My name is Griffin Denham and I am from Southern California. I am 19 years old, and for 13 years of my life, I have spent almost all of my time with horses. My story perhaps resembles that of other riders very closely in that I began with jumping and moved onto dressage, except I had an unusual stroke of luck: I found myself working with some of the very best in this industry at a fledgling age. I still pinch myself!
This is how it began: One day, my trainers and I went down to San Diego to watch a masterclass clinic with the keeper of the holy grail: Germany’s Helen Langehanenberg. I was such a fan of hers and still am a complete fanboy, so I decided after the clinic I needed to take a picture with her! What was meant to be just a photo with my idol ended up being a whole conversation with her. I could not believe it. I had just conversed with one of the best riders in the world, and had my picture taken with her to boot. I went home in awe and wholly inspired.
Editor's Note: Griffin has also been featured in Dressage Today's "Clinic" column with biomechanics expert Susanne von Dietze on two occasions. Click here to read the first article and click here to read the second article.
A few days passed and I thought to myself somewhat giddily, What if I were to work with Helen? My trainers have always encouraged me to travel overseas to obtain a better horse education since I wanted to turn my passion into a reality. With a final push from my dad, I wrote Helen an email—first thanking her for the amazing clinic and then asking her if there was a mere sliver of a chance I could come for a brief summer internship. Not a day went by and I received an email from her manager. I opened the email that read: “Basically, that’s possible.”
I could not believe the words on the screen. I had officially been given permission, in a very dry, German way, to enter the gates of dressage heaven. Stupefied, I told my friends and family and booked my flight that very night! I only spent one month there, due to the unfortunate constraints of being a high school student, but that one month was utter bliss. Each day, I saw Helen train all of her horses, including world-ranked Damsey FRH. Every minute I spent there was an absolute sensation. But, like all good things, it came to a quick end, and I dreaded leaving such a fun team and an amazing boss. I talked to Helen about coming back the next summer after graduating, and hopefully staying longer than just a month. She said, "Whenever you want to come and however long you want to stay, come back!" With an invitation like that, I could not resist.
So here I am, a year later, home from what was meant to be just a 2-month stint that ended up being almost half a year in Germany working again with Helen. To say that it was unbelievable would be an understatement. Just the opportunity to work with Helen and her team so extensively was a dream come true.
But I want to focus on a bit of the takeaways from my extended stay—the side effects, you could say! Here's what I learned:
1. You learn to hold yourself to higher standards. When you work at one of the most respected stables in the world, you sort of have to live up to those expectations. You have to learn quickly so that you are not a burden to the team and you have to learn how to become a contributing member, fast. I’ve learned that is an extremely important skill: adapting quickly. If you don’t adapt, you’re going to be left behind in the dust, and quite frankly, you’re going to be disliked. Sooner or later, you start having higher expectations for yourself as well. You want to make sure you are doing the best you can, even when it is difficult and the days seem long.
2. You become ballsy! You become much more ballsy, especially when you’re living in a different country, which I actually find quite fun! You have to challenge yourself. I had to speak for myself because no one knew who I was and no one was trying to be my friend unless I made the effort. You have to make those friendships yourself. At first, I thought this was a pretty harsh reality, and it is, but that’s life. I have made so many lifelong friends in Germany who I keep in contact with regularly, if not daily, and I am so thankful for that. By the end of my stay, I found Germans to be friendlier than most people back home in Los Angeles. I distinctly remember my last weekend in Germany. I decided to stop by the bakery for breakfast one Sunday morning. I got my breakfast and sat outside to eat. Literally every person who passed by me either said ‘Good Morning,’ ‘Guten appetit’ or made some effort to speak with me. Never would that ever happen in sunny California, and yet, here I was, the foreigner, being treated as an old friend! I’ll never forget that day.
3. You develop an attitude of understanding rather than criticizing. Your eye becomes much more refined. When you see such top riding every day, you get a pretty good idea of what is correct and what just looks nice but isn’t really correct. You’re able to pick out the nice bits in tests and training, and the bits that need some work. One thing I do want to make clear, though, is your attitude actually becomes much more understanding, and that is something I did not expect. I was expecting that my opinion and attitude would become much harsher since I was watching the best train every day. But actually, it reversed. For some reason I became even more humbled by the sport. The reality is not all of us—nor hardly any of us—are as good as Helen. You begin to appreciate how difficult it is to get to the top and how difficult this sport really is. Most of us are struggling up the ladder, so it’s better to encourage one another instead of pushing others down.
4. You learn to be open to criticism. I have to say I have a difficult time with this one, but working with Helen really helped me accept that criticism can be a good thing. I was lucky enough to receive lessons with Helen and although there was a lot for me to fix, she always pointed out the good stuff, too. I think that is so important. If you just hear negative feedback all the time, then all your thoughts are consequently going to be negative. And for someone like me who tends to be already quite hard on my own riding, it was such a help to hear positive comments, especially from someone like Helen. When the criticism is like that, encouraging and positive, you become much more open and willing to take it.
