The life and career of Christine Stückelberger’s Olympic champion

In 1969, in an indoor arena in the south of Bavaria, a strong-boned, old-fashioned-looking, plain bay horse with a big head showed his gaits by roaming loose around two people with sharp, knowledgeable eyes. Not even back then, when the breeding of dressage horses was a far cry from today, would any dressage rider have looked for a horse like that: a horse “that shouts for the wagon tongue,” as was later printed in a renowned German equestrian magazine. But the people watching intensely—and finally buying the heavy 4-year-old Holsteiner gelding later named Granat—were Georg Wahl, then chief rider at the Spanish Riding School (SRS) in Vienna, Austria, and his faithful student, 22-year-old Swiss dressage rider Christine Stückelberger.

Nobody would have guessed that day would mark the beginning of an incredible career in the sport of dressage. Although his looks denied it, Granat—Garnet in English, as all the horses purchased by Wahl and Stückelberger were named after precious stones—would go on to compete at the international Grand Prix level for 11 years and become one of the most successful horses ever in the sport of dressage. Unbeaten for close to five years, he and Stückelberger won 17 international medals, among them five individual titles.

Stückelberger and Granat at the 1974 World Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark, after winning their first team bronze medal together (Elisabeth Weiland
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Stückelberger and Granat at the 1974 World Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark, after winning their first team bronze medal together (Elisabeth Weiland )

Granat’s Breeding

Granat’s partner in crime for 21 years, Stückelberger considers her horse’s breeding as one of the main reasons for his longevity in the sport and his fine health. While today’s horses move better, have a better inborn balance and are much lighter bodied than Granat had been, the strict stallion selection of the Holsteiner breeding made sure that he had a robust body. His father, Consul, was an offspring of the legendary Thoroughbred Cottage Son, whereas his dam’s sire, Heißsporn, was a son of Heintze, who was said to be a heavy and strong horse with bones of the same quality.

Granat, who stood 17-hands, presented the strength and sturdiness of the old Holsteiner type, which had been bred to serve on the farms in plow fields. But he also possessed the Thoroughbred’s sensitivity, intelligence and desire to go forward. What sounds like an ideal combination for a sport horse would pose some serious problems for Granat’s experienced trainer and his petite rider.

 Here is Granat as a 5-year-old, ridden by Stückelberger, in the winter of 1970–71. He had the strength and sturdiness of the old Holsteiner type, but also possessed the Thoroughbred’s sensitivity, intelligence and desire to go forward. (Elisabeth Weiland )

 Here is Granat as a 5-year-old, ridden by Stückelberger, in the winter of 1970–71. He had the strength and sturdiness of the old Holsteiner type, but also possessed the Thoroughbred’s sensitivity, intelligence and desire to go forward. (Elisabeth Weiland )

The Training Factor

True for the training in all disciplines, the horse’s natural predispositions are one determinant. The other is the training itself, which should meet the individual talents and difficulties in a suitable way.

In Granat’s case, his start in life as a riding horse was quite rocky. Bought as a weanling in Holstein, he went to a farm in Bavaria in preparation for the Bavarian auction. The horse’s training, however, wasn’t consistent, as Granat turned out to be very difficult to break and train. He showed all the vices that a rider detests: bucking, rearing and bolting.

Granat was first sold to buyers from Italy through the auction, but a cough prevented the official sale and the horse came into the hands of Wahl and Stückelberger. Both were confronted with exactly the same problems when they started their work with this rough diamond. “While it was surely no pleasure dealing with his vices, they took care that Granat did not have to work too hard when he was prepared for the auction,” said Stückelberger. “I am convinced it did him—a strong and heavy horse—very well only to have encountered slight work at the beginning of his life as a riding horse since he was still growing.”

