Home with Ulla Salzgeber
Story ? Chris Hector, Photos ? Roz Neave It?s a pretty
normal warmup. A twenty minute walk, starting out through the little
forest finishing with a few rounds of the indoor school. Then into a
big loosening trot, the horse?s front deep and round, the rider occasionally
flexing his nose this way and that. Every now and then there is a little
wake up boot in the ribs? But the big chestnut with the liver mane and
tail being ridden in a snaffle without a whip, is no normal horse. Nor
is this any ordinary rider. This is the number one dressage combination
in the world today, in just a few weeks, if all goes to plan, they will
be crowned Champions of the World in Jerez, Spain.
This is Rusty, and this is Ulla Salzgeber.
To tell the truth, Rusty is looking just a tetch ordinary right now.
He has spied Roz standing in the corner of HIS indoor school and is
stacking on a little turn. It is too early in the morning for Ulla to
put up with a lot of nonsense. Yesterday it was hot, in the 30?s, and
Ulla has started her day at six in the morning to work the horses before
it gets too hot. She has already worked with her other Grand Prix star,
Wallstreet, now it is Rusty?s turn, and even now the sun is shimmering
off the nearby Alps. Still there is nothing dramatic in the workout,
some twenty metre canter / trot circles, the occasional reminder that
?you will give to the inside rein?, only the extravagant engagement
behind reminds you that this is one of the more extraordinary horses
of all time.
A coffee stop for Ulla, sugar cube stop for Rusty,
time out for the mobile (Just how did horse trainers exist when phones
were wired to the spot?). This Ulla has told me is how she normally
works her number one star: "We ride them very deep and low but
you always have to control the neck and the head. If you can?t control
the neck - that it is long, that it is short, that it is up and it is
down - you have problems. Many people ride with the head down and that
is okay, but most riders are not able to control it. You have to be
able to control it up, down and to the right and to the left. The riders
see down with the neck down with the neck, and they pull the neck, pulling
the head between the front legs of the poor horse, and the hindlegs
are out behind, far behind."
"It is good to put the horse?s head down to strengthen his back,
to make him loose, this is the way I train Rusty in the week where he
has no competition, with a long neck, so he takes the bit and the muscles
get very loose and he feels good." When you ask Ulla to name the
most important influence on her riding and training, the answer is something
of a shock. Despite the fact that she has worked with ?all the best
teachers in Germany? the man she looks to for inspiration and advice
is 87 year old General Stencken! "To find your own style from every
teacher you take something. In my opinion the best teacher was General
Stencken. He was so correct. If he says stop at A and you stop two centimetres
too early or too late? you did it for an hour! Until you both knew where
to stop, I think this still helps me a lot. When I was a child, General
Stencken came to our stable two times a week for six or seven years,
until I moved to the south. He still comes, he was here in the spring,
he is 87 now, really fantastic. He was watching Wallstreet and Rusty
and that was wonderful because I always ride alone. Sometimes Ernst
Hoyos comes, my husband looks, but for most of the day I only have the
mirror, and sometimes I say to myself, now ride a very nice half pass
to B and if you enter the track one metre earlier or later, oh the half
pass was so good it doesn?t matter. But with General Stencken sitting
there, I told you to enter the track at B and not one metre before B.
Okay?. That was very good because I started again thinking about the
correct riding from marker to marker." There is all the talk about
new ways of riding and training, but you are still finding wisdom from
an 87 year old man? Maybe there are not so many new things that are
important? "No. The horses are much better than they were thirty
years ago, fifty years ago, but the classical riding of dressage will
never change." Do you still have to work on your own riding position
or is it built into your brain? "I think the position is built
into my brain if I ride older horses. When I ride younger horses it
is not so perfect sometimes. It was very interesting when General Stencken
was here because he was very critical of my seat. My hands were too
high, and my toes were too far out, more things for me to think about
that I hope when he comes next time he will be happy with. I asked him
to come back soon, because I am able to discuss with him everything.
He is the one I believe in. I was too young when he taught me the first
time. That is the only pity. He always made two hours theory with us,
my sister, my brother and me, we were fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and
we said ?oh my god, not THEORY!? What he tells me now is the same as
he told us thirty years ago, but it is so interesting because now I
understand - before I had not had the experience to appreciate these
Will there be trainers to take General Stencken?s place, or will that
tradition die with him?
