Hallo aus Deutschland! Hello from Germany! I’ve been here for a whopping five days now and I can tell you that based on my first impressions, Germany is everything I had hoped for and more. The people are friendly and beautiful (there were at least three Heidi Klum clones on our plane flying over), the food is spectacular, the architecture is impressive, the cities are clean and most importantly, every single horse I have seen here has been breathtakingly beautiful. Every. Single. One.
We left the United States on Tuesday evening, took an overnight flight and arrived in Hamburg on Wednesday morning. I debated renting a car but knew I would be in no shape to drive when I got here, so we took a taxi. I very quickly determined that was the right decision because I wouldn’t have had a clue how to interpret the traffic patterns or street signs. Especially when I was tired to the point that I was almost delusional.
As soon as we got to our hotel, which is a modern-style boutique hotel not far from Hamburg city center, we dropped off our stuff, washed our faces and headed out immediately to explore the city.
The sun was shining, the skies were sparkling blue and it was about 55 degrees Farenheit. Perfect scarf weather! During our walk, we quickly learned to stay out of the bike lanes, which we initially thought were just part of the sidewalks until bike riders dinged their bells behind us and gave us disgruntled looks. Might as well have had large American flags painted on our foreheads at that point. At first, I felt pretty dumb but I forgot all about it when I became distracted by the beautiful scenery.
The city of Hamburg has two beautiful lakes formed by the Alter River: Außenalster (Outer Alster Lake) and Binnenalster. Outer Alster Lake is the larger of the two and is surrounded by beautiful, grand buildings. We took a walk around Outer Alster Lake, snapped some classic tourist photos and then retreated back to our room to rest up. Later that evening, we had a wonderful dinner (of Weinerschnitzel, naturally) at a restaurant that sat right on the lake. Throughout the day, we were relieved to find that there were many people (including hotel staff, taxi drivers and waiters) who were happy to speak to us in English. I did my best to use the very basic German I know, but they would kindly smile, chuckle to themselves and then speak in very good English.
The following day, we took a taxi out of Hamburg to meet my Dressage Today colleague, Annie Morris out at Hof Bornsen, which is the training base of Sven Dapper and Judy Allmeling. You’ve probably read Annie’s training blog or seen her photo in several training articles we’ve done in the magazine. Sven is a very successful self-made Grand Prix rider and Judy is also a very skilled rider who is originally from Boston, Massachusetts, but has been based in Germany for the past several years. She wrote a fabulous article about the benefits of riding with an open hip angle that is in our October issue. Annie, Judy, Sven and owner Karen Klemt were all exceptionally kind in welcoming us to their farm.
The farm has quite a bit of character and looks exactly how you would expect a German barn to look. It is well outside the city but it sits in the middle of a very suburban neighborhood, so the horses are led past people’s homes on their way out to the fields or to the arena. The barn is at least a few hundred years old and because of its historic nature, laws prevent them from doing any major modifications to the existing buildings. They’ve added additional structures and stalls where possible, which has given the barns a maze-like feel. A short walk down the driveway from the barn will lead you past a small tack shop, another person’s home, a round pen and then to the indoor arena on the right and the outdoor on the left. The indoor arena has been newly built and it is a work of art—both from architectural and functional standpoints. It’s made mostly out of a light, beautiful wood and thanks to large windows and skylights, it’s the brightest and airiest indoor ring I’ve ever set foot in. The footing looks like clouds and a sprinkler system in the ceiling keeps the footing in great form, too. There’s also a beautiful viewing area complete with a full kitchen. Needless to say, we had no trouble making ourselves right at home.
As I was sitting in their beautiful indoor arena sipping coffee and watching them school some exquisite horses while they spoke in German, I had one of those moments when I paused and thought to myself “Wow, I feel like a real dressage person now!” and burst into a grin.
Judy explained that much of their focus is on riding the horses so that they are supple and moving through their backs. She explained that this was critical for producing horses that are comfortable in their minds and their bodies. They ride even the upper-level horses in snaffle bridles most of the time and incorporate a lot of cross training into their routines by hacking, longeing, long-lining and using poles for gymnastic work.
As we watched Sven school a gorgeous dark bay warmblood, Judy explained that the horse made a very nice Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire horse, but there was no way he would make it at Grand Prix. That really made an impression on me as to how strict the standards are for what makes a Grand Prix horse in Germany. It seemed like in the United States, we would have pegged that horse as a Grand Prix candidate without the slightest hesitation.
As Annie showed us around the barn, she pointed out that many of the stalls were very generously sized and the bedding that they used was like a finely-shredded straw. She explained that none of the horses were on any daily supplements and just received a feed that was a blend of pellets and oats. It struck me as a no-fuss approach to horse keeping and the simple system clearly works well for them. The horses were obviously happy and they were very curious to see me when I approached their stalls. They eagerly popped their heads out of their dutch doors and craned their necks so they could sniff my hands and camera.
Annie stayed busy during the day, managing the horses and riding a few herself, but still even made time to arrange lunch for us! Unfortunately her work kept her from sitting down to eat with us, but Judy joined us and gave us some more insights on riding in Germany. We sipped prosecco and munched on Gouda cheese with fresh bread while she explained that moving up through the competitive ranks in Germany is much more difficult than in the United States because of the way that the competition systems are designed. Thanks to the nature of dressage, being a successful rider is never easy regardless of where you are, but Judy explained that in the states, it is possible for anyone who has the money to buy a horse that has been trained to the top levels and compete at that level herself, even if she hasn’t necessarily put in much time competing at the lower levels. In Germany, it isn’t possible to reach the top that quickly. Horses and riders are required to receive a certain number of scores and placings at each level before they move up. And achieving a certain placing is made even harder by the sheer number of entries per class. She said that it’s not uncommon for one single class to include 35 riders, and even local shows can have 1,000 horses and riders competing. Because of that, in Germany, having the goal of riding at Grand Prix is particularly lofty.
I think there are benefits and disadvantages of each system but as I have learned more about their way of doing things, it certainly has helped me understand why this country produces some of the most successful dressage competitors in the world.
Coming up in the blog: A weekend in the charming town of Verden at the Hannoveraner Verband 133rd Elite Auctions and a trip down to Munster to meet some of my equestrian heroes! As always, be sure to follow my travels in my blog here, on DT’s Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/DressageToday/), and on Instagram(@DressageToday).
Bis später! See you later!