Dressage as an Art Form - Interview with the German International Grand Prix Rider Uwe Schwanz

As a Quebec rider living in Germany, I did three things when I got here: the first was to buy myself some really good Warmblood horses, the second was to look for a good facility to stable them, and the third was to find some local role models I could learn from. In the old days, my role model would have definitely been Gabriela Grillo, who won a gold medal in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal and whose riding style was characterised by an inimitable finesse of riding and exceptional cooperation with her horses, the most famous of which was probably Galapagos. Sadly, she does not ride anymore, due to family business commitments: after the death of her mother, Grillo had to take over the family steel business and is now one of Germany's most important industrialists - modestly, her current CV even leaves out her Olympic achievements!

With Grillo gone, it was not that easy to find someone else. Since I am based in Bavaria, not in Northern Germany where the likes of Isabell Werth operate from, it was difficult to find riders exceptional enough to want to hang around in their yards and try to learn from them. Then I discovered that the renowned International Grand Prix rider Uwe Schwanz operates from a yard in upper Bavaria and decided to visit him for an interview - with a riding style that is something of a cross between that of Gabriela Grillo and Robert Dover, he has the reputation of being able to make any horse look a touch better than the rest, without any force and by using almost invisible aids. In addition to his numerous dressage achievements, Schwanz is also a two-time German Champion of Professional riders in Three-Day Eventing, and has accumulated dozens of firsts in Grand Prix level jumping competitions -making him one of only a handful of riders in the nation to hold the German Riding Gold Medal in both disciplines, dressage and jumping. When it comes to Bundeschampionat, owners here compete for the privilege to have him show their horses - which is little wonder, considering that he was twice in a row vice-champion with the state-owned stallion Rivero II now standing at the Schwaiganger government-owned stud facility. So, is there a secret to being able to ride like that and, if so, is there any way for us ordinary riders to learn it? The interview - with the kind permission of the German magazine Hufgefluester, is reprinted here:

TC: People who have seen you ride at the big shows or at stallion parades often ask themselves: How do you manage to always make your horses look just that fraction better than the rest? Can you enlighten us?

US: It takes a lot of patience and sensitivity. Unfortunately, or fortunately should I say, riding is not something you can learn by following a set recipe - like, for instance, you'd learn cooking from a cook-book. When riding, it's simply not enough to tell yourself: these are the aids, I'll apply them, and the horse will function as I want it to. In order to make a horse look really good, you have to be able and willing to sensitise yourself to each individual horse. You must never try to force your results but, like at a construction site, build your house one brick at a time from the bottom up. You can learn the basic tools of dressage, true, but the rest is a matter of your willingness as a rider to recognize each individual horse's strengths and weaknesses. Only then you can help the horse, in as much as it wants to work with you, to make up for its weaknesses and also to show its strengths even more. If you are not willing to accept your horse as a partner and treat it as such, then don't ride because approaching your horse as a sports machine backfires in the end - when it comes down to the crunch, in the midst of a big show, chances are it will let you down. Even if it doesn't, be it out of fear or pressure, you can be sure that it won't give you the very best it can give. You may still ride Grand Prix, perhaps, but you'll be riding at 70% and not at a 100%.

TC: Okay, so the trick is not to force any movements before the horse is ready for them?

US: Exactly. We, as riders, are the athletes, but we are only half of the team. The other half, the other athlete if you will, is the horse. Someone once said: "A horse without rider is still a horse, but a rider without horse is only a pedestrian." We must never forget this: without the horse, we are nothing, so respect your horse! We should not ask the horse to bring top performance daily, for hours, of all movements. That would be like forcing a runner to run a marathon daily: too much, and needless. My horses, for instance, are being trained only 30 minutes per day. The rest of the time they are allowed in the fields, even the Grand Prix horses. That is good for their inner balance. ½ hour absolute concentration daily - that is enough. Once the individual dressage movements have been learned, I don't have to force the horse to perform 2-3 hours daily at top level.

TC: That's all fine and well for you to say as one of Germany's best riders. But what about "normal" riders - what does one do until the individual lessons have been learned to such an extent that they can be performed on command?

