Monica Theodorescu: From Foals to Grand Prix

Germany’s national coach describes her journey to breed her own Grand Prix horses.

What dressage rider hasn’t dreamed of breeding, raising and training a horse to the Grand Prix level? The temptation might be even greater if you have your own champion dressage mare and you feel she has good breeding potential. When my Westfalian Grand Prix mare, Renaissance, retired from showing in 2002, she was a 14-year-old with very good basic gaits and descended from valuable warmblood lines, such as Ramiro and Paradox. But Resi never seemed to show her whole potential to the world at shows, so I liked the idea of using her as a broodmare and maybe let a foal from her walk in her footsteps.

Monica Theodorescu holds her 24-year-old broodmare, Renaissance (right), and first foal, Tattoo. (Credit: Silke Rottermann)

Like many of you, I am an experienced and successful dressage rider, but I am by no means a breeding expert. Moreover, I am convinced that the old saying that Grand Prix horses are “made” rather than bred has not lost its validation. The breeding and training have to come together like a happy marriage, and this can lead to the highest levels in the sport.

With an ever-increasing number of proven licensed stallions, it seems easier than ever before to realize the dream of the homebred dressage horse. But just like the sport of dressage, breeding is an art in itself and will become more of a gamble if you go ahead without taking certain aspects into consideration. 

After having bred six foals out of Resi in the past nine years, I have a little more experience and insight than when I started the adventure. I certainly don’t think this makes me a breeding expert, but my horizon has widened considerably, and I would like to share my experiences with you in the hope that you might find them helpful in realizing your own dream of breeding a homebred Grand Prix horse.

Choosing Suitable Parents

Nowadays, because we can send frozen semen around the globe and with an evermore specialized breeding industry producing high-quality stallions, there are so many choices. And there are countless other considerations that can play a role. But, first of all, don’t feel obliged to use a certain stallion because he has sired Olympic champions or expensive auction horses and thereby seems to promise guaranteed success. This stallion may have suited certain mares, for sure, but may not be right for you.

Begin by thinking of your mare. Remember that her traits are often more determinant than those of the stallion. Decide what her weak points are and which stallion could, ideally, compensate for them. Think about what her strong points are and what stallion might further improve them. 

In general, one has to take into account the individual exterior and interior of both parents. Resi is by Ramiro’s Son out of a Paradox dam. In addition to good basic gaits, she has nice conformation and good health. However, her weak nerves hindered her from becoming a really successful Grand Prix horse on the international stage. Shows always meant stress to her. At indoor shows she used to hold her breath. So it seemed of uppermost importance to find a stallion with an even temperament who passes this on to his offspring. 

As a professional dressage rider, I am lucky because I get to ride the offspring of many different stallions, and although one shouldn’t generalize too much, I was extremely pleased with the overall quality, the work ethic and character of a Trakehner mare who had an even temper and good manners. Her sire is the Trakehner elite stallion Tuareg (by Radom). He is known to suit big-framed mares like Resi. He is an expressive, dark bay stallion with the compact height of about 16 hands (165 cm) and a wonderful conformation. 

I put thought into this pairing beforehand, but it was also a decision based on my gut instincts. It could have been a wrong decision, but luckily Resi delivered a colt with all we’d hoped for. (My team at Lindenhof includes my husband, Burkhard Ernst.] I called the foal Tattoo. His conformation was wonderful right from the beginning and didn’t change when he grew, which can always happen. He has the good basic gaits from both parents and the Trakehner temperament from his father, who, indeed, compensated for Resi’s weak nerves. Tattoo is a sensitive horse, but he is more even-tempered than his mother. In his few outings to shows, he has focused on me even when something new frightened him a bit. (At 9, Tattoo is now doing the small tour and training all the Grand Prix movements.)

As we were so happy with this pairing, we repeated it two more times, resulting in similar looking and well-moving offspring: Take it Easy and Toffi. I found it interesting that when we decided to breed Resi to the Westfalian state stallion Fleury (by Fürst Piccolo) for her fourth and fifth foals, she delivered foals that were completely different. This time the foals grew into youngsters with very much their mother’s conformation. This shows that it is hard to plan the perfect horse, no matter how much thought one puts into it beforehand.

The Ideal Place to Raise a Foal

After we had covered Resi the first time, we realized that our farm, despite having some extensive fields, would be most unsuitable for a mare in foal, let alone to raise the foal after its birth. None of us had any experience with this—we had no other foals, and our busy dressage stable wouldn’t have allowed us to take proper care anyway. To lay a good foundation, foals need to live with their peers and they need experienced people who are knowledgeable and reliable to look after them. They are responsible for the feeding, vaccinations and mostly for the basic training of your foal—standing for the farrier, being led in a halter and tied to a wall, etc. Training begins this early. You don’t want your foal to have bad experiences as a youngster because it will come back to haunt you when you start training under saddle. 

