Sabine Schut-Kery on Olympic Stardom and Developing Future American Team Horses
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Aug. 24, 2021
By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
Sabine Schut-Kery doesn’t just prefer to let her riding do the talking, she found speaking to the media after the ride on Sanceo that clinched an historic Olympic silver medal as more pressure than anchoring the United States team.
Uppermost for Sabine in Tokyo was that there were only three riders, “we don’t have the luxury of a drop score. My score counts. So make sure you present the horse to your best ability. That was all in my head. All I was thinking about was: ‘Do your job’. I wasn’t thinking of any luxury of breaking 80% or being third individually (in the team competition) or even the feedback that I have gotten afterwards. I was solely focused on doing my job for the U.S.”
The results for Sabine and the 15-year-old Hanoverian stallion were off their charts–78.416% in the Grand Prix to earn a start as one of eight teams in the medal-deciding Grand Prix Special where the pair logged 81.596% and then 84.300% in their first Freestyle in three years. All personal best scores, by far, and that led her teammates Adrienne Lyle on Salvino and Steffen Peters on Suppenkasper that she described as an “honor” to ride alongside. Sabine was an Olympic rookie while it was the second Games for Adrienne and the fifth for Steffen
In an unusual lengthy conversation, Sabine makes it clear what the success means to her–developing Sanceo from three years of age in 2009 to the World Young Horse Championships three years later, the U.S. gold medal team at Small Tour at the 2015 Pan American Games then the silver medal at the Olympic Games.
At 52 years of age, Sabine is focused on competition–with Sanceo that she puts at a “peaking age” aiming for next year’s world championships in Herning, Denmark. The championships will be a qualifier for the Olympics in Paris in 2024, a year closer than usual because the coronavirus pandemic led to Tokyo being delayed for 12 months.
She is also developing young horses; she currently has two and wants more, on a pathway that a succession of American coaches have been preaching to emulate the success of Germany and most recently Great Britain and some other nations.
Despite growing up in a “non-horsey” family in Germany, she became addicted to horses as a kid and worked as an apprentice for three years as a teenager with Jean Bemelmans, a top European trainer. She came to the United States in 1998, based in Texas to ride breeds not traditional in dressage at the time, such as Friesiens and Andulsians, in exhibitions. At the same time, she was developing her dressage skills. She’s thankful to her boss who helped her through the process of becoming an American citizen.
When she moved to California in 2005, she made a clear transition to warmbloods but retained what she had learned.
“When I’m trying to really train a horse, you train the technical aspects, the movements,” she explained. “You build the muscles so that they can carry the weight more on the hind legs, they can elevate the shoulders and therefore you have a more beautiful, loftier softer moving horse.
“But I think I really pay a lot of attention also to the interior side—the personality of the horse and the character, the heart and soul.”
Looking back at her life riding exhibitions, she did not ride letter to letter like in a dressage competition so there was much more room for making decisions based on what her horse felt like in the moment.
“I think that helped me to develop a lot more feel,” Sabine said. “Combine that with riding in competition which I admire so much and I’m so passionate about, too. What a degree of throughness you have to have that after that long travel (from California, to Florida, to Germany then Tokyo) at the Olympics you name the time you have to be your best . That speaks so much of the throughness and the partnership that you have with your horse. It demands so much throughness that it has made a difference for me that I have combined a little bit the two—that competitive it has to happen now and a reliable horse.
“Where does the reliability come from? It doesn’t come because I’m pressuring the horse. Reliabiity comes from a longtime partnership and how you train. Sure you can force horses for a lot of things, but not for that. The mixture of riding the horse’s body but also riding the horse’s mind that would be my philosophy.”
Sabine overcame a culture of not believing she’s good enough to reach the top of the sport, admitting that “I feel I can communicate with horses but then I’m sometimes awkward with people.”
“People may think I’m not competitive,” she admits. “I think I’m competitive. My personality most of the time (is) I don’t dare to say it. I think there is a little bit of me thinking, ‘I’m not good enough,’ or ‘Is it really that good? No!’ That’s just my personality.”
