At age 34 Germany’s Carola Koppelmann has had more Grand Prix horses than some riders will ever train in their whole career. Having recently retired her top Grand Prix horse Le Bo, the Warendorf based Koppelmann is rebooting her competition career with the Oldenburg gelding Desperado OLD.
Though not having been a medal winner in the youth riders divisions, Carola began to make herself a name in her 20s when she appeared at the international scene with the handsome Hanoverian Le Bo. This life-loving chestnut by Lauries Crusador xx entered Carola’s life as an unbroken youngster in 1996 and is still the undisputed boss of her stable now almost 20 years old.
Though Le Bo launched the career of the likable rider who since the age of 26 freelances at the headquarters of the German Olympic Riding Committee (DOKR) at Warendorf, names like Hinnerk TSF, Insterburg TSF and Rom further established her on the international scene. The story of Carola Koppelmann is not one for the faint-hearted as she had to deal not only with the sale of some hopefuls, but also with incredibly sad losses like the one of Rom, the Rotspon-mare that had been rated as one of Germany’s most talented young Grand Prix- horses until she died untimely due to colic in 2011.
Now Carola is back in the limelight with Desperado OLD, the 2003 born gelding by Dressage Royal x Rouletto which had been the 2008 World Champion of the 5-year-old dressage horses in Verden under then owner Nadine Plaster.
After having been in Carola’s training for less than two years Desperado won the 2011 Nürnberger Burgpokal final at Frankfurt. Eight months of intense training led to a triumphant Grand Prix debut at the CDI Donaueschingen in September 2012 where both came 2nd in the Louisdor Cup qualifier for Young Grand Prix horses. Reason enough for Eurodressage to visit the hopeful pair at their home in Warendorf and look at a normal working day for Carola Koppelmann.
In the Heart of Germany’s Equitation
On the day of my visit it was the calendric beginning of autumn, but the weather was still undecided. It was neither warm nor cold, but the sun constantly changed with threatening dark clouds above me. When I drove into the “Rembrandt Street” which leads down to the German FN and stable buildings of Germany’s National Riding Centre, the brown and yellow leaves danced in front of the bonnet of my car and left no doubt that summer was gone.
Though I have been to this place on numerous occasions, it never fails to make me happy seeing the Halla statue placed next to the DOKR building with its Olympic rings over the entrance, reminding me once again what legendary horses and riders once trained here at the predecessor of this big riding establishment. Warendorf is a small town near Münster, but since the post war times it became the heart of Germany’s equitation and it continues to be so.
I strolled slowly from the parking outside to the smaller entrance behind the DOKR administrative building and passed a brand-new looking grey trailer with the imprint “Burgpokal winner 2011”. With the Bundeschampionat over three weeks ago the usual peace in between events has befallen the DOKR property where riders like Bettina Hoy and Toni Hassmann have their horses and take advantage of the many indoor and outdoor arenas, the racetrack and the cross country course hidden in the forests.
I headed to the stable complex called “Trux”, like all stable complexes here named after famous German horses, and in this case after the 1956 double Olympic silver medalist in eventing. I knew this stable from the Bundeschampionate, but today it looked deserted. In a big tidy saddle room a young woman was polishing a bridle. She sent me off to the older indoor arena opposite where Carola just finished schooling a young horse nick-named Rakete. The young Mecklenburger gelding with the official name Sandiego (by Sancisco) looked incredibly friendly and patiently waited until Carola pulled the stirrups up. The horse had been recently competed at the Bundeschampionate for 5-year-old dressage horses. She welcomed me and called for her apprentice Maria Wist to help her with the horse.
“Come inside”, she pointed to the saddle room which acted as a kind of base camp. Carola shares it with a young German eventing rider who has her horses in the same stable complex, but the whole day she was nowhere to be seen. On the left side was Carola’s wide range of dressage saddles, from a Wintec to a luxury Devoucoux and opposite hung her double bridles and snaffle bridles, all immaculately polished. There were some pictures of her horses on the walls and the small table was littered with notepads. While I was looking interestedly at the whole scene, Carola felt like she had to apologize for the chaos in the midst of this otherwise exemplary tidiness. “Oh, don’t look at that!" she said in a hurry. I smiled to myself as apparently we had to deal with a perfectionist; not the worst attitude for a dressage rider!
My eyes caight a picture of Rom, Carola’s greatest hope and maybe the most talented horse she had until then. The mare had just begun to make herself a name on big CDI shows when she suffered from a fatal colic attack in spring 2011. Carola sighed: “She was such a fabulous horse. Holger Schmezer also thought very highly of her. Only hours before Rom got colic I had phoned her owner and told her how much I was looking forward to the season.”
