There is no clear definition what a dressage horse should look like, but there is the common opinion that it has to be noble, beautiful, lightfooted, sensitive, eager to work and please and with high quality gaits. A picture perfect horse doesn’t automatically mean they are successful. It needs a talented rider who can handle all these qualities to form an extraordinary horse. In the 1980s a Hanoverian breeder was lucky to produce such a horse, whose name became omen: Walk on Top.
Walk on Top was a combination of Hanoverian bloodlines, which promised success for every breeder. His sire was the noble Wenzel I, a liver chestnut standing at Celle Stud, who is famous for producing outstanding dressage horses such as Emma Hindle's impressive stallion Lancet. Walk on Top’s dam Athene was by Absatz,a renowned son of the Trakehner Abglanz, who refined Hanoverian breeding after World War II. Heinrich Engelke from Dörverden bred the beautiful chestnut colt in 1985.
It soon became obvious that this horse was something special as he was selected for the world famous Verden Elite auction. There Inge Schmezer, a well known trainer and Grand Prix rider, was responsible for the training of the auction horses and she prepared the good looking youngster who got named Walk on Top. He had grown into a 168 cm standing horse.
Not surprisingly this horse of great quality and beauty became the top prized horse of the 1989 Verden auction. Walk on Top was sold for the then record prize of 130,000 DM (65,000 euro). She remained in the capable hands of Inge Schmezer, who at that time also had another Hanoverian talent, Bini Bo.
Within three years Walk on Top moved from novice up to St Georges level. A skilled woman who followed his progress constantly was the widow of Walter Christensen, who regularly worked as a judge’s scribe and knew Inge Schmezer. Mrs. Christensen, a native Swede, always kept in touch with her husband’s most faithful pupil, Louise Nathhorst.
She knew “Lussan” needed a replacement for her great Dante, who had gone lame shortly before the 1992 Olympics uncertain if he would come back one day. Louise recalls how Mrs. Christensen saw Walk on Top and immediately thought: “This is one for Lussan!”
Though Walk on Top was a dreamlike horse and every dressage rider would have been absolutely enthusiastic to have him in the yard, Louise admits she was not to first. “He was different from Dante and at the beginning I made the mistake by always comparing him to Dante.” The fact that Walk on Top had a “hard” time to gain Louise’s heart at the beginning of their partnership wasn’t his fault. Louise had such a strong bond with Dante and the disappointment about his unplanned early retirement from the sport was still latent.
After having had a horse of unique talent, such as Dante, every other horse must have been a bit of a downfall. But Walk on Top proved to be more than just a proper replacement.
When he arrived at Louise’s yard near Stockholm he was trained at small tour level and needed to learn the important Grand Prix movements. Louise taught him the piaffe in long reins first and he found it much harder than Dante had years before. He tried hard to find and keep the rhythm while sitting on his hindlegs. Though he improved over the years the piaffe remained his weak point throughout his career. However Walk on Top’s magnificent canter, his almost equally good trot and walk helped him much to become the most successful horse Louise has had to date.
From the beginning Walk on Top's passion to compete became his trademark. He was a horse that loved to perform in front of the crowds. As soon as there was an audience and an atmosphere he put his ears forward and kept them pricked permanently. The spectators felt how much this horse was enjoying himself and it virtually created the impression of a smiling horse.
The Hanoverian’s international career started in 1995 at the age of 10 when Louise presented him successfully at the CDI Copenhagen winning both the Grand Prix and Special. He went on to impress at the CDI Falsterbo on home turf, winning the Grand Prix more than 100 points ahead of the Swedish stallion Flyinge Amiral under Kyra Kyrklund, which was like Walk on Top quite new at this level. At the Swedish championships in Gothenburg Walk on Top placed second behind Ulla Hakansson’s experienced grey Flyinge Tolstoy. After three years out of the national team Louise was back with her very promising horse.
