Jubilee, A Post-War Dressage Hero

Fri, 10/22/2010 - 07:43
Greatest Oldies

Everybody interested in the history of dressage usually one day comes across the name of Lis Hartel. Even to this date books and articles feature the heartbreaking story of Hartel recovering from polio to be the first woman winning an Olympic medal in dressage

in the early 1950s. In my case I read the story as an 11-year old girl in a book by Hans- Heinrich Isenbart.

Since that day in 1988 I tried to find out more about Hartel's horse Jubilee, which  enabled her to become a "goddess in the art of dressage" as the legendary Dr. Gustav Rau from Germany once called her. Her horse unfortunately become of lesser concern to the public and in many publications probably due to the fact that's Hartel's life had been that exceptiona. Finally I had the opportunity to find out more about Jubilee, thanks to the efforts of Lis Hartel`s daughter Pernille Siesbye, who shared her memories with me.

Jubilee, The Family Horse

When Lis Hartel first sat on Jubilee in the 1940s she had already become a remarkably successful dressage rider just in her 20s. Aboard Gigolo she had been the 1943 and 1944 Danish Champion in dressage and one should logically assume that Jubilee had been bought to become his successor. But Jubilee hadn't been purchased by the Holsts, Lis' family,  to secure the future career of their passionate  daughter, but to serve as a hack for her father and sister Tove, who eventually became an international Danish dressage rider known as Tove Jorck-Jorckston.

„My grandfather and my grandmother both rode, but not competitively. My grandfather enjoyed hacks on the weekends and my grandma was a good instructor and loved quadrille riding,“ Lis' daughter Pernille Siesbye told Eurodressage.

As one cannot really talk about specialisation in breeding in the 1940s, Jubilee did not look a dressage prospect at all in her younger years. The mare was bred in Denmark in 1941 by Otto Viller Petersen She was sired by the thoroughbred Rockwood xx out of an imported Oldenburger mare of unknown pedigree.

"Jubilee was neither noble nor beautiful and she had a very long back. Later when being trained and well-muscled she looked better, but in the stable she remained a rather ordinary looking horse. Visitors who came to see the horse in the stall were often very surprised and asked if this was really Jubilee," Siesbye disclosed.

In the late 1940s Jubilee was not yet facing curious visitors when she was a family horse. Lis Hartel`s sister Tove once rode her in a L-level jumping competition in Malmö (Sweden) shortly after the end of World War II, but when she got married she left Copenhagen and her sister Lis took over the ride.

Surviving Polio

In 1944 tragedy struck Denmark in a polio epidemics which infected the 23- year old pregnant Lis. The vicious polio virus started to reveal itself through a stiff neck and leaving Lis completely paralysed not long after. That autumn Hartel`s dressage career was violently and abruptly ended. Luckily Hartel and her unborn child survived the severe and often life-threatening illness, but the doctors gave her not a spark of hope she would ever sit on a horse again, let alone ride properly. After four months in the hospital Hartel started her rehabilitation to regain some  muscle function.

„My Mum was determined to ride again, no matter what the doctors prognosed. They told her she would be lucky if she improves to walk on crutches again," said Hartels`s daughter.

In the spring of 1945 Hartel, after having given birth to her second daughter, actually could walk on crutches again, but the illness left her paralysed from the knees down all her life. Also her thighs,  arms and hands were affected and remained quite weak. However, within a year Hartel managed to sit on a horse again.

Nowadays it is not unusual for disabled people to ride horses, often for therapeutic purposes and even at Paralympics in dressage. In 1945 therapeutic use of horses was almost unknown and there was no experience one could revert to. Yet  strong was lis' will and her passion for horses that she sat on a horse again a mere year after polio had changed her life.

She was lifted in the saddle and first guided in walk for her to get a feeling for the movement again. „Step by step my Mum became more independent and finally rode on her own. Of course she suffered several falls until she had found out how to balance in the saddle properly without the help of the legs.“

Hartel and Jubilee to Become and N-Sync Combination

After Lis Hartel had adapted to the new way of riding, she picked up dressage training again. Hartel intended to do the impossible: Compete again at the highest levels. „The family thought about which horse would be suitable for my mother to start competing again and my parents considered Jubilee to be the best choice because she had a quiet temperament.“
When we think of horses serving in therapeutic riding today they need to have an incredible character: quiet, forgiving yet sensible for the patient aboard. Jubilee very obviously had it all. According to Pernille Siesbye the bay mare was a bombproof horse, generous and absolutely dependable.

