For more than 15 years I have ventured to Switzerland on several occasions each year and so far all my visits have been blessed with good weather, except the very day I did "a walk on the premises" with Christian Pläge. At the end of August I returned to my most favourite country and after sunny hot days at the beginning of the week I confidently decided to make an appointment with the small country's top dressage rider of the past years: multiple national champion Marcela Krinke.
She agreed to meet me on Thursday, but I couldn't believe my eyes when the evening before dark clouds gathered dramatically over Lake Thun and the Berne mountains. My hopes that it was only a thunderstorm were dashed the next morning when a continuous drizzle outside woke me up. The sky was grey, mist hanging deeply over the ring of mountains separating the Berne area from central Switzerland, where Marcela Krinke runs a riding club together with her husband Ivan Susmelj.
On the road to her yard I decided not to use the boring motorway route, but the one via Interlaken and over the Brünig mountain pass down to inner Switzeland. It is usually a wonderfully idyllic route along several of the most beautiful lakes and wild countryside with waterfalls but that day it looked threating and the weather was dismal.
I braved the heavy and icy rainfalls outside, pulled the car up at the viewpoint-parking before making my way into the town of Ebikon, near Lucerne. Though my windscreen wipers were going at top speed, I missed the hidden junction to Marcela Krinke's property at the edge of town. I sighed at the sight of the beautiful outdoor school, aware that there was no way to use it for photography. Instead indoor pictures would be the rule of the day.
A stable of all Breeds and Sizes
I parked the car next to the others behind the indoor and ran over to the entrance as no umbrella would help to shelter me from this deluge. I heared Marcela's voice and got a glimpse of white mane flying before I walked up the steps to the grandstand where a black dog looked at me sleepily. Sissi, the Krinke's 14-year-old Jack Russell x Appenzeller crossbred bitch, knew where to be in such weather.
Focused helping a teenage girl ride canter pirouettes on a truly ideal type of Lipizzan, Marcela spotted me only after a few minutes. As Lipizzaners are my most favourite breed my mood was lifted straight away and I marvelled at the compact stallion's ability to sit and circle on a plate. Marcela welcomed and introduced me to „Favory Slawina XVI“ and Silvia Werder.
"This is my own horse. I bought him as a 5-year-old youngster at Lipica Stud in Slovenia, where my husband comes from. I loved his bigger height and his smooth paces. He is trained to M-level and I used to start him a bit, which always caused a bit of a stir," she laughed. Her student also wore a big smile on her face which never left while she continued working the diligent and hard trying grey under Marcela's tutelage. In the passage the short legs seemed so hard to lift and Favory leaned on the bit, but Marcela immediately recognised it: "Don't allow him that. He has to be lighter!" When the stallion finally showed some nice steps Marcela decided to finish the lesson on that note and a happy horse-rider-pair shuffled through the rain to the stable complex opposite the indoor.
The "Rotsee Riding Centre" is not a very big yard, but just like the country itself everything is neat there. Behind the indoor there is the Olympic size outdoor arena a roofed lunging circle right behind. The stable complex consists of two rows with 20 stalls to each side. The stalls are big, airy and bright with the possibility for a bit of social interaction. Some even have two big windows and some a small well-fenced paddock. However, none of the horses in these stalls were using them that day and preferred staying dry inside.
Marcela walked down the wide, rubber matted stable corridor with me and introduced me to almost every single one of the horses. About 25 belong to boarders, nine to the Riding School Marcela runs with her husband and the rest are her and her daughter's competition horses. In the first stall to the right, in which a solarium still hangs to the roof, resided Lucky, a small paint with one blue eye and wiry mane. "He was my daughter Natascha's first pony. She jumped him in small competitions. Now Lucky is the darling of the young girls who come to take riding lessons." Marcela showed me some more riding school horses like the goofy eyed Tinker Bobbi, which looked quite untypical with his clipped feathers, and the huge old fashioned warmblood Calimero "who is such a good horse with children."
A horse that immediately caught my eye was Fiderhit playing with a rubber ball hanging from the wall. The dark bay is a licensed stallion by Fidermark x Sandro Hit and belongs to Marcela's French bereiter Charlotte Pfeiffer. "He is trained to small tour level and was started at the CDI Vidauban this year." At the very end of the stable complex were Marcela's two Grand Prix horses, Smeyers Molberg and Smeyers Lazander.