"I think his tradition will die with him, because he is like Steinbrecht,
the very old ?book riders?. I am not sure that the younger riders have
enough in their heads to go into all these things. There are a few trainers
in Germany who are very good. Johann Hinnemann for example thinks a
lot about riding and working with horses, and he discusses a lot with
Ernst Hoyos. I think this is very important, I also do it with my pupils,
when we go out for dinner or something, we discuss the theory. It is
interesting if you ask younger riders even very easy theory, say how
to ride a correct half circle, they don?t know how to explain it, because
they have never read a book. They have never thought about something
like how to ride a simple change ? oh, you walk and then canter again?
This is a huge responsibility of German riders and trainers to maintain
this tradition for riders all over the world to draw on?
"It is necessary, the other countries have to learn it, this is
why Germany is so successful because this is our tradition and we want
to give it to the next generation. The other countries they have no
tradition. They know that there is a tradition, but they don?t ask for
it, only a few people think, oh they have to come to Germany to train,
to learn what is behind it but most are not interested. Give me a horse
and I will ride."
But you didn?t learn the technique of deep and low from General Stencken?
"No, this kind of riding I learnt in the last ten/twelve years.
The older you get, the more you learn, you are never finished learning.
My first Grand Prix horse I had ready when I was thirty, and then I
rode my first Grand Prix, so I haven?t been riding Grand Prix so long.
With my first horse I had to try a lot of things to get him ready. I?d
never ridden the test before, I did not know how to ride piaffe and
passage ? so he had to learn, and I had to try. Doing this work, I found
when I rode him a bit longer that he became very relaxed, so I started
riding all the horses very deep, then I take them up again, some horses
are very good to work half high, some very high, and some you can work
better when they are deeper."
"They have to get more muscles and the back has to get strong.
If you take a young horse up you can put too much weight on the back
and the hindquarters. They have to
go a little bit more round, but without falling on the forelegs. The
trouble is you can?t put all of this into a microphone, you have to
ride it. People are always asking, how can you educate a horse? You
can?t explain? that becomes too much theory. Every horse is different,
you cannot say, I educate every horse like this, every horse is different,
every horse gets another education in my stable. I ride Rusty very differently
to Wallstreet ? these two horses are totally different, then my stallion,
World Magic, he is totally different again. Rusty is ready with everything,
he needs only gymnastic exercises every day, Wallstreet has to get a
bit more education because he was out of the sport for nearly two years.
The stallion has to learn the Grand Prix, and he is totally different
to the other two."
Right on cue, Rusty has finished his little gymnastic routine and out
comes one of the most attractive horses you have ever seen, the eight
year old Hanoverian stallion, World Magic. From his sire, Warkant he
has the power, the presence and the movement, but you also guess that
his dam must have had a very cute head. This is the horse that Ulla
has tipped as her successor to Wallstreet and Rusty. Reputedly he sold
for one million euros (that?s about two million aussie dollars) to Ulla?s
sponsor from the training barn of Holga Finken, and before that he was
with another mega-trainer, Martina Hann?ver, so he had a good start
in life! Ulla has only had the horse for three and a half months, but
her expectations are high. Can you tell if a young horse is going to
go all the way to Grand Prix?
"I hope so, this is my job," Ulla laughs Do you get it right
all of the time, most of the time? "Most of the time. I have already
had three Grand Prix horses before Rusty, which I made myself. I bought
them when they were three and they all went Grand Prix. I am able to
You don?t take much notice of blood lines, more movement and character?
"Movement and character, and they have to be tall enough for me.
If they are smaller it?s nice to sell them, but not for me. And they
have to be kind, they are not allowed to be piggy."
With the young horse, is it possible to predict if it is going to do
piaffe and passage?
"You can see it a little bit in the movement, you can feel it a
little bit. It gets a little like passage in the trot, if you can bring
the young horse back, two or three steps, not more, and when he does
that, and you take the whip a little bit, and they elevate one hind
leg, then you know, okay, he is electric enough." Certainly this
one is electric enough, with that extraordinary ability of the modern
dressage horse to both extend and collect with ridiculous ease, and
he has that modern way of going with a lot of lift in the knee, but
also a lot of sweep in the shoulder.
