Equestrian Sports - Alive and Well
(Move Over Hitcock)
By Paul Kathen © 2006
September 2006 must have been one of the most exiting times ever for enthusiasts of equestrian sports, but especially for those living in Germany. First, there were the World Equestrian Games in Aachen. No author could have written a more thrilling competition than the one we witnessed this year. The Germans decided to compete in the finals of dressage and jumping under floodlights so that it could be shown on live television. In spite of the convenience of watching it on TV, forty-eight thousand made the trip to watch in person the horses and riders compete in dressage. It paid off for them in spades. Maybe it was the greater distance between the arena and the seats that allowed the spectators to be less conservative and to enthusiastically express their feelings about the rides. Perhaps it was the quality of the competition and the intense rivalry between the Dutch and the Germans that had everybody all fired up. The Germans had again won the team championship and the individual at the Grand Prix Special and it was up to the Dutch to prevent a rout. Not until the very end did Anky prevail for the Dutch and take the Gold in the Freestyle. Americans had much to be proud of also. The Bronze Medal in the team competition confirmed our team’s current standing in the world. In the individual competition many in Germany thought that Stephan Peters did not quite get the respect he deserved.
As far as suspense is concerned the jumpers were not to be outdone and held everybody in a spell until the last jump of the last horse in both the team and the individual competitions. The Germans were the heavy favorites in both categories but the team competition had already shown that horses also can wind up in a slump. The current leader in the riders’ tour, Markus Ehning, turned out to be Germany’s scratch ride in all three rounds. This put the Dutch far enough ahead that they would have to have a melt down in order to be caught. You may have guessed it, but on day three the first Dutch rider had a disastrous ride and that opened the competition up for the U.S.A., Germany, and the Ukraine to still have a chance at Team Gold. It seemed that from that moment on nobody of these teams was going to have another rail down. Some had time penalties and we were literally counting in hundredths of points to determine the current standings.
I was watching the event on TV in Germany with my sister and brother-in-law. My sister, Marianne, is interested in equestrian sports because of my involvement in the sports and also because of her daughter who owns a horse and shows it in both the jumpers and dressage. Marianne’s husband is a basketball fan who knows more about the NBA than most American fans do. When I saw him lift his right leg every time a horse jumped I knew he was hooked and not just watching because he was outnumbered. After the last Dutch rider had a clean round they were the Gold Medal winners but nothing was sure about the next three places. The U.S.A., Germany, and the Ukraine were all in the hunt. Germany was in second place ahead of the U.S.A. but a one second time penalty by Germany’s last rider changed the positions. The next rider of the Ukraine was also the last rider of the competition and with a clean round could still gain third place. She jumped clean but also lost a point to time, thus Germany won the Bronze by one one-hundredth of a point.
The individual medals are competed for in Derby style. The best twelve riders after the team competition advance to the semi-final round to determine the final four. These four then ride each other’s horses to decide the winner. Again it was broadcast on live TV at prime time. The stadium at Aachen was standing room only with approximately fifty thousand people in attendance. Surprising to me were the many German flags that were shown in the stands. When I mentioned it to my sister, she explained that this show of national pride was first observed during the Soccer World Cup also held in Germany this year where the German team advanced to the quarter finals. That was a much better outcome than expected by the fans. The whole competition was praised the world over for the superb organization and the very tight, but not fun-killing control of the fans. Unlike us, these fans do become pretty rowdy at times. The fifty thousand watching the jumpers were not rowdy but they were very involved. There was no need to watch in order to find out whether or not a horse had cleared a jump. The crowd would let you know. About five hundred seventy thousand altogether came to see the horses and riders in person during the Championships. Unfortunately, I did not hear a number mentioned about the TV audience but it must have been a great many by my own survey.
The day after the competition I attended a meeting of about sixty men between fifty and seventy years old. It was a reunion of my former Air-Force friends. Many were retired and during their working life they were primarily involved in technology and business, not men inclined towards horses. Since they all knew about my interest in the sport, most talked to me about how much they had enjoyed watching the jumping the night before. That did surprise me and so I guess the show had more than its fair share of the television audience.
I must also say that I had an unfair advantage over my sister, brother-in-law, and my Air Force friends. They rooted strictly for Germany while I wanted to see either a German or a United States rider win. On top of that, one of the German riders, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, was American. Most of my bases were covered, especially since the last four riders were Beezie Madden, an American, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, riding for Germany, a Belgium rider, Jos Lansing, and the Australian rider, Edwina Alexander. That made it three women and one man left standing. The commentator on TV was a woman and she just would not stop talking about how the women riders had never done this well and how great it was, etc. Then she interviewed the German Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel, a woman, who was coerced by this commentator to voice her opinion on the three to one ratio of women versus men in the final four. Next she talked to HRH, the Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein, President of the FEI and also a woman. Asked about this show of woman power, she also had to marvel about such a wonderful development. Why stop there? Why not bring in Meredith and ask her about this phenomenon unfolding in front of our eyes? They did and Meredith commented, and very eloquently so, I might add. Well, by now I was also rooting for the Belgium rider because he was a man.
After the course was set and the riders began to jump it on each other’s horses I forgot all about man and women. It was so exciting! These horses were not easy. The riders had to change to their own saddles and two of the four horses objected to being saddled again. Shutterfly, Meredith’s horse, escaped and did not want to be caught. Fortunately the area was small so they did get a hold of him before he was too exhausted to go on. These horses also clearly showed that they were not as happy with a strange rider aboard but the riders in turn proved that they were up to the task. Only one rail came down and that eliminated the Australian rider. That left three to jump off by riding the same course again on their own horse but against the clock. By now I was in the clear with a U.S. rider, a German from the U.S., and a man from Belgium. The man went first and laid down a blistering pace. Next rode Meredith and she looked very fast, too fast, and therefore had a rail down. Madden was the last to compete. She was guaranteed a Medal but could win Gold with a clean and fast round. She decided to go for it and was well ahead in the time but with all that speed her horse just jumped too flat on the very last jump and dropped a rail. So, the man won and saved the day for us guys. The fact that he rode a stallion was just icing on the cake.
