I recently read that the craziest, strangest, or less popular kids grow up to be the greatest people. Truth is that people who chance the world are unique. They are often not easy or “normal” in any way, but like I always said “no one got famous for being normal”. The same is true for dressage greats, and the truly special, gifted horses -- the horses that change your life -- are often not the easiest, nor quietest nor calmest. More often than not they have quirky personalities, big hearts, and can throw a nice tantrum just to keep you on your game.
The line “nothing good comes easy” springs to mind and while we would love to have a spectacularly talented horse arrive on our door and calmly do all the Grand Prix movements while still showing amazing power and expression, often that just isn’t the cocktail of the dream horse.
So I set out to investigate what it takes to take that special unique creature, build a partnership, and then produce brilliance in a 20 x 60 m ring.
Stroking the Ego with Dresden Mann
“My special dressage horse is Dresden Mann, an 11-year old Westfalian,” says Olympic rider for Germany Ingrid Klimke.
Starting to ride Dresden Mann when he was a 4-year old, Ingrid began her training with him when he was still a stallion and spent three years training him intact.
“As a stallion he was far too distracted by other horses and always wanted to show off,” Ingrid told Eurodressage. “He was too much and had too many stallion hormones and this made him very difficult to handle.
In agreement with owner Clodagh Wallace, Ingrid made the decision to geld Dresden Mann aged 7. She believes it was truly the best decision, as he became perfect!
“He did not lose his power and motivation to work. He is much more focused on my aids and with me as a team, particularly in the test. He is still very sensitive, and far more gentle to work with as a gelding.”
As for his personality, Dresden Mann is full of himself and likes to show off with a great sense of humour.
“He likes to shake his head and buck if he finds something spooky. He is always willing to work and gives his best. It is such a joy to ride him while he is so easy and light and a gentleman. He wants the attention and is always ready for the next adventure.”
Every day Ingrid feels it is a treat to ride this special horse, a horse that brings so much joy to her life. However she also stated that without her own courage she would not have kept him up to this point, as he was very much on the edge. “But I always believed in him and his quality, that’s why I never gave up, and I just learnt to wait until he was ready to show his potential," she added.
To connect with the truly brilliant horses you also need to get into their heart. “Try to think like them. Try to foresee the things that can happen and do not wait until it is too late. Trust and give them self-confidence; let them think that they are the greatest," said Ingrid.
Challenge of Making The Puzzle Fit with Parzival
Dutch Olympic Champion Adelinde Cornelissen says her very special one-of-a-kind horse is none other than Parzival. She admits that the road to Grand Prix was a challenge that she thrived on.
“In the beginning Parzival was very spooky, and would spook at everything. If someone would sneeze, Parzival would take off and be in the opposite corner of the arena within a second," Cornelissen told Eurodressage.
Parzival used to be afraid of other horses, but the main thing was that his reaction to any situation that worried him, was just extremely fast, but his personality was one of a kind!
“Parzival is the most special horse," said Adelinde. "He knows what he wants, and although he cannot talk, he for sure makes clear what he wants. For instance: brushing with a hard brush he loves, so ears to the front and really enjoying every second.... When you stop he comes towards you and wants you to continue. However, when you take a soft brush, his ears go back, he starts biting, and walking up and down. The second you take the hard brush again ears go forward. Such a personality!”
Certain that Parzival made her career, Adelinde feels she owes everything to him. Before Parzival she was a school teacher and the horse turned her into a dressage professional.
Adelinde agrees that the truly gifted horses require more patience and courage. This is because the more talented the horse is, the more electric, sharp, intelligent, and quick responses from the rider they need to have.
“You need the sharpness and quickness in the riding, but in the beginning you also get it in everything.The fun part is trying to make the puzzle fit. Love the challenge," she said.
Adelinde adds that the key to unlocking the brilliance of these special horses is most likely different for each horse, but she is sure you can only find the key if you really believe in the horse.
“Giving it attention, not only in terms of riding, but also taking care of the horse," she said. "Being open for all information it gives to you... And staying patient, working step by step, being clear and positive."
Letting Them Enter Your Life with Weltall
Dieter Laugks took over the ride on German Olympic team horse Weltall in 2007 after the horse established the Grand Prix Special world record in 2005. He was the most impressive and most widely discussed horse of his time and probably one of the best horses in the world at the time.
“His Piaffe and Passage was absolutely top quality. He had the ability to move hugely and come back into the highest collection, and he could change between big and small very quickly and easily," said Laugks. "In addition to this, he was the most sensitive and most giving horse, I have ever experienced."
With all that greatness, came great responsibility and it required a lot of courage from the rider.
"Weltall was a very special and difficult horse from the very beginning. On the one hand he had all these boundless qualities in moving, while on the other hand there was so much tension in the horse. He could perform a fantastic spectacular program, although you have to say that a lot of suppleness was missing, and even in good tests it was very hard to ride the walk. There were a lot of shows where he nearly showed no walk at all."
Dieter admitted that on top of this in the beginning he lost the rhythm in the canter very easily, particularly when he was not good in the back.
"He would go into absolute panic from one second to the other and was very afraid of any kind of noise. When he got into panic mode you nearly had NO control," he confessed.
Dieter stated that after the Olympic Games in Athens, where he had freaked out under his rider and trainer Martin Schaudt, he became the topic of discussion amongst judges even more.