We were so lucky we could find a breeder like Wolfgang Wiesner, who raised most of Resi’s six foals. We visited regularly to check on their constitutions and progress and to enjoy these little creatures with their joy of living. After the foals were weaned, they grew up together with others of their age, learning all the lessons a young horse in a herd has to learn. When the time came to start life as a riding horse, we were not strangers to them, and we looked forward to getting to know each one better to discover their personalities and talents.

Teaching the Basics

After our foal was weaned and had time to grow up with other youngsters for two summers, it was time to think about taking him home and start working on the basics. There are various opinions on when to start, but we always took our youngsters home to our dressage stable in late autumn when they were a good 2½ years old. Some people advocate waiting longer or looking at the individual’s physical development before deciding when to begin training. Each way is reasonable and each might be suitable for your horse. 

If I have a 2½-year-old that is rather underdeveloped for his age, I am more careful and slower in his working program. Through the right longeing work, such a horse’s back can be strengthened considerably before he goes under saddle. But we have to be aware that young horses are not machines that we show something new and they have taken it in by the next day. So it is of paramount importance to be patient, calm and sympathetic. Don’t forget that it is insufficient if a horse just obeys you. He has to understand what you want from him in order to like working with you. This also keeps him motivated, which is so necessary to advance through the levels. Most horses just need enough time to get to know something and understand it. Then they will try their hardest to do it.

Under “basics,” I include the following manners and exercises a youngster must learn during his first year with us: 

• learn to live in a stall for a much longer period of the day

• be led around 

• be properly groomed 

• be shod by the farrier 

• learn the longeing and breaking-in process and the training that follows.

When the young horse comes into a stable, it is a transition from the relative freedom of the field into a completely different life. We always try to help the horses master it in a good way by allowing them to go out in our fields daily if the weather isn’t too horrible. If it is impossible to use the fields due to frozen or muddy ground, we alternatively let them move freely in our smaller indoor arena. This is also a good opportunity to put a bridle with a snaffle bit on, so the horse gets used to wearing it and it is nothing new when we start longing.

Monica accustoms her 3½-year-old homebred mare Rakete—also out of Renaissance—to wearing a bridle. (Credit: Silke Rottermann)

When the horse gets familiar with the new surroundings and the stable routine, it is time to start longeing. Again, there are many ways leading to Rome, and what one considers good, another will condemn. We at Lindenhof equip the horse only with a bridle, a flash noseband and a single-jointed snaffle bit which is solid. I do not use any side reins or something similar at the beginning. The first time the horse moves on the longe line, he should just find his balance and react to the aids coming from our voice, body language and the longe whip. The aim is for the horse to learn to work relaxed in his natural rhythm and over his back.

Next is longeing. Monica begins with the bridle, flash noseband and single-jointed snaffle. Side reins come later. (Credit: Silke Rottermann)

The rider has to feel when the time has come to move a step forward and attach side reins. In some cases, we put them on quite early because it helps the horse not go with his nose outward or with a high head carriage, which makes it impossible to work over the back. We always use running side reins at the beginning, before we make the transition to the usual standing side reins later on. With all side reins, you must not have them too short. The easy rule is that the horse’s nose always has to be in front of the vertical. You want him to stretch onto the bit. All the new things we teach the horse are both physically and mentally demanding, so longeing shouldn’t be too prolonged and the horse should get more opportunities to exercise himself during the day. 

After about four to eight weeks of work on the longe line—in which we have gotten the horse used to wearing a saddle and girth—we usually start the riding. Again, you will find different ways of doing this, and they might all work well. I consider it important that the horse remains in his home stable for this. There are so many new things the horse has had to adapt to within only a few weeks that a new change of stable and surroundings would not help. Also, at home you have the opportunity to observe your horse and learn more about him as the work progresses. I don’t do any of the breaking-in at home myself, but we have a very good freelancing bereiter, Manuela Nitschke, who comes to our stable to work with the youngsters. 

We prefer doing the first steps in the stable. Someone stands in front of the youngster, holds him and talks soothingly all the time while Manuela takes the reins (short) and puts her foot in the stirrup. If the horse accepts the weight without problems, the next step is to get him used to the rider lying over the saddle for a short time. After these preparatory exercises, the time has come to mount the young horse. 

We then walk up and down our long stable corridor many times. If all this happens without problems, Manuela goes straight into our smaller indoor arena and starts riding the youngster on her own. Usually this works very well, though, of course, there is always the odd one making a bit of trouble.