September madness was not over yet. Maike, a young German lady who had apprenticed with me here in Texas had just recently returned to her home in Wiesmoor, Germany. She had promised to be my guide at the Young Horse Championships in Warendorf. Before her time in the U.S. Maike had worked for the Oldenburg Breeders Association and was quite familiar with this show. At the Young Horse Championships the three, four, five and six-year-old horses compete against horses of their own age and the emphasis is not so much on extent of training but on the talent exhibited by these future stars. It is also a showcase for the breeders and their associations.
Warendorf is the center of German riding. The German Olympic Committee for riding has its offices as well as its training facility here. The German Riding School is located right next door. Next to it you find the offices and stallions of the Westphalian Breeders Association. A couple of blocks away train the athletes of the German Military, including of course, the riders. Amidst all of these facilities are the permanent showgrounds on which this competition is held every year.
This facility has a charm all its own. It is large in size, my guess is somewhere between fifty to a hundred acres. It lies nestled in the Westphalian woods at Warendorf and you do not mind walking the long distances on the soft paths cushioned by pine needles and leaves. Along the way you pass by various warm-up arenas and concession stands. Your destination is one of the four main arenas, the vendors’ village, a concession stand, or the tents the breeding associations occupy to serve their members or prospective new members with snacks and cold or hot drinks. The dressage arena has as its borders bleachers on the long sides, the judges stands at the short side by C, and standing room at the other short side and at all the corners. All of this is built in such a fashion that you feel no trees were cut and yet there was somehow room enough to accommodate horses, spectators, and officials. The jump arena also has bleachers as borders on two sides and a huge tent for food, drink, and just rest with a good view of the jumping at the third side. If you need to purchase anything horse related, you can find it in one of the many shops on the fourth side of the arena. There is no seating but plenty of standing room on the cross country course. This course is located on about ten acres of land criss-crossed by all types of jumps that you will find at today’s events. This is the only place where spectators and horses crossed paths. The jump crews, however, were very good at warning the spectators of oncoming competitors. Next to the vendors’ village was the fourth arena in which the three and four-year-old riding horses showed their talents. Surprisingly, even here bleachers surrounded the arena on three sides. These bleachers reach all the way down to the very edge of the ring in spite of the special designation as the show arena for the youngest horses competing.
Anybody who has ever had to deal with young horses knows that they can lose their cool rather easily when they are confronted with a situation they perceive as threatening. Such a mass of people that close to them is not a situation their riders can prepare them for. The better they perform, the louder the applause will be and the more frightening the situation must appear to them. Their reaction, therefore, is strong and quick. Please keep in mind these are among the best equine athletes of their age in the world. My first reaction when a youngster showed a fearful reaction to applause was to just sit quietly and allow the horse to settle down. The Germans had no such attitude and kept on clapping. How inconsiderate, I thought. No problems arose, however, from the show of appreciation for a great ride. I felt that they were also proving their faith in the rider’s ability to deal with the situation.
The facility and the quality of the horses will take your breath away and often the skill of the riders is overlooked. These young men and women are clearly the best. Most of them are employees of the various breed associations and are riding in uniform. They are the ultimate professionals and they look, ride, and act that way. This is the place every young rider should spend hours and hours watching how to work with young horses and how to deal with excited animals without ever becoming rough. The watching public at this show consists of knowledgeable professionals, breeders, or absolute enthusiasts and students of horses. I was one of the spectators who also watched the warm-ups and was pleasantly surprised by the skill and care with which the horses were prepared for the show ring. As I mentioned earlier, the riders also demonstrated that they had mastered the seat every time applause or some other fright sent the horses into orbit. It was clearly proven here that the best riders belong on the young horses. It should come as no surprise that the winner of the final qualifying ride for the six-year-old dressage horses was ridden by Ingrid Klimke, the daughter of the legendary Dr. Reiner Klimke, and the lady that just a week before had stood on the winner’s podium to receive the Gold Medal for the German cross county team at the World Equestrian Games in Aachen. Her score was an incredible 9.4.
Evaluating the results from a breeder’s point of view, I noticed that the stallion, Sandro Hit, seemed to show up in the pedigree of many of the dressage horses. Donnerhall and Rosenkavalier also had produced more than one winner at this show. In the jumper events the sires of most winners had names that started with C and were registered with the Holsteiner Breed Association. It probably comes as no surprise that the horses excelling in the Three Day Events were all, with only one exception, at least fifty percent Thoroughbred.
This Young Horse Championship or, Bundeschampionat, was established in 1976, and originally traveled to various places in an effort to give every region an equal share in convenience of travel for both horses and spectators. However, Warendorf has the best facility and is centrally located and, therefore, in 1994, became the permanent site for this event. Since then an average of forty thousand enthusiasts travel annually to see what the breeders have produced and to pick their future stars. The German Olympic Committee for Riding has its own permanent staff to organize events like this and the Championship proved to me the professional touch in the treatment of twelve hundred horses, their staff, and the many spectators. This staff is supported by about three hundred fifty volunteers who all seemed happy to help and ensure that all had an exciting and safe experience. I would like to recommend this event to anybody who wants to get up close to the horses and riders and see what a horse looked like before it became a famous unapproachable star in the show ring.