stage once more.
Le Rolland reported: “On arrival in Denmark Cramique suffered a colic. In turns his groom and me led him around until he improved. Then I lunged him a bit with a gogue. The Germans who saw us asked themselves how I would do later."
Against all odds Cramique recovered to finish seventh in the Grand Prix and he helped the first French team to finished in a never expected fourth place at a Dressage World Championships. He repeated the result in the individual final where even two judges, among them Donald Thackeray from the USA, placed him 4th.
Finally Cramique got the honours he deserved at an international championship.
At the end of 1974 he was 10th in the world ranking and France placed fifth amongst the dressage nations.
Untimely Death of Cadre Noir’s Flagship
As Adjudant-Chef Patrick Le Rolland was a member of the Cadre Noir and always competed in the typical black uniform of his riding institution he also attended the displays given by the Cadre Noir, but not aboard Cramique. The most beautiful chestnut was allowed to concentrate entirely on competitions and was excluded from the shows, which wouldn’t have suited his very sensitive mind anyway. Nevertheless Cramique was the flagship of the institution because the international public associated it with him.
The year 1975 turned out to be the ageing thoroughbred’s last in the competition ring. He earned another pleasant success because the French team finished in an excellent 3rd place in the Aachen Nations’ Cup, a result which had been unthinkable at the time when the 16-year-old gelding had started his career in 1970.
In the Olympic year of 1976 Cramique reached an age when most of Cadre Noir’s horses would become pensioners. Typical for a horse of his breed Cramique’s eagerness to work was still existent to such an extent that Patrick Le Rolland aimed at his 2nd Olympic Games: “Of course I intended to start Cramique at Montréal. It would have been a good chance to redeem ourselves for Munich.” But Cramique never got the chance to present his grace and beauty to a world public one last time. He died before the Games after sustaining a pulmonary oedema at Fontainebleau.
The enchanting horse had gone, but Cramique’s elegance and lightness are still a reference when talking about the French style of dressage riding.
”Cramique had allowed me to ride at the highest level. He had been my best and most difficult horse. Not only had he given me many successes, but even more importantly he enabled me to go on in my search for perfection.”
Article by Silke Rottermann for Eurodressage.com as told by Thomas and Patrick Le Rolland
Photos reproduced with kind permission of Le Rolland - Cadre Noir/ENE