The Global Dressage Forum (GDF) took place, as it has annually since 2001, at the Academy Bartels in Hooge Mierde, a village in the southeast of Holland. The academy is home to the forum’s founder, Joep Bartels, father and husband to Olympians Imke and Tineke, and creator of the World Cup Dressage in 1985. Bartels’ goal with the GDF has always been multifaceted: to educate, to inspire and to encourage debate. Over the years, the forum has developed a reputation for confronting the issues of the day, and often controversies over training methods and judging results at major championships overshadow the more educational presentations.
If the GDF can be seen as a gauge of the health of international dressage, the atmosphere of the 2013 event would indicate that the sport is in better condition than it has been for a long time, perhaps ever. The most riveting presentations were from a few of the world’s most renowned trainers. The two-day forum was nearly devoid of conflict, which brought the training methods and philosophies of the headline trainers into sharp focus for the 400 spectators.
After many years of friendly persuasion, Bartels finally succeeded in bringing Germany’s most successful living dressage athlete, Isabell Werth, to share the secrets of her training that have earned her multiple world, Olympic Games and World Cup titles.
Swedish Olympian Kyra Kyrklund, who unlike Werth has been a contributor to the GDF over the years, gave a presentation on Sweden’s talent development program. Fellow members of Sweden’s talent-program coaching team, Olympian Jan Brink and Liane Wachtmeister, assisted her.
Courage and Inspiration:
As the headline trainer at the 2013 GDF, Werth was subjected to what GDF moderator Richard Davison has come to call his “fireside chat”—an intimate interview focusing on the subject’s personal life and background. As Werth described her childhood on a small farm, where she shared her daily life with various farm animals including cows, pigs and horses, she gave an impression of both personal modesty and a strong passion for horses. An early fascination for dressage was due, in part, to the fact that one of the greatest trainers of the 20th century, Uwe Schulten-Baumer, had a riding school next door to Werth’s home.
“I saw Dr. Schulten-Baumer with the children who came to the riding school,” Werth remembered. “They didn’t have an indoor arena, and I would stand with big eyes looking over the wall at them. It was a big dream for me.” When one of Schulten-Baumer’s riders was ill, he asked Werth to come and help out.
She said, “As a kid you dream, and one of my dreams was to become a successful rider, of course.” Schulten-Baumer invited Werth to stay on with him, and after her parents expressed their support, Werth embarked on her path to dressage stardom.
Joining Werth and Davison on the couch partway through the interview was another major influence in Werth’s career: the owner of her horses, Madeleine Winter-Schulze. Werth has often been quoted as saying that she prefers to train her own horses from the beginning rather than buy a horse already trained to Grand Prix. Winter-Schulze has always trusted Werth’s judgment in selecting young horses to develop herself. “It’s Isabell’s way to have the passion and vision with a 3- or 4-year-old,” said Winter-Schulze.
“I don’t want to buy a medal. I want to ride into the medal,” added Werth.
Werth’s training demonstrations were divided over two sessions. In the first presentation, two of her students were in the saddle, and Werth introduced her “secret piaffe weapon,” José Antonio García Mena of Spain.
Werth explained that she looks for three good gaits in a young horse, and that in the temperament she wants to see a bit of a spark.
“I really like if they are a bit naughty, a bit awake,” she said. “I don’t like the word ‘submission.’ I prefer ‘control.’ They should show their opinions; they could buck once or be a bit spooky. It doesn’t always look nice, but it’s the kind of horse I prefer to improve.”
Werth guided her riders through their warm-ups, explaining the reason for each exercise and instruction. As she helped one rider make transitions forward and back within the canter in preparation for introducing the pirouette, she explained what mattered and what didn’t. “Don’t worry if he gets a little low in the neck. It’s more important that the horse stays round and keeps a good connection with positive pressure on the reins.”
Werth’s second demonstration was the moment that had been eagerly anticipated from the time it was announced she would be participating in the GDF. Her decision to ride Don Johnson FRH, the 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding, in front of the audience was both a courageous and wise move. Recently, some members of the media have become fond of publishing unflattering photographs of the pair warming up at competitions. Don Johnson exemplifies the opinionated character that Werth had described and his antics during competition warm-ups have provided ample fodder for photographers. Werth had not warmed up Don Johnson when she mounted him in front of the GDF spectators. She apologized for that fact as she began to trot around, and German National Team Trainer Monica Theodorescu stepped up to the microphone to provide commentary during the presentation.
“Isabell is so curious about every horse,” said Theodorescu. “She wants to get the best out of every one. She really believes in all her horses.”
