Some may doubt a Haflinger is meant for upper level dressage, but Austria’s international Grand Prix rider Caroline Kottas-Heldenberg once started her international career as a pony rider at the European Pony Championships on a Haflinger called Happy. Many dressage riders and judges make the same mistake of underestimating the Haflinger. At the beginning of the career of Stardust 7 Margin, the first purebred Haflinger to reach S-level in dressage, the same thing happened. Not only did this horse overcome typical prejudice, but he faced various odds to mature into a remarkable dressage horse, whose career lasted almost 18 years.
Stardust 7 Margin was born in 1982. He was one of the old-fashioned purebred Haflinger horses, whose conformation was no longer favoured. Haflinger breeding more and more tried to include Arab blood to refine their horses and make them more suitable for competitions. Stardust had not one drop of "foreign" blood and went back to foundation sires like Massimo or Student.
Initially he was meant for nothing better than serving on a pony farm. Unbelievable but true, he was broken in as a yearling and began his hard life there as a horse, which could be rented by beginners for one day trail rides. Because he was suffering from kissing spines he soon began to buck off all the beginners and thereby probably saved his life without being completely ruined at a very early age. Since Stardust could no longer be used as a horse for rent he had stable rest for months.
In 1985 Stardust’s life turned for the better when he met a 15-year old teenager. Swiss Kirsten Jung had started to ride in 1982 and began to work a Welsh x Arab crossbred stallion at the worn-out pony farm where Stardust lived. Kirsten intended to buy the beloved crossbred, but the farm owners refused to sell him and offered her Stardust instead. She took the Haflinger, but only with the aim to correct him and sell him on to get enough money to be finally able to buy the favoured Arab cross.
Kirsten soon found out why the Haflinger stallion had been sold: Stardust bucked, reared and bit. He moved forward with the speed of a snail and had never learned to react to the aids. He was 3 and couldn’t do anything properly. Though the stallion must have been a serious challenge for a 15 year old without a trainer it was this tough start that attached Kirsten to her horse forever. “After only three months I wouldn’t have given him away, for nothing in the world," recalls his rider.
Kirsten never really intended to ride just dressage. She loved 3-day eventing and also jumping, but she soon had to admit her bad eyesight would never allow her to do it properly. “I was not able to see the distances, it was much too dangerous.” Though she first did some jumping shows with her liver chestnut stallion, who was able to clear 145 cm fences while loose jumping, Kirsten soon gave up and concentrated on dressage because Stardust showed a bit of talent for it.
The problem to find a suitable trainer arose. It seemed impossible to find a good one having “only” a Haflinger and moreover such a difficult one in the 1980s. Many were not willing to work with such a “pony,” others did not want to train a “stubborn and lazy goat” and some suggested to cure the problems by using pure violence. Kirsten refused to work with any of them and continued to work on her own.
In 1990 Stardust started in his first dressage competitions at A-level and surprisingly won far ahead of his warmblood rivals. The quality of the 146 cm standing Haflinger’s trot impressed the other riders.
Kirsten was able to improve her horse year to year. In 1991 Stardust competed at L-level and in 1992 at M-level for the first time, always against warmbloods. It may sound a miracle both came that far without professional help. However, Kirsten admits: “Though I was able to train Stardust from novice to S all on my own there were many mistakes slipping in.” It took until 1997 to find a suitable trainer, Marc Thorsten Gerhardt, who changed a lot. When Kirsten moved back to Switzerland she attended clinics with Michael Hennemann, the former German national coach for handicapped dressage riders.
On his remarkable road to success the intelligent little horse had to overcome several health problems. He developed a chronic bronchitis as the result of an early flu infection which even helped Kirsten a bit when riding him. As soon as Stardust was not slightly in front of the vertical he started to fight the bit. In 1993 when he established at M-level he strained a suspensory ligament, which was not diagnosed by the vet at first, so he ruptured fibres and had to rest some time.
Kirsten changed her training completely and in 1994 Stardust had his first remarkable placings at M-level against warmbloods. His exceptional trot and the overall quality of his movements could stand this comparison. Stardust’s extended trot was superior. In this movements he expressed what a showman he used to be. “Many Haflingers have a lot of expression and charm'” said Kirsten and her very special little horse was a very good representative of his breed.