He also has such a sweet, kind disposition.
"He is incredible. Before he came to me he was used as a breeding
stallion - with live cover! ? and I thought ?oh, oh how will he be with
other horses?? After I had him for 14 days I took him to a show, where
the arena was in the middle, with a hill on one side with a field full
of cows, and on the other side of the arena, the hill sloped away and
in that field there were mares and foals. And he was so kind!"
All the while, Ulla is working by herself. As she says, ?just me and
the mirror?, but she does have regular visits from Ernst Hoyos, the
Spanish Riding School rider who used to work with Jo Hinnemann, and
who is now Lisa Wilcox?s partner, and trainer.
"Ernst Hoyos is very good with piaffe and passage, he is perfect,
He starts with our young horses taking them in the hand. For the first
time for piaffe and passage , some of them get very wild, others are
easy to start and hold, but some get explosive and he is very good with
them because he can hold them and work them in the right way. If I try
to hold these horses when they get a little bit too explosive they would
run over me. He has been doing this all his life in the Spanish Riding
School, so if he does not know how to do it, who would know?"
So again you have turned to a trainer from the older tradition?
"That is how it is! I was making a little clinic in Holland and
people asked me, what does this mean when you say ?open the gullet?.
I said you need this to get them loose for the shoulder in, and this
trainer from Holland came to me and said, ? we DON?T do this here!?
But you need this for everything ? ?No we never do this in Holland.?
It was so interesting, okay, everybody does it in a different way, but
the old principles they really don?t change. The medical treatment of
the horses, that changes, but not the riding. Not the riding."
Now that you are so famous are you able to get better horses?
"I never go and say okay I am looking for a young horse, it is
always people come and say I?ve got a good horse, and I say, send me
a video. I look at the video, and if I like the horse on the video perhaps
I jump on a plane and go to see it ? but most of the time I don?t go."
There are not many Rustys or Wallstreets in the world? "These two
are only once in a lifetime."
How many horses do you like to work with at a time?
"At the moment I work four to five horses every day. The horses
I have in work, I ride them from the first step myself. The girls walk
them twenty minutes, then I start. With Rusty and Wallstreet, I do the
twenty minutes walk myself. For five horses I need six hours, then half
of the day is gone. If the girls exercise one of the other horses, they
only ride walk, trot and canter on the track, no more."
You prefer to have girls to guys working in your stables?
"You don?t get guys. Most of the guys don?t want to come to Bavaria.
This is a very
big problem in this area, they all want to stay in the north because
there are more horses, more stables? more girls."
And one of those girls brings in the next horse to work, the Russian
gelding, Artaman, again just eight and already competing Grand Prix.
Like Rusty, he was purchased from Russia by Ulla?s backer, Mr Moxel.
"For the older horses, Mr Moxel does the selection because they
are all Russian. Then I look at them, and ride them. Some I take because
they are nice to ride and have a nice character, and if I don?t like
riding them, then I don?t want them."
The basic training in Russia is good?
"Not always, I have one now, and his basic training was not good,
it is still a little bit tricky to ride him. You can?t ride him as ?straight?
as I want to until we change him a little more in his mind."
You would rather start with an older horse, or start with a three year
old and do all the work yourself?
"We start with the three year olds also. At the moment I have two
three year old ones, two four year old ones. For me to work with a horse,
I have to like their movement, and the expression they have ? and I
don?t like mares. With a mare only one person can ride them, if you
change the riders with a mare you will always get problems. I am not
home enough for this. I have to leave horses at home when I go to competitions,
so no mares."
A lot of what you do is based on feeling?
"Only the feeling. I would not buy a three year old horse that
I had not ridden myself. I have to see him, then I have to have the
desire to ride him. Normally I am a little bit anxious with young horses.
If I am thinking I might fall down and break my leg, then these thoughts
are not good in my head. If you get on a horse with these thoughts,
then you can?t ride."
Ulla has finished with her Russian horse, and over coffee describes
how she constructs her famous freestyles?
