Special Report: At Home with “Normal” Moorlands Totilas
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Story and photos by KENNETH J. BRADDICK
When Moorlands Totilas was ridden by Edward Gal into the arena at the Stuttgart German Masters many in the worldwide dressage community held their collective breath for the reaction of the spectators.
It was the first time the nine-year-old black stallion had competed at Grand Prix in Germany, at a competition that is to indoors what Aachen is to outdoors. The previous appearance in Germany was at Prix St. Georges/Intermediaire I at the World Equestrian Festival CHIO in Aachen in 2008, before Totilas began showing off his jaw-dropping piaffe and passage.
Before Stuttgart opened, the appearance by Totilas was thought by some to be fraught with difficulties, confronting the knowledgeable German spectators with a complex mix of emotions: their four-decade reign over the world of dressage brought to an end by The Netherlands, and the black stallion with gaits unlike any seen before was the standard bearer of the new champions.
The fears were unfounded. As with everywhere Totilas has performed, the crowds in Stuttgart heaped accolades on the performances with standing ovations and the now familiar emotional tears.
Welcome to the experience that Britons enjoyed three times in 2009, world records being set then broken; first at the Exquis World Dressage Masters in Hickstead, then at the European Championships in Windsor and finally at Olympia in London.
At the events where Totilas competes, the son of Gribaldi taps deep emotions.
Celebrities in and out of the equestrian world from Ringo Starr to show jumping greats Nelson Pessoa and Paul Schockemöhle make a point of watching, and have been awestruck by the performances. It has sparked pleas by organizers of competitions around the world for an appearance by the 1.75m (17.2hh) Totilas to insure box office success.
Television broadcasts his competitions, and they have become prime time ratings winners–an unheard of phenomenon for most horse sports, let alone dressage.
And the demands on Tosca and Kees Visser, owners of Moorland BV that owns Totilas, for semen by the stallion approved by the official KWPN Stud Book in 2009 based on performance have come from all over the world. And led to them to consider doing so after the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky in late 2010 instead of waiting until after the 2012 Olympics in London.
As with many jury sports, especially one fed by passion and standards established decades earlier for horses that are significantly different from today’s mounts, there have been many opinions as to how to judge the quality of Totilas’s gaits.
Totilas has transcended the experts and the relative handful of self-proclaimed guardians of “classical” dressage who decry Totilas–circus tricks or dressage?–with the same vehemence used to demonize the training leading to Dutch dominance of high performance dressage.
The final word, however, comes from fans, including owners, who support the sport and are ignored at the peril of dressage, and the judges who decide the quality of the movements, as in other jury sports like gymnastics and ice skating.
The fans have voted by plunking down their cash for tickets to the big show and focusing their eyeballs to screens big and small, TV to mobile phones.
So have the judges–the highly respected Katrina Wüst of Germany who was the judges’ representative on the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) Dressage Task Force that explored new formats for dressage, the popular globe trotting Stephen Clarke of Great Britain, and Anne Gribbons of the United States, now the judges’ representative on the newly installed FEI Dressage Committee. They have given Edward Gal and Totilas scores that are in a stratosphere unexplored in the history of dressage–now beyond 92 per cent.
Edward Gal had known the Vissers for several years when they offered to buy him a horse in place of the stallion Lingh that was sold to American Karin Offield. Lingh was reserve champion at the 2005 World Cup in Las Vegas and on the silver medal winning Dutch team at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen. Over the nine years he trained and competed Lingh, he developed a real bond with the horse. He did not have the same relationship with Ravel that he knew from the beginning he was training to be sold, which he was, to Aikiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang for Steffen Peters to compete for the United States at the 2008 Olympics.
The Vissers and Edward didn’t buy Totilas believing it was going to be perfect.
“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” he said. “They understand that. They don’t think that they have put in a lot of money and now they want success. You also have to be lucky. That is what has happened. Next time it may happen to someone else, and that is good because there will be new people coming into the sport and not always the same people.”
Since Edward showed Moorlands Totilas at Grand Prix three years after Tosca and Kees Visser bought the stallion, he has insisted that the black stallion is “very normal” in his home outside the small town of Harskamp, 90 minutes west of Amsterdam.
Dressage-news.com went to see first hand the training complex managed by Edward Gal and his business partner, Nicole Werner, and shared with his life partner, Hans Peter Minderhoud.