Jubilee was calm and confident, but she had to learn many new things. „Jubilee was brilliant! She always stood still like a statue every time my mother was lifted on and off her. She was such a clever horse. Though used to be ridden the usual way she now realised that she had to react only to weight and back aids. My mother very much rode with her back and by gently shifting weight because she was unable to use her legs in any way," Pernille Siesbye explained.

Pernille has ridden Jubilee in her child and teenage days just for fun and revealed that the mare was that clever enough to differ the riding styles and she had no problem being ridden the "conventional way" as well.

At the end of the 1940s Hartel started to train with the legendary Danish dressage trainer Gunnar Andersen at the private “Sportsrideklubben” riding club near Copenhagen where the family's horses had all been stabled. Soon the mare developed a striking musculature which changed her looks. Most notably her neckline came out like one of a stallion and made her an impressive horse to look at.

Jubilee’s training was not limited to strict dressage exercises in the indoor arena. On the weekends she always enjoyed being hacked.

„My mother had a very strong and close relationship with all her horses and especially with Jubilee, of course. For example she would hug the mare after training and give her lots of affection.“

Hartel and Jubilee started their competition career together at M-level in 1949 by winning three shows and placing 2nd in three more M- dressage competitions. Only a year later the mare became invincible at that level and won every competition entered.

At the beginning 1950s Jubilee competed at S-level and surprisingly won the Prix St Georges in Rotterdam in 1951. It was the mare's first foreign start and nobody wasn't up-to-date knew about the rider's disability. Hartel had developed a style of great lightness and elegance which would become exemplary and praised all over the world.

„Because her arms and hands were so weak my mum had an extremely soft contact with the bit and she rode with the slightest of aids“, Siesbye remembered.

Podhajsky Encourages Hartel to Go Olympic

Like many other competitive dressage riders, Hartel had her Olympic dream. Representing Denmark at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games was an goal she aimed for, but she was not convinced Jubilee would be good enough for the match. Luckily the FEI had decided to open the dressage competitions for women and civilians for the first time at the 1952 Games.

When the Spanish Riding School first visited Denmark in the baroque indoor arena of the beautiful Christiansborg Castle in Copenhagen, Hartel talked to their legendary leader, Alois Podhajsky. He agreed to see and judge Jubilee.

Pernille Siesbye still recalled that day. „My mother rode Jubilee in the indoor arena and we all watched. For a very long time he only watched, observed and didn’t say a word. Then he mounted Jubilee and rode the mare himself. After a while he dismounted and told my mother that she had done a wonderful job!“

Hartel was extremely encouraged by the judgement of such an expert and was determined to go for the Olympics the following year. During that time she kept in regular mail contact with Podhajsky about Jubilee’s progress.

Because Jubilee’s weak piaffe, which was rather a kind of dribbling than rhythmical elevated steps, didn’t improve Hartel lost her courage and decided not end her Olympic dream. But Podhajsky again encouraged her. He knew the dressage scene very well and was aware that  many other dressage horses didn't have a great piaffe either.

Jubilee had no problems qualifying for the Olympics when she won her first Danish Championships in May 1952.

Jubilee Finds a Silver Lining

So two months later the bay mare travelled to Finland by boat. She was accompanied by a very special friend: Poul Jörgensen. Pernille reported that Jörgensen wasn’t a groom by profession or had even had anything to do with horses before. When he saw her mother one day in the late 1940s with Jubilee at home he asked if he could be of help with the mare. From that day on Jubilee had a permanent groom who travelled with her across Europe for years.

In Helsinki Lis Hartel was amongst four women who made the women’s debut in Olympic dressage. The other three were Germany’s Ida von Nagel, Norway’s Elsa Christophersen and Majorie Haines from the USA.

The standard of dressage had risen compared to 1948 because piaffe and passage were mandatory exercises again, but compared with today’s standard the overall quality was still rather poor because some horses were not able to show all exercises sufficiently.

Hartel succumbed to taut nerves and wanted to call it quits. Fortunately her trainer re-encouraged her and on 29 July 1952 the time had come. In the beautifully designed dressage arena in a park in the middle of the woods at Ruskeasuo, Jubilee was on perfect behaviour, while spectators came from everywhere watch Lis riding. The description "faithful companion" is overused, but what else can one say when a horse performed as reliably and brilliantly like it does at home, despite the rider being nervous and the combination surrounded by masses of people?

