Dante, One in a Century

Wed, 02/03/2010 - 00:00
Greatest Oldies

Sweden is a country with a long history of breeding dressage horses and being successful at Olympic Games in this discipline. Especially before World War II and in the years after it Swedish dressage riders dominated the sport.

Henri St. Cyr was the first rider to defend the Olympic title by winning in 1952 and 1956. The famous Swiss Olympic riders Henri Chammartin and Gustav Fischer won all their Olympic medals on Swedish horses and in the 1960s even the Germans traveled to the north of Europe to scout for dressage talents.
Their first post war Olympic individual champion, the late Liselott Linsenhoff, won on the Swedish stallion Piaff, sired by the Olympic dressage horse Gaspari, which was most influential to the modern Swedish warmblood breed.

Though Swedish dressage riders and Swedish bred dressage horses continued to have success internationally, Sweden lacked a really outstanding pair since the 1970s, the decade its next star was born. This is the story of a very special Swedish bred dressage horse, which never won a medal, but was one of the talents of the century: Dante.

Dante was born in 1979. His sire Duell was a Swedish warmblood that went back to the famous Swedish stallion Nepal on its sire’s side. Duell’s dam Duschka was a purebred Hanoverian mare with the best dressage bloodlines Hannover owned at that time, sired by the great Duellant out of a mare by Der Löwe xx. Dante’s dam Limona was by the thoroughbred Um Said xx and contained also Trakehner blood. Though the liver chestnut colt was quite well bred it wasn’t a real beauty when he met a certain Louise Nathhorst for the first time in 1983.

Nathhorst was then one of Sweden’s talented young dressage riders. A native from Stockholm she had been to the north of Germany for the first time in 1974 to train with the renowned Walter Christensen, who remained her trainer until his death in 1990. At the beginning 1980s she competed an Oldenburger gelding called Inferno (by Inschallah AA) with whom she was on the bronze medal winning Swedish team at the 1984 Olympics.
Louise was looking for a young horse when she scouted Dante on a farm in the south of Sweden. It was love at first sight and even 27 years later one still feels the enthusiasm in her voice when she talks about Dante.

“As soon as I met him I loved him," Louise told Eurodressge. "His looking was rather ugly then, but he gave me an unbelievable feel during the trial ride: so supple, forward and sensitive.” Louise knew from the very beginning she had found a great talent, but more importantly it became the horse of her life. “He took my heart away right from the beginning”.

After she had worked permanently at Walter Christensen’s yard at Flensburg from 1981 to 1983 she came back to Sweden and started her young liver chestnut there, but still under the regular supervision of Christensen.

Louise trained Dante for three years before she first took the horse to a show. “Dante was a sensitive and eager horse. He wanted to please so much and avoid mistakes that he became quite hot at the beginning. I didn’t want to push him at any point,” his rider explained. Dante needed quiet, patient work to settle his nerves and to make him feel confident. Only then one could think of starting him without overasking his sensitive soul.
The liver chestnut was happy to be given all the time and affection he needed by his loving rider in order to mature into the horse and personality he became later.

It may be in these first years that the bond between Dante and Louise grew into what it used to be the strong connection the rest of their life. Louise alone is able to judge how much of their later success depended on their mutual trust and affection as Dante was very much “a one person’s horse”.

So Dante’s first show was in 1986 at M level and at an age many dressage horses were already successful at Grand Prix. Apart from the fact that Louise was well aware any pressure put on this uniquely talented horse might ruin his confidence she also wasn’t in an urgent need of a Grand Prix horse as she competed at the time the beautiful Swedish breeding stallion Chirac, one of Chagall’s most talented progeny in dressage. So in 1988, the year Chirac carried Louise to the Seoul Olympics, Dante started to compete at small tour level and reached Grand Prix at the age of 10.

In his first GP season he managed to place second behind his stable mate Chirac in the Swedish championships in Tranas. Nothing was really difficult for the gelding and Louise recalls how easy it was to teach him the piaffe, a movement many horses are never able to perform correctly. “With Dante it was so easy. I had him in long reins and just had to click my tongue and he started to piaffe.”

Though Dante was such a sensitive horse and hated sounds he regularly demonstrated his extraordinary suppleness and happiness while performing. He loved what he did as it was quite easy for him. He trusted his rider and was never overworked in his training. It entertained him.

Louise likes to work the horses in long reins regularly, once or twice times a week: “It is fun and I like to see the horses move from the ground.” The horses are not only trained in the morning, but also regularly hacked out in the afternoons to relax and have a change of scenery. Whenever the weather allows it they are let out in a paddock.

In 1990 Louise was in the lucky position to own two mounts for the first ever World Equestrian Games in her hometown of Stockholm: the experienced, but not always reliable Chirac and Dante, the jewel. But the course of the season showed that Dante was prepared for his first championships as he won the Grand Prix shows in Neumünster, Schoten and s’Hertogenbosch and thereby showed his great talent to a large audience. He won his first Swedish championships far ahead of Chirac.

It sounded like a dream for Louise to compete on the Swedish team at the first WEG in her home country and place of birth on such a talented, competitive horse. For Louise it was overshadowed by the illness of her longtime trainer Walter Christensen, which hindered him to travel to Sweden and support her in his usual way. In Stockholm Dante did not disappoint. Everybody could recognize his great talent and he qualified easily for the Grand Prix Special while the Swedish team finished in fourth place in front of their enthusiastic home crowd.

