He reveals the thrills and pitfalls of riding the most famous dressage horse in the world.
When the news hit that Matthias Alexander Rath would be the next rider of Totilas, arguably the world’s greatest dressage horse, everyone had an opinion.
To Totilas fans, he’s one of the luckiest men in the world. To some of the Dutch, he’s disliked simply for riding the stallion that previously called the Netherlands home. To fellow Germans, he represents the hope that the country will soon be at the top of the dressage game again.
But everyone else aside, he’s really just a 27-year-old living a dream.
“I’m really happy every day,” said Rath, who began riding Totilas in October of 2010. “It’s such joy to work with this horse. It’s just an amazing feeling every single day.
It was a big honor and it was a really big chance in my life.”
As eudaemonic as it was for Rath to get the ride on the 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion (Gribaldi—Lominka, Glendale), the partnership also produces a level of pressure many riders will never know.
“Of course I am very happy to ride the world’s best dressage horse from now on, but it is a big challenge to fill [Edward Gal’s] footsteps,” he wrote on his website, www.matthias-rath.de, when it was first announced that he would ride Totilas.
Even by writing that, he was probably underestimating just what it would mean to succeed Gal, because the addition of Totilas to his stable launched Rath to celebrity status, complete with the loss of privacy and other pitfalls of fame.
Life Before Totilas
Rath saw plenty of his own accomplishments long before Totilas. As the son of Klaus-Martin Rath, a dressage trainer and member of the German Olympic Committee, and Melita Huck, an equestrian photographer, Matthias has been surrounded by horses his entire life. His uncle, Karsten Huck, is a bronze-medal winner in show jumping at the 1988 Olympic Games. His stepmother, Ann Kathrin Linsenhoff, is a European and Olympic champion.
“I never wished to do anything else,” said Matthias, who used to play soccer but never seriously. “I like everything about sports. When I open the newspaper, I always look first at the sports pages to see what’s going on. But [dressage], it was the thing I always wanted to do.”
He got his first pony, Susi, as a Christmas gift when he was 5. As a young rider, he was a member of the German team that won the 2005 European Championship. His first years riding Grand Prix were in the saddle of Linsenhoff’s former World Equestrian Games partner, Renoir-UNICEF, whom Matthias calls “a patient yet demanding teacher.”
But as many lessons as he’s learned from horses, and though he’s trained with the likes of Klaus Balkenhol and Hans Riegler, the head trainer at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, Matthias says he learns the most from his father.
“He develops horses, I think, in a perfect way. I always want to be as good as he is,” said Matthias. “I hope one day I’ll have the same experience, and I can be as good as he is.”
Matthias has three brothers—Henrik, Niklas and Moritz—and a sister, Marie, but he’s the only one of the siblings who chose horses as a profession, though Marie is getting a start with ponies. Having horses in common with his father adds another element to their relationship.
“First of all he’s my father. And he’s a really good friend; I can talk about anything with him. And when I sit on the horse and we are training, he is the trainer,” said Matthias, who claims that having his father as his trainer is no different than being the student of a non-relative.
“I have to respect the trainer and believe in him, trust him,” he said.
At the stable in Kronberg, a town just outside Frankfurt, Germany, it’s a family affair. Matthias, Klaus-Martin and Linsenhoff are all active in breeding and training their own horses. Matthias’ girlfriend, Franziska Eisenmann, also lives at the farm, and Matthias trains her and her horses. His relationships have helped keep him strong when there is negativity surrounding Totilas.
“[My father, in particular,] takes a lot of pressure away from me. He’s really good at that,” Matthias said. “He wants only the best for me.”
The Weight Of The World
From the moment the news was released that Paul Schockemöhle had bought Totilas, and the superstar would move to Germany, the horse community was in an uproar. Less than a year later, the scrutiny hasn’t decreased, but Matthias has learned how to deal with it.
