Without a doubt the breeding of dressage horses has improved tremendously over the past three decades. Looking at old pictures one wonders which models were chosen to ride dressage in the past.
But even 50 years ago there have been some remarkable exceptions that were far ahead of their time. They represented the "modern" type of dressage horse so much favoured today.
One of those prodigies was Henri Chammartin's legendary horse Wolfdietrich. This super star was bred by Carl Herslow in Sweden in the early 1950s. His mare Kasanette (by Talisman) had been covered by the noble chestnut thoroughbred stallion Daladier xx and resulted in a small chestnut colt in 1951. About that time the Swiss military began to import their horses from Sweden, especially to equip their dressage stable properly. Swedish horses were said to be the most elegant and noble at that time.
A military delegation and their veterinarian Dr. Josef Löhrer were looking for horses once again in 1954 and chose, among others, Carl Herslow’s thoroughbred influenced colt which had grown into a 163 cm young horse. For the dressage stable they wanted horses with good movements, a beautiful and elegant appearance and with enough size, which meant a horse could not stand below 160 cm. The chosen horses were shipped to Switzerland in the autumn of 1954. On 17 September they arrived in the little town of Schönbühl near Berne where the riders of the EMPFA Berne (Swiss military horse depot) were awaiting them.
Amongst those riders was Henri Chammartin who had successfully represented his country in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki on the massive Swedish bred horse Wöhler. Those who suppose somebody like Chammartin was allowed to choose his horses upon arrival are wrong. Instead the new youngsters were assigned to the riders and Chammartin got the narrow chestnut which turned out to have the same sire like his heavy short legged Olympic horse Wöhler! The second horse, which was assigned to Chammartin on the same day, was a dark brown gelding with a little white snip on his nose. Nobody could foresee then that those two horses would makz Chammartin’s career as a dressage rider in a tremendous way later on.
After the assignment the horses were trailered to the EMPFA in Berne, located near the famous Berne Rosegarden and the Wankdorf soccer stadium. Chammartin’s two were stabled in stable no. 7 at the edge of the huge facility, where the dressage barn was located. Though "stands" were the standard for horses in those days, the EMPFA equines had the luxury of open boxes. The stands were used especially for military horses which had to be used standing tied up for long hours in case of war.
Military Training at the Beginning
Though riders like Chammartin's trainer Hans Moser, Gustav Fischer, Gottfried Trachsel and Chammartin himself regularly competed at international shows and were fine promoters of the Swiss cavalry, the horses were chosen first and foremost for military purposes and only in second place for dressage. This also influenced their training from the beginning.
A military rule defined that all horses from Sweden had to get a name beginning with the letter “W” and so the young chestnut was named “Wolfdietrich” while the smaller dark brown one was called “Woermann”. Chammartin started working with both and Wolfdietrich soon turned out to be an easy and very willing horse to handle. From the very beginning he proved to be a real gentleman, a horse who never thought for a fraction of a second to behave improperly in the stable nor under the saddle. If there were aristocrats among horses Wolfdietrich would had been one!
Unfortunately at the very beginning a serious problem occurred. Though all horses that came in were completely untrained under the saddle Wolfdietrich showed serious signs of saddle girth restraint. It took long minutes to tighten the girth carefully and when mounted Chammartin was not allowed to touch Wolfdietrich’s belly for about 15 minutes. He had to sit quietly in the saddle trying not to touch the flanks of the highly sensitive Wolfdietrich while they walked in the indoor arena. After this period of time the beautiful chestnut would finally accept the calves at his flanks and work could start.
The youngsters at the military depot and the ones of the dressage stable underwent variable training under the saddle. Once in a week they were hacked and as the EMPFA was in the town the horses had to get used to the traffic. Another aspect of the training was jumping. The EMPFA offered a grassy paddock with lots of natural fences, like ditches or banks, but also various opportunities to do jumping in the three indoor arenas or the huge outdoor one.
So young Wolfdietrich had to do some harmless gymnasticizing jumping exercises weekly at the beginning of his career which was also useful for his later career as a dressage horse. Even at Aachen a fence had to be jumped after an S-class at those times and it could decisive for the victory or for complete failure. Wolfdietrich became a victim of this old-fashioned obedience test, when he once refused to jump the pole at Aachen and had to be disqualified.
