It is very easy for those of us who are amateur riders or armchair equestrians to look at those at the top of international competition not just with admiration, but also with perhaps a far more critical eye than we apply elsewhere.
It can often be the case that we dare suppose aloud, in some Facebook group or in a comment on a post on the Gram, that “so-and-so” doesn’t care about her horses or “that other guy” puts winning over equine welfare. In reality, though, most—if not all—successful riders and trainers get to where they are because somewhere along the way they fell in love with horses. Reconciling ambition and what we care about is a struggle we all face, whatever our focus is in life, and we should maybe assume the best of medal winners before we accuse them of the worst.
In her authorized biography Four Legs Move My Soul, written with journalist Evi Simeoni, six-time Olympic-gold-medal winner Isabell Werth shares what she thinks about what binds us all together—professional riders and fans of the sport, lifelong horse owners and those who are simply horse crazy. Ultimately, she says, it is about a deep love and feeling for the horse. Riding at the top doesn’t change that.
There is a large number of people who, somehow, somewhere, sometime had something to do with horses. It really is remarkable.
And when you hear these people talk about it, you realize how much the encounter enchanted them. They carry a large affection in their hearts, which, at times, may be buried, and then when they come across horses again, it is like a particularly beautiful memory coming back to life. It is this enthusiasm and fascination that drives us forward without exception—just the same as a passionate pleasure rider or a breeder who can’t and doesn’t want to stop thinking about horses. The fact that I ride at the top level of the sport and so demand athletic efforts from my horses is without a doubt. But what brings us as riders to the barn every day is something else. And it is the source of it all.
It is the unconditional desire to devote yourself to horses every day anew. It is a never-dwindling interest in their personalities, their quirks, and talents. It is to lose yourself in observing a horse and to develop a vision of his potential possibilities. I can’t take in enough “horse.” I would love nothing more than to sit on my orange crate for days and look at nothing but horses. It has always been like this and this is what it will always be, even in twenty years when I have long since stopped being out and about at shows.
The pleasure of being with horses is what is most important. Success is simply the icing on the cake. The love for and fascination with discovering a horse, and thus his talent, is the foundation of my bond with these animals. This is what drove me to my pony as a child. And it is why I have been able to bring thirty horses to the top of international dressage—not just two or three, or some “made” horses that were bought for me.
Of course, I also make mistakes in my horses’ training. It is the same as raising children. Nobody can claim that they have never been in a bad mood, that they have never treated their children unfairly or punished them wrongfully. It is the same with horses. You have to react immediately and spontaneously due to your close physical cooperation with a horse. You react intuitively with your body, and usually, you can’t assess the situation from a distance first. Reflexes may be used that you can’t immediately control if you have a bad day. I feel that I only demand as much of my horses as they are capable of giving and that the mistakes that I make over time only account for a fraction of my actions. If I have the feeling that I treated my horse unfairly, or if something isn’t going smoothly, then I can’t sleep the following night. I can’t let it go, and I try to find a better way. I continuously question myself. At the same time, I also have to consider every horse’s quirks. The perception of the rider’s aids varies greatly from horse to horse. There are horses that react very sensitively even to the smallest of aids. And there are horses that are a lot less sensitive, and the aids that have to be given are considerably stronger.
But, no matter how similar or not similar the feelings of humans and horses may be, I can sense that my horses are happy when they have done something right. Sometimes they even seem to burst with pride, and it pleases me when they let it out. They grow with the challenges and build up confidence. I wish everyone could feel something like it at least once. Of course, there are horses that show great composure, and others that will only work if you make them. And there are horses that love what they do. They want to take part so badly and are excited and highly motivated.
As a professional rider, a healthy and sound horse is my greatest asset and capital, and I will do anything for the horse’s well-being. This should be obvious to everyone.