US: You do this one movement at a time. One day you work on Piaffe, then another one on your passage, then the third day on your transitions or on the lateral movements. Slow and steady. If a horse has problems in trot, for instance, I'll concentrate on that, with the other it may be canter changes from stride to stride. And finally, at the end, all the parts come together as one flowing whole.

TC: So you don't subscribe to the idea of hyper-flexion or: dig your spurs into the back, pull the double bridle in the front until the horse lifts its legs because it doesn't know what else to do anymore?

US: In my yard, these kinds of methods are an absolute no-no. I don't want any tense or stressed horses. But one must not forget that these methods are often used by weaker riders to hide their own short-comings.  I think a major problem in dressage is still that there are people out there who go and buy a good horse, then look at what the professionals do, and figure they are going to imitate what they see on the television screen or at a big show. There is a big difference between temporary hyperflexion at the hands of a professional rider, although we personally do not use this method at my yard at all, or over-extending a horse when you don't really know what you are doing. There is still too much of a tendency to look for the fault at the horse's end, rather than where the fault is really to be found: lack of rider's ability or insufficient and wrong preparation.

TS: You are not only an international Grand Prix rider but also one of the top trainers in this country. What happens if someone comes to you, either from Germany or travelling from abroad, and wants to know if he or she has the ability to make it to the very top?

US: I look at both, rider and horse, in great detail and then tell them straight out where they stand, in terms of talent and ability, and what can be done to improve it. If someone comes to me and thinks he has a horse with potential for Grand Prix, and this is not the case, I say so even if it disappoints the owner. I do so because one of the most important things in dressage is to realistically understand your own and your horse's abilities. You should never ask more of your horse than it can give, physically or psychologically. The same goes for the rider, of course.

TC: How do you work out training schedules for riders?

US: There is no rule of thumb because it depends on each horse and rider individually. Generally, my door is open for dressage riders of all levels who have the genuine wish to improve their riding skills. But, of course, someone who comes to me from abroad with a Grand Prix or Prix St. Georges horse and wants to compete on the European circuit will be trained much differently to someone who is at medium level and wants to advance to the higher classes. In the latter case, I will be less strict than if someone is serious about competing against the many excellent riders we have here on the circuit.

TC: What happens if I want to buy a good horse in Germany and have it trained by you to Grand Prix level before taking it back overseas? Is this possible, even if I am not there for the training myself?

US: Ideally, I like having horses to train them up from scratch, but we can also take in horses at all levels. My current top ride, Salome, for instance, was given to me by the owner to train up through all the classes and she is now competing at Grand Prix level.

TC; But your other top horse, Ryco, with whom you were successful internationally a few years ago, came to you at the age of 9, and had done show-jumping until then…

US: Correct. You cannot pigeonhole horses anymore than you can pigeonhole people. Sometimes a show-jumper has great dressage potential in him and if this is the case, then there is nothing against training the horse in a different discipline.

TC: What would you tell riders who want to make it to the very top?

US: You need a good horse, you need a lot of discipline, and you need patience. Add to that the right amount of talent and staying power, and chances are that you'll make it. I would suggest riding as many different horses as possible, so that you learn not only how to ride a top mount but also how to bring a horse of lesser talent to the best level it can be. This can sometimes be much more challenging. Ask some of the top riders if you can watch them, hang out in their yards, and then find yourself a good trainer. And, since it is dressage we are talking about, it is probably a good idea to spend some time in Germany, with or without your horse.

TC: Speaking of good trainers: who was yours?

US: In Germany, horse riding is a very professional matter and so, just like in any other business, you have to get a number of degrees before you can successfully open your own yard. For the equivalent of my Bachelor of Horsemanship Degree (Pferdewirt) I trained with Uli Salig in Thann, which is also the reason I then decided to stay on in upper Bavaria. For my Masters degree (Pferdewirtschaftsmeister), I trained with Alan Gaheide, the Danish trainer who was one of the best around at the time. From him, I learned the difference between riding an ordinary horse and a real crack - you would not believe all the great horses he had at his yard.

