2024 Burgtagung: Fair and Delightful Dressage Training with Uta Gräf and Anja Beran

Tue, 02/20/2024 - 10:48
Uta Gräf being Uta Gräf happily just dropping the reins after her horse did well (the critics would say he’s loosing slightly the rhythm) :: Photo © Silke Rottermann

This article is part of the 2024 Burgtagung coverage:
Part I: Today for Tomorrow - A Weekend Dedicated to Good Equestrian Sport at the 2024 Burgtagung 
Part II:  Dr. Britta Schöffmann: "Everything Was Better in the Past, Wasn’t It?"
Part III: Anja Beran - "Schooling The Eye"

-- Text and Photos © Silke Rottermann for Eurodressage

More than a decade ago German trainer and Grand Prix rider Uta Gräf took care of a little dressage revolution when she was launched on the international scene with her shiny black Holsteiner stallion Le Noir (by Leandro x Caletto I). Her strikingly wild platinum blonde hair and big smile are her trademarks, just like her horse keeping and her versatile training out of the ordinary of the dressage world.

The feeling Uta could give to the public and for which they loved her is that dressage is a fun affair for rider and equine and  it is exactly this impression which needs to be renewed these days. The Burgtagung was one opportunity to rekindle it.

Fair and Delightful Dressage Training

Uta Gräf and Anja Beran arrive at the Ridind Club Leiningerland
When I walked from the Fortress of Altleiningen on a slightly misty Sunday morning on 11 February 2024 to get to the nearby Riding Club Leiningerland which hosted the practical events of the Burgtagung in their small indoor arena, I was deeply embedded in thought. After what had been going on in the competitive dressage world the past few months, I was certainly, just like many others, disgusted and fed up with the whole situation.

I knew I was here to report on Uta Gräf riding with very renowned German classical trainer Anja Beran, but I confess I was also here to regain my belief and restore my faith that horses can be trained to the highest level in a fair way and be what the FEI sometimes quite hypocritically calls "happy athletes."

The rather small and dark indoor arena was soon bursting with spectators, sitting on beer benches or standing wherever there was a little space available. The two main protagonists, Uta Gräf and Anja Beran,  appeared on the scene and it became soon clear that despite both being totally different types, they have a refreshing sense of humor in common which turned out to be the icing on the cake of an event to remember.

Maintaining the horse’s cheerfulness as it moves up the levels

Relaxed constructive atmosphere between both ladies right
from the start
Some may have asked themselves before the event kicked off how a successful Grand Prix rider and a confirmed classicist like Anja Beran would work together. The sometimes exuberant and always cheerful Uta Gräf opposed the rather academic Anja Beran. The doubters were soon proved wrong as both ladies complemented each other impressively well. And let’s be honest: The fact that some were skeptical only shows that in our minds classical dressage riding and dressage competition have become two disciplines drifted far apart, while in theory they should be the same and complement each other. 

The first of two horses Uta Gräf was to ride under Beran’s supervision was the 13-year-old dark bay called gelding San Diamond (by Sandro Hit - Rouletto), owned by Anna and Renate Timme.  As Gräf keeps him together with 35 other horses in a huge herd "SD", as he is nick-named, was not clipped and had a little hay tummy which the horse certainly did not worry about.

"The horse was bought rather cheaply by his owner to become a pleasure horse and was brought to us for three months to be broken in. But as he was extremely willing, he continued to be kept with us and won through the levels. Now he has won S-level and is in for even more. He has no extreme movements and we never asked more of him than he is able to give. He is a great horse who I enjoy riding and our highest goal is to maintain his cheerfulness also when he moves up the levels. I never thought we would get that far and that we would get that successful," Gräf said while introducing San Diamond.

The horse should return as happy and content to stable
as he has left
Making the effort nowadays to train a perhaps less talented horse through the levels and get rewarded for good training by the judges is what dressage was originally all about. Anja Beran confirmed this by saying "we need more riders like Uta!"

What was striking to observe in these first few minutes in which Gräf introduced the horse to the audience was the calm demeanor of the Oldenburger gelding. In walk with totally given reins San Diamond showed remarkable relaxation, taking the new surroundings in with an awake but content eye, displaying total trust in his rider.

Get the Feel Good Feeling in the Warm-Up-Phase

During the warm-up phase Uta showed the horse in a long frame in trot in which he went diligently and willing from the very first step on, although she soon changed to canter "because it is easier for him and he is very well balanced in this gait. I want him to carry himself, but if he shows me he wants to stretch in this phase I allow it." Transitions between canter and trot followed with the horse visibly beginning to swing more in his trot movement.

Warming up San Diamond in a feel-good frame. One
can easily see here that the horse is working
over his back and off the forehand in a horizontal
Beran showed she is a very sharp observer and assessed the horse  by remarking that the horse "has the minimal tendency to be a bit more hollow on the right than on the left and not taking the right rein like the left," while Uta changed to a big circle in trot, putting the horse in a wide frame, but being a bit hasty which did not go unnoticed by Beran’s eagle eye. "Do not allow him to get hasty. The attempt to bring the horse off the inside leg should not result in speed. The horse should remain quiet in the tempo and take the outside rein lightly."

Gräf immediately put the advice into practice and her wonderfully cooperative horse also did not loose his diligence and will to go forward in a quieter tempo. When she allowed him to stretch forward-downward, the auditors took on the chance to interact and asked if the forward-downward Uta showed was correct and also how to get to such an exemplary stretch. Beran rplied that "the neck was long, but it should not be manipulated until the horse eats sand and then be kept there for 20 minutes, because a horse would not move like that in nature."

