Bert, Jack and Herbert—Part 1: Simplicity Equals Success And Safety

Mar 16, 2010 - 5:22 AM
Jack Le Goff represented France at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games aboard Image before he moved to the United States to coach the U.S. eventing team.

A story of special connection between three of the greatest coaches of all time that can help us all today.

It was only as recently as the 1990s when the attachment of “Bert,” “Jack” and “Herbert” to any statement still gave an immediate credibility and authority to an equestrian statement.

We all knew who they were, and we were in awe of their achievements. In addition, if, like me, you loved dressage, show jumping and eventing and wanted to study all of them, the obvious connection and shared philosophy between these three Gods of the Olympic disciplines was a great joy to witness.

Therefore, to many of the older generation of riders and trainers, it may seem unnecessary to introduce Bertalan de Némethy, Jack Le Goff and Herbert Rehbein.

But memories are brief, and we have a new equestrian generation, so a brief introduction is appropriate. Don’t worry, this is not a history lesson, but it is important to know how truly exceptional they were and to understand their background.

Bertalan de Némethy (1911–2002)

Bert de Némethy was the Hungarian coach who took over the U.S. Equestrian Team show jumping squad in 1955. Over the following 25 years he gave a system, a style and a character to U.S. show jumping teams that was envied throughout the world. The fruits of the de Nemethy years were really reaped at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, only a short time after his retirement from coaching, when the U.S. show jumpers took their first team gold medal, and the individual gold and silver as well. As William Steinkraus put it in 2002, his place in equestrian history is secure: “You couldn’t erase the traditions if you tried. They are part of our collective experience. Even if 30 years from now, people ask: ‘Who was Bertalan de Némethy?’ they will still be doing things his way.”

Jack Le Goff (1931–2009)

Jack Le Goff arrived from France in 1970 to take over the U.S. Eventing Team. He never missed winning a medal with any of the eventing teams that he coached in his 14-year tenure in the United States. His teams won gold medals at the Olympic Games in 1976 and 1984 and a total of 18 medals in eight international championships including four consecutive Olympic Games and three consecutive World Championships. It was an astounding accomplishment by which the USET still measures itself.

His innovative, intensive training changed the U.S. eventing program forever. Denny Emerson, who rode under Jack on the 1974 gold medal World Championship team, stated recently in The Chronicle of the Horse: “Right now, and I’d bet for years to come, the Le Goff dynasty will remain the gold standard against which people will measure any other USET three-day team.”

Herbert Rehbein (1947–1997)

Herbert Rehbein won the Hamburg Dressage Derby eight times and captured seven titles in the German Professionals Championships at the end of the era when the Olympic Games were still a strictly amateur sport, and the majority of top riders were professional. He was recognized by his peers as being without equal and was voted “Trainer of the Year” by the International Trainers Club in 1991. In 1994, the German Federation conferred on him the title of “Riding Master.”

Finnish dressage star Kyra Kyrklund said: “Most do not become a legend until they have become old or have died. Herbert was a legend when he was 30.”

His training stable in Gronwoldhof, Germany, became a dressage Mecca for pupils from all over the world, including Carol Lavell, Michael Poulin and Robert Dover, and it was also the world-famous home of stallions such as Pik Bube, Donnerwetter and his son, Donnerhall.

These Three Embodied Genius

De Némethy was already in residence when Le Goff arrived at Gladstone [N.J., the USET headquarters] in 1970, and some difficult moments ensued. However de Nemethy quickly found that in Le Goff he had met his equal.

Jimmy Wofford was in residence at this extraordinary time and memorably gave his opinion that “if you wish to hear the sound of a horseman’s genius, you have only to step down to Nautical Hall (the indoor arena at Gladstone) and listen for the sound of Bert de Nemethy and Jack Le Goff’s voices as they echo in the rafters.”  

This thought was also echoed by George Morris, U.S. Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Chef d’Equipe. “I’d say that in my run in the sport that Jack Le Goff is one of a very small handful of what I call genius…and the same can be said for Bert de Nemethy, who took us to a whole new dimension of riding and training horses.”

Herbert Rehbein had a less public approach to his life and training but no lesser dressage legend than Reiner Klimke, who was always conservative in his use of words, said this about him: “He was simply a genius.”

So we are talking about the créme de la crème here, a triumvirate of trainers who raised the bar and left a legacy that won’t be quickly erased. It is a legacy that is especially strong in the United States and gives the three an added connection.