"Jubilee was a horse that had a sense for special occasions. She was aware of the situation  and always behaved impeccably. She never spooked."

At Helsinki it had been the first and only time a "new" way of judging was used. The highest and  lowest mark was dropped to avoid nationalistic judging. Still the judges were far from congruent. Jubilee performed to her utmost. Of course her piaffe was very weak, but her flying changes exemplary, her half passes fluently and the ride was very correct from beginning to the end.

On old films of Helsinki one can see that many in the audience were astonished by the pair. They followed the ride with open mouth and obviously were very touched by this display of horse and rider. The judges awarded Jubilee the placings 9, 2, 4, 2, 4 which came down to an overall result of 541,5 points. It was 15 points behind the winner Henri St. Cyr from Sweden and only 0,5 point ahead of the French rider André Jousseaume with Harpagnon.

The result was nothing but an incredible sensation. Not only had a woman won a medal at her first attempt, but it was one with a impeding handicap which no-one noticed when she was on her horse.

The moments at the prize giving ceremony are legendary and eternalised in many photographs. Hartel was lifted off Jubilee by the gold medal winner Henri St. Cyr who gallantly carried her onto the podium. Everyonein the audience could see that this outstanding rider had almost no strength in her legs, struggling to stay upright when the medals were awarded.

Denmark, a small country and one of many nations which had suffered under German Nazi occupation, had a real hero now and thousands welcomed Hartel, her husband and her two little girls home at Copenhagen haven when the Games were over.

Honoured at HOYS

Only a few months later, in December 1952, Jubilee once again had to enter a ship because Hartel and her horse had been invited to gave a display at the world famous Horse of the Year Show in London. This was a great honour for sure since at that time the Brits were far from being dressage enthusiasts. Only Podhajsky’s displays following his 1948 Olympic start in London had given them an idea of what dressage should look like and that it had nothing to do with enslaving horses.

Pernille Siesbye, then 10, cannot really remember the exact ride in London, "apart from me being very impressed having room service at the Hyde Park Hotel." By contrast Great Britain’s legendary dressage rider and breeder Jennie Loriston-Clarke may never forget that day half a century ago. In one of her dressage manuals she mentioned that her interest for dressage was born on the day she watched Hartel and Jubilee at the HOYS. Loriston-Clarke added that during her whole career she tried to reach this perfection.

If dressage is about beauty, harmony and unison with a noble animal, the world may not have seen a combination reach similar heights since then. Today more talented and much more athletic horses go for spectacular execution of movements while lightness and harmony sadly get increasingly lost. Hartel and Jubliee celebrated perfect invisible communication, a rarity for competitive modern dressage.

Whereas people nowadays are ecstatic about Totilas' dramatic movement mechanism, more than 50 years back the harmony of Jubilee with her rider set hearts aflutter. Hartel had no other choice then finding ways of very refined communication with her horse and succeeded in a tremendous way.

1954 World Championships in Aachen

She and Jubilee continued their success, though there weren’t many international shows at that time. Jubilee won three Danish Championships from 1952 to 1954 and two years after her triumph travelled to the mecca of equestrian sport, Aachen (even back then).

The FEI had been hosting World Championships in jumping since 1953, but couldn’t make up their mind about dressage. In 1954 they held official dressage World Championships too, while each year they organized "FEI Championships," a kind of unofficial World Championships which finally became official in 1966.

The best riders met at Aachen in 1954. Fourteen riders from six nations competed in a Grand Prix for the title and Jubilee once again not only thrilled, but touched the crowds. Everybody knew of Hartel’s disability by npw and they admired the horse which allowed her to ride her on a silk thread. Jubilee won well ahead of the famous Swiss cavalry officers Henri Chammartin on Wöhler and Gottfried Trachsel while the second female contestant, Hannelore Weygand from Germany, ranked fourth with the thoroughbred stallion Chronist xx.

Pernille Siesbye cannot remember the competition, but the award ceremony is etched in her memory forever: „The prize giving ceremony was in the big main stadium. I still see my mother riding Jubilee past the huge grandstand.“

Moreover the mare also won the Prix St. Georges competition at Aachen the same weekend which in those times was open to Grand Prix horses.