“My parents always tell me that we do this whole thing for ourselves. We don’t do it for someone else,” he said. “With Totilas—so many people are interested in this horse and what he’s doing and how he’s living and how I ride him and how he’s been ridden before. It’s impossible to make everybody happy. I gave that up at the beginning of the year—trying to make everybody happy. When you really believe that you are doing it for yourself, it takes a lot of pressure away, and it makes it easier when people say negative things.”
But he isn’t immune to what’s going on around him. While he claims the pressure doesn’t come from the people close to him—like family, friends or his German teammates, he knows the world has high expectations.
“Pressure with Totilas is always really high. They expect us to win every time. It’s just not possible. In sports, you can’t win every time,” he said. “At the moment, there are a lot of good [horse-and-rider] combinations in the world of dressage. We’ve worked together for eight months, but I still do not know him 100 percent, so every time I ride him, I find out a little more.”
Although Matthias and “Toto” have won together, including at Aachen, Germany, where they swept the Grand Prix, Grand Prix Special and freestyle in the prestigious CDIO in July, Matthias has received criticism about his performance at the European Championships (the Netherlands) in August, where the pair failed to win an individual medal.
Dutch photographer Arnd Bronkhorst addressed the performance in a column for Dutch publication Paardenkrant. The piece, titled “Totilas: The Tragic Hero,” cited the author’s feelings that Totilas was going downhill with Matthias, and the English translation of the article included phrases such as “a disaster for all involved” and “What are they doing to Totilas?”
Matthias, now familiar with caustic comments such as these, said, “As a student, a rider—any sportsman, you have to take criticism.”
He maintains a positive attitude about his experience in Rotterdam, noting that while he had troublesome spots, there were some very nice parts.
“Of course, after Aachen, everybody expected me to win at the Europeans, but there are so many talented combinations that have been together for years. I was really happy with the Grand Prix—I mean, I had a little mistake at the end of the one-tempis, but the first part of the one-tempis were probably as good as never before, and he was really good in the piaffe and passage. I was in the lead up to the one-tempis,” Matthias recalled.
“At other shows, we’ve had some good tests,” he continued, noting that even with all his previous accolades, his wins with Totilas at Aachen were his proudest moments. “For us, it’s clear that we’re in the first year and that we still have to work on different things so that we can get extremely good marks in every test.”
As part of getting better acquainted with Toto, Matthias and his father video every training session and competition. Being able to see the mistakes (and the successes) has proved helpful in building the duo’s relationship.
Finding Each Other
“The evening I rode Toto for the first time, I will for sure never forget,” Matthias said. “It was just an unbelievable feeling to sit on him, to feel how he moves, how much power he has.”
Figuring out how to correctly use that power is what Matthias is working toward. The stallion is extremely sensitive and reacts quickly to aids given—both a fantastic and difficult thing at the same time. Mistakes are usually the result of miscommunication between the two, as they are still figuring each other out.
“The important thing is to understand which aids he needs, and that
I understand his aids and how he reacts to my aids,” said Matthias. “And it was also important for him to learn the way I give him the aids. So, it’s just been us finding each other and getting closer and closer with him.”
Matthias likes to spend downtime with Toto, taking him on walks and hand-grazing him in the fields. Understanding the stallion’s personality also plays a key role in constructing a successful bond.
“He really likes to work all the time. It’s not a nice day for him to just take a walk, or stand in the barn, or eat grass. He likes to move, he likes to concentrate, he likes to think,” Matthias said.
But even workaholics need the occasional vacation, and Matthias gave Toto a few weeks off after the European Championships, in which the stallion got light exercise.
He doesn’t deny that visions of medals glitter in his head, but for now Matthias is keen on enjoying the journey.
“This time last year I would have never dreamed I would be riding Totilas,” he said. “And now, when I look back over the whole season, I am really proud of what we reached this year—because our aim is not to reach everything this year. We will develop more and more with time. I’m excited for the future.”