Visitors are welcomed but not encouraged. It’s a work place, where dozens of horses are trained and cared for, not a zoo. There is serious business going on at Resim Dressage and Totilas, superstar though he may be, is only one, even if the brightest, of the lights. There’s his dad, the 17-year-old Gribaldi who competed successfully at Grand Prix until three years ago, and Sisther de Jeu, Gribaldi’s 10-year-old daughter, and the 14-year-old gelding Interfloor Next One by Jazz, both competing at Grand Prix, and others.
The atmosphere is easygoing but professional in the the stables that line up alongside the indoor arena.
After seeing Totilas set new world records at Hickstead and Windsor in 2009, one could be forgiven for thinking he should live in the equine equivalent of a throne room. Hardly. His stall is as ordinary as he is when he’s not showing off in the competition arena.
Everything was just like Edward said it was. Truth be told, if you didn’t know the horses it was no more exciting than any barn anywhere. In two days, not a whip was used, no voices raised.
About the most exciting moment was to watch Edward or Hans Peter feeding the horses an apple from a bucket beside the arena.
Not to overuse the word, but on a “normal” day, the horses are fed hay and pellets at 7:30 in the morning then from eight o’clock training starts. Each horse is worked for 30 to 40 minutes under saddle, mostly suppling exercises, lateral work, keeping them fit and relaxed but making them respond to light aids. They’re walked by hand, exercised in the walker, and later in the day walked by hand again. At night they get a bran mash and supplements for those who need them. Pretty much the same routine every day, easier after a competition, more intense in the days before a show. As with many dressage horses, Totilas is not turned out by himself as he “flips out” and could injure himself.
The veterinarian comes once every six weeks to give Totilas a checkup. He usually gets a clean bill of health.
It’s no wonder Edward sounds so excited about Totilas at competitions, when he can sound like a kid who has to pinch himself as a reminder that although he will turn 40 years old next year he really is living the dream. He gets to ride those unbelievable extended trots and piaffes and passages that showers the pair with an avalanche of perfect 10s.
Maybe it’s also because Edward remembers that when he first rode Totilas “I was a little bit scared as he felt as if he could explode at any time.” So the next day he brought his rider to sit on Totilas.
By 2008 when he showed Totilas in the small tour at Aachen but was doing piaffe and passage at home Edward knew he was “going to be very special.”
It was also at Aachen that the Vissers were asked whether they worried that Totilas would hold up with his extravagant gaits. At the time, the Vissers politely replied they did not worry.
Edward answers it now: “We never had concerns that the gaits were too much. I knew how he was. Now you see how he is. When he starts he is just normal, no one looks at him.
“It is so easy for him to do the bigger trot, the extensions and so on. It doesn’t take any effort for him to do that.”
Totilas is usually Edward’s first horse of the day. With Hans Peter riding in the same arena and Nicole Werner always nearby, he gets their input.
“I don’t need lessons every day as I want to do my own thing,” he said. “It’s good that you have to deal with your own problems. You know already how it should be. Then you think. ‘how can I solve that?’ to think about it yourself and not have someone tell you to do it like this or that. Sometimes you don’t think too much, just do it and see what happens. Sometimes it doesn’t get better so then you have to try it another way.
“But you need eyes on the ground as sometimes it feels good but it doesn’t look good and that’s when you need the help.”
Aside from his rider who exercises Totilas when Edward is away, the only other person to have been on his back in the past three years has been Tosca Visser. As the owner, she wanted to try him just once.
Watching Totilas working in his “normal”–there’s that word again–relaxed frame a visitor can miss the sudden change that can occur with a half-halt in the blink of an eye. To see it at home is what makes one understand what Edward means when he says of the repetition that is essential to dressage training:
“I know he can do that so I don’t have to practice it. He does it at the show. I just pick him up and he’s ready to do whatever I ask. I don’t have to practice the big trot and I don’t have to practice the piaffe and passage because I know he can do it. A week before a show, though, we practice more zig zags and half passes, but it doesn’t take long for him to do these exercises and I don’t have to do it over and over. He just has to be happy and supple and that’s good.”
Where does Totilas get his gaits?
From his father, Gribaldi, in the stall just up the aisleway who was known for his piaffe and passage? Or from his grand father, Kostolany, who performed as a stunt horse in the theater? Or maybe Albert Zoer’s jumper, Okidoki, to whom Totilas is related and shares some characteristics, the canter and that ability to switch in an instant from relaxation to peak performance?
It’s hard to have a conversation about Dutch horses at the top of the sport and ignore the relentless sniping from a small number of critics. The gaits are not classic… The training cannot be right…
Anecdotal evidence from extensive traveling throughout Germany, Holland, Great Britain, Belgium, France and the United States indicates that most of the dressage world is fed up with the drum beat of negativity, the paparazzi-style moments of “Gotcha!” The rest of the equestrian world long ago gave up trying to understand and now scratch their heads and ask, “what’s the big deal?”