Becoming a Dressage Horse
Like his half brother Wöhler, Wolfdietrich was such a sensitive and eager horse which progressed quite quickly. His extraordinary energy, which he showed all his life, helped him to learn piaffe and passage without any problems. Chammartin usually taught these exercises from the saddle instead of doing handwork first. Even as a young horse lacking the strength he had later, Wolfdietrich showed his ability to sit on his hind legs and hold a clear rhythm, while impressively pushing himself off the ground with lift in the forehand.
From the very beginning one could see that the elegant chestnut had lots of freedom in the shoulder. According to Swiss Olympian Marianne Fankhauser (née Gossweiler), who often saw the horse in Berne or at shows where she competed with Chammartin on the team, Wolfdietrich was able to straighten the forelegs almost horizontally.
This had been an advantage in the piaffe and passage work, but it didn’t help a lot when it came to the difficult flying changes. This exercise almost drove the experienced Chammartin mad when he tried to teach the tempi changes to his talented horse for long months.
Wolfdietrich did change, but first in front and then behind! “Wolfdietrich’s hind legs were always a bit dragging in the trot, passage and canter. This combined with his forehand action might have been the reason why he had such difficulties,” Fankhauser explained. Very rarely this kind horse was able to bring the hind leg forwards simultaneously with the forelegs and Chammartin, who had already invested so much work in this horse, was ready to give up.
“One day my father was sitting together with a colleague after work. Both had a glass of beer and discussed Wolfdietrich’s future. My father was that desperate he told his friend he was going to give Wolfdietrich back, because he couldn’t solve the problem with the flying changes. But his colleague encouraged him and advised to start Wolfdietrich at an L-level dressage competition on the Zurich showground called Hardwiese. My father gave it one last try and Wolfdietrich won the competition,” Henri's daughter Marianne Chammartin reminisced. To this day, 92-year old Henri Chammartin happily recalls the day he decided on his future with the horse.
It still took him more months to teach Wolfdietrich to change in one phase, but he had renewed faith and in the end the horse not only learned the flying changes but he showed some of the best of his decade!
International Debut in Wiesbaden, Olympic Debut in Rome
Regularly travelling to foreign countries to participate in international dressage shows is common today. In the 1950s it was rather an exception and the EMPFA riders wouldn’t have dared taking unreliable horses on such an occasion. There still was some risk when Chammartin decided to give Wolfdietrich his first international outing at the CDI Wiesbaden in the spring of 1958. The chestnut and his stable mates Wöhler as well as Woermann were loaded on the train which brought them to their destination in the south of Germany. At the railway station the horses were picked up by a lorry which the organisers made available and were driven the last few kilometres to the showground.
Wolfdietrich, aged 7, competed in the Prix St. Georges and won the class on his debut! His elegance, beauty and the extraordinary harmony with his rider along with the high quality he showed in the programme were well rewarded by the judges. It was Chammartin's first international win with Wolfdietrich and they gave their first glimpse of promise of what was to come with this horse.
The 1960 Olympic Games came quickly and because Wolfdietrich knew the whole Grand Prix programme and was without a doubt one of the most attractive horses on the international circuit the question arose whether to take him to Rome. The FEI had decided to leave out the team competition and only host an individual competition to secure the discipline’s Olympic future.
In Rome there would be no team responsibility and the riders only competed for their own glory. This may have been the reason why Chammartin decided to take the 9-year-old Wolfdietrich to his first Olympics. The horse was quite inexperienced at this highest level and less well known to the judges at Grand Prix level compared to his 14-year-old half brother Wöhler, who had competed in the two Olympic Games before and had been the 1958 (unofficial) European Champion.
“My father decided for Wolfdietrich in the end, because he was the younger horse and the more attractive one. Though he knew Wöhler wasan absolutely reliable horse accepted by the judges,” Chammartin’s daughter reported.
Together with the Gustav Fischer's 7-year-old Swedish bred Wald (by Drabant) Chammartin and Wolfdietrich went to Rome by train, which was usual for the European top horses. Horse air cargo was only in its infancy and very risky.
In Rome Wolfdietrich drew a lot of attention, especially amongst the spectators. Surrounded by many sturdier dressage horses this fine horse was something special. ?But like so often, the crowd may have their favourites, caught by beauty and harmony, the judges were the ones marking every single exercise. Wolfdietrich did not disappoint his rider and performed obediently in the wonderful surroundings of Villa Borghese in Rome, offering all his charm to enthuse the crowds which really fell in love with him.