They Had A Well-Rounded Education

While genius is impossible to replicate, examining the foundation of these three great men can help us all on our equestrian journeys. For me, the most striking connection between these trainers is that they all had both a high level dressage and jumping education.

As we all get driven into the blinkers of specialization, this point is of the greatest importance. I’ve explained previously why I think all round knowledge is vital for rider safety in eventing, and here we have examples of all round knowledge and training being an integral part of the education of these three specialist master trainers. This is surely not a coincidence.

Rehbein, like Klimke, also show jumped to advanced level. (Klimke actually won a European bronze medal in horse trials.) Dressage was the foundation stone and core of both Le Goff’s and de Némethy’s jumping work.

De Némethy was the first Hungarian officer to go to the German cavalry school of Hanover, where he rode with such dressage luminaries as Bubbi Gunther and Otto Lörke, who was in charge of the dressage stable.

And here is the first key connection between these three great men—because who was a working pupil of Lörke 30 years later and worked with Bubbi Gunther? None other than Rehbein. And who was riding for the French horse trials team at the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games and was stunned by the dressage standard of the Germans, who were just emerging as the new world leaders in dressage? None other than Le Goff, who was immersed in dressage at the time as a member of the Cadre Noir in Saumur, France.

In particular it was the Lörke dynasty of trainer Willi Schultheis and the Olympic medalists Josef Neckermann, Harry Boldt, Liselott Linsenhof and Klimke that impressed him.

He said to me at a seminar in Groton, Mass., in 1974: “I heard of this extraordinary man Lörke, and I saw his students, and I realized there was a different, lighter and better way of German dressage.”

Le Goff became one of the youngest “under-riding” dressage masters ever at the Cadre Noir and eventually a full “riding master.”

The Right Direction And The Right Speed

In 1977 and ‘78 I was lucky enough to spend two short periods with Rehbein at Gronwoldhof. This was during the time that Lucinda Green traveled there for training with, among others, her Badminton winner Be Fair. (I was even lucky enough to see the great Pik Bube, then a 4-year-old, ridden by a rider called Siggi, who demolished a handful of raw eggs each morning before riding!)

I was reminded of Rehbein recently when watching a Masterclass at Olympia last December given by Edward Gal, the rider of dressage phenomenon Moorlands Totilas. Gal emphasized that having decided where you were going, the next thing to get right was the tempo and being able to change the tempo. (When questioned, he confirmed this meant speed as in miles per hour, not the speed of the rhythm as we usually know tempo to mean.)

Rehbein also said the same thing, and so did de Némethy and Le Goff. I don’t know who explained it this way first, but both used exactly the same sentence with the same five key words: ”Get the right direction, speed, impulsion and balance, then timing (seeing/feeling a stride) is much less important.”

It is so true and really encapsulates the heart of the leave them alone/pick the right spot debate.

I call these five requirements THE VARIABLES, because every exercise and horse requires its own slightly different recipe of these variables. I also emphasize on a daily basis that the starting point is to get the right direction and the right speed. This is simplicity itself, and in particularly it works wonderfully well in a competition situation, whether for a Grand Prix dressage test, show jump round or cross-country. And before anyone dismisses this as too simplistic, remember that simplicity is vital for thinking clearly under pressure.

Help, Not Hinder, The Brain

It’s a frightening but true fact that research has shown most of us have a cognitive brain function of only 3 to 30 percent of normal when under pressure. This is why, at worst, we become mentally and physically frozen when under pressure, or, at best, just make dumb mistakes. We’ve all done it.

However, keeping things simple and living these simple priorities on a day-to-day basis helps our performance enormously, even if we are under pressure in competition. Therefore, we tend to do the right things, and particularly when in a jump-off against the clock or going across country we are safer as a result. This is the big payoff we cannot ignore, and this is why we need to challenge all the complicated and often contradictory methods of riding on offer today.

Good coaches like Bert, Jack and Herbert knew that simplicity was a golden key and built their training programs around simplicity. Let’s stand on the shoulders of these giants and do the same.  

Up Next: Part 2: Bert, Jack and Herbert—First And Foremost, Fine Human Beings.

William is an international coach and educational and motivational speaker. He is a Fellow of the British Horse Society and author of The DK Complete Horse Riding Manual, the world’s top-selling training manual. He found Karen and David O’Connor’s three Olympic medalists Biko, Giltedge and Custom Made and breeds event horses, including Karen O’Connor’s Olympic horse Mandiba and Zara Phillip’s High Kingdom. He is also the inventor of the Micklem Bridle, which is now approved for use in dressage by the FEI. 










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