The Making of Human Partnerships Around a Single Horse

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Matthias Alexander Rath and Totilas after their first competition. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

MUNICH, Germany, June 3–No one can predict the result of mixing individual parts, but a single black stallion has brought together some strong minded individuals to create a new whole enterprise aimed at winning Olympic gold and providing a legacy that lives on into the future.

Olympic dreams, national pride and large amounts of cash have been bet on Totilas. Four years ago Totilas came under the guidance of Edward Gal, who was initially scared to get on him, and the pair made history–world record scores at all three Grand Prix levels and exchanging the orange bell boots representing The Netherlands for gold ones to signify undisputed champion of the world.

Totilas wearing gold boots after winning third gold medal at 2010 World Equestrian Games. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Only the Olympic Games that every four years is a singular event to rivet the attention of the entire globe in a world otherwise distracted by millions of digital streams of consciousness, remained a summit unconquered.

Enter Paul Schockemöhle, who parlayed his success as a top German jumper rider into a fortune in the business arena, building a commercial empire that embraces breeding, sales, show organization, logistics and more.

Like many others in the sport horse world, he was aware that Kees and Tosca Visser would find it hard to turn down what they described as a “silly amount” for Totilas. They had bought four years earlier as a prospect for Edward when he lost the rides on the stallions Lingh and Ravel that were sold to buyers in the United States. First, Paul would have to wait for the Vissers to honor their promise to keep the son of the Dutch stallion Gribaldi through the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.

Paul was in Lexington while Totilas collected his gold, virtually shadowing the Vissers, check book at the ready.

His offer for an amount that is still undisclosed but is reputed to have been €9.5 million, or about US$14 million, was accepted. No horse–jumper, dressage or eventer–has come anywhere near that price despite the escalating global bidding war for championship mounts, especially jumpers.

Totilas shipped home to Europe, a veterinary inspection and within a month, moved from his longtime home stable in Harskamp, The Netherlands, into a temporary new home at Paul’s sprawling breeding and training complex about 100 miles (160km) away in Muhlen, Germany.

Many Dutch dressage fans were outraged, though the Vissers had supported a training and competition schedule while foregoing lucrative offers for breeding for fear it would affect Totilas’s show ring performance until 2010 when they accepted about 200 mares.

Paul wasted no time in implementing his two-pronged plan to recover his investment.

Agents around the world began taking orders for breeding, which ended up servicing about 300 mares in the 2011 breeding season at €4,000 ((US$5,700) per dose with another €4,000 due on delivery of a live foal. The stallion was bred three times a week in a schedule that did not impact training. The horse was ready to be ridden 30 minutes after breeding.

Secondly, he put out feelers for a partner.

Ann Kathrin Linsenhoff, forced to give up competition riding after contracting Lyme’s disease following a career that included team gold for Germany at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, was interested. She talked it over with her husband, Klaus Martin Rath, and they agreed to bring it up to Matthias Alexander, his son, her stepson.

Matthias was 25 at the time, one of the new breed of youthful riders who are revolutionizing dressage.

Matthias was on Germany’s team at the 2009 Nations Cup in Aachen, Germany, and again later in the year at the European Championships when their top star, Isabell Werth, was suspended for a horse drug offense, and many in their own country were predicting a humiliating performance.

Not so. The Germans won team bronze behind the Dutch juggernaut that included Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas and Adelinde Cornelissen and Jerich Parzival and Great Britain’s silver medal team led by Laura Bechtolsheimer and Mistral Hojris.

Ann Kathrin and Klaus told Matthias that if it didn’t work out, if the training and riding partnership didn’t jell or the pressure became too much, never mind. Far more important was the family and their support for one another.

“Let’s do it!” was the family’s decision, she told dressage-news.com.

“Totilas is a wonderful horse, so special. What an opportunity for the sport.”

So, like others, they made their offer to Paul, and waited for his decision.

“We were CHOSEN !”she laughed. “To be partners in Totilas.”

Ann Kathrin and Paul are equal partners, both listed as owners on Totilas’s passport.

