Written by: Pamela Young
Isabell Werth holds a record number of Olympic medals for an equestrian athlete.
Germany’s Isabell Werth and her 12-year-old mare Weihegold OLD went into the New Year at the top of the World Dressage rankings, thanks to stellar performances in Rio and at the FEI World Cup qualifier in Lyon, France. There, the duo produced a freestyle score of 90.09% – a personal best for the 47-year-old superstar. By winning team gold and individual silver at the 2016 Olympic Games, Isabell took her total of Olympic medals to 10 – a record for an equestrian athlete.
It’s been seven years since Isabell topped the global standings with Warum Nicht (‘Hannes’). Of course, there have been a few special horses in between the glory days when Isabell’s dressage rivalry with Anky van Grunsven defined the final decade of the 20th century. Most notable are Hannes, with which she won the World Cup Final in 2007, and Satchmo, that genius who always wavered on the side of madness. Her most enduring and remarkable partnership in the sport, however, is with Madeleine Winter Schulze, who has provided her with the horsepower that has kept Isabell at the forefront of the game for the last 16 years.
How did you get started with horses?
My parents owned the farm we now live on in Rheinberg, but they raised cows and pigs as well horses. It was natural for me to sit on a horse; riding came as naturally as walking for me. Soon my sister and I joined the riding club right around the corner and rode two or three times a week. We started on ponies and it just went from there like it does for most kids. My earliest memory was falling off my first pony, a little grey one my sister shared with me. He was a real spooky type. You don’t soon forget falling off and spending a week in the hospital! After, I said I would never ride again, but I changed my mind a few days later.
What’s a typical day like for you?
I get up at 6:00 and prepare breakfast for [seven-year-old son] Frederik and get him ready for school. After taking him to school at 7:30 I go to the stables and ride. When I’m finished riding [eight to ten horses] I will do some teaching or office work or have meetings before going to get Frederik from school at 4:30 pm. After that I make supper and get him ready for bed.
Has Frederik inherited the horse-loving gene?
We aren’t pushing him. He may ride at the weekends, but it’s not like he can’t sleep if he doesn’t ride. He likes feeding the horses and being in the stable, so we will just see how it goes.
Besides horsepower and an ultra-competitive nature, is there another ingredient that gives you an edge?
By my nature I am very competitive. I love competition. I think sitting on a “special” horse gives me the extra edge. Gigolo, for instance; I am so thankful to have had him at the beginning of my career. He was always so willing to work and such an incredible athlete. Hannes [Warum Nicht] was also special, but very different. He was spooky and it was very difficult to get him relaxed. One flower in the wrong place could change the competition completely! Satchmo was the most important horse for me as a rider and trainer. He taught me to listen and think about the little things and not get overly confident. Thanks to him it’s been so much easier with the others, because I learned so much from him.
Can you identify a turning point in your career when you realized you could earn a living doing this, and reach the top?
When I was 17 and still in school I was invited by Dr. Uwe Schulten-Baumer to fill in at his barn while one of his riders was sick. It was a really big honour to help out there. After a few weeks he gave me a young horse to work with on my own and month by month one horse after another. Then his son and daughter stopped riding and Nicole Uphoff left and I was given Gigolo. That, I suppose, was the turning point. Dr. Schulten-Baumer gave me the chance to become what I have become.
How would your friends and family describe your character?
Always optimistic, with a sense of humour. I’ll never give up.
If life hadn’t taken you where it has, what profession would you have followed?
I studied to be a lawyer and I practiced law in a firm that specialized in equine law. I thought it was important to have an outlet other than riding.
Where is your favourite place in the world?
To sit on the back of a horse and do my thing without interruption. Also my home in Rheinberg. When I moved back to my family’s farm in 2003, we built stables and an indoor school. We have everything we want here on 22 hectares [about 53 acres] for 100 horses to show and breed successfully.
Where would you most like to go that you haven’t been?
I would like to go on safari when Frederik gets old enough.
Where did you last go on vacation?
After a week in Rio, and all the before-and-after, it was important to get away from all the craziness, so we all went to the Tropical Islands family resort near Berlin, where they had lots of activities for children.
Do you have a fitness regimen?
Not really. I don’t consider going to the gym at night, after Frederik’s in bed, any fun. Sometimes I have physio and sometimes I will do some gymnastics [stretching exercises] for my back. I’m very glad my body is still fit.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
My glass of red wine at night. A shiraz or cabernet sauvignon is a pleasure I don’t feel particularly guilty about! At the moment it’s a Primitivo.
What’s the most surprising thing most people don’t know about you?
I have been around so long I doubt there’s anything that would be a surprise to anyone!
If you had a life lesson to share with Frederik, what would it be?
Be compassionate. We have a moral obligation to have a social conscience and be socially responsible. It’s really awful to see some of the behaviour today. I would really hope that he would notice if someone around him was feeling bad or was hurt and that he would do something about it. I would also tell him how important a good education is.
If a genie were to give you three wishes, what would you wish for?
Health, health, health – for the family, for me, and for the horses. I have no other wish.
If you were having a dinner party and could choose four guests, living or dead, who would you invite?
That’s a super question. I would have Madeleine (Winter-Schulze) and her late husband Dieter, who died in 2008 and who never got to meet Frederik; my partner Wolfgang [Urban] and our son. It would be really wonderful to have Dieter with us again. There are so many things to tell him.
Money or medals, which is more important to you?
I would say medals first, but to be really honest you can’t run a successful stable without money. I ride and compete with medals as my objective, but we all know you can’t be successful in the sport without the horses and they can be sold before you blink. I am so fortunate to have such a loyal and supportive patron and owner in Madeleine. I am also very grateful to the owners of Weihegold, Frank and Christine Arns-Krogmann, for their support, and to all my sponsors. They make it possible for me to stay at the top of the sport.
Were sacrifices made along the way?
I don’t feel like there have been sacrifices. It’s a passion and a dream to work with horses and build them up. To love what you do is just normal to me. Okay, sometimes I do feel that there is not enough time for my family, but I am conscientious in ensuring Frederik doesn’t feel like I am away all the time competing. Still, I wouldn’t do anything else and I would do it all again.
What was your New Year’s resolution?
Keep it going like it is. Being number one in the world is nice, but it’s not the most important thing. I am so proud that all three of my horses, all so different, are going so well and how much Weihegold has improved in the last ten months. Being in the right place at the right time is also important in today’s world; so far I have managed it, so that’s another reason to resolve to keep my life going like it is.
Birthdate: July 21, 1969
Hometown: Rheinberg, North Rhein-Westphalia, Germany
Top Horses: Weihegold, 2005 Oldenberg mare; 2001 Don Johnson FRH, Hanoverian gelding; Emilio, 2006 Westphalian gelding; El Santo, 2001 Rheinlander gelding
International Debut: 1989, European Championships at Mondorf les Bains
First Gold Medal: 1991, EC Team and individual with Gigolo at Donaueschingen
First World Championship Gold: 1998, team and individual with Nissan Gigolo FRH at Rome WEG
World Cup Victory: Warum Nicht, Las Vegas 2007
First Olympic Gold: 1992, team gold with Gigolo at Barcelona
Overall Championship Medals: 29