When she started working “Granny”—Stückelberger’s nickname for Granat—she had already trained with Wahl for 11 years—first as a child in the local riding club in Berne, Switzerland, and later in Vienna at the SRS. She knew his strictly classical approach to dressage, which didn’t allow any shortcuts and where each horse was trained to his individual needs. It soon turned out that Granat’s needs would be very different from any other horse Wahl had trained before and that he seemed anything but a lady’s horse. Wahl, who died at 93 in 2013, loved to recall German dressage trainer George Theodorescu’s verdict when he once told him, “Granat is not a one-man horse, but a two-men horse.” Even though Wahl took over a lot of the horse’s training, he saw no chance that Stückelberger—his tiny master student—could handle the strong-willed and strong-boned Holsteiner in competitions.

Granat’s undesirable behavior didn’t originate from bad character, though. Shortly after they bought the horse, an Austrian veterinarian found that he was totally blind in the right eye, something nobody had known so far and was kept a strict secret throughout Granat’s long career. But it wasn’t the semi-blindness alone. The Holsteiner was like highly talented kids at school who may be stamped as troublemakers because they behave badly out of boredom. The usual way to train young horses didn’t suit him because he was so intelligent that he wanted to be mentally challenged.

“It never had been our way of training to ask Grand Prix movements of comparatively young horses, and I still do not think this should be the norm,” Stückelberger explained as she recalls the special path she and her trainer went with this extraordinary horse. “But with Granat, it was the only way to achieve rideability. Learning something new and challenging kept him mentally occupied and content,” she continued. “His will to work was enormous and he owned such a high intelligence that it was impossible to treat him like his equine peers. Only with mental challenges could we talk sense into him. The more difficult, the better for him. While this is absolutely nothing you can do with every horse, Granat’s strength and his good constitution allowed us to teach him Grand Prix movements at an age you wouldn’t normally ask them of a horse. And I am sure he would have never reached his potential and gained the passion for the sport if we had trained him like the average horse.”

For example, Wahl’s system was to first test the 5-year-olds once in-hand to see how they offered half steps and then leave them alone until the year after. But Granat took so much pleasure in learning and doing piaffe that he showed the first good steps with a rider in the winter of 1970–71, when he was just turning 6. “Granat was a frisky horse and he learned the piaffe within just two weeks in a totally playful way,” recalled Stückelberger. “He loved doing the movements, and it was so easy for him. We just had to refine them in the months and years that followed.”

The more Granat could learn and was mentally content with himself, the more he showed promise, and the more he became sane, even though he remained a challenging ride for a long time.

Competition Management

Granat experienced only a few starts at the lower levels and they were not extremely successful due to the fact that he displayed the same vices in the show ring. Just as in training, his breakthrough in competition happened at the Grand Prix level. In 1972, Granat was only 7 years old and he could do a whole Grand Prix, except the 15 one-tempis. For the Olympic Games in Munich, Granat was allowed to travel as the reserve horse for Stückelberger’s experienced long-time Olympic partner Merry Boy, but he became the horse she competed. “Forty-five years later, I still do not understand why our chef d’equipe decided I should start Granat instead of Merry Boy,” Stückelberger reminisced.

Granat, at 7, had neither competed in a Grand Prix before nor had it been the plan to debut him at this level as such a young horse. He learned the missing one-tempis within two days on the huge racetrack where eventing was being held. But his Grand Prix debut was no disgrace—Granat became 15th out of 33 and was the best horse on the Swiss team, which placed seventh.

Even though Granat’s first Olympic competition was promising, Wahl and Stückelberger did not feel tempted to continue at this level the following year. “Instead, we took care to make sure the movements became more refined and that Granat could gain even more strength to show them in a light-footedness that no one would expect of such a heavy horse,” Stückelberger explained.

Once the movements were established and refined, Granat’s competition schedule wouldn’t significantly change throughout his career: five to a maximum only seven shows a year and all were prepared carefully after the same routine. “We usually only showed at the most important shows, which were the Swiss championships, Aachen, Dortmund, Berlin and the annual international championships,” said Stückelberger. “Granat wasn’t really in need of ring practice, but of a careful preparation—at home and at shows. We never kept him in training all through the year, but instead would build him up and after each show reduce his training schedule again. Three weeks before a show we would start a kind of buildup which meant we asked for single movements and in the course of the preparation we would also ride parts of or a whole program. At the show it was important to get to the venue early enough to settle Granat in. Due to his blind eye, it was paramount that he knew all the surroundings inside and out.”