But that being said, there are people who want to put you down, and that’s when you need to learn to block that criticism and understand that it doesn’t come from an honest, open-minded perspective.
5. You understand your limitations and become adaptable. Continuing with the open-mindedness theme, you learn to let yourself be adaptable. For example, as much as I want to ride like Helen, I can’t. It’s just not possible. Helen is a 5’5” petite powerhouse, and I am an almost 6’3” giant. I just can’t physically copy her style. I have to figure out other ways to get around it. So, instead I look at other riders who are built like me: Patrik Kittel, Daniel Bachmann Andersen and Sönke Rothenberger. But what I can do is take all the good aspects of Helen and apply them to my riding. That’s what being open-minded is about: taking the good and understanding that there are just going to be some limitations.
6. You are struck by inspiration. My favorite part about being surrounded by such top riding was the inspiration. I am a visual learner in the sense that I learn the most about riding by watching. No lesson would do me more good than just watching Helen or her rider train a horse. It didn’t have to be a top horse for me to learn something, either. What is great about becoming inspired is that you get to be somewhat passive. It’s like magic. I never knew when I was going to be struck by some lightbulb moment, and when I was, I got chills down my spine. What inspired me most about the riding I saw was the timing. Never have I ever seen such proactive riding in my life. Before a horse even thought about putting a foot in the wrong place, Helen had already made her correction. But that being said, rewards were also offered just as quickly. If a horse did something good, the horse was sure to be rewarded with either a pat or a shortened ride. That is what good horsemanship is all about.
7. You learn how to make corrections and improve bad rides. Dressage isn’t always pretty. That doesn’t mean that it's supposed to be ugly all the time either, but what I am saying is that it’s okay to have bad rides and make corrections, big or small. Our goal as riders is to ride without having to make any corrections, basically having to do nothing, but it takes a long time to get to that point. Don’t be afraid to trust your gut when riding. If something doesn’t feel right, get someone to look at it. Play with different corrections. Don’t get stuck in one method. No two horses are the same, and we need to remember that. Play with different hand positions, different ways of sitting, different exercises, different environments and surroundings. This is what I love so much about dressage and riding. Each horse is a mystery and we have to solve the puzzle to get the best results possible. One of my favorite examples is Cathrine Dufour with her horse Atterupgaards Cassidy. One of Cassidy’s lowlights is his piaffe, but with the help and wisdom of Kyra Kyrklund by her side, the two decided to try using a jumping whip to help Cassidy relearn the piaffe. It’s a simple and perhaps boring adjustment, yet it was a beneficial, out-of-the-box solution. Nowadays, we see Cassidy execute a much better piaffe than from just a year ago. The point is to try different things. Our goal is to find the key to each horse, and we’re not going to find it if we sit idle.
8. You embrace new friendships. One of my favorite side effects of working with the best is the people I got to meet and the places I got to see. Never would I have ever thought I would meet the people I did. Because of working with Helen, I met both German team trainers, Monica Theodorescu and Johnny Hilberath. What an opportunity. I have to say I am a complete fanboy of the entire German team, so meeting these people was unimaginable. I also met some incredible people who aren’t considered huge public figures. I met so many great people who have had huge impacts on me. I’ve met two people on the Finnish team who are amazing, totally talented riders who deserve so much more credit than they are given, just because they don’t come from a dressage powerhouse country. I’ve met someone who is aiming for the Tokyo Olympics for Australia who seems to have a very good chance. I’ve met the vets and grooms and physiotherapists who take amazing care of these top horses. It’s so inspiring to see the same dedication and passion that I have in other people. I’ve been to Aachen twice now, fortunately, and let me just say that it is the best show in the world, hands down. To see the top riders from around the world in one spot is just incredible. I am an absolute dressage nerd, so I prefer to watch the warm up to the actual tests, and Aachen has a transparent warm up, which is great for people like me. Also, I am so fortunate to be extremely good friends with one of the grooms on the Finnish team, so on one occasion at Aachen, I got to sit with the Finnish team next to Kyra Kyrklund. I couldn’t breathe. That’s all I’m going to say. And on top of that, Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin sat no more than 10 seats away from me and Anne van Olst and her husband sat in the row in front of me. I just about died.
So, to say the least, I had the best half year of my life to date. Yes, it was extremely challenging at times, and sometimes homesickness and leaving one of my best friends didn’t help, but I learned more in those months than I have in my whole life. I learned about the management of a top stable and how to take care of horses at that level and that everything—and I mean everything—affects the performance of these horses. I learned how much your riding really does influence the horse and that even those who are at the top still need an extra pair of eyes on the ground.
The truth is this sport is harder than we like to admit, so it’s no use going at it alone—even for those who seem to have "made it." The reason I took this opportunity of a lifetime was because I wanted to improve my riding and in the end, I improved in so many other unimaginable ways.
There is one last thing I want to say and that is thank you to everyone who has helped along the way. In particular, ein herzliches dankeschön an das Team Langehanenberg! Many thanks to Team Langehanenberg.