Carola held in her emotions. "It is not easy to go on after such a blow. I still had Le Bo then, but I practically had to start from scratch again.”
Le Bo Defies His Years
Whenever horses had been sold and taken away from Carola, like the two Trakehners Hinnerk TSF and Insterburg TSF, the now 19-year-old Hanoverian has remained the indispensable backbone of Carola’s career in the dressage arena.
Having been with her since the age of three, this self-confident gelding has been trained by her from the very beginning and became the horse that made her a name and brought her on the German A-listed team. It won her a medal at the German Championships and made her the reserve at the Europeans.
“I owe so much to Le Bo," said Carole. "He is with me for most of my life now and I am still a bit torn apart about his official retirement at Celle. He went so well the last weeks and friends said: ‘You should compete him again!’ But he is almost 20 now and I do not want him to have a bad day in the show arena. He deserves his retirement now.”
Just if he had understood each of Carola’s words or had at least recognized we were talking on him, Le Bo stood next to us like a statue for minutes. Maria had made him ready after Carola decided that grey bandages would look best on her old friend for the photos. Since then the gleaming chestnut never moved a centimeter and looked interestedly all the time.
“You can deposit him here and he will stand forever," his groom laughed while patting his woolly neck. “Ooooh, he made such a thick winter coat over the past days when the nights were really cold already. Of course he had a blanket on, but obviously it didn’t help,” Carola explained.
Carola took her old friend to the indoor arena to mount him from a small stool as she does with all her horses. Then we headed to the nearby forest.
Luckily the sun had decided to shine more constantly than in the early morning and Le Bo was shining like fire in between the rather dark passage of forest on our way to the big sand arena where the jumping classes are held during the Bundeschampionate. He walked diligently with pricked ears, but very relaxed over the narrow path covered with wooden chips. You would never have expected him to near his 20th birthday as his pace was regular and freshly forward with his eyes looking very alert. When we arrived at the two outdoor arenas located at an idyllic wood glade Carola started warming-up her golden oldie in rising trot and a stretched outline. When she asked Le Bo to canter he shook his head in delight and accelerated joyfully and Carola could only smile. There was so much spring left in the Hanoverian’s hind-legs which defied any mileage of hard dressage work for over a decade.
Carola’s apprentice arrived as well, carrying a towel. Maria, 21, had done her A-levels last year and though more focused on jumping, she is in her second year at Warendorf.
Carola remarked: "I come from a family where I grew up with ponies and horses from day one. My family has reared many very successful sport horses and breeding stallions over the past 30 years. While I am now away from home for more than ten years, my mum still comes to groom for me at the shows."
In 1990 Carola got her first warmblood horse and met a man who became very influential on her career, the late national coach Holger Schmezer with whom she started training and continued to do so until his death in April 2012.
"Now Jürgen Koschel comes over once a week to work with me and my horses. The rest of the time I am training on my own here," Carola reported. Carola said she wanted to go into the woods and invited me to join her. I missed having a horse as my cold made me pant immediately while I was walking briskly in her wake. “It is fantastic to canter there!” Le Bo knew the way and headed straight to the forest in eager anticipation. The ground was covered with soft springing wooden chips, but the path was twisty through the birch trees which grow on the sparse sandy ground around Warendorf.
It took me some time to see where they had gone, but suddenly I spotted two shiny red ears between the white trunks twisting up and down towards me. I kneeled down and fixed the lens. An international dressage horse at full steam through the forests was not something happening daily, so I took care I caught the right moment.
Carola was beaming in great delight, probably because her horse paced out of the forest over the rather hard loamy soil with his head shaking. “Now it is time to cool the legs of my dear boy,” Carola said and her apprentice knew the cue to take the bandages off.
Kneipp Cure for Dressage Horses
The sun was still giving its best and on our way back to the stables we arrived at the pond which the eventing horses tackle at the Bundeschampionate. It is also a welcome opportunity to cool down hot dogs. Today it looked deserted and Carola directed Le Bo to the pond. He did not need an invitation and headed there briskly. With completely given reins he sniffed the water, took some sips and dug a bit in the water with his front legs. “Wait, he will make big splashes soon. He loves that kind of game," said Carola while her groom embraces a heap of grey bandages which she wisely removed for this kind of Kneipp cure. Le Bo seemed to think there was not enough water to splash around, so he just stood there and looked happily at the horizon while his legs cooled down in the pond.
