If Germany’s Rupert Carl Winkelmann had a theme song, it might be along the lines of the Eagles’ “Take it Easy.”
It’s a life motto the German transplant—and new recruit for the Major League Show Jumping (MLSJ) Crusaders team—comes by honestly, if not always easily.
“[For me] it’s really [about trying] to stay calm and feel the horse,” he says. “I think those are the two things that I have to keep in mind the most. When I’m in the in-gate I have to tell myself to stay calm, like, five or six times. But eventually, it works.”
At 29, with a string of promising up-and-coming horses behind him, Winkelmann is well-placed to follow in the footsteps of his idols: A couple of tall, talented, ice-in-their-veins countrymen whose names might ring a bell.
“I think [Daniel] Deusser is amazing to watch. He stays so calm on the horse,” Winkelmann says. “And Christian [Ahlmann], his heart rate doesn’t get over 70 beats per minute, or something, even if he’s showing at Aachen.
“They seem so composed on the horse,” he continues. “I really like that.”
Unlike Ahlmann, Winkelmann didn’t come from an equestrian family in Germany, but says he was fortunate to grow up in the right place at the right time.
“My mother started riding as an amateur when she was [in her early 30s],” he says. “But the more we got into it, [the more I benefitted from the fact that] Germany is a huge horse country.
“There are so many small breeders that have one or two mares, and they just love doing what they’re doing. There are so many horses and young horses that you develop—I think that’s what we do the best,” he continues.
“We bring up young horses, break them in, develop them, and get them ready for the big sport. Over here [in North America], I feel like the actual sport is probably bigger and faster and more competitive, but we get the horses ready [in Germany for this level of competition].”
According to Winkelmann, Germany prides itself on its slow and steady mentality when it comes to developing horses, and his own story follows a similar bent.
As a young boy in Germany, Winkelmann began training at the local riding club with his brother, but was ultimately the only sibling to stick with it. As a teen, he competed on ponies and at Germany’s national-level shows before deciding to take a break from the sport and follow his brother’s lead, attending boarding school in the U.K. at age 16.
“There was so much going on at school; I played rugby, I played football, I was just enjoying the time there. I had five years of no horses and no riding, and not being busy every weekend,” says Winkelmann. “I could have a normal life, and [I had] a lot of good and fun activities and experiences.
“Some other riders, they’ve been doing [horses competitively] their whole lives, every weekend at the shows. I didn’t do that, so now, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything.”
The siren song of horses would ultimately lure Winkelmann back, however, beginning with a visit home from university in Hamburg to see his parents at their new horse farm in Münster. After attending a few international shows with a rider for his parents’ farm, Winkelmann was back at it—hook, line, and sinker.
“I bought myself a nice three-year-old stallion, as you do after a five-year break,” he jokes. “His name is Lionheart, [and] we still have him. We brought him up [from] a three-year-old to the 1.50m classes.”
Beginning in 2018, Winkelmann also found success on his first “proper” grand prix horse, Deep Blue Bridge S, who took him from the national 1.40m classes up to a 1.60m FEI World Cup qualifier in just six months.
“She gave me a lot of confidence,” he says. “She’s a massive horse. Very long, not so pretty, not so modern, but [with] super scope.
“She’s a bit of a diva in the in the stable, though; she doesn’t like being ignored,” he says. “But that’s okay, she deserves it!”
Though currently working back from an injury, Winkelmann plans to one day bring Deep Blue Bridge and Lionheart across the pond to join his string at his Wellington, Florida-based Eichendorf Horses. The German rider also has high hopes for his current lineup, helmed by the eight-year-old Belgian gelding, Omar Van De Hunters, who Winkelmann believes is the scopiest horse in his barn.
He’s also excited about the prospects of Conrad 155 and Duverie, two nine-year-olds who made their Major League Show Jumping debuts in October at the Otomí Club Hípico at MLSJ San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for the Crusaders.
Compared to Europe, Winkelmann says, the competition in North America is both steep and unforgiving. “In Europe, you develop the horses more, so 70–80 percent of the rounds that you ride there [might be just be] to develop a horse. You take it slow, and you’re okay with time faults, you just want to do schooling rounds,” he explains.
Not so in North America, where, for many riders looking to rise in the ultra-competitive professional ranks, higher horse show entry fees make winning prize money the ultimate goal. “You go in at 1.30m [class and maybe] there’s 30 people that want to win it. In a 1.40m [class] everyone wants to win it,” he says.
“Thirty years ago, you had five riders that could win [your average] grand prix. Now, you look at the shows, and 90 [to 100] percent of the people [in it] can win the class.”
Despite the added pressure, Winkelmann says, he has two very good reasons to make a go of his new American home base. The first is his girlfriend of nearly four years, Crusaders teammate Tanimara Macari of Mexico. The second is making the most of the young horse training skillset he’s honed throughout his years as a young rider in Germany.
“I think we were very good at developing horses in Europe, but then the market to show and sell these developed horses is better over here,” he explains.
With the last remaining MLSJ stop this week at Desert International Horse Park and his second winter circuit season in Wellington just months away, Winkelmann is wasting no time honing his competitive game.
“I’ve worked a lot on my balance. I’m pretty tall, but I have always felt like that was a weakness of mine,” he explains, adding that he’s equally dedicated to refining the strength and fitness of his horses. “We’re very focused on proper dressage work. A little bit old-school riding, maybe, but I feel like, [as Europeans], we work the horses a lot on the flat.”
This season, for the first time, Winkelmann is also concentrating not just on the physical aspect of his show jumping game, but the mental one.
“My horses felt good, I’ve been working a lot on my balance and [we] had good management at home. [But I felt I] was lacking the results a little bit,” he explains. “With that came a lot of pressure that I put upon myself.”
Winkelmann says he began working with equestrian mental coach Annette Paterakis this fall to help sort through some of the noise, and believes he is already making progress. For a rider who aspires to calmness and mental control above all, it’s a new tool in his toolkit he’s eager to embrace.
“I feel like we take our horses’ health and all of that a lot more seriously than our own.
“[More and more riders] are just now using mental trainers and personal trainers, and I feel like the sport is going to [continue] to go that way,” Winkelmann says. “We are athletes, after all.”