Pepel, A True Legend of Russian Dressage

Tue, 10/20/2009 - 00:00
Greatest Oldies

Pepel is not just a famous dressage horse of the past, he is one of the few true legends of his sport. His story is not only one of extraordinary consistent success, but also one of strong Russian Trakehner breeding, one of glorious times for dressage in the former Soviet Union and one of their past talent scouting system.

Twenty years ago Rembrandt danced to Olympic gold in Seoul but Pepel was a dancer of similar kind: he fascinated dressage lovers and experts all over the world. This fairytale looking horse was born in 1956 at the famous Kirov Stud. There many of the Trakehner horses which the Russians brought home from Germany after World War II had found a new home and were successfully used for breeding sport horses.

The black-blue Pepel was by the Trakehner Piligrim, a son of the legendary Pythagoras, out of a Trakehner mare called Polyn (by Creon x Ararad x Schwimmer). The year of Pepel's birth marked the beginning of the Soviet Union recognized as a potential dressage nation. At the 1956 Olympic Games in Stockholm their riders with their beautiful and talented Arab influenced horses had caught the eyes of many.

The Soviet Union was a strictly communist country and this led to a completely different way of financing this expensive sport. Unlike in the western world, in Europe and North America, success in dressage didn't depend on a strong private financial background. In the Soviet Union the good horses belonged to state-owned riding clubs. It was the job of trainers to scout talented horses and riders and bring them together.

Dr. Elena Petushkova, who became Pepel's life-long rider, started riding at the late age of 16 and her very obvious talent caught the attention of the former cavalry officer and national trainer Grigorey Anastasev. He considered her to be extremely talented and a valuable addition to a Soviet Union's national team. Petuskova's old schoolmaster mare Tina had just died when Anastasev arranged for her to ride the young inexperienced Pepel.

Originally it was planned to use the only 1,63 m (16.0hh) small stallion as a three-day event horse, but an eye injury during his time as a foal had decreased his eyesight on the left and made him useless for this strenuous sport.

Nobody who had seen Petushkova and Pepel form a unity of total understanding in their Grand Prix career, could imagine the difficulties at the beginning of their partnership.
Pepel was quite wild and it took his new rider much patience and loving understanding to change his attitude.

Like many other successful horses the black Trakehner was very sensitive and had a strong personality. He was unbelievable proud and also quite stubborn. Pepel's memory was very good and he never forgot anything, neither positive, nor negative. He reacted in a very insulted way and even refused to take a lump of sugar for days, when there was some correction necessary now and then. Pepel was a natural mover and kept his natural gaits as a Grand Prix horse. There was just no difference between him moving in freedom or under a saddle. Everything looked totally natural and easy.

At the age of 9 the elegant stallion and his young female rider joined the national team for the first time to attend the1965 European Championships in Copenhagen. For the next ten years they participated in every international championship and never came home without a medal and usually they came home with two. At the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico Pepel was already an established international dressage horse. He contributed to the Soviet Union's silver medal and was sixth individually.

His greatest triumph came two years later at the 1970 World Championships in Aachen.
Although Liselott Linsenhoff, the 1969 European Champion, was hot favourite with Piaff Pepel's two performances were outstanding. In pouring rain he shone with his unattainable lightness and high technical level. He was honoured by all the spectators and the judges. His rider Dr. Elena Petushkova once compared dressage with ballet and she neared this visualization with Pepel, whose elegance and easiness were one of a kind, not only in Aachen 1970.

At his second 1972 Olympic Games in Munich Pepel was already 16 and this time he couldn't seriously challenge Piaff, but he took individual silver and the Soviet Union beat Germany and won the team gold. This wonderfully looking pair in front of the picturesque Nymphenburg castle in Munich will remain one of the most beautiful pictures of the 1972 Olympic Equestrian Games.

One year later at the 1973 European Championships in Aachen, Dr. Reiner Klimke was able to defeat Linsenhoff and Petushkova with his Hanoverian Mehmed. Pepel finished on a remarkable second place behind Klimke. The Soviet authorities, however, thought Pepel was past his peak and the stallion was taken away from his trusted rider and given to an Equestrian Centre as a schoolmaster.

Of course the Soviet system had the advantage to enable talents to compete without a strong financial background, but it also contained the disadvantage that horses could be taken away from a rider from one day to another, because they were state owned.
Petushkova visited her beloved horse and found him in a questionable condition, looking unhappy from the training sessions. She fought hard with the authorities and got Pepel back in time to force their selection for their third World Championships in Copenhagen in 1974. Aged 18 he won the individual bronze behind Mehmed and Piaff.

His natural charm and his always extraordinarily smooth and rhythmical transitions were still existent a year later at the 1975 European Championships in Kiev, but he was only placed seventh and was nearing the end of his unique career. The hope existed to bring Pepel back one last time to the 1976 Olympic Games, but the faithful horse went lame before the selection trials. He recovered quickly, however, but it was just too late to fly him over to Montréal. In 1977 a partnership of nearly 16 years ended with Pepel's last National Championships.

He was retired to his birthplace, the Kirov Stud, and immediately covered only the very best mares. Pepel soon proved to be also an extraordinary sire. He sired Salph, a very good jumper in his first year at stud. His spitting image was the highly talented Gipjur, who went to Petushkova, but unfortunately had to be retired to stud much too early at the age of 8 due to a groin injury. In 1980 Pepel stood his last year at stud and brought the very similar looking black stallion Sapros, who was sold to the renowned Trakehner stallion station Gestut Vogelsanghof in Germany in 1997. He is the last Pepel offspring alive and still covering.

In 1981 Pepel was 25 years and one night after dinner he lay down to sleep forever. Petushkova once said that she was never aiming for medals when competing. Rather she was looking for happiness in riding a horse and finding a common language with it.

She and Pepel undoubtedly found it and formed a real unity rarely ever seen on such a high level again.

Recommended Reading

  • This Pepel article is mainly based on Chris Hector's article and an article from the Bavarian Trakehner Breeding Association
  • (in English)
  • Video Clip: Pepel in Training
  • Elena Petushkova, My life and my dressage horses, unknown, 1983 (out of print, available second hand)
  • R. Klimke, F. Jandl, W. Lutz, Reiterspiele Mexiko 1968, Aschendorff Verlag, Münster 1968 (in German, out of print, available second- hand)
  • R. Klimke, A. Stecken, H. Müller, Olympische Reiterspiele München 1972, Aschendorff Verlag, Münster 1972 (in German, out of print, available second hand)
  • H. Wagner / H. Meyer, Kavalkade - Olympische Reiterspiele 1972, Lapp- Verlag, n.k. 1972

Article by Silke Rottermann 
Archive photos courtesy Werner Ernst

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