Molberg, the bay Michellino-son who was trained to Grand Prix-level by Sanne Henningsen in Denmark, already stood in front of his box and impatiently awaited some action.
His personal groom Severine just finished bandaging him and oiled his hooves so he looked absolute immaculate. She cheerfully said hello to me and Marcela explained that Severine is not part of the staffers of her riding school, but that she works for her patron Mrs. Irene Meyer, the long-time owner of all of Marcela's international Grand Prix-horses, such as Corinth who is now retired. "Severine just takes care of Mrs. Meyer's two horses. She comes for some hours each day, grooms them, walks and grazes them. In short she is responsible for their well-being."
I cannot remember having seen Severine at Aachen this year, so I asked Marcela. "At shows where we only have one horse Mrs. Meyer and I groom it on our own and Severine stays home looking after the second horse. But after the Swiss Championships we will go off to Poland for the World Cup qualifier and will take Severine with us.“
Before we left for the indoor, a tom cat appeared and headed straight to us. Like a dog he sat down in front of Molberg and looked at each of us in a very special way. "Hey, who are you?" I asked and the cat promptly replied „Miau“. "That is Giepetto. He is always hungry and would always ask anybody for food. He talks to us all the time if we talk to him, too."“ And really the extremely vocal white-grey-striped cat replied to each of Marcela's remarks upon being addressed.
Another Michellino in the spotlights
Marcela pulled Molberg outside where it was still raining cats and dogs with no improvement in sight. Right behind the entrance to the older indoor arena, which has a high quality surface, there was a wooden mounting block so the vertebrae are spared.
Molberg seemed to be a another lively strong minded Michellino, just like his chestnut half-brother Mistral Hojris, who made this sire's name known world-wide. The bay threw his head and wasn't too enthusiastic standing still, but Marcela stayed calm and corrected his position a few times until he stood quietly and allowed her to mount him.
"Mrs. Meyer bought him for me with the idea in the back of her mind that Corinth needed to be replaced in near future. So Molberg came to us about 18 months ago and he really fulfilled all our exspectations so far," Marcela reported on the 2001 born gelding who still has room left for more maturing. The bay managed to make it into the Aachen kur final this year. The very alert Danish warmblood is more the ladies' type of horse than Mistral, but can still become a handfull if the mood leads him to. Marcela ignored his wincings and walked him extensively around the indoor arena until she started trotting him in rising trot.
The rain was still hammering on the roof like crazy, but Molberg only focused on Marcela who asked me if I wanted to see something special. "Great to have program à là carte," I thought and I asked her for some Grand Prix movements which could look attractive for the photos. The bay is a very dynamic and lightfooted horse that moves with great panache. The day before German trainer Ton de Ridder had left the yard after a two-day training session with Krinke.
At the end of the riding session Marcela walked Molberg after having
shown half passes, pirouettes, piaffe and passage in front of my lens, and talked about her past; how it all came together the past decade. Marcela started to train dressage more seriously when she was a student of veterinary sciene. "I saved money whenever I could so I was able to attend clinics with Georg Wahl at Swiss Olympic dressage rider Hermann Dür's stable near Berne. For many years Wahl became my most important influence on my riding and attitude. He was very strict and wasn't treating anyone with silk gloves. But he was unique in the way he explained details and he did it in a way you were able to immediately put it into practice and the horse would improve thanks to it."
"After my studies I specialised on the cardiology of small animals and I am one of only a few around in Switzerland. I had my own practice and my husband had rented a stable. During that time my boss at the animal hospital in Lucerne, where I freelanced as cardologist, told me that the property here in Ebikon was for sale. As it was always a dream of mine to work with horses and my husband is an examined riding instructor I decided to sell my practice and with that money we bought the property here."
The Krinke-Susmelj family moved to the Rotsee Riding Centre in 1996 where they have now established a popular riding school for especially children to learn how to ride. When both arrived in Ebikon, a lady already kept her English bred Grand Prix horse at the barn. That was Irene Meyer. She would discover Marcela's talent and eagerness to advance in the sport of dressage. First she offered her to ride her grey horse, which Marcela happily agreed to, but soon both worked even more closely together.
Mrs. Meyer, whose family owned a steel building company in Switzerland and who now manages a property agency service called Smeyers, delighted in seeing her horses go well with Marcela and she was prepared to buy proper ones. "Mrs. Meyer has a weak spot for chestnuts. Her mother always bought auction horses in Verden, so the first Grand Prix-horse I competed for Irene was the tiny Wenzel I-mare Wienerin. I used to ride in shorter stirrups so she looked bigger," Marcela admitted.