After performing again at the HOYS in London Jubilee and her rider were invited to give daily displays for a week in the famous Madison Square Garden in New York. Jubilee was safely flown from Copenhagen to New York in attendance of her trusted groom Poul Jörgensen. In New York a warm up area was non-existent and Hartel had to ride Jubilee in the Central Park to prepare her for the displays in the huge indoor arena. After their week in New York the pair travelled to Canada to continue their tour of exhibitions in Toronto, where they were celebrated the same way as in the USA. The tour of triumph continued in Paris with similar success. All money earned during those show  Lis Hartel donated to a trust helping people burndened by polio.

Olympic Celebration Aboard Jubilee

Two years later the strict quarantine regulations in Australia prevented the equestrian discipline from being held in the southern hemisphere. Instead Stockholm offered to host the equestrian Olympics for the second time after its introduction in 1912.

1956 was the final year of competition for Jubilee and after winning the Danish Championships in May for a fifth time she was sent to represent her country in Sweden. This time she only had to be shipped over the sea passage between Denmark and Sweden and then she continued her journey by trailer. Other horses were less lucky and spent weeks on ships before arriving in Stockholm.

Undoubtedly this time Jubilee and her rider were among the hot favourites to win a medal and Olympic gold was aspired. It raised the question, though, whether the time was ready for a woman to step on the throne of a sport dominated by the military for a very long time.

Jubilee did not really mind the huge stadium. Ears pricked she entered the arena and performed a high class test, which according to the German press was precisely ridden as usual with wonderful flying changes, outstanding half passes, but  a weak piaffe and extensions which could have had more impulsion.

Nevertheless Jubilee had done it again. She was dependable, obedient, and charming as she pleased the crowds when she left the stadium through the archway.

Unfortunately the wonderful Games were overshadowed by nationalistic judging. The poor judging at the time was well documented by the international equestrian press, especially the German one. Jubilee earned the placings 3, 4, 4, 1, 1 from the judges which meant the individual silver medal. The Danish judge awarded Lis 189 points whereas St. Cyr only got 172 points. The Swedish judge on the other hand gave St. Cyr 192 points and Hartel only 166 points. The German judge put Liselott Linsenhoff, the bronze medal winner, above all other competitors.

Even though Jubilee remained the silver medal winning horse on the Olympic stage, she was without a doubt the "queen of hearts." The audience celebrated her as much as their national hero St. Cyr. The press wrote with equal praise for these unique ladies: "Beauty of creation" or "goddess of equestrian art" were some of the headlines.

Brief Retirement

For Jubilee Stockholm had been her very last show. Lis Hartel retired her mare after the Olympic Games and intended to breed dressage horses with her. Everybody had granted Jubilee a long and happy retirement, but unfortunately it was not meant to be.

„Shortly after Jubilee's retirement she got ill and a leg problem occurred. So my mother wanted to have the troubled leg checked before bringing Jubilee to a stallion. The vets examined it closely and tried their best, but they were not able to improve the leg. They treated it with a sort of burning, but it came to complications. So very sadly Jubilee had to be put down due to that problem in June 1957. My mother was incredibly sad losing her beloved mare," Pernille Siesbye recalled that unfortunate day.

Jubilee had been more than just a very successful dressage horse. She is a legend and in this way immortal. The bay mare had shown the world how a horse can inspire man to overcome all bad fate and recover from illness or accident, which have left him disabled.

As Hartel went on to promote therapeutic riding world-wide -- a therapy that was in its infancy at the time --  Jubilee was a trailblazer in her own kind. She was the predecessor of many dressage horses which carried disabled dressage riders to Paralympic glory with sensitivity and generosity.

There is a proverb which says that on a horse every human being has four sound legs. Jubilee was the first to prove that to the world.

Article by Silke Rottermann (as told by Pernille Siesbye and Tove Jorck- Jorckston)
Photo courtesy: Pernille Siesbye

To find out more about Jubilee’s Olympic performances read:

  • Erich Glahn, Reitkunst am Scheideweg – Die XVI. Olympischen Reiterspiele in Stockholm 1956,
  • Erich Hoffmann Verlag, Heidenheim 1956.
  • Hans- Joachim Köhler, Kavalkade, Olympische Reiterspiele 1956, Kornett. Verlag, Verden an der Aller 1956.
  • Franz Rudolf Bissinger, Sankt Georg Almanach 1952, Verlag Sankt Georg, Neuss am Rhein 1952.

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