"First I look to my horse and I think about the things he loves
to do, and I look and see if I like these things too, then I take a
piece of paper and I start painting, circles and lines, and after many
hours, my plan is ready. But most times I have eight or nine minutes,
and then the difficulty starts, you have a very nice freestyle in your
head, it looks very good on paper, but it is two minutes too long. Now
we have to shorten it, but you have worked so long on what is nice,
what do you take out?"
"Finally you shorten it, and everything is fine, then you get a
few people to look at it. I take my husband, my girls, and sometimes
some friends who have no ideas about horses I just want them to say
if it looks nice. Two say perfect, one says horrible ? okay start again,
change a little bit. Finally I put it all on video and it goes to my
musician. I tell him what music I want. So for Rusty we made another
kur with songs from Bony M, but the Bony M kur is not for championships,
for Aachen and the big Championships it is always Carmen Barana, that?s
the one, I will never change this music because there is no better in
the world, that is Rusty?s music."
Do you feel any pressure going into Jerez as the favourite?
"Not yet! (Laughs) I don?t think I will feel the pressure. I am
only a human being and my horse is an animal, and it will go as it goes.
I try to ride the best I can, and if it goes right that is fine. And
if not?? People come up to me already and say we know you will win in
Spain. No-one can know who will win. I don?t know if I win ? I will
try to win, I?ll try very hard, but I don?t want the pressure, and I
don?t take the pressure."
Do you use a sports psychologist?
"No, I have a family, a good family I think, and I don?t need a
Even at an Olympic Games it doesn?t get to you?
"At the Sydney Olympics that was whoosh ? the first Olympic Games
of my life, but still you ride a Grand Prix in Aachen, and you ride
a Grand Prix in Sydney and you ride a Grand Prix in Jerez ? it is always
the same. You have five judges, sometimes you have more spectators,
sometimes you have less. The only pressure is that you ride for Germany
and you have to be good to get a team medal, after the teams competition,
you are on your own. So in the first test, the Grand Prix it is better
to be a little bit conservative, no mistakes and a nice ride on the
first day. After that the pressure is off because I ride for me."
What has been the highlight of your career so far ? what has been your
"The best show was the freestyle in Verden at the European Championships
last year. That was really great even though I was wet from my head
to my feet from the rain. I
had to change for the prizegiving ceremony. This is the best place to
ride, I love Verden. They have a little competition in January and if
we do not have too much snow I always go to this place to ride because
the spectators are so involved, they know. If they see that everything
has gone wrong and is destroyed, they applaud to say it doesn?t matter,
tomorrow it will get better."
Looking to the Equitana in Australia, in Brisbane later this year, will
you have any particular theme or message?
"I think when they learn how to soften a horse and how to get a
horse round, this is the most important thing of all. To get the horse
round and through the neck, the hindquarters underneath, then everything
is great. If I can show the audience how we do it so they can understand
what I mean, then I will be very happy."
You were a teacher? A trainer of young riders?
"I loved to teach and that is what I always wanted to do from the
beginning, and then I met Rusty ? if he hadn?t crossed my life, then
I would still be teaching because with teaching you have success every
day ? most of the time anyway. And if not there are always my fields
outside and I say, ?okay, today, forget it, go out and have a ride?
? because when the head is closed and the pupils don?t listen, sometimes
you have days when you can?t work with them. There are some days, the
horses are not good, the riders are not good, sometimes I?m not so very
good either, and on these days we say, okay, not today. When we work,
we work hard, it is better to work hard twenty minutes than one hour
soft. I don?t mean hard with the stick, I mean hard in the head, concentrating.
That is training for me ? to be really concentrated and say, okay twenty
minutes now ? head and horse has to be one thing, not thinking about
the coffee or the cinema, they have to be with their horse. When I am
riding Rusty if I am somewhere else with my head, then suddenly he sees
things and starts to react. For me working with the horse is a mental
thing, it gets stronger when you have the horse for longer because you
have to know them, and they have to know you. I always get the feeling
with Wallstreet and Rusty that they know exactly how I feel. If I am
very tired, Rusty knows, and he is like me, if she is tired, then I
am tired also, that?s fantastic, and when I get a little bit wound up
then he is with me all the way. There will be other great horses I hope,
but there can never be another Rusty."