"After that he had a dramatic breakdown in his results in 2006. It seemed that this horse just lost all trust," said Laugks.
At his last shows Weltall achieved results of 66% and at that point he was sold to Dieter's sponsors.
"That's when I started to work him in a different way. We really worked hard on his suppleness and relaxation. I organized a CD with different sounds and five times a week I confronted him with noise while riding him. I have to say that in the end he trusted me and we finished by winning 12 Grand Prix classes one after the other, with results up to 76,8% in the Grand Prix Special at the CDI Salzburg."
Dieter described that in Weltall there were two hearts in one horse, one a strong and confident heart, and the other afraid of the tiniest things around him.
“The biggest problem was, that there was no way to switch him off, when he was nervous or afraid. Every vet check on a show was an adventure. You just never knew what would happen, when you were moving from the warm up arena into the stadium.”
Laugks contacted Linda Tellington Jones, who presented a couple of exercises and after some hard work this was the change that the horse needed.
“Everybody who knew Weltall, knows what it means that he got an 8 in extended Walk at the end of his career, without losing all the 8, 9 and even 10’s for Piaffe, Passage and extended Trot.”
Stating that he has had many very difficult, hot and sensitive international Grand Prix Horses, like Ingas or Habana, Weltall was so far the biggest challenge of Dieter’s career as both a rider and trainer.
“More than any other horse I had ever ridden, Weltall forced you to let him be part of your life. In the time I was competing him, I was nearly living for him," said the Munich based rider.
"The best horses are most sensitive and for the top International Grand Prix Sport we need hot and big moving horses. It’s the sensitivity that is important for the brilliance of our horses, and with these sensitive artists you need a lot of self control for yourself, a lot of time and patience. You have to do an even better and longer basic work to get them ready. The first challenge is to accept that not every top moving spectacular horse is a perfect horse for the top sport. The second challenge is to be able to control these big movements without disturbing the horse. You have to be sensitive yourself and quick. If you force too much and too early, you will lose quality and suppleness. It needs time and respect to bring these horses to a top level, and the most important thing from my point of view, is to become and stay their friend in every situation.”
The Easier Ride on Gifted Master Valegro
World Record holder in all major championships, the infamous Valegro -- aka Blueberry -- is certainly a special and gifted horse. Charlotte Dujardin owes so much to the horse that indefinitely changed her life.
“Valegro wasn't difficult in the beginning, but like with any young horse, there are things that needed working on and still do. You never stop training with the horse and learning yourself. The key thing was to take our time and do things the right way and at a pace he was comfortable with.” says Charlotte.
Described as a true gentleman, a master and a scholar Charlotte says Valegro is such a gentle character and just loves life.
“I credit his groom Alan also for developing his beautiful personality as he's so good with him and Blueberry loves him.”
When asked why the truly gifted horses require more patience, or courage, Charlotte replies that it is probably because of that intelligence that they have.
“I think all horses need their riders to give them patience and understanding whatever their needs are. This is what gives them courage because they trust you and then will ultimately try hard for you.
The key to unlocking their brilliance, according to Charlotte, is again taking your time with them as well as, she believes, letting them live like horses by hacking and giving them regular field time.
“Praising them when they do something well and then finding another way if they don't understand. I think it's also important that riders reflect on their own ways of riding and check that they are sending the right messages to their horse as this is important too."
Confidence is the Key with Batuta
To get an idea of what a talented mare can be like in the beginning, I talked with Jan Bemelmans who trained the very exuberant Lusitano mare Batuta in her early days.
“Batuta was not complicated, but she was overly sensitive. She was just so willing to work and she could become very tense, not in a bad way, she would never buck or rear, she would just look left and right, like any horse with that much sensitivity,” said Jan.
He noted that it was particularly interesting to watch Batuta go into the field as a young mare, as it gave some more insight into her personality.
“We would put her out into the field with another mare, and she would follow, always staying behind the other mare, never in the lead. It showed me that she had a little heart, with all the power and all talent, she was not so brave and confident in herself.”
Because of this Jan had to be so careful with everything. The mare learnt everything so quickly, but he really had to go just step by step, so that she really understood.
“She would get easily nervous and confused, so with everything we took the time. She was just fantastic to ride though, she has such life inside her, always willing to give 100%," he said.
Training Batuta with his new rider Goncalo Carvalho recently in Vidauban, Jan said that even now there were people standing around and kids moving, and she still needed time to settle in and gain her confidence.
“She was afraid of everything and she needs time to know there is no danger. However, once she trusts you, she has no problem in any exercises, and she is super fun, very special, strong , a mare that looks like a stallion!” said Jan.
Gonçalo Carvalho is now competing on the talented mare and he says Batuta is very very special. She is the most sensitive, most powerful horse, and a horse with the best character he has experienced in his riding life.
"When she is relaxed and in a good way we have the confidence to compete on a world stage. She will make her mark in dressage, she is a Lusitano with an amazing ability for piaffe and passage, it’s just a matter of time for everything to come together,” said Goncalo.
Finally, Jan’s advice for any horse that is set to light the dressage world on fire, is to take the time, give the horse confidence, know the horse, teach the horse to trust in you!
“Riders give the horses confidence, and it’s the horses that give the riders the success."
By Sarah Warne - Photos © Astrid Appels
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