The guardian angel of dressage horses

From the moment you saw Walter Zettl teaching, you knew there was something truly special about this man—his passion for horses, his loving and giving way of teaching. What he taught was way beyond dressage lessons. He communicated a philosophy and exemplified the kind of calmness and patience that horses and riders adore in their teachers.

Walter teaching at a clinic in Wellington, Florida, in 2006.
 (Credit: Mark Neihart)

Walter teaching at a clinic in Wellington, Florida, in 2006. (Credit: Mark Neihart)

Walter was born in the former Republic of Czechoslovakia and immigrated to Canada in 1981. His passion for horses started early in life and he was just 16 when he entered the riding school of Bad Kissingen in Kronberg, Ludwigsburg. At 21 he was the youngest person ever to be awarded the German Federation Gold Riding Medal. Not only did Walter train and compete at Grand Prix in both dressage and jumping, he ran schools and became a respected and sought-after trainer. In 1984 he coached dressage for the Canadian Three-Day Event Team at the Los Angeles Olympics and during this time he was awarded by the Province of Ontario in Recognition for Distinguished Performance. Over the last 15 years he traveled and conducted seminars for the USDF, became Advisor Emeritus for Dressage Today, built a bridge between natural horsemanship and dressage and was inducted into the Toronto Cadora Dressage Hall of Fame and, this year, has been nominated for the USDF Hall of Fame.

Walter's induction into the Toronto CADORA Dressage Association Hall of Fame, 2011. (Credit: Christine Derksen)

Walter's induction into the Toronto CADORA Dressage Association Hall of Fame, 2011. (Credit: Christine Derksen)

Walter and Heidi Wright (Heidi Wright)  

Walter and Heidi Wright (Heidi Wright)  

Walter was a man the insiders knew and respected. Among his friends were the great Egon von Neindorff and Col. Kurd Albrecht von Ziegner, and he talked often of his “boss” Col. Herbert W. Aust and recounted wonderful stories about not being allowed to touch the reins when a young horse bucked and that they didn’t canter young horses for the first two years of training.

Walter’s careful and considerate way was groomed by the greats, but the integrity of the man himself ran deep. The title of his video, “A Matter of Trust,” and his books, Dressage in Harmony, The Circle of Trust and Ask Walter, in themselves are an insight into his values. He gave his full attention, passion and respect to every level of rider and every breed and type of horse that stepped into his ring.

“For me he was the only person who had given a lesson and each word, each sentence he had said to his student I could underline. All his students I had in my clinics had the right idea how to sit on a horse and how to ride. We have lost a very, very, very good friend of the horse. We’ll never forget him!” —Christoph Hess, Ambassador of Training and Education of the German FN and FEI Judge Dressage and Eventing

“Soft, soft, soft,” is what this dressage Master wanted us to think about most when communicating with horses. “You don’t need muscle, you don’t need power,” he’d say. “Strength doesn’t have anything to do with riding! You need soft.”

Sitting next to him while he taught, you’d hear his seat squeak as he rode every movement with his student and his voice and tone fluctuated as he soothed more softness or urged more energy and crispness. His eyes would twinkle as he’d exclaim “Now we’re cooking!”

Through his patiently repeated words Walter’s mission to protect the soul of the dressage horse and encourage the most loving and compassionate way of training will continue to guide us in the passionate pursuit of harmony with our beautiful partners. He felt a special calling to preserve the art of dressage and he dedicated his life to it. Walter Zettl was a true horseman.

His long-awaited bio is in the works and will be in our hands soon. In all his books, his first expressions of gratitude are to his dedicated wife, Heide, who he always lovingly introduced as “The Gardener of his Soul.” (Walterzettl.net/bio)

Walter and Heide Zettl with Linda Parelli (far right) at the 2013 Parelli Dressage Summit, at the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida. (Johnny Robb, JRPR) 

Walter and Heide Zettl with Linda Parelli (far right) at the 2013 Parelli Dressage Summit, at the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida. (Johnny Robb, JRPR) 

Walter’s Words of Wisdom

• “Show the horse what you want and then allow the horse to do it.” 

• “Careful, careful! When you pick up the reins remember you are now going into the most sensitive part of the horse.”

• “Give… Give… Give.”

• “When the horse spooks, just ignore it.”

• “The horse has to trust you.”  

• “Ride up in heaven, not down in hell!”

• “Go to the limit, but not over the limit.”

• “When you ride to the limit, that is where the learning happens.”

• “Dressage is an art.”

• “Your horse feels your deepest emotion.”

• “This is just the beginning my dear, just you wait. It takes time. Good riding is like watching grass growing.”

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