While Marcela left the arena with Molberg her husband and a student entered it. With the indoor arena slowly crowding up, Krinke wanted to quickly present her second Grand Prix horse. The stable started to fill with several small girls with back protectors, pink knee socks and huge looking safety helmets. They were preparing „their“ horse for a riding lesson with one of Krinke-Susmelj's young instructors. Sure they have no clue what kind of valuable horse had passed them. Marcela is most likely one of a very few international riders who teaches in a riding club and has to practice flying changes, piaffe and passage amongst a group of beginners steering reliable school horses from A to B.
More Danish horse-power
Severine Bucher happily took Molberg from Marcela and pointeds to an attractive liver chestnut standing tied to the box. "I have already made him ready for you," she remarked to Marcela who at the same time introduced me to her daughter Natascha. The 15-year-old is one of Switzerland's best pony riders and has represented her country at the 2011 European Championships. I asked her if she likes to ride me at least one of her three ponies for the article. Natascha didn't seem used to any media attention, as her eyes almost popped out hearing my request. "Are you sure? Well, if you like I can show you Lilli."
Lilli is officially Nice Lilli and I knew this feisty liver chestnut lady, who was calmly chewing her haylage while we stood in front of her stall. The quality Westfalian Riding Pony and I had already had an encounter during my last Walk in Switzerland some years ago when she was stabled at the Pläge's with her previous owner.
Marcela and Lazander patiently waited until I was ready to accompany them again to the indoor arena. "We have to hurry up a bit if we want some photos, the beginners' group will soon be there as well," Marcela remarked.
I admitted I was a bit surprised to see that liver chestnut being Marcela's second Grand Prix horse. I remember I had read its name on the result list of the Marbach Dressage Festival in August but I had expected to see Floris instead. This highly talented Fürstenreich-son who was successful with Oliver Oelrich last season, should become Molberg's back-up, but I couldnot see him anywhere.
Marcela sighed. "Floris is not here at the moment. He had a serious accident in the trailer in December 2011 in which he broke his coffin bone. Since then he has been intensely treated in an equine hospital. It has taken a long time, but he is now on the way to recovery. He swims there daily and is ridden again. He is such a wonderful horse and we all hope he comes back soon."
However Floris' bad luck also meant that Irene Meyer took care Marcela did not have to rely on Molberg alone. The 11-year-old Danish warmblood gelding Lazander (by Solos Landtinus) became the substitute.He calmly entered the indoor arena and patiently waited for his rider to mount from the block. "He is really a lovely character and easy to handle. Irene loves him dearly and each day she comes to personally hand-graze him."
Lazander is quite new at Grand Prix-level and one cannot miss that he still needs refinement, but he is brimming with talent! In particular his canter pirouettes are world class already. He really sits and executes them in a very even, almost slow-motion-like rhythm which is not only nice to look at, but very easy to catch with the camera!
Taking into account that the easy tempered horse has had three different riders at Grand Prix-level before Irene Meyer bought him for Marcela in June 2012, the pair nonetheless looked like an "old" couple.
The gelding with the stallion-like presence worked so well for her and tried his hardest in the piaffe to keep the rhythm.
When a strap of his cavesson got loose and Marcela stopped to try to fix it from the saddle, he kindly turned his head around to her and stood immobile for the procedure.
The next generation
Lazander's training session came to an end and the next generation entered the arena. Natascha had taken care that Nice Lilli (by Night Star III) looked the picture of a dressage pony for her appearance. "She wouldn't let you know, but my daughter is always the first to check out Eurodressage daily because it has the best coverage on the pony classes," Marcela disclosed. Her daughter had groomed her little mare to perfection and wasn't too happy when she rubbed her nose at the white polo wraps.
Lilli wore a bridle which has been in fashion for some time: a Baucher snaffle bit with a dropped noseband. I asked why she made this choice „Oh yes, right. At the beginning it was still some kind of insider's tip, but in the meantime many ponies are ridden with this combination. It gives a bit more control," Natascha's mum explained.
While Marcela headed back to the stable with Lazander, Natascha warmed up a very bright looking Lilli in walk. Soon we were not alone, but surrounded by four school horses with their riders in tow. I admit I had to smile at the cute picture of these tiny girls about primary school age handling horses which are literally towering over them. There was only one really small pony among them, but the other three were proper horses: Two warmbloods and one Irish Tinker.