Uta, who is known for her exemplary forward-downward stretches as an art in itself, explained that to induce such a position it is good if the rider feels if a horse wants to stretch or vice versa and then very progressively lengthen the reins, wait a tiny moment, and then push slightly with the leg. This interplay of hand and leg continues. "In principle the seat tells the horse the way is clear," she said. 

Gräf making Beran happy by riding deeper through
the corners
While Uta Gräf had no trouble explaining what she was doing and for which reason, she was humorously aware that she is not always acting textbook like and therefore burst in laughter when Beran asked her to ride into the corners and use them as quarter voltes. To the utter delight of the audience that also burst in laughter Uta joked, "but I never ride voltes!" and continued "you know, I think we are very different types with the same goal. And I had to laugh now because not long ago I rode with the national coach Monica Theodorescu in Warendorf and she said ‚Do not forget to ride into the corners!‘. My horse owner did not dare to mention that there is grass growing in our corners at home." Anja Beran played the ball back to Uta by saying with a big twinkle in her eye, "the trouble with the corners also immediately attracted my attention. Do I now have the chance to get the national coach job?" Laughter everywhere.

Gräf then rode with a big smile a copybook volte in canter with giving and retaking the reins to prove the horse’s ability to execute a volte, before turning onto the diagonal and showing a couple of nice flying changes, the horse calm, straight as a die and forward, followed by six one-time changes along the long side of the arena of the very same quality after which the audience burst into rapturous applause. Beran mischievously commented, "very good, very natural, but start off earlier with the flying changes on the diagonal, otherwise you cannot pass the corner in a quarter-volte."

No marshmallow fluff needed: The correctly
ridden horse shows a lipstick-foam
What was truly striking during this warm-up-phase and the beginning of the working phase: nothing actually looked tense, stressed or hard work. Everything was done like a duck takes to water. The secret behind this impression is complex, but one reason is certainly that Gräf breaks everything into portions and after each well-done exercise or movement she allows the horse to stretch and take a breather, before continuing with what we would call 'work,' but does not look like it with her in the saddle.

Approaching the Piaffe

"I would be happy if you could give me some advice regarding piaffe, perhaps you do it differently," Uta Gräf turned to Anja Beran and emphasized that there is no pressure if the horse would not manage to learn these demanding High School movements. Beran took an optimistic outlook by saying some of her horses have only 1/10th of the talent of San Diamond and still learnt it.

First Gräf demonstrated her approach by riding transitions between trot and walk and attempting to get first half steps during the transition to walk, asking Beran to give her opinion what she would do differently. The Bavarian frankly said that she would only do it  that way with a horse who is already able to piaffe, because "this procedure misleads a horse learning the piaffe in a way that he shortly scuttles and thinks he has to continue forward again." As an alternative approach Beran suggested riding a sequence of trot, halt, rein-back and then trot on from the rein-back. San Diamond demonstrated his great throughness by showing a quiet and exemplary halt and a straight willing rein-back with the poll remaining the highest point, slightly chewing the bit to the rein aid without the slightest resistance. "It is important not to trot on too big as the hind-legs should become quick," Beran pointed.

Developing the first steps of passage
After having repeated the sequence in the same quality a few times, San Diamond showed the first attempts of half steps after which Gräf praised him and dropped the reins. She remarked that "this is the only exercise in which I have to ask him a little bit and tell him to do it. So I am not sure this is an approach that works well for him. Do you have some other idea?" Beran had indeed, suggesting to ride something she called „counted walk“ and which is a gait known in French equitation rather than in the German referring to a very collected walk. While Uta had no trouble putting San Diamond in this kind of walk at the next short side, Beran explained to the audience what it is and what she intended with it: "It is a walk almost in slow-motion, but the opposite of a sleepy horse. The horse should bundle up energy, gets more and more awake, gets tall, the hind-legs have to be quick, but the tempo slow. The rider induces it with his seat and with very little hand. The horse’s legs touch down softly. The transition from this slow-mo-walk to diagonal steps is only a very small and easy one then, because at some point the horse will be vibrating to such an extent that you easily get these steps. But one has to be able to ride such walk!“

Developing the very first timid diagonal steps
from the counted walk: San Diamond gets
the idea.
Although this kind of walk was probably unknown so far to horse and rider, they had no trouble immediately producing what was required, showing the great basic work Gräf puts into all her horses and her ability to ride them on the seat and off the hand, if required.  Beran promptly commented "great that you are able to ride such a walk, not many are able to because they only push and have short reins, so when they try to shorten the walk, the horse will amble. For this kind of walk the horse truly has to chew, be off the hand, tall in front and short behind. It is important that the horse has learnt through lateral work that the leg is not always pushing forward. Then in the collected walk the leg can ask without pushing. Because I need my legs to initiate the piaffe."

San Diamond soon showed the first timid diagonal steps after this approach and was immediately praised and allowed to stretch and go forward. 

No Witchcraft

Walking in slow-motion, but with lots of energy:
San Diamond was a true paragon of a cooperative
equine partner
With all these ugly photos of desperate piaffe training on stressed out horses in the back of my mind with which we were confronted recently, this was balm on the dressage friend’s soul. Even more, it proves that classical equation, which respects the nature and personality of each horse, is no witchcraft if the horse is well confirmed in the basics and physically prepared to attempt the next step in his training, something Beran had stressed during her lecture a day earlier. It is what she defined with "being fair to the horse."

The fact that at no point in time San Diamond was resistant, stressed or bad tempered, but instead cooperated brilliantly and remained unchanged in his content and relaxed demeanor, proved that it is not only possible to make dressage a delight for horse and rider, but that it is not taking ages to make oneself understood to the equine partner when he is physically and mentally prepared to listen to the rider.

-- Text and Photos © Silke Rottermann for Eurodressage

Coming Soon
Part II of the Uta Gräf & Anja Berin clinic at the Burgtagung