2024 Burgtagung: Uta Gräf and Anja Beran: "If the Basis is Correct, It's Easy for the Horse"

Wed, 02/21/2024 - 17:14
Uta Gräf on Sisco de Luxe, an eventer turned Grand Prix horse. Copybook piaffe by Sisco who flexes his joints, takes the weight, carries himself and on top of it remains calm and focused. What else do you wish for in this so demanding movement? :: 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"
Part IV: Fair and Delightful Dressage Training with Uta Gräf and Anja Beran

-- 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.

Part II: Fair and Delightful Dressage Training

Gräf introduces her Grand Prix winning DSP
gelding Sisco de Luxe M (by Sansicso x Frederick)
The second of two horses Uta Gräf was to ride under Anja Beran’s supervision entered the arena with his groom and displayed a different type to the rather compact San Diamond. A pretty long chestnut with a lot of white,  Sabine Pfaffmann's Sisco de Luxe (by Sansisco x Frederick), entered the arena. He is a horse which has begun his career "in the bush," qualifying for the Bundeschampionate for eventing horses about ten years ago. Now at age 15 the German Sport Horse gelding has won numerous Grand Prix tests with Uta Gräf.

While Uta introduced the gelding to Anja Beran and the crowd, she fumbled at the crown-piece of the bridle to lengthen the cheek-pieces, making the people laugh by commenting it "this would never happen to you, Anja, I would love to have a bit of your attitude." Beran replied,  "and I would like to look at the world a bit more relaxed." Their banter added to the beautiful atmosphere in which the two ladies worked together.

In the warm-up phase Gräf wants Sisco to be happy,
'to be here' and she allows him to canter
in the frame he feels happy in at this very moment.
Uta described the horse as very diligent, motivated, and great to ride, but she also remarked that at the beginning of his dressage career the judges did not accept him that well because he is rather long in his body and not a square horse. "Now he is rounder in his appearance and more mature and certainly he is also better, but he still has to earn every single point," Uta disclosed, adding that "he gives me such a great feeling, it is often better than the results we get. To ride a Grand Prix on him is easier than a novice class on some other horses. His conformation absolutely does not stand in the way, he sits very well in piaffe and in the canter pirouettes. Perhaps it shows a bit in passage."

Uta then brought the house down by telling how they bought a bigger, white saddle cloth to influence the optic and were successful with it, which make Beran say "great, others would have changed the horse instead."

Later Gräf elevates the 15-year-old gelding more
Like with San Diamond, Uta trotted the chestnut relaxedly in a wide frame through the indoor, followed by some trot-canter-transitions on a big circle. "I know he is a bit deep now, but my goal at this moment is that he feels happy and well and gets the feeling it is a nice place here," Uta explained. Sisco was soon ready to move on by showing single flying changes with a great naturalness and was ridden in counter canter through the corners. Beran immediately assessed the situation when Sisco messed up a change. "Do not hollow him too much on the right in the counter canter. Instead straighten the neck before the change to the left." Uta let the changes be followed by a walk break and then travers in canter on a circle and the long side, effectively putting the horse with not the most uphill canter by nature on his hindquarters.

Even though Uta told Anja Beran and the audience it is the passage which she would like to work on, she started the real working phase by executing trot-walk-transitions leading to piaffe, which Sisco undoubtedly has a talent for as he truly takes weight behind. "I have to take care that he is up and slightly open when I initiate the piaffe," Gräf commented this first promising attempt of the day. Anja Beran observed and then recommended "Execute it quieter, he still won’t die off. But if he piaffes in a quieter way, it becomes even more elevated and more beautiful. He could become a bit taller in front because he is sometimes a bit quicker behind than in front. And if he raises in front, he will become quicker there."

Sisco passing a corner in counter-canter, but Beran
advised not to hollow him too much to the outside
Beran recommended Uta to "rest the legs at the girth, put both hands together and position them slightly higher so that he gets the idea."vAnd the idea was immediately achieved with Sisco virtually growing 5 more centimeters in front and totally getting an easy diagonal rhythm, prompting not only Uta to enthusiastically throw the reins and praise him, but Beran to smile and say "Piaffe is only there to enjoy!" The calmness and lightness, the utter relaxation in such an extremely demanding movement, enthused the audience and let shudders ran down my spine. Good dressage is a real thrill to watch, it is only a pity that it seems so very hard to find, so I savoured the wonderful moment Sisco gifted me and all attendants even more.

"If one trains solidly from the beginning, it is easy. Riding itself isn’t easy, but if the basis is correct, it is easy for the horse. Also a horse with much less talent needs to execute this movement with the same lightness. Only the preparation for such a horse is more effortful, to get each step through gymnastics," Beran made the spectators think and reminded them of the original goal of dressage which seems long lost in many people’s minds.

Sisco’s piaffe in front view: Clear diagonal
steps and a light connection, the horse
carries himself
After an appropriate break, Uta took up the reins again and told the audience she would now like to work on Sisco’s passage with Anja. Riding a lively collected trot, Uta took up her horse and initiated a passage which was correct, but a bit flat and without a lot of cadence. Beran, who repeatedly worked with visuals, told Uta to imagine to suck the saddle upwards to induce the passage with her seat.   Gräf was able to get a few truly expressive passage steps with a significant suspension phase from Sisco. It goes without saying that she was not tempted to prolong these precious moments, but threw the reins and rewarded Sisco enthusiastically. The tall chestnut remained completely relaxed and walked with a long neck through the indoor.

From the highest form of positive tension to the utmost relaxation proves that the work is done in a way Anja Beran would call "fair." Uta was not only beaming from ear to ear, but quickly came to the conclusion that one should finish a session with such "happiness hormones," adding that "Sisco doesn’t care the least if I compete him at a show or not. Because I ride him there the very same way like at home."

Anja Beran then reminded the audience that exactly this was the original idea behind dressage competitions: "A dressage show as a check where the rider gets feedback on what he can improve. A dressage show is an orientation, but now we are very far away from this!"

Again and again breaks in walk
Uta confirmed that she considers many things also awful at the moment, but still strongly believes that dressage competitions and good dressage riding do not necessarily contradict each other, whereas Anja Beran remained skeptical in that she expressed her fears that perhaps one day soon it might be forbidden.

"That is why we have to change something," Beran concluded.  Uta Gräf told me at the end of the event that "I think Anja and I are totally different types with the same goal.  The fascinating aspect about equestrian sport, no matter in which discipline, is training horses well and horse-friendly and this is what we have in common. The fact that Anja as a classical rider and I as somebody competing have so many things in common and enrich each other, speaks for itself. I also really liked the atmosphere during this event: The horses, riders and audience were relaxed and harmonious."

-- Text and Photos © Silke Rottermann for Eurodressage