Theodorescu added that a horse must have self-confidence, and Don Johnson obliged with a few small, playful bucks. His antics helped illustrate that the apparent struggles captured in published photos may have been more than a little misleading.
As Werth took her horse through the warm-up and into the Grand Prix exercises, the work became focused, and Don Johnson demonstrated the talents that make him one of the world’s top horses. Werth used many vocal cues and encouragements as she rode, and she gave frequent rewards.
When she had finished the demonstration, she was asked by Michael Klimke, son of the legendary dressage Olympian Dr. Reiner Klimke, to identify the main exercises she uses in her daily training. “I use mostly trot–canter–trot transitions with young horses, and later the shoulder in is the exercise I use the most,” she replied. “And the little transitions within the gaits. I don’t train so much the exercises. In my experience, when I have the transitions free and elastic with the horse I can do the exercises.”
Giving the canter pirouette as an example, she said, “When you can really bring the horse back on the spot you don’t need to train 10 pirouettes in a day. Dr. Schulten-Baumer taught me that you should train the horse in such a way that he becomes stronger, not losing substance.”
At the end of the evening, Werth explained to the audience why she had chosen Don Johnson for her presentation. “I wanted to show that he is better than his image. I always feel sorry that I can’t show the horse like he could be shown.”
Swedish Smorgasbord: Kyra Kyrklund, Jan Brink and
In the world of dressage, there are few individuals who have trained as many horses and riders to international success as Kyra Kyrklund. The Finnish native made her home in Sweden for a number of years as the head trainer at Sweden’s national stud, Flyinge. Though she now lives in England, she continues to mentor Sweden’s up-and-coming talent through the program known as Knytkalaset. The word, which means “potluck” in Swedish, was chosen as the name for the talent-development program to connote the idea that the successful production of talented horses and riders requires everyone—owners, riders and trainers—to bring something to the table. The program arose out of a conversation that Kyrklund, her partner, Richard White, and Swedish Olympian Jan Brink had in 1998.
“I was sitting in the kitchen at Flyinge with Richard and Kyra,” Brink explained. “They were moving to England. I realized this would be a really big loss for me and for Swedish dressage.” Out of that conversation emerged the program that has helped talented young Swedish riders find the horses and the learning opportunities to succeed.
Kyrklund and Brink were joined by Liane Wachtmeister, another trainer involved in Knytkalaset. Wachtmeister covers northern Sweden while Brink coaches riders in the south of the country. Each of them has eight riders under their guidance, with three more students on standby.
The proof of Knytkalaset’s success is easy to measure: Sweden is a country of only 9.5 million, but it is among the world’s top dressage nations at the Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games. Currently the country boasts 30 Grand Prix horses and 10 international Grand Prix riders. Sweden has won seven international medals in the past decade. The program’s success attracted new sponsorship in 2009 from EFG Bank, which wanted to put money into further development of Knytkalaset.
Plantskolan, which means “nursery,” is the name of what Kyrklund describes as the program that focuses on the “rings of water spreading out” from the Grand Prix riders: the next generation of talent. The GDF presentation, which was titled “Helping Talents to Help Themselves,” included mounted demonstrations with some of the Swedish program’s students. All three mentors coached riders in front of the audience, but the most valuable message of the presentation was to be found in the philosophy behind Knytkalaset. “Too many riders are interested only in my horse and my lesson,” said Kyrklund. “I wanted them to watch each other. The problems are usually the same and one person may be farther along than another. I can’t be at all the shows, and I like to develop thinking riders.”
Brink added that “the goal is not only to tell the riders to do something, but to make them understand why they are doing it.” The riders in the Knytkalaset program are expected to take an interest in one another’s training and to help each other at national shows. In addition to individual development, there is a strong impetus to part of a team and work toward a common goal.
As Kyrklund and Brink worked with their students in front of the GDF audience, they made frequent comments about the importance of being driven toward goals while also being patient. One of Kyrklund’s mantras has always been “you can only learn riding by riding;” in other words, aspiring riders must take every opportunity to ride as many horses as possible on an ongoing basis.
Keeping good horses in Sweden is also a high priority for the program. “Securing horses is important so that investment wasn’t made only to have the horses go away,” said Kyrklund. “We also create goals for the owner so that their commitment is not indefinite but focused toward the Olympic or World Equestrian Games.”
As dressage in North America seeks to reach new milestones on the international stage, there are lessons to be learned from Sweden. The tiny Scandinavian nation finished fifth at the 2012 Olympic Games in London (the USA finished seventh), proving that Sweden punches well above its weight on the ever-more-competitive world stage. A strong talent-development program such as Knytkalaset is an undeniably important cog in the wheel of Sweden’s success.