In the individual competition Dante once again thrilled many as he performed very well and placed 8th at his first championships. He was only less than 60 points behind the bronze medal winner Ganimedes and a look at the points awarded by each judge shows that the German judge Dr. Heinz Schütte even had placed him 4th. Surprisingly the Swedish judge Mr. William Hamilton, a former Olympic rider, put him only 9th place.

Not long after the WEG Louise had to cope with losing the trainer she worked with for 16 years. Walter Christensen died much too early in August 1990. He had an important impact on Louise’s riding development and had trained Dante from the beginning. Now “Lussan” as everybody calls Louise Nathhorst was in need of a new trainer after so many years with Christensen and she turned to Herbert Rehbein in 1991. Rehbein was one of the best dressage riders and trainers Germany had ever had and he was convinced his new pupil has a very special horse. Louise states: “Herbert told me that a horse like Dante is only born once in a century.”

Dante improved constantly and in 1991 he had his most successful season. Louise is never overasking her horses with too many starts and it was no different with such a unique horse like Dante. At the CDI Copenhagen in June the liver chestnut with the star on his face and the cheeky eyes was really superior, winning both the Grand Prix and the Special with a lead of almost 100 points ahead of Ravel, the experienced Olympic horse of former World Champion Anne-Grete Törnblad from Denmark.

Dante challenged more of his rivals at the mecca of equestrian sport, the CDIO Aachen. He placed a satisfying 7th in the Grand Prix, but showed his true ability in the Special, where his outstanding piaffe-passage tour and his wonderful extended walk enabled him to place a remarkable 4th behind the three best German riders. Finally there at Aachen everybody - experts, judges and audience alike - saw that Dante could become a threat for the very best in the world.

He was among the secret favourites in September 1991, when the European championships were held at the idyllic black forest town of Donaueschingen, which had taken over the championships from Lipica due to the conflict in former Yugoslavia. There the individual competition was divided for the first of two times in two competitions which offered better chances of earning a medal. Riders had to decide whether to perform in the traditional Special division or in the Freestyle division.

Louise will remember Donaueschingen as a championships where she booked her biggest success and biggest disappointment at the same time. The Swedish team performed really well with Louise and Dante as their strongest pair, coming 5th individually. But fate was not on the team’s side and the Swedish ladies lost the bronze medal by just 9 points to Holland.

On a autumn-like Sunday Dante showed his very best in the Special, which Louise had chosen to compete in. He went brilliantly and was the image of a classically trained and well ridden horse, which was able to show high collection and at the same time had kept his natural paces. But again luck wasn’t on their side. Dante lost the individual bronze by only 4 points to Corlandus, because one judge had placed him much lower than the other four judges. To the experts and many in audience he was the true bronze medal winner since the Holsteiner Corlandus had shown flaws in his trot work. Louise rates this result as Dante’s most important achievement. "It was a great result. I was so happy with my horse, but unfortunately only medals are remembered by the public," Nathhorst admitted.

With Dante still improving Louise hoped to get this missed medal for her horse at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Not only was Dante a serious contender, but the Swedish team also had realistic chances, with another new promising combination, Tinne Vilhelmson and her talented Holsteiner mare Caprice. In early spring 1992 Louise’s hopes to be even more competitive against the world elite were confirmed at the renowned Dortmund indoor show. There Dante excelled and beat the Germans in the Grand Prix Special, which he won after being 2nd in the Grand Prix. It was a much noticed feat in the German press and it showed who the Germans had to fear in Spain.

Preparations went really well when an inexplicable disaster struck Louise’s wonderful horse. Only weeks before the Olympics Dante, who had never been a day lame before, became unlevel. It was an awful blow for all involved with this unique horse, as their chance to crown its talent was taken away.

For 1,5 years Swedish and German vets tried to find out the reason for Dante’s lameness. In the end it was diagnosed as carpal tunnel syndrome in his knee. Dante was operated on, but what is quite a small operation nowadays was not an easy one then. Dante had one year off before Louise carefully started to train him again, but soon after her horse sustained the same injury in the other knee. The chestnut had always had slightly weak tendons and they suffered, too. There was no chance to return to the show ring, but as disappointing as it must have been, Louise never considered to part with her beloved horse. “We had such a close connection," Louise confessed. "He was a one person’s horse and I was his person to relate to. It was unthinkable to give him away, he was so much part of my life."

However Dante recovered in a way that he could be ridden daily again, though not in extensions or movements which strained his tendons. But he enjoyed being part of the yard and was a schoolmaster for Louise’s students until his 22nd birthday. From then on Dante was only hacked out and he enjoyed his life in the pasture, still looking great with only some gray hairs above his eyes. He stayed cheeky like on the first day.

In 2007 Dante was 28 and in a generally good state of health when he got laminitis.
This is a serious illness even for younger horses, but for a horse nearing its 30th birthday there was no other decision left than put him down. To Louise Dante was much more than just a horse she liked and rode for about 20 years, he had been her faithful companion for 24 years: “It was hard, an awful day. My life was so empty after Dante left. I will never have a horse like him again.”

Dante’s international career unfortunately was very short and he hadn’t the chance to reach his peak. Yet he is the kind of horse which is immortal in the memories of people who saw or met him: A real personality which never wanted anything else than please his rider and expressed to us spectators how beloved he was.

Photos © Hugo Czerny - No Reproduction Allowed!!

The author likes to thank Louise Nathhorst for talking to her and sharing her memories.

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