For this purpose, Wahl would take Granat on early-morning walks to get him acquainted with the surroundings, to show him every little corner of the warm-up and the competition ring to prevent spooks later. The warm-up could be particularly difficult, but Granat’s escapades didn’t unsettle Stückelberger. “I knew Granat was so intelligent that he would not do it in the [competition] ring. In all these years, he never once let me down when it really counted.”

This fact, which many famous riders experience with their horses, was owed to Granat’s love for showing. Even though his initial unpredictability may not have showed it, Granat loved the audience, and competitions were the kind of parties he adored to be part of.

After every show, Granat got the time to rest at home without hard training. He was kept fit and happy, but didn’t do any dressage movements until the buildup phase for the next show.

Stückelberger and Granat make a last lap of honor at the 1982 World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, where they won individual silver. Granat’s groom, Nicky Kelly, led the pair. (Elisabeth Weiland
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Stückelberger and Granat make a last lap of honor at the 1982 World Championships in Lausanne, Switzerland, where they won individual silver. Granat’s groom, Nicky Kelly, led the pair. (Elisabeth Weiland )

Competing at an Older Age

When dressage horses become older, the focus is often on keeping them healthy enough to compete, and some people feel the need to feed numerous supplements. In an attempt to keep the joints flexible and the horse sound, many forget that it is of equal importance to keep the mind of the horse fresh and happy after many years in the sport.

Thanks to his sensible management throughout the years, Granat didn’t suffer from ring tiredness when he became older. At 15 he won the Olympic Festival in Goodwood (England) after the 1980 Olympic Games at Moscow were boycotted by many nations due to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan.

“When Granat became older, he was seasoned enough that we didn’t need to fine-tune movements anymore,” said Stückelberger. “He knew them and could do them very well. Instead, we focused on suppleness exercises to keep the smoothness of his movements. Throughout his career we never gave him any supplements—they were not very common or fashionable then like they are now. Granat only got three big portions of high-quality hay per day plus 6 kilograms [approximately 13 pounds] of Swiss muesli feed.”

Because of Granat’s exceptional health, which never saw a day of lameness or any serious health issue throughout his long career, and because he loved competitions, it wasn’t easy to find the right moment to retire him from the sport. “Georg finally said that we owe it to the horse to retire him when the people still want to see him,” Stückelberger recalled. The world championships in Lausanne in 1982 seemed to be the perfect location and opportunity, as it had been Granat’s world title in 1978 that had brought the championships to Stückelberger’s home country.

Granat neared his 18th birthday when he celebrated his last “party” there, competing with the best horses in the world. While he reigned in the Grand Prix, a not-fault-free individual ride-off paved the way for a win by the late Dr. Reiner Klimke’s Ahlerich, who would become a legend himself in the years to follow. Granat went off the competitive stage with the title of vice-world champion—a dignified way to go.

Retirement

Stückelberger believes that one of the worst things one can do to a sport horse, or to any horse who had worked all his life, is to take him out of his usual routine and only put him in a field. “After Granat’s retirement we first did not significantly change his daily routine,” she said. “He was still worked every day and loved his work until the last day of his life. Good students were allowed to experience the feeling of piaffe and passage on him. When Granat turned 22 we decided that from now on he would only be kept supple through light exercises and go out in the field for a longer time.”

In 1989, Granat’s legs still looked the same as 20 years earlier, but a stroke made them too weak to allow him to stand up again, so he was euthanized at the age 24 in his field at home.

If there is ever a secret to success, in Granat’s case, it is to respect the individuality of the horse. The good health of their “once in a lifetime horse,” allowed Stückelberger and Wahl to follow a special path in his training. It may have been the Holsteiner’s unique character that lead to Granat’s love for the work and passion for the sport. But that, combined with his skillful training based on the classical doctrine and his purposeful competition management, resulted in a long, successful and healthy career.  

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