In the following months the only thing I want to achieve is to be able to ride the horse in his three gaits while establishing a safe contact. We ride on long, straight lines to help the youngster find his balance. Some, like my 5-year-old mare, Fiesta, have a fantastic natural balance and will soon move like an old pro. But don’t be tempted to rush anything in your horse’s training. After one year, I really do not expect anything more from a young horse than that he move with suppleness and in balance on straight lines or big circles in all the basic gaits and that he keep a soft and steady contact in my hands.

Then Rakete is ridden at all three gaits while establishing a safe contact. (Credit: Silke Rottermann)

Dressage Training Principles

After you lay a good foundation, you can continue training your horse through the different levels. It is impossible for me to comment on each level of training in this space, but I would like to share with you some principles I was taught early on by my parents, George and Inge Theodorescu. These have proved to be golden ones throughout the more than three decades I have trained horses. 

Monica and her 9-year-old gelding, Tattoo, get ready for the Grand Prix. (Credit: Silke Rottermann)
They piaffe. (Credit: Silke Rottermann)

(Note: George relocated to Germany from Romania in 1959 where he met Inge, and they went on to become legendary dressage trainers. In 1996, George was given the German Golden Rider’s Cross and, in 2005, the title “Riding Master.”)

Have the right attitude: In my family, horses were first and foremost our friends and never a means to fulfill our ambitions. We still had goals, but we never sacrificed our friendship with the horse to achieve them. In the daily training, it simply means to be fair to the horse and to train him in a horse-friendly way. This can also mean to recognize and accept that a horse has reached his limit. About 10 years ago I had a Holsteiner called L’Etoile who was very successful at the small-tour level. He learned all the Grand Prix movements quite easily except the piaffe. He just wasn’t capable of doing it sufficiently, so as frustrating as it was, I accepted we had reached his limit and subsequently sold him.

Use the training scale as your only guide: The six parts of the ever-valid training scale should be the most important guide in training your horse. Whatever you work on, you must have it in the back of your mind. Don’t try to cheat. True dressage knows no short cuts. Taking them is always at the cost of your horse’s well-being and your harmonious partnership. If a problem occurs in your horse’s training, it is useful to go a step back in the training scale for some time.

Use the training scale as your guide, says Monica, who walks her horses on a loose rein for “a considerable period of time each day.” (Credit: Silke Rottermann)

Realize the importance of the warm-up phase: No matter your horse’s age or level, he needs to be warmed up sufficiently. I walk all my horses with loose reins for a considerable period of time each day. Although this is the same with each of my horses, the training itself is very individual. A rider has to find out what kind of warm-up suits his horse best and leads to the desired result, which is the purity of rhythm and the swinging of the back. These two are essentials that must happen before I can go on to the working phase. 

Ride short working sessions: Horses cannot concentrate on new or difficult movements for a long time. This means that the working phase should be kept short and always followed by a phase of relaxation where the horse is allowed to walk with loose reins and allowed to stretch forward and downward.

Give praise: It goes without saying that praise plays an indispensable role in the training of a horse. Praise often and extensively. All too often one sees riders who only praise after the horse has worked well for several minutes. But the horse needs our encouragement much earlier and more often. When I practice something new or difficult, I praise my horse’s every step that is done well and don’t wait until he has finished. It motivates them to try even harder. In principle you cannot praise too much or too often as long as you do not reward your horse for undesired behavior. 

Keep variety in your training:In our family it was always important to offer the horses variety in their training from the beginning. There is nothing more boring for a horse than to have the same training routine every day. I regularly go hacking in the nearby forests or use our sandy racetrack, not always just for relaxation but also to work the horses. You can practice canter or lateral work in a very good way while hacking because the horses usually go with more natural impulsion and are more alert than in the arena. But the dressage training in the arena does not need to lack impulsion. Now and then, horses appreciate it if you allow them to canter more forward while standing in the stirrups. Often underestimated, especially in an advanced horse’s work, is longeing, which helps to build or keep muscles and physical fitness while the horse is freed from the weight of the rider.

Riding is building a relationship: Last, but not least, never forget that riding is about building a personal and intense relationship with your horse. But on the other hand, you cannot build it through riding alone. Really take care of your horse daily. 

Of course, I have grooms helping me with the horses, but I always take the time to get them ready by myself and I spend a lot of time each day hand-walking and hand-grazing them in the afternoons. The horse-walker seems to be a tempting alternative to many riders, but can it replace the very personal contact you have while standing next to a horse who is enjoying grazing? I am sure that I would never have had the success I have had without the close relationship I enjoyed with my horses. It was the basis I built the rest on.