"This is Bobbi," one girl very proudly introduced me to the Tinker I had seen earlier in the stable "He is really nice and obedient. At least I hope so," she said promptly patting the skewbald on the neck. The gelding stood there absolute patiently, looking happy and bomb-proof. Same could be said of Calimero, a huge looking chestnut who would not take one wrong step while his tiny rider sorted out the running side-reins which had to be put on.
It is a strange clash of two worlds seeing a highly refined and trained pony like Nice Lilli amongst such tame school horses with beginners aboard.
Natascha began trotting Lilli and almost simutaneously the riding club group moved on as well. The tiny pony in front, the Tinker at the end which looked hilarious. It didn't present any problems to Natascha to find her way with Lilli in between the division of school horses. Lilli seemed to sniff in disdain when she was asked to extend her trot over and over until I was able to photograph her without one of the school horses crossing my way.
Marcela returned to the indoor with a glas of coca cola which I gratefully accepted. She looked at her daughter and said "heels down. My God, you youngters still can learn to sit properly, we oldies are hard to change in our habits." She turned to me: „I admit I was not enthusiastic when Natascha wanted to be involved with the ponies. We don't have the means to buy a fancy one and then it is difficult. We were so lucky when the Gasser family, who owned Lilli, sold her to us for a very fair price so Natascha has a good pony. She still has another year and rather than changing to the juniors, she wants to remain in the ponies. It is okay and with Heidi Bemelmans the pony riders have a trainer who really takes care and they profit a lot.“
After Natascha finished her ride on Lilli, the pony rider proudly showed me her two other ponies One is a German bred palomino mare, which once was 3rd at the Bundeschampionate, but for the last five years has only been used as a broodmare. She is a pretty little horse who is owned by her German breeder and given to Natascha to be competed. The other one is an 11-year-old German Riding Pony gelding who was spotted by Marcela when he was driven internationally. "We thought he had so much talent, he could be a very good dressage pony. And indeed he learned so quickly. Within only half a year he advanced to FEI level," Natascha beamed.
One last time we switched from the warm haven of the stable, where the horses noisily awaited their dinner, to the indoor. Marcela is working a horse she had great hopes for, but which proved to be tricky. Bereiter Charlotte Pfeiffer is in the saddle of the coloured chestnut Abueno, a Swiss warmblood with the very German pedigree of Abanos x Weltmeyer. He has outstanding paces and judged purely on them he could have made it to the top, but sadly „he has a difficult character in the sense that he is very very easily frightened and spooks quickly. We trained him to M-level, but had to admit to ourselves that he would hardly become a competition horse to rely on. Now Charlotte rides him and wants to give it one more try at our show which is held the next weekend." The leggy chestnut has a white blaze and two blue eyes looking at you! "Maybe he sees the world differently through them, who knows," I wondered.
It was time to say goodbye as a 2 hour drive through the relentless rain was awaiting me. Marcela took me to the riding club's small lounge at the end of the administration building and offered me a cup of coffee. We had a quick chat on the state of Swiss dressage while I copied the horses' pedigrees from their FEI passports. Marcela confessed that Switzerland regretably has lost to stay in touch with the top of the dressage nations. Undeniably a place where they belonged for several decades, times have changed and so did the circumstances under which the game of dressage is played. Marcela is aware that today one needs considerable personal assets to buy horses which can be competitive at the highest international level.
"I would never be able to do the sport on this level without Irene Meyer behind me, buying and keeping my Grand Prix-horses and also paying the starts abroad, which are expensive. It is wonderful and essential to have somebody like her over here, because dressage is not at all in the public eye and does not attract sponsors like the jumpers are able to do. When I became 11th at the WEG in Kentucky on Corinth it was was the highlight of my career, but nobody took special notice over here. So I am forever grateful to Irene to support me the way she does. Of course she wants her horses to be ridden the best way, but she never puts me under any pressure."
It is after six o'clock in the evening when I finally said goodbye to Marcela. It was still raining like crazy and the temperature had dropped to an autumnlike 11 ° C. "I hope you liked it here and it was not boring," the lady of the house remarked when we shook hands.
I had to smile thinking there are worse ways to spend a rainy day than watching Switzerland's top dressage rider at work!
Text and Photos © Silke Rottermann
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