“I think when you have a horse like Totilas it doesn’t matter what they say,” Edward said. “I know the feeling. I know how it is, and I enjoy it every day. There are always people who are a little bit negative.
“What can I do about it? The only thing I can do is my job to ride and for me and Totilas to do it together.”
All his horses, including Totilas, are ridden individually, not a Dutch system or a German system.
“It is not a system that I say I should ride the horses this one way,” he said. “All horses are different. It is a matter of adapting your training to your horse. Some I make round, some I don’t make round. Some may be a little bit short, some a little bit longer.
“I don’t think all the Germans are like the few who put you in a corner and say you ride round and deep.
“That’s OK, but I don’t like it. I don’t say to them, ‘I don’t like the way you ride.’ Everyone should ride the way they feel that is good for the horse. I want to ride like this and my horse is doing well so…”
As to warming up in public, equestrian sports are no different than any one in the public eye, as global superstars Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps have learned to their regret. No one should need to be told about the always there mobile phones with built-in cameras connected to YouTube capturing that moment that is not picture perfect.
“I think that is not good because everyone who is doing this sport is really trying their best and they treat the horse well because they know if they don’t treat the horse well they won’t do what they want.”
It’s not only the Dutch who talk about the issue.
Rudolf Zeillinger, the German coach of the Danish team since 1997, one year after he helped the USA’s Michelle Gibson and Peron to success at the Atlanta Olympics, says his training methods have evolved over the years from the old fashioned “up and out” and now can be “long and low” when it is right for the horse.
The quality of the horses and their breeding today are “totally different” from 20 years ago.
“We all change from experience,” he said. “Horses are maybe a little rounder from 20 years before. The horses are changing so you have to go with the development of the sport. If the horse needs to go a little lower and rounder and it is good for that stage of his develoment then it is good, but if it needs to be more up, do it.”
How much is directed at the Dutch.
“I don’t think it is so widespread,” he said, “and most of it is from Germany. There are some reasonable points, like the way of training, that is understandable. The way of judging.
“And they are now, at this time in history, better than the Germans. So then you are looking for someone to blame.
“Plus, everything is getting more sensitive. If you have a girl 14 or 15 years old working hard at gymnastics no one says anything. If you have a horse 14 or 15 years old working hard many people want to criticize. Then you get a picture at a bad moment and they put it in the press, and…” Well, you know the rest of that story.
Wolfram Wittig, who has coached Isabell Werth for eight years and has an extensive breeding and training operation, says: “Each horse needs his own way of training, there is no law and order.
“I was never really happy to say, ‘this is the German classical way.’ If this is the German classical way and we are not successful it is not the right way and we have to question that.
“If there are nations that are more successful than Germany, then it is definitely wrong to criticize the success. The right way is to ask why we don’t have success.”
The first year of Grand Prix for Totilas has been unprecedented.
No other horse has created new world records at the Grand Prix, the Grand Prix Special (for just 10 minutes before team mate Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival broke it) and the Grand Prix Freestyle (three times).
Totilas will have all new experiences in 2010.
Possibly, his first World Cup Final in ‘s-Hertogenbosch in his homeland at the end of March.
The Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.
There, the pressure will be on the Dutch to repeat the success they had at the European Champi0nships in 2009 with the team gold and individual gold and silver.
Since the first World Equestrian Games in Stockholm in 1990, Germany has always won the team gold medal. The Netherlands have won team silver three times–at The Hague in 1994, Rome in 1998 and Aachen in 2006.
Totilas has not yet been on an aircraft, but he is such an easy traveler that the transatlantic flight to Kentucky is not expected to be a problem.
The impact Totilas has had on the sport is enormous. Barely a year ago, the future of dressage was being questioned after a decade of the sport being dominated by two amazing ladies, Isabell Werth of Germany and Anky van Grunsven of The Netherlands.
What’s exciting about Totilas is the boost in attendance at horse shows.
“You never think about a horse breaking all the records and the people wanting to see it,” Edward said.
“Every time I’m at a competition it’s special when people come up because they’re happy to see him… People who never watch shows see stuff about him in the news and they want to see him and then say, ‘yes, it’s really beautiful.’
“And that’s good for the sport. People who have no interest in the sport are getting interested to see how beautiful it can be.
“Totilas is a once in a lifetime horse. I cannot imagine there will be another horse like him for 20 years.”
Next: Adelinde Cornelissen: Lessons learned in the schoolroom used in training Parzival