TC: The Master of Horsemanship is an internationally coveted qualification that is offered with specialisation in the various disciplines, including dressage, and includes a written thesis as part of the final exams. How would a foreigner be able to get this qualification? The American rider Lisa Wilcox has it, for instance?

US: While we do offer limited places for trainees for the Master's certificate, the specifications for foreigners are directly handled in Muenster on an individual basis and so interested parties should initially apply there for details.

TC: Some overseas riders coming to Germany for training had the unfortunate experience of not being taken seriously by their trainers. One dressage rider, for instance, now competing at Grand Prix level in North America, felt that, because she did not have enough money, she was somewhat left aside at the yard where she went to in Germany for her overseas training. Does this happen in your yard as well?

US: No, we try to treat all our students equally, to give all of them the same amount of individualized attention. It does not matter whether you have an expensive horse, or whether you are a millionaire or had to scrape together your last cents to afford your training. All that matters is that you have the genuine will and interest to perfect and advance your riding style. So long as you are motivated and willing to work hard, everyone will treat you with plenty of respect.

TC: And at the end of a training period, one can ride as good as you?

US: At the end of your training, you will have learned to sensitise yourself to your horse, to execute dressage movements without force and in perfect unity with your horse, and to be the very best rider that you can be with the particular mount available to you at the time.

TC: As a rider, you have collected medals in all three colors, ridden internationally all over Europe, and trained teams in as far away places as Argentina. And yet, as one of the best riders in Germany (4th of German FN dressage riders ranking list, 2002) you have decided to stay in Bavaria rather than doing what so many riders do: going to Northern Germany where, supposedly, all the good horses come from and which is considered the heart of German riding. Why?

US: Because I am very excited about what is happening in Bavarian Warmblood breeding. It is a studbook that is on the upward move and if you look at the really top horses, then the Bavarians are in no way lagging behind the other top breeds. I am interested in the fact that here, in the local studbook, everything is still in development but it is developing in the right direction, and so I decided to stay on.
If you really want success, you have to be willing to change, and the Bavarian breeders are in the process of proving that. Don't forget that they import a lot of good stallions from Northern Germany to pair them with the local mares and the results, at times, are sensational.

TC: Speaking of good stallions, you own two breeding stallions yourself, one of whom has just won the stallion certificate trials for rideablity and placed very highly in the other categories. Many insiders say that this horse, Ferrero Kiss (French Kiss x Florestan x Don Gregory) is going to be the next big international star in the dressage arena. How easy is it to find a horse like that?

US: Very difficult. I was looking for a long time because, let's face it, the real top horses are few and far between. When I saw this stallion, as a youngster, with his exceptional hindquarters, strong back and enormous paces, I just knew I had to have him and I did everything possible to get him. Finding a great horse is all a matter of being at the right place at the right time and then not hesitating!

TC: So, basically, once you have a top stallion like that, everything is easy: you put him in a good mare, and you keep breeding cracks?

US: Unfortunately, it is not as simple. You need a good mare, of course, but then it also depends on a lot of other factors. Not every good stallion throws a great foal each time, and I think we all eventually try to breed the real top cracks, but it is something that only rarely happens.

TC: So it is not that easy to become a top international rider: you need a good horse, you need ability and training…

US: And a lot of discipline. It has to be more important to you than anything else. I ride from 9 am to 7 pm daily, and only Mondays are days off. So you have to be willing to let go of a lot of other interests if you really want to make it. Also, let's not forget that you need a great amount of sensitivity toward the horse: if you want to ride with force, you will at best become a mediocre rider. Really good riding is not something you can just learn by the sheer willingness to do so, no matter the amount of certificates and qualifications you might have. You can't buy yourself a good youngster, pat it a bit, put a saddle on and ride around on a loose rein, thinking: great, now he's broke. Then you tighten your reins a bit, but some spurs on, and think: okay, now I am riding basic dressage. Tighten the reins a bit more, more spurs from behind, and you're at medium level, and so on. Horsemanship is an art and like any art, it requires dedication, finesse and the willingness for constant improvement on part of the rider.

By Tess Crebbin (site on the top sire Rivero II - in German)

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