At the 1995 European Championships in Mondorf-les-bains the pair didn’t disappoint and placed a very good 9th overall after three competitions. The Swedish team finished again in the very unsatisfying 4th place after it had placed 6th two years earlier.
By the end of the 1995 season Walk on Top discovered his real destination: the kur to music. At CDI-W Stockholm he placed 2nd in the freestyle and proved that performing to music really suited him. Lightfooted and elegant as he was he gave the impression that he was “dancing”. Nathhorst recalled that, “he had a great presence and really loved to compete.”
In 1996 Walk on Top started at the Hamburg derby, always a successful show ground for his rider and not too far away from Sweden. Usually Walk on Top was very well behaved on the lorry, so Louise soon found out that her horse didn’t like traveling by ferry. “He became sea sick and I learnt a lot about it through Walk on Top.” A Swedish based horse with an aversion against ferries is a real disadvantage, but Louise coped quite well with it as did Walk on Top later.
In Hamburg he met a strong field and finished 7th (GP) and even 5th (GPS), which caught the interest of the German public and press alike. More matured Walk on Top had an easy time winning the Swedish Championships during this Olympic year, ahead of Ulla Hakansson’s other stallion, Flyinge Bobby.
In some ways Walk on Top was a much easier horse to train than his predecessor Dante. Though he sometimes was scared of things on the ground, even in his own stable, the gelding was a calmer nature and usually didn’t tend to spook. He had no problems with the long flight over the Atlantic to the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Olympic Games are an athlete's most important aim but to obtain a good result and perform to one’s utmost on the day itself, one t needs a very good preparation and even more so, luck. The latter hadn’t always been the case for Louise, who had a wonderful debut with Olympic team bronze in 1984, but had to face disappointments in 1988 and especially in 1992, when she was one of the medal candidates and couldn’t start due to Dante’s injury. In 1996 it was expected that she would be the strongest member of the Swedish team and score superiorly.
Walk on Top was able to, but luck again wasn’t on Lussan’s side. The climate in this part of the USA is hot und the humidity high so the riders tried not to overask the horses when warming up for the competition. Maybe Walk on Top was a little bit too fresh when he entered the stadium for the Grand Prix. The surface had been prepared before and as Walk on Top entered the arena he discovered the line in the middle and spooked. The beginning of the test suffered from tension and Walk on Top did unusual mistakes before Louise was able to get him focused. The damage was done and the anchor of the Swedish team became only third best member placing 21st individually. The Swedish team came 5th.
Louise knew she had to improve a lot if to reach the freestyle final. Luckily Walk on Top was back on form in the Special: relaxed and obedient, showing very good transitions and pirouettes. They finished 7th, but close in points to the first three placed combinations. It was interesting to see the break down of scores, which differed quite a lot: the judges placed them 11th, 10th, 5th, 3rd and even 2nd! Maybe it shows how difficult it is to judge a horse which has dreamlike gaits, is very well ridden, but which lacks an outstanding piaffe.
In the freestyle Walk on Top did a good test with the best extended walk of all horses. He finished 10th overall with a 72,73% score. It was a mollifying end of an Olympic Games, which hard started so disappointingly.
Nathhorst finished off her 1996 show season with a second place at the Stockholm World Cup qualifier. She started the 1997 indoor season with another second place at the CDI-W Neumunster. Walk on Top's first big international championship success was a third place at the 1997 World Cup Finals in s’Hertogenbosch, finishing behind Anky van Grunsven and Sven Rothenberger.
At the 1997 CDIO Aachen, where the world's best pairs meet, Walk on Top was beginning to live up to his characteristic name. He placed 3rd in every competition he entered. In the Grand Prix he was only beaten by the great Gigolo and his longtime rival Bonfire. This was an indicator for the European Championships later the year in Verden, where Walk on Top started his career as a dressage horse.