In 1997 Stardust reached the highest level and started his first S-dressage test. He was really not bred for dressage, but his great will to work and please his rider enabled him to compete at this level. Kirsten reports that the most difficult exercise for her light coldblood had been the canter pirouettes. “The movements of high collection were always a bit his achilles’ heel. If Stardust didn’t like the surface it was hard to collect him enough.”
The year of Stardust’s S-debut was a very successful one for him. He won two L-dressage competitions, earned 8 more placings between 2 and 8 and was even able to place 5 times in the top 3 at M-level. Not surprisingly Stardust became the most successful Haflinger in Germany in 1997.
Until 2001 Kirsten and her stallion started up to Intermediaire I level and earned several placings annually. By then they had become a familiar face on the scene and most rivals accepted the “exotic” little horse, which was pony height, but a horse by quality. Acceptance was not there right from the beginning and the pair had to earn it the hard way over the years.
Rivals and judges alike showed very different reactions to a Haflinger in the show ring.
Some of the warmblood riders were amazed by Stardust’s extraordinary quality and admired especially his trot extensions. Kirsten loves to recall the 2000 Swiss Championships, where Stardust started in the Intermediaire I, which was a sensation. “When Christine Stückelberger entered the indoor arena and scouted Stardust she freaked out,” his rider reminisced. So the little Haflinger even thrilled an Olympic champion, who could not believe her eyes: “What a lovely lovely horse!” But other riders joked about the “draft horse” and tried to talk badly about Stardust. More annoyingly for Kirsten had been the judges' differing opinions about her horse. “Some were happy to finally see such a well ridden and talented Haflinger, others were convinced this breed shouldn't be in a dressage ring," she recalls. Kirsten told me 40 points difference between single judges had not been uncommon, sometimes there had been even a 4 points difference in a single movement.
In 2005 Stardust was 23 and still doing so well that he got 23 wins and placings up to L-level before he suffered a serious tendon injury. He had to have a year off and this break threatened his life more than his injury. The palomino coloured workaholic suffered extremely by being out of work and he very much missed his training and the shows. He soon became older, didn’t eat properly and lost a lot of weight. This was the reason why Kirsten started to train her Haflinger again at the end of 2006 and the 25-year old Stardust had his last season in 2007, at an age many sport horses had already passed away. He retired on a high note by placing in both A- and L- competitions with more than 70%.
The judges were impressed by his everlasting elasticity and his persevering health.
Kirsten says Stardust performed outstandingly every time he had covered a mare right before. With his very rare old bloodlines and his unique performance record one should think Haflinger breeders in Germany and Switzerland were very interested in this jewel.
Though Stardust is licensed with the ZfdP (German riding horse breeding association), in Baden- Württemberg and Switzerland he unfortunately is not used very much. The few offsprings he sired, some owned by Kirsten, have proven to inherit their father’s quality and reliable character. In 2001 and 2003 his progeny won the foal show of Central Switzerland at Menzingen. Stardust’s first offspring, the 1995 born Haflinger mare Margin’s Morning Sun, is owned by Kirsten and has been successfully competed at L- level in dressage.
Stardust is awaiting his 28th birthday in 2010 and lives an active retirement keeping him entertained and healthy. Kirsten still rides him regularly, but he also carries her pupils and acts as their excellent schoolmaster. “He takes the utmost care, especially of his youngest pupil, a 7 year old girl," said Kirsten. Her stallion defies his age and after 18 years of competition, a horrendous youth and many problems he had to overcome, he is still the typical image of a Haflinger: well muscled and very cheeky.
No serious dressage rider will ever consider buying a Haflinger, but Stardust has proven how quality gaits, a good character and reliability can also enable such a horse to reach the highest level. More importantly this Haflinger may serve as a very good example how correct dressage training can help to curing health problems and keep a horse fit and happy up to a grand age.
Kirsten, who has recently written two books about training and lunging with the cavesson, in which Stardust models of course, is convinced: “Without strictly classical dressage training Stardust would not be around anymore, let alone at this level of fitness.”
By Silke Rottermann
Silke Rottermann likes to thank Kirsten Jung for her help in writing this article and for her contribution of photographs.
To find out more about Stardust, his progeny and Kirsten Jung please visit the website www.sporthaflinger.ch
- Kirsten Jung, ”Reiten – anatomisch richtig und pferdegerecht”, Kosmos Verlag 2007
- Kirsten Jung, “Rückentraining mit dem Kappzaum”, Kosmos Verlag 2009