But at the end it was his stable mate Wald, this huge dark brown gelding, that won silver for Switzerland, while Wolfdietrich finished 8th in a field of 17 competitors. The German press listed the weak spots which hindered the talented horse to place higher: "Dragging hind legs and an almost lateral walk," but they also called the horse “a fascinating appearance” and “one of the most beautiful horses.”
Marianne Chammartin added another aspect: “Wolfdietrich’s stature was much more appealing than Wöhler’s of course. But unlike his predecessor Wolfdietrich had not been that well known and familiar to the judges. Moreover he just wasn’t experienced enough in all the exercises to score higher.”
The dragging hind legs were rather inherited than anything else, but for the judges it could have been an indicator that a horse was not engaged enough from behind. Chammartin would have been able to change this by forcing the horse to engage the hind legs more, but he was the kind of rider who aimed for beauty and harmony above all else when working his horses.
“Rarely Henri pushed the horses to their limit in a competition or at home. Wolfdietrich only dragged his hind legs a bit in the trot and passage, but still looked very elegant and had lots of success,” Fankhauser reported.
Rising to Stardom
In 1962 Wolfdietrich won his first Swiss Championships and placed 4th at the unofficial European Championships in Rotterdam, but in 1963 he was experienced enough to unfold his whole brilliance. At the European Championships in Copenhagen the elegant horse won the individual title, a feat he would repeat two years later at the same place.
The British dressage rider Diana Mason, who won the team gold medal at Copenhagen in 1963 with the mare Tramella, still remembers the quality of Wolfdietrich’s performance: “He was a strong, impressive looking horse, very correctly trained and beautifully produced — Chammartin and his colleague Fischer were wonderful riders.”
Being internationally accepted and victorious Chammartin justifiably had high hopes for the Olympic year 1964. After having won two Olympic team medals and always having placed in the top 10 individually he hoped to achieve individual glory. Wolfdietrich had it all and their elegance and harmony were really unique at that time. Technical and artistic aspects melted to a certain kind of excellence which could challenge the Germans.
“Wolfdietrich had been a lovely and kind horse, but he needed much feeling, patience and relaxation to excel. My father had it all, but he also had a sense of aesthetics and a great feeling for rhythm. So he not only aimed for technical perfection in his horses, but also intended to present them dance-like,” said Marianne Chammartin.
But the Olympic year started off badly. The much feared equine influenza broke out in the EMPFA stables and spread, affecting Chammartin’s Grand Prix horses Wolfdietrich and Woermann. It took quite some time for them to recover and both had to be reconditioned. “Just in time both were fit enough for the Swiss Olympic trials which were all won by Wolfdietrich,” Chammartin’s daughter stated.
After the trials there was enough time for the horses to recover a bit and get back in training in time as the Olympics were held only in October. Unfortunately, another stroke of bad luck hit the wonderful horse.
“Just after the trials Wolfdietrich got jaundice and was miserable. He could not be trained properly and wasn’t really fit until the departure for Tokyo. But my father had such faith in his horse; he hoped he would recover befire the competition.”
Chammartin had a reserve horse at hand. The sometimes brilliant, but very unreliable Woermann had been nominated as Swiss reserve horse and was also going to fly to Japan. “Henri desperately wanted to compete Wolfdietrich in Tokyo. He hoped he might improve enough to be able to start, because he had great faith in the horse and Wolfdietrich was actually the more brilliant one than Woermann who could be horribly naughty if the mood took him there. With Woermann Henri did not count on an individual medal,” Fankhauser recalled the situation prior to their departure.
So at the beginning of October 1964 Wolfdietrich and his stable mates Wald and Woermann and Marianne Fankhauser’s grey Stephan waited on the tarmac to enter a Lloyd International airplane which should take them to Tokyo with several stops underway. Though never having flown before the well behaved Wolfdietrich entered the plane through a narrow walkway without hesitation. The plane was a usual passenger aircraft in which the seats had been removed. The horses stood individually in very narrow boxes, their head and neck sticking out. To prevent the horses from falling in case of turbulence or during take-off and landing they got a surcingle under their belly, which was strapped to the ceiling of the box.
The long flight passed without incident. “We fed the horses masses of carrots and sugar every time we landed or took off so they concentrated entirely on the food,” Fankhauser remembered.