Louise had every reason to be happy and looked forward to Verden, but once again she had to face the loss of her trainer like in 1990. Herbert Rehbein, who took over her training after Walter Christensen’s death, died in July 1997. Louise and even more so Rehbein’s wife Karin had to cope with his untimely death, while both were competing in their country's teams at Verden. Walk on Top performed consistently well in all three parts and finished 5th overall. But more importantly he had helped the Swedish team to win the team bronze medal.
In 1998 the Hanoverian turned 13. He had matured and was experienced now. It became his best year. The first goal was the World Cup final on home turf in Gothenburg. For this event the famous Benny Andersson, member of ABBA, composed a musical freestyle, which fitted the friendly looking horse perfectly. Funnily Andersson still mentions it on his homepage as a composition for a “jumper”.
Gothenburg became the greatest triumph for Walk on Top and his rider as the pair won the World Cup Finals. They showed a great harmony throughout their rides, which enabled Louise to perform several difficult parts such as the extended trot, the canter pirouettes and the flying changes with just one hand. Walk on Top maintained his wonderful contact in the mouth and self carriage like almost no other horse at the time. Louise still recalls “it was most fantastic to win in front of my home crowd.”
There was criticism after the show on how a horse with a piaffe like Walk on Top’s can beat a horse like Bonfire, but the harmony, the suppleness and the high quality of his natural movements justified the victory in every case. The piaffe is often dangerously overestimated and unfortunately considered the most important in the scale of training and competition riding.
At the 1998 World Equestrian Games in Rome Louise did not dare to hope for an individual medal. She reminisced: “The horses flew from Stockholm airport to Rome without a problem. It was a nice show, but I have never seen so much traffic before. We had to be escorted by the police to get from the hotel to the showground every day.”
In the Grand Prix Walk on Top placed 3rd behind Gigolo and Bonfire like he did in Aachen the year before. Sweden again won a team bronze medal. It was a pity that the cute Hanoverian couldn’t defend this brilliant position the next days, placing 7th and 4th and an overall 5th, directly behind Karin Rehbein and Donnerhall. The Swedish horses traveled home in the lorry which took some days before they could enjoy a well earned holiday.
Louise allowed her horse to have a long rest over the winter to recover from the season and to reboost his mental energy as well. Nobody foresaw it were to become a break from the sport forever. She started training him again at the beginning of 1999 but Walk on Top suffered an injury to his suspensory ligament. They hoped he would recover after a long break, but when Louise carefully picked up schooling him again it was obvious he wouldn’t stand serious training. “There was just the decision of retiring or ruining him,” Louise admitted.
For a rider, who cares as much for her horses as Louise does, it was another blow as her other great talent, Dante had to be retired much too early as well. When asked if she is lacking luck with her top horses Louise answers, “A bit, but I had five years with Walk on Top at Grand Prix level and for these I am grateful.”
When it became obvious that Walk on Top wouldn’t come back to the show ring Louise made a decision. Unlike Dante the chestnut wasn’t a one person’s horse. He was very sociable and lovely to everyone. The person who had cared for him dearly all his time at Louise’s yard was his longtime groom Kim Jonasson. When she left Louise after eight years of work, Louise gave Walk on Top to her to take care of, but the gelding remained in Louise’s ownership.
The great Hanoverian has stayed at his new home ever since. He still leads a heavenly life, living in a big field with two pony friends as companions, being the absolute centre of attention like he was always used to. Now nearing his 25th birthday Walk on Top is still feeling very well and is hacked out in the woods regularly during the summer months.
Walk on Top was one of the loveliest horses which has ever entered the dressage arena. The friendliness, happiness and joy he expressed while competing should be the criteria when talking about the “happy athlete”.
By Silke Rottermann - © Eurodressage.com
Photos © Hugo Czerny - Dirk Caremans - Private
Dante, One in a Century
History of the European Championships
Spectacles on: Wenzel I, Leading dressage sire of 1997/1998
Scores 1998 World Equestrian Games
Scores 1998 World Cup Finals
Scores 1996 Olympic Games