At least that’s the impression one might take away from this year’s GDF. Let me explain (it will take me today’s entire post). We saw a presentation from Patrik Kittel, in which both he and his wife Lyndal Oatley gave mounted demonstrations. Patrik and Lyndal are what you would call ‘strapping’ types. They are tall and strong, and have the kinds of thighs that would probably bust bricks if put to that sort of use. I noticed a few things in the riding, and I don’t mean any of this in a particularly critical way, only observational. There was a considerable amount of contact with the horses’ mouths. Patrik said many times that he does not approve of side-to-side rein action, but that he prefers to keep his hands quite quiet. He does that for sure, though Lyndal is somewhat more mobile with her hands. Both of them were riding in double bridles (the mare Patrik rode is an eight year old just starting the PSG), and I noticed both of them kept permanently tight curb reins. Not that the snaffle rein was loose, but both bits were very much in play. Lyndal’s horse was Sandro Boy, the one she had at the Olympics, and the horse Stephen Clarke told me was one of the most memorable talents he noted from the judge’s box in London. My first impression of Sandro Boy at the GDF was that it would take a strong person indeed to put all that  together. He is a tall, long horse and has huge gaits. I know I could not ride it. I probably couldn’t even get it to canter. In my book, Lyndal does an incredible job of putting all those pieces together, but I would be lying if I said it didn’t look like it took a lot of strength. Which is funny, because in talking about how he prepares horses for sale, Patrik said he’s found buyers don’t want to work hard and that he tries to make the horses light and easy in the aids. I like Patrik and I appreciate that he made no apology for riding his horses the way he does. I believe him when he says he loves his horses, and I also believe what he says about Scandic being a difficult horse. But Patrik is a tall, strong man. And it’s got to be hard not to utilize that strength when he rides.

On the other hand, the hand very very far to the opposite end of the power spectrum, we have my new idol, Helen Langehanenberg. The only thing I don’t love about her is how I have to really concentrate both on spelling and pronouncing her last name. She also rode an eight year old, a stallion going PSG, followed by a five year old mare (by Big Daddy Damon) who was nothing short of breathtaking talent on winged feet. Both horses were in snaffles with drop nosebands that were visibly not particularly snug. Helen is a tiny bird of a thing. Her riding is memorable for its lightness, her contact for its supple elasticity, which is utterly reflected in the way her horses go. She took breaks often, and frequently let the horses stretch forward and down into the featheriest of contacts. The word ’empathy’ kept coming to mind as I watched her inspiring demo. I am quite sure I have yet to see someone at any symposium pat his or her horses more often and with more love than she did. Does Helen ride in lightness because she isn’t big enough to muscle it out of the horses? Maybe. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all strive to be more like her.

The other mounted demos at the GDF from Olympians were those from Adelinde and Ingrid. Adelinde’s demo was so unremarkable that I would have to go through my typed notes to find anything interesting to say about it. She was on an eight year old late starter (in a snaffle) bred by her parents (a Jazz, as per Adelinde’s recommendation after she had begun riding the five year old Parzival), and the mounted part of her presentation was not nearly as interesting as the part about her out-of-the-saddle fitness program.

The only term I really remember from her ride was that dearly beloved Dutch catch phrase, ‘speed control’, which in itself – as an expression – puts me in mind of riding as domination, rather than riding as cooperation. Just like with Patrik, I make no criticism. Who am I to be disrespectful of a rider who has achieved so much and who has worked hard and honestly for all the credit and medals she has won? I have no business telling people how they should ride a horse. I only know what kind of rider I personally would like to be.

I could see similarities between Helen and Ingrid, no doubt in large part due to the years Helen spent training with her former mentor. Play, individuality, and aids that take in as much in the horse’s responsiveness as they deliver – all those qualities were present in their demos.  Like Helen, Ingrid is a slight, slender person, though not quite as teensy.  It’s difficult not to draw parallels between riding style and physical size, isn’t it?

The last time I was this spellbound watching someone share their training methods at the GDF was when Hubertus came and showed us all the greatness he imparts to training his horses. Helen was truly remarkable to watch. I mentioned in a previous post that I was asked to be on the panel for her session, and I was specifically asked to find a question to ask that wasn’t just gushing praise disguised as an inquiry. But before I could ask my question, Richard D. asked me to lead off the panel’s responses by saying what I thought of what I’d seen. Well, darn it if I didn’t nearly get blubbery just like I did a few years ago when I became ‘the journalist who cried’ after Imke’s freestyle demo to Wibi’s live piano performance.  I did manage to keep all but a quiver out of my voice, but I was truly inspired by Helen. If you should find yourself at a European show where she is competing – at any level, on any horse – do try to catch some of the warm up. I’m sure you’ll agree with me.

What I find so very interesting about the impressions from the GDF that I shared with you here today is this: the ‘German system’ has long dragged around a reputation for being grimly rigid and, in these modern times of light, sensitive horses, old fashioned. Given the evidence before us – both at the GDF and at the London Olympics – I think we might need to reel in that tired old stereotype and give today’s top German trainers a fair assessment based on what they have been demonstrating, which is an irrefutable mastery, not only of training, but of horsemanship.