Unfortunately Wolfdietrich didn’t live up to his rider’s hopes and did not recover in time. The long flight hadn’t helped either and a day before the Grand Prix Chammartin had to withdraw his best horse in its best interest and replaced him with Woermann. Though some experts were of the opinion that Wolfdietrich had been Chammartin’s best horse ever the chestnut did not get the opportunity to crown his brilliance with Olympic gold. But after coming home from the long journey he got enough time to completely recover and he recovered to his old self by winning his 2nd European champion's title.
In 1966 the first official World championships in dressage were held on Wolfdietrich’s very own home turf, the EMPFA in Berne, which offered excellent facilities for the dressage riders and horses alike. Of course the hope of the Swiss public was high to see their local hero become the first official World champion.
Wolfdietrich was fit, but “my father knew exactly that with a 15-year-old horse, which had been competing internationally for at least 8 years, it would be hard, if not impossible, to keep up with the Germans,” Marianne Chammartin recalled. He had been right. Though Wolfdietrich scored highly and showed a good performance he could not beat the brilliance of Josef Neckermann’s new horse Mariano, another new beauty in the show ring. The Swiss team won silver and Wolfdietrich came 4th behind the three Germans. “My father still was very happy with the horse.”
Wolfdietrich, nearing the end of his long career, had a bit of a downfall in individual results in his last two years in competition. At the European Championships in 1967 he came 5th and a year later the Swiss team of Tokyo 1964 flew to Mexico-City to attend in the 1968 Olympic Games. Chammartin finished 9th in the Grand Prix and missed the individual final, but still won a team bronze medal.
Retirement in Switzerland
After the Olympic Games the 17-year-old gelding was retired from competition after an outstanding career that covered a decade. There was no farewell ceremony which is usual nowadays. He just stopped competing, but remained in his stable and took part in the dressage classes Chammartin took care of. Wolfdietrich served as an excellent schoolmaster for young upcoming dressage riders such as Ueli Lehmann who followed in Chammartin’s footsteps at the 1976 Olympics on another Swedish chestnut with a “W”, Widin.
“Now and then my father rode Wolfdietrich and both gave several displays over the following years at the EMPFA and elsewhere,” said Marianne.
Wolfdietrich became a legend even before his retirement. In 1964 the EXPO (Swiss national exhibition) took place in Lausanne and Henri Chammartin rode Wolfdietrich in tailcoat and top hat instead of his usual military uniform in front of thousands. It was a memorable display of the art of dressage. The horse, ridden single handedly, seemed to move by magic to almost invisible aids, expressing all what is wished for in dressage. It was a very good opportunity to show the laymen what a beautiful sport dressage is.
During his three years in retirement there was no paddock freedom for Wolfdietrich, as for none of the the dressage horses at the EMPFA in those times, but Wolfdietrich was walked and grazed daily by his groom to keep him occupied.
Moreover the kind chestnut had its very own way of resting and relaxing during the day. Wolfdietrich, unlike other horses, did not rest one hind leg, but instead rested with his forelegs.
“He always used to rest one of his forelegs like other horses rest a hind leg. Wolfdietrich had no pain whatsoever, it was just a funny habit of him to rest like that,” Marianne Fankhauser reminisced.
In 1971 the horse was 20 years and signs of old age were troubling him more and more. He could not be ridden anymore and in the military the horse was not given a life in the field: "a life those horses were not used to, ripped from from their familiar surroundings.” So the officials made the decision to humanely put him down.
The lightness and harmony Wolfdietrich had shown with Henri Chammartin is still exemplary. Switzerland has had other medal winners afterwards, but none of such beauty, elegance and grace which the Swedish chestnut expressed over a decade. In this aspect Wolfdietrich is hardly unequalled after 50 years.
The aristocrat among the dressage horses of the 1960s and the sensible Chammartin matched perfectly and so one might assume Wolfdietrich had been Chammartin’s horse in a lifetime. Surprisingly Marianne Chammartin denied it: “This had been Wöhler who was so successful in the 1950s. He was the easiest and most reliable horse my father ever had, trained to Grand Prix level in two years and competing in Helsinki in 1952 as a 6-year-old. But all his horses meant incredibly much to my father. They had given him never-ending fulfilment.”
Article by Silke Rottermann (as told by Marianne Chammartin, Henri Chammartin, Marianne Fankhauser and Hansruedi Thomi)
To find out more about Wolfdietrich’s 1960 Olympic performance: Hans Joachim Köhler, Kavalkade – Olympische Reiterspiele Rom 1960, Kornett- Verlag, Verden an der Aller 1960.