Soon three pleasure riders with two ponies and a Paint appeared and Carola called out to them: “Can one of you join my horse and animate him to play? Usually he starts playing with a second horse.” The two ladies kindly apologized, but their ponies wore hoof boots and could not come in, but the rider of the Paint did. Le Bo stared at this very different horse and seemed not to recognize it as the same species! He wasn't up for a some water fun.
After some more attempts Carola looked a bit disappointed and complained to her horse: “My dear, this is very typical. All the time for years it is your favorite occupation to play in the water, but once we have a photographer with us you don’t seem to know that game.”
We shrugged shoulders, laughed and finally went back to the stables. We passed the long side of the building and Carola’s horses all had their heads looking out of the windows. Desperado occupied the last stall. He looked sleepily with a lot of shavings in his forelock.
“Oh, can you please photograph Desperado when he is doing his stretching game while I groom him?” I look puzzled. “Well, he loves to be brushed and any time I do it, he immediately almost drops down in delight. He holds his head high and hollows his back. He was sad he could not do it at Donaueschingen last weekend because the grassy ground was too slippery, but here we have put additional rubber mats in the stable corridor so he is in no danger.”
Desperado, a Model Student on his Way
Carola opened Desperado’s stall door. He still looked sleepy, but seemed to be a very friendly horse. All of Carola’s 6 left the impression of being friendly, content horses. “Nowadays I only have 6 horses I work with every day with Maria supporting me. In the past, for many years, I had 12 horses each day and that was too much. I was working myself to the bone and I did not feel I did the horses justice the way I could have done. I love taking care of them by myself and this works fine with 6 horses. However, in this business you have to earn a living, so some riders are just forced to take many rides to make a proper living," Carola mentioned about the side of this job many seem to forget. By far not all dressage riders are born with the proverbial golden spoon in their mouth and have to work very hard and rely on generous owners to provide them with the suitable horses.
Carola is lucky with Desperado’s. The Oldenburg gelding was now in cross ties, standing relaxed in the stable corridor. Carola started brushing and soon enough the cute horse started coming down and leaned back against the halter, holding his head high grimacing with his upper lip. It looked really funny and pressed the shutter of my camera, but Carola again looksed disappointed. “Oh no, again the demo effect! He usually comes down much deeper. Why not today?”
Everybody seemed happy when Carola got the ride on Desperado at the end of 2009 and the more so when she lost Rom. It ended triumphantly with the then 8-year-old’s win in the Nürnberger Burgpokal final, but after that major achievement the highly talented horse was nowhere to be seen for nine months. Questions arose amongst the aficionados. “To bring him from PSG to Grand Prix level just needed that time of quiet, focused work at home," Carola explained while stroking Desperado’s wiry forelock. In every move she made one recognized her affection for her horses and the calmness with which she treats them.
Outside the weather had changed again and the sky over Warendorf was dark and a wind began to blow while the sun disappeared behind this wall of clouds. Carola suggested going to the dressage arena where the Bundeschampionate are held, but I feared the pictures would become too dark in the forest without sunshine. As the new indoor arena was locked we went to the big sand arena in front. Unfortunately there were fences all over the place and international jumping rider Toni Hassmann was practicing with two other jumping riders.
Desperado did not mind the strong blowing wind nor the fences which had to look strange to him. Carola walked him with completely given reins next to a young jumping rider who spotted my camera, smiled and got himself a helmet “in case I am on the photo as well,” he said. The way Carola was giving her horses an extensive leg-stretch before starting any real warm-up phase reminded me of what I had seen in dressage stables advocating the classical approach and Carola of course belongs to that club of competition riders who don’t believe in reinventing the wheel, but in upholding the training scale to which she sticks like many generations before.
I climbed onto the grass wall separating indoor and outdoor arena to have a better overview. Carola apologized for the light schooling session she had planned with Desperado. “I haven’t seriously worked Desperado since last weekend when he was at Donaueschingen. He deserves this break and I hope you understand I do not want to push him through all the exercises just for the photos,” she said.
It was no problem whatsoever, so Carola only practiced some shoulder-in, half passes and flying changes. The two-times in between the fences were breathtaking! Who had seen the horse a year earlier and could compare it with now would recognize the difference in canter. Desperado appeared more light-footed, with more self-carriage and balance. In a snaffle he stayed light in the contact and worked in an exemplary outline, with the neck as highest point and the hind-legs diligently working under. It was a picture of elegance and beauty.