She recalls that her boss in Texas would bring judges from Germany to assess young horses and asked one judge, “Let me ask you: when you don’t say anything that means it’s ‘good,’ right?” The judge replied: “uh, uh.”
“You just don’t get praised,” Sabine said. “The strange thing is if I look back I can’t say that I was sad. It’s just normal. Being in the United States I will say that has given me so much more confidence.”
When she rode for the U.S. at the Pan American Games in 2015, her mother didn’t really understand what that meant.
“I know she loves me but she’s not that type of person that is going to come out and celebrate. I think that’s why I always ran to the horses and animals. I find comfort and that missing piece in the horses.”
At the same time, the self-effacing attitude–the opposite to the acronym FIGJAM that has been applied too often in dressage–F*** I’m Good, Just Ask Me–and a media happily accepting payment to broadcast that message–has struck a responsive chord. Some European reporters told this correspondent how enamoured they were with the quality of Sabine’s performance and of her humility.
Although she competed Sanceo for more than a decade in California–she was based in the Los Angeles area community of Thousand Oaks before moving to the Napa Valley area to continue coaching two daughters of a family living in the wine-growing area–the breakthrough in top sport came in Wellington, Florida in 2020.
“I think I got more confidence especially that year when I trained the one season with Debbie (McDonald, U.S. team coach),” she recalled. “She was one of the first to tell me that if I am going right, meaning no mistakes, that he would be a horse that could be in the 80s. That was the first time I started believing. I spent a season there and learned a lot about how to manage a horse of that caliber.”
Even so, after selection for the U.S. team, she was a little nervous heading to Tokyo to ride before a panel of seven judges.
A question she had: “What are they going to say not having seen me before? It’s not like we only have U.S. judges in Wellington. That’s one of the reasons I’m going there because I want to be seen by everybody, get myself out there.
“All I can say is I’m really happy for what people saw and not only what the judges saw, what they were scoring me on… they praised me on the harmony and the connection, and his neck is out and it’s beautiful and the horse looks happy. These are terms that are non-judge terms. I think what they saw and what they scored me on is my philosophy. Of course you’re surprised it happened there. But it’s very rewarding to hear what they saw because it’s my philosophy with this horse and my whole training at 52 years… that’s my life, that’s what I’m trying to do and they could see that. It’s great, it’s amazing.
“It’s like I finished my beautiful painting. You believe in those things and when they have been seen by the audience without words isn’t that the most amazing thing when you can showcase that with an animal without writing it down saying ‘This is what i’m trying to do.’ That’s just amazing.”
Sabine holds up Sanceo as a model for American dressage, an example of what national coaches have preached as “the pipeline” for the future.
Sanceo, she said, showed how well the U.S. system works by going through the young horse program; then the developing program before starting internationally at Small Tour and now the Olympics–all with flying colors.
In creating her own pipeline, she owns a four-year-old Hanoverian gelding named Falou that she plans to start showing soon.
And with a partnership, she recently bought another four-year-old, a KWPN gelding by Spielberg that’s called Mr. Spielberg and is still in Europe but will be brought to the U.S.
“I think you have to have a few young horses because eventually you realize one did not quite turn out as you wanted.” she said.”Instead of waiting until you know how they will turn out then start over, I think you have to have a handful of horses and then you get to pick and choose while you bring them up and get to the one that’s going to have the most promise.”
She likes the idea of partnerships to spread the costs of development.
Development of high performance has been impressive, Sabine said, with the Tokyo experience outstanding for providing support so riders have their heads free to compete well.
“I think the last bit of our program in the U.S. that is missing,” she said, “is a pipeline for how to connect the riders with the passionate breeder or owner that would love to be part of a horse that is going into the sport.
“I don’t know how to change that. It’s a tough one because you’re stepping on people’s feet that have these horses but haven’t yet proven themselves at being capable of developing a horse.”
She pointed to the top German riders who have multiple horses so if a horse gets sick another is available.
“It’s a personal interest, but it’s also really for the country.”