Success with Your Homebred

Riders who train their horse through the levels will agree that the most rewarding thing is not winning at a show but to see the horse grow not only physically but also as a personality, which comes into its own through the work with us. It was no different with Tattoo, who is the first foal I bred from Resi. A sensitive and willing horse, he needed time to become more self-confident and believe in himself. Like his mother, he used to hold his breath when he was younger and afraid of something, so it was as important to give him belief in himself as it was to teach him the movements.

In spring 2012, Tattoo debuted at the international small-tour level. When he placed fifth, I was incredibly proud of my horse. I have trained many horses from the beginning to the international level, but he is my first homebred. To go this way successfully with a horse you have known from his very first day onward is a special kind of reward for all the work, patience and affection you have put into your four-legged friend on your common journey.

Tattoo was a successful competitor in the small tour in 2012. (Credit: Silke Rottermann)

Monica Theodorescu, 49, is one of Germany’s most successful dressage riders, having won three Olympic gold medals and twice the World Cup Final after she had excelled as a Junior and Young Rider. As the daughter of legendary dressage trainer George Theodorescu, Monica grew up with horses and trained successful ones, such as Ganimedes, Grunox, Renaissance Fleur and Whisper, to the Grand Prix level. She continues to run her late parents’ Lindenhof Stud, near Warendorf, as a professional dressage stable. More recently, she was appointed the German national coach for dressage.

Life as Germany’s New National Coach

By Silke Rottermann

Q: How did you get the job as the new German national coach for dressage, and what does it mean to you?

Monica Theodorescu: Already last winter, when Holger Schmezer was still alive, I was asked by the German National Federation (FN) if I could imagine following him in that position. It was planned that Holger would retire at the end of 2012, and it was clear that (assistant coach) Johnny Hilberath did not want to take over due to his personal responsibilities at his yard. My job started early due to the sudden death of Mr. Schmezer in April 2007. It is a great honor for me, but it is also a big responsibility. However, I do not feel it is a burden, but a challenge—a challenge in the sense that I get the chance to improve myself further.

Monica Theodorescu and her 14-year-old Württemberger gelding, Whisper, won the Grand Prix at the 2012 World Equestrian Festival CDI4* in Aachen, scoring 74.319 percent. (Credit: Jacques Toffi)

Q: Why did you bid farewell to your career as an active rider to become the national dressage coach?

MT: It took me a long time to finally make the decision. For about half a year I balanced the pros and cons before I accepted the new position at the beginning of September 2012. I have competed for more than 30 years and I loved doing it. Moreover, I have a stable with very promising homebred youngsters, so it was not an easy decision at all. But on the other hand, I am grateful that I was able to compete at that level for such a long time, and I don’t think it would be better to wait to coach until I’d had some downfall that would keep me from riding. 

Becoming national coach is a unique opportunity and a progression from what I have done before. So as much as I have to get used to not competing and riding so much at home anymore, I consider this next chapter in my life as an advancement and not as a loss. Of course, it will be a turning point. From Oct. 2012 on, I will be away a lot from my yard, which needed much organization before. I had to think about how we would continue here at home when I am away an estimated 250 to 300 days a year. I had to hire a bereiter to do most of the daily training, and I will not be able to keep all my own riding horses. 

My new job also has consequences for my private life. But my husband, Burkhard, and I were in agreement that the decision to take the offer for this position is the right one because it is a step forward.

Q: What will your routine as national coach look like?

MT: To be honest, I do not really know. Of course, I will go to many shows and I will supervise the home training of our A and B long-listed Grand Prix riders. We will also have team trainings at Warendorf with them. The task is to see what needs to be changed in the training to get the best result in the end.

There will also be lots of office work and many consultations with my two assistant coaches, Johnny Hilberath and Jürgen Koschel. One has to discuss the CDI starts of our riders and which horse competes at which show. 

We have an excellent structure with our German system, with the different age divisions from the ponies on up to the Grand Prix series. It is the same with the Prix St. Georges horses and the Louisdor Cup for young Grand Prix horses. So I take over ground that is very well prepared. What I would like to do is to find out what we can take from modern training sciences and other sports. Apart from that, I would like to use more video analysis.

Q:What will happen if a future team member trains using a different training philosophy like the classical one you advocate?

MT: Advocating a certain training approach doesn’t mean that I am not tolerating that which deviates from my own. Our riders have free choice of their home trainer, no matter who is holding the position of national coach. For me, it is decisive that our riders adhere to the valid FEI rules that also determine the behavior in the warm-up arena at CDI shows.






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