No special rights were carved out for breeding and for sport.

Ann Kathrin Linsenhoff and Paul Schockemöhle at Munich. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Paul handles all the breeding, an area in which he has become a leader with more than three dozen outstanding dressage and jumper stallions.

“This is our interest,” Ann Kathrin said with a sweep of her arm toward the dressage arenas at the 1972 Olympic equestrian complex.

The partners do what it takes to make the arrangements work.

Matthias rented an apartment near Muhlen so he could ride Totilas regularly at the height of the breeding season. His father made the 3 1/2-hour drive each way, several days a week from the beautiful 45-acre Linsenhoff family estate of Shafhof near Frankfurt.

Then, as the first competition in Munich neared, they moved home.

But so as to continue collecting semen three times a week, a stallion station was established at Shafhof and the breeding experts now make regular treks from Muhlen.

The family is not only close, Klaus and Matthias clearly have mutual respect as rider and trainer, an intuitive sense of each other.

Ann Kathrin is unashamedly a cheer leader, enjoying every moment in and out of the limelight.

Ann Kathrin Linsenhoff and Klaus Martin Rath greeting Matthias and Totilas leaving the competition arena in Munich. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

The intensity of the spotlight was, Matthias admitted, way more than they anticipated. From Germany where horse sports are high on the celebrity scale, from Holland where many Dutch want to know everything that is happening to one of their “own,” from the rest of the world because it’s… well, Totilas. Since Totilas competed at small tour in Aachen in 2008 then at competitions and championships where world records were set, he  has been treated more as celebrity than horse.

The sale to Germany, enlarged the stage, brightened the spotlight.

A steady stream of media from mass circulation publications to equestrian specialists around the world seek access.

And although this correspondent flew from Florida to report first hand the debut of Matthias and Totilas, reporters and photographers also came from all over Europe for the occasion. Although the event was like a championship in any sport in which the stars typically talk to the host television and give a news conference open to all, Matthias made multiple TV appearances and answered questions in German and English at a news conference. He then took another two hours to satisfy virtually every reporter’s request for an “exclusive.”

Most of the media that descended on Munich for the first competition ride had left by the time of the Grand Prix Special the next day, but more reporters arrived and Matthias patiently obliged them with “exclusives,” again in German and English.

The family has been criticized for attempting to manage the “message.” This correspondent has not observed any attempt to spin the story, but more an effort to manage time.

The media, though vital to the sport are small in number. More difficult to manage are the huge throngs that show up at every appearance just to catch a glimpse of the superstar horse and rider.

Swallowed by the crowd, Matthias Rath on Totilas leaving competition arena. © 2011 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

How so many people can crowd around a warm-up arena and fill every available space around the competition ring and part just enough to allow horse and rider to leave with no incident almost defies imagination.

Whatever name is put to it, there is a special connection between Totilas and humans, as if he performs for every individual–the kind of charismatic star power that is reserved for few in a generation. Hardbitten horsemen have been seen to shed tears. Ringo Starr, who knows a thing or two about stardom, came to see him and was clearly enraptured.

It happened when he was ridden by Edward Gal. It is now happening with Matthias Alexander Rath.

The horse has proved himself the greatest in modern dressage. Anything short of an Olympic individual gold medal in London next year may be viewed by some as failure.

From a business standpoint, it probably won’t affect the number of breedings.

The horse is a phenomenon, and if a part of his piaffe and passage or extended trot show up in his offspring, the breeding fees will be worth it.

As did the previous owners, Ann Kathrin acknowledges the power of the brand with Totilas clothing.

She and Klaus are keenly aware of the impact the hoopla over Totilas could have on their lives and that of Matthias, as level headed as he may be but who is, after all, aged 26 and graduated college this year.

As a rider who has experienced some of the same scrutiny, Ann Kathrin said, “I think my experience can help.”

What happens now?

“We will go home, close the gates, be in our own retreat, focus on what is important to us,” she said. “Family.”

“A very special island just for us,” Klaus added.