Isabell Werth–Dealing with Each Horse as an Individual

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Isabell Werth on Bella Rose leading Germany to European Championships team gold. © 2019 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Story: CHRISTOPHER HECTOR/The Horse Magazine
Photos: KENNETH BRADDICK & ILSE SWCHWARZ/dressage-news.com

Over the past 30 years, one of the real delights of reporting on the international dressage scene, has been a series of conversations with the most successful rider of the last three decades, Isabell Werth. Not only does she always find time to talk, but she always has something interesting to say. I caught up with her at the historic Vorwerk Stud, now owned by the Max-Theurer family, at their annual Cappeln CDI4*. It is a lovely relaxed show, just the place to sit and chat.

Question: When we were talking in Frankfurt, you said that every horse you had to ride and respond to that horse’s individual character.

Isabell: That’s what I try to do.

Can we look at your top horses at the moment and their personalities?

Isabell: They are really different. We start with Bella. Bella is always willing to go, sometimes she is a bit too much willing and she wants to do two things together, instead of waiting. She’s really motivated, and I have never the feeling that she is scared about something.

Last week at Aachen she was a bit scared by the atmosphere, she didn’t like the perspective, the view was not really open, she could see half and some trees and the rest was closed with some jumping lines behind. So that was quite difficult. Thankfully we could use the indoor arena for warming up, so that was really helpful in keeping her calm and confident, and when we started the test, she was really focused.

Isabell Werth and Bella Rose at Aachen. © 2019 Ilse Schwarz/dressage-news.com

I was watching you training the day before the test, I was sitting with George Morris, and it seemed to us that every time Bella went to do something on her own initiative you said, ‘Wait a bit.’ George turned to me and said, ‘that is a great horseman, you always do not do what the horse wants to do.

Isabell: Yes, the main thing is that she is just waiting, she should wait for my aids to do what I want her to do, that’s the point and that’s why I try to change all the little things, the directions, to calm her down and let her wait, and to learn this. The rest, she is so nice and polite, never would she kick or bite or whatever, she is so good and so proud, really a bit like a queen.

Emilio he looks so big, and not so elegant but really his heart is very small. He stops breathing when something is unusual, he’s really scared in some situations. For example, he is really scared about the farrier even today—and since he has been in our stable, nothing special happened with the farrier. No-one in the stable knows that the farrier has arrived, but Emilio knows, I am sure he smells him. It is the same with the vet, anything unusual upsets him.

Isabell Werth and Emilio at Aachen in 2018. File photo. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

How do you work with him to give him confidence?

Isabell: The story of this horse is that we got him when he was five because no one could ride him, there was no chance to sit on him. He comes from the same breeders as Bella and we had him in our stable for a short time when he was three. Matthias (Bouton) was in our stable at the time and I can’t remember anything special about him. Then he got injured and we sent him back.

Then when he was five, Matthias told me, they have big problems with him and they don’t know what to do, he was really on the short way to heaven. They are normal breeders, farmers, and they said, ‘it is too dangerous and no-one can ride him.’ So I said, ‘okay, we try him but you, Matthias, have to ride him because I have no time and it is also too risky for me’.

They tried for a few weeks with a puppet on top, they tried everything, but as soon as he saw something coming up behind, he would go, very very fast, no chance to stay on. So then we started to cover one eye, the near side eye, and that was the key. Later we opened it, and we had driving horse blinkers. This helped him to get the confidence so he could be ridden.

Isabell Werth and Emilio. File photo. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

When Matthias left I took him over. I think he was six or seven then. You could sit on, everything was fine, but I was really careful with the shows I went to. He was not experienced, he had only been to two or three shows, so I was really careful that he doesn’t become scared again, especially for example, the prize-giving, at the first prize-givings I said to my groom, ‘please come in and stand beside him, and that gave him the confidence that nothing was going to happen’.

