Dressage Immersion

Americans might be making great strides in the sport of dressage, but in Germany, dressage is a way of life. An amateur dressage enthusiast, I experienced German dressage culture firsthand during six fascinating days in November. I found trainer Heide Hellwinkel through an American-based company, Hobby Horse Tours, which organizes training trips to Germany.



The author pauses for a photo aboard Dayton.

Heide, a former champion rider in the Lower Saxony region, hosted me at her family's Dressurstall Schnakenberg near Verden, a charming town on the Aller River and a center for the Hanoverian horse. Her family has lived in the village of Barnstedt for more than 100 years breeding Hanoverian horses. Heide and her young family live on the farm as does Heide's mother, Ingrid Schnakenberg, and Heide's brother. The main house is attached to the stable.

No sooner had I set down my suitcase than Heide whisked me and Mauricio Delucchi, a Brazil-based professional rider also on a learning trip, off to a young rider competition at the Verden auction hall. We marveled at the poise and accuracy with which the young Germans rode, and we quickly realized they approach dressage as more than an extracurricular activity. Long legs, steady hands, effective seats--each rider offered a textbook example of correct riding.

Back on the farm, Ingrid served me a welcoming dinner that left me nearly gasping. Germans need large meals, I think, to ride their big horses. The next morning I awoke to a rooster crowing and the pungent smell of farm animals. I met my first ride of the week, Hilde, one of Heide's former competition horses. Incredibly agile for her 20-plus years, Hilde gave me a pleasant introduction to the capabilities of a well-schooled German dressage horse. I would ride horses of all shapes and sizes--big and bigger--in the days ahead.

Tuesday brought us the wonderful treat of observing stallion licensing at the Verden auction hall. Hanoverian stallions must undergo rigid testing, starting at the weanling stage, before they are approved for breeding. The tests we saw for three-year-olds consisted of an in-hand presentation, free jumping, and riding. This systematic approach to judging and approving horses has enabled the Germans to develop beautiful, athletic, and ridable horses over generations. I have seen few more thrilling sights than a dozen gorgeous Hanoverian stallions--bay, chestnut, black, and gray--strutting their stuff in muscled exuberance before the judges.

Mauricio and I also attended a mare licensing test, in which Heide rode one of the participants, a young Hanoverian mare named Delaila. The mares had to free jump heights of up to five feet and were also judged under saddle. High scores for jumping and gaits make their future offspring more valuable. Delaila's owner, Hans-Karl Schoenner, gave me some touching insight into the German love of horses. Schoenner had driven the mare across Germany for Heide to prepare, then fretted and hoped as the big day approached. More than once I overheard him calling her "Baby," and Delaila followed her owner like a loyal puppy.

Although Delaila received just average marks, Schoenner still celebrated by offering us all a glass of champagne that evening. The next day he hooked his lightweight trailer to his car and took his baby home.

Attending an enormous horse fair in the city of Hanover also shed light on German horse culture. Tens of thousands of consumers--not just horse-crazy women--milled through four exhibition halls, buying the latest products. One hall was devoted entirely to Western horses and riding.

Back at Dressurstall Schnakenberg, I got to know the personalities and endearing qualities of Heide's half-dozen horses in training. My favorite horse stood 17.2 hands high and seemed to have no concept of his enormity. Dayton, a son of the extremely popular and now deceased Donnerhall, helped me improve my riding in a number of ways while also exposing my shortcomings. His full brother, Davorius, also had some useful lessons to teach me.

With two children vying for her attention, Heide did not take the hard-core approach to dressage training that I assumed all Germans embrace, and our days didn't always follow a strict schedule. I was not drilled to the point of exhaustion, as I had anticipated. At the same time, I learned to appreciate the skills Heide, a small-town girl with a talent for dressage, had acquired through years of such personal horsemanship. Living with horses practically in the house explains a lot about what gives Germans the edge.

About the Author

Jacqueline Duke

Jacqueline Duke is special projects editor for Blood-Horse Publications and editor of its book division, Eclipse Press. Additionally, she is editor of Keeneland magazine. She enjoys competing her horse Winston in dressage competitions.

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