Germany’s legacy: The great European dressage horses

Dr Reiner Klimke and Dux, team gold medalists at the 1964 Olympic Games.
Dr Reiner Klimke and Dux, team gold medalists at the 1964 Olympic Games.

In equestrian sport, Germany has had quite a bit of competition from neighbouring countries such as Switzerland, The Netherlands, France and Denmark.

But as far as the great European dressage horses are concerned, German breeding has been dominant throughout the history of the FEI European Championships (with just the odd exemption — Marzog, Rusty — to the rule). Even great non-German champions such as Henri Chammartin, Christine Stuckelberger, Margit-Otto Crepin and Anky van Grunsven could rise to victory only thanks to German horses.

It is not just breeding that makes a good dressage horse. It takes a consistent system of education to mould a walking, trotting and cantering animal into a dressage athlete. In Germany such a system was — and still is — in place, with many thousands of participants and instructors, following the guidelines of the ‘Skala der Ausbildung’, the consecutive steps of educating horses in a proper way, teaching them the right lessons at the right time.

The Netherlands' Anky Van Grunsven celebrated a hat-trick of back-to-back Individual Olympic titles at the Beijing 2008 equestrian events in Hong Kong. She is pictured riding double Olympic champion Salinero who will line out once again at London 2012.
The Netherlands’ Anky Van Grunsven and Salinero.

This coherent and comprehensive system not just teaches riders, it also provides breeders with information on how to make the right choices. By producing better horses, breeders are forever increasing the quality inherent in dressage. And dressage serves breeding, allowing the best horses to make a name for themselves, telling breeders which stallions they should use.

Germany has always been at the equestrian forefront, with breeding and sport benefiting from each other. Nowadays smaller and ‘younger’ equestrian nations such The Netherlands and Denmark also have a similar system of mutual benefit in place, but Germany is still in the lead in not only size, but also in quality, as the figures of the World Breeding Federation of Sport Horses (WBFSH) show. Hanover has won the title for best Dressage horse studbook many times and with horses such as Warum Nicht (World Cup winner 2007), Satchmo (World Champion GP Special 2006) and Salinero (World Champion Kur to music 2006 and 2007) there is no reason to expect a different outcome in the near future.

Hanover has always been the dominant breeding region for dressage horses. Woermann (Henri Chammartin) and Dux (Dr Reiner Klimke) were big names decades ago, but Hanover has had its idols throughout the generations. Isabell Werth’s first champion horse Gigolo (by Graditz) did not score a lot of points with grace, but he had a lot of power, enough to shake off ballet-dancer and Oldenburg-bred Bonfire (by Weltas), ridden by young Anky van Grunsven.

The second and latest Swiss national to become European champion, two years in a row (1975 and 1977), Christine Stuckelberger and Granat.
The second and latest Swiss national to become European champion, two years in a row (1975 and 1977), Christine Stuckelberger and Granat.

The Rheinland-Westfalian breed took centre stage when Ahlerich (by Angelo xx out of Dodona) carried Dr Reiner Klimke to victory in the 1980s. At the same time, Ahlerich’s full brother Amon was in the Dutch team with Annemarie Sanders. The breeder of these fabulous, light-footed, modern dressage horses was Herbert de Baey, who produced a new champion only a few years later, when Nicole Uphoff took the title in 1989. Her amazing athlete Rembrandt was by Romadour II out of a full sister to Ahlerich and Amon. The same famous family of top broodmare Dodona also enriched breeding with the influential sire Rubinstein (Rosenkavalier out of the full sister to Ahlerich and Amon).

Even Holstein, renowned for its powerful showjumpers, produced two amazing horses that brought the European Dressage title to their riders. Granat (Consul x Heissporn) was a heavy, strong horse and Corlandus (Cor de la Bryere x Landgraf I) who was even bigger and equally strong, both carrying small dressage ladies to European fame. Granat did that for Christine Stuckelberger (European champion in ’75 and ’77) while Corlandus was Margit Otto-Crepin’s championship horse in 1987.

Of all European champions, only Anne Grethe Jensen and Ulla Salzgeber had a horse that was not bred in Germany. Jensen rode her ‘compatriot’ Marzog, bred in Denmark. Marzog’s sire Herzog was a half-bred Trakehner from Sweden. Ulla Salzgeber’s top horse Rusty came from Latvia.

Nowadays a lot of riders come from ‘young’ equestrian nations, while the breeding has also branched out, becoming stronger in places such as The Netherlands and Denmark. It is even becoming popular in untraditional countries far away from Germany. So it is likely that German horses will have to fear for their dominance in the future.

But for the moment, and as far as the breeder’s eye can see, there is not much doubt that most of the next European medal-winning riders will sit on horses that are bred in Germany.

Article courtesy FEI

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