“I was happy with our 2nd place in the Louisdor Cup at Donaueschingen which was our first start since Frankfurt last year and Desperado’s first at Grand Prix-level. Even though one should think I am well established at that level, it was also a bit like a new beginning for me after not having competed in a Grand Prix for over a year," Carola admitted. "Though we weren’t faultless, I am still proud that my horse coped so very well with everything. It is not easy for such a young and inexperienced horse to bring all together when it counts during a class. I could really rely on him.”
Suddenly the wind turned to storm and Carola hurriedly left the arena and headed straight to the old indoor arena nearby. As soon as we left the place the storm knocked most of the fences down. We were lucky to be allowed in as a clinic for Paralympic riders was taking place with a blind young woman riding her horse in an impressive way and very fine style. “I really admire these riders! What they are able to do with all these disabilities is absolutely amazing! Look at that girl, she is blind and look how well she is riding. You would not recognize she can hardly see shadows. And believe me, this indoor is not easy to ride,” Carola explained. The space was reduced with 4 riders in this normal sized indoor arena, but it was sufficient to give Desperado some walking exercise at the end of an easy work-out session.
This year Germany has shown to be ready to have a brand new team of classically riding young ladies for the major championships and Carola would fit in very well. While it's not forbidden to dream, Carola has experienced too much to look far ahead in future. She jumped off Desperado and he walked with her like a dog to the stable.
While he got a warm shower in the wash-box, rocking a bit uncomfortably from side to side, Carola smiled at him: “Oh, come on, you know the water is warm.” She turned to me: “He hates having a shower and will only behave with warm water, otherwise he shows his disgust. But I need to wash his fetlocks and dry them well daily as they are white and very sensitive.”
Afternoon Coffee party on Dressage
After Desperado had gotten his after-training-wellness-programme and was happily finishing his lunch, Carola and I went to the indoor arena again to have a coffee in the early afternoon. From the small club room at the short side one can look down into the arena where the Paralympians were still training.
We chat about dressage in general and then focus on Carola’s own philosophy which she herself, a quiet and moderate character, would never call like that! “Often I get a horse and people wonder why they don’t hear from it for a longer time, just like with Desperado. But one of the main principles of my training is that I give the horses enough time. Not only to learn and establish new things, but also to develop the strength they need to show the more advanced movements in the correct way and in a way they enjoy themselves. That just needs time! In particular the transition from S- to Grand Prix-level is extremely demanding and very difficult for the horses. If they don’t get the time, they don’t remain happy in their work and lose motivation which we need to get them to Grand Prix," she clarified.
Carola’s horses all seemed to be relaxed and well behaved, but she revealed that there’s no other secret behind than taking time for them, day by day, and keep them entertained in their training throughout the years. “As I always ride 20 minutes of walk with all of my horses before I start the warm-up phase, I usually go hacking into the nearby forests for that time, except when the weather is most awful. I also take care that my horses see as much as possible so they are not that excited on shows.”
Whereas the great Le Bo is now retired, Desperado’s future looks bright. He is a horse that made headlines and caught the public interest from quite early on. To make sure he continues to do so, Carola does not make big future plans, but according to her credo takes it slowly step by step. The next big goal is the final of the Louisdor Cup which will be held at the Festhallen- Show at Frankfurt in December. “To give Desperado a little bit more ring practice at this level I plan to start in a national short Grand Prix beforehand.”
After four most interesting hours with Carola and her horses I bade her farewell in late afternoon. The storm had calmed down, the sky had cleared up and the sun was shining brilliantly. It somehow reminded me of Carola’s rollercoaster of the past years. After all disappointments and blows the sun shone brightly in her sky again with a horse like Desperado.
Carola’s story not only shows that there is always light at the end of a dark tunnel, but also that good equitation, perseverance and the passion for horses win in the end.
Text and Photos © Silke Rottermann for Eurodressage
Carola Koppelmann Retires Le Bo
Desperado OLD Wins 2011 Nurnberger Burgpokal Finals
Carola Koppelmann, A Job Well Done is Done by Oneself
Photo Report: Balkenhol Victorious at 2012 CDI Donaueschingen
Carola Koppelmann's Rom Dies from Colic
Desperado OLD Back to Former Glory in 2011 Verden Nurnberger Burgpokal Warm Up Test
Desperado OLD Makes a Winning Move in the 5-year old World Championship
Desperado OLD Heads 5-year old Qualifier for Finals in Verden