We always started the prize-givings in trot first, that he is not escaping, that he is not remembering the bad situations. It worked really well and now he is so nice, he is so uncomplicated. It really worked, so it is completely possible to see the development of this horse from impossible to sit on, to a really top Grand Prix horse. That’s really amazing.

He is also very kind, in the stable when you come to him, he starts immediately to lick with the tongue. He’s very polite, but he will react to some situations, once you know him, you know when to expect it.

Isabell Werth and Weihegold OLD in the Cappeln, Germany CDI4*. © 2019 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Isabell: Weihe, she’s the easiest of all of them. She’s very focused, she’s very uncomplicated. She’s very relaxed, but when you prepare for competition, then she is ‘on’ but not crazy. She doesn’t want to make a mistake, she knows what to do, and really she is the easiest horse I have ever had.”

She has had a little break…

She is back now, I had her here this morning in the competition and she was really good. It was the first competition after the embryo transfers. She had two months off, enough time to do the embryos and now it’s time to start with the sport again. It’s so good to see, she’s a bit like a mare, a bit like a mummy for that time, and then when you start slowly, step by step to go back into the sport and competition, it is like a button you switch on. Then she starts to become electric, it is really funny to see, the last two weeks before you leave for a competition, she is really on and she knows, ‘okay we go, let us go!’

You have had so many top horses–which was the most difficult?

Satchmo for sure! He was very, very hot, he was crazy, he was very dominant. It was always a very thin line between his dominance, and that he was scared. Then you had to decide, is he naughty or is he scared? That was always very difficult.

Isabell Werth and Satchmo at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Then we had two years, on the way to the Europeans, when he was on a super level and I was so happy, I said, okay no-one can stop us. Then he got a little injury and at the training seminar before we went to the Europeans at Hickstead, he got a little cut and the biggest mistake was to decide to go to the competition. But everyone said, ‘let’s try,’ because the year later was the Olympics in Athens. But that was really a mistake, because he was scared by the accident. It was a slippery wash box, and he fell and cut himself and I think that was a little trauma in his head.

But still we went there, and that’s where the little stops and attacks started, and from that show on we had a whole new situation. Week by week, month by month, he became more panicky. For a while it became really terrible because everybody thought, ‘oh what is she doing? This poor horse… He’s turning and rearing up, he’s panicking – she must have done too much or whatever.’ But it was really not the truth. I was really helpless, and I was awake a lot of nights thinking, what do I have to change? What do I have to do? Thank god, Madeleine (Winter-Schulze, the owner of most of Isabell’s horses) knew the situation and she was really behind me. You imagine a lot of people came to her and said, ‘you can take another rider who can solve the problem,’ but she always said, ‘no’.

Then we found a little degeneration in his eye and after the operation, it was really from the first competition back, to the end, he was super–besides Hong Kong where he got scared by the big screen, a really big screen with a lot of things going on.

Satchmo with Isabell Werth aboard “performing” at the 2008 Olympics. Satchmo was not the only horse affected by the giant TV screen looming over the competition arena at Hong Kong. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

I remember one German selection event at Balve, where you couldn’t even finish the test with him, yet he came back to be a winner.

Isabell: The operation was after Balve, and the next show when he came back, Stuttgart, he won with a world record!

Was that hard in your head? Hard to re-group after Balve?

Isabell: I believed in this horse, this horse was super. You have a Ferrari but you can’t drive it… For sure, when I believe in something, I really believe, and then I try to find a solution, but that was the difficult point; How the hell? What can I do? I was trying everything, riding, hard riding, soft riding, out in the field, cantering, whatever, and then when we found this thing in the eye, we got the solution, this little thing in the eye, in combination with the accident in the wash. I don’t know, but that was really special. That was the most difficult situation and horse, for them to bring him back again, to find, the way for him.

Bella Rose as a youngster being brought up right, ridden by Isabell Werth alongside Edward Gal on Totilas at Munich, Germany nine years ago to get used to a show atmosphere. File photo. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com