Tuesday, May. 28, 2024

Chapter 5: Every Answer I Receive During My Time With Ingrid Klimke Leads To More Questions

A working student position is hard to get. It’s not the best way to learn to ride. It’s not the most efficient way. And it’s certainly not the easiest way. But for some people it’s the only way.

To become a great rider (not just a good rider) one has to ride great horses. I’ve heard people say they’re improving because they’re riding all the tough horses—the horses nobody else wants to ride. They will become great at riding those kinds of horses.



A working student position is hard to get. It’s not the best way to learn to ride. It’s not the most efficient way. And it’s certainly not the easiest way. But for some people it’s the only way.

To become a great rider (not just a good rider) one has to ride great horses. I’ve heard people say they’re improving because they’re riding all the tough horses—the horses nobody else wants to ride. They will become great at riding those kinds of horses.

If you can’t afford your own fleet of great horses, and most people can’t, then you need to ride somebody else’s horses. You need to become a working student.

Before I left for Germany, I heard it all: instructors told me how tough it can be. Friends warned me that I would be treated like a slave. My mother counseled me about how to get the most out of my time there. My dad’s advice consisted of simply this: Just don’t mention the war!  I heard stories, some of success, but mostly of tears and brawls and early flights home.  

They told me about the long days, the expensive horses, the spectacular horse shows—unlike anything in Canada, the cheap beer, the autobahn, the cold winters and the colder people.

And it’s all true.

A riding apprenticeship in Germany means 12-hour days wearing long underwear working for somebody who takes you for granted. You start work in the dark, and you finish work in the dark. And if you can’t hack it, there’s a waiting list of people who can. But it also means knowledge. At Mr. Hinnemann’s, I saw horses learning piaffe and passage every day. At Ingrid Klimke’s, I learned flying changes aboard Abraxxis, an Olympic gold-medal winning horse that’s worth half a million dollars. (Seriously!)

Even though I didn’t get as much formal instruction as I’d hoped for, every day I could learn by watching and learn by doing. And the more I learnt, the more I realized how little I knew. I felt as if I were a high school student trying to stay afloat in a Ph.D. program. I’m definitely in over my head, but I’m learning fast. Although I’ve gone under a couple times, I’m keeping my head above the surface.

A Flaw In His Logic

One of the highlights of the last few weeks at Ingrid’s is watching her jumping lesson. Her jumping coach, Herr Giebmanns, arrives looking confident and prepared. He’s in his fifties and looks it. Still young as far as coaching is concerned. He’s worked with Ingrid for two years, and Ingrid likes his matter-of-fact style. During her lesson I set jumps, and I’m able to ask him a lot of questions. I think his coaching is faultless and his grasp of riding theory without equal. That is, until he answers one question towards the end of the session.


Herr Giebmanns likes the rider to be in a slightly forward seat, thus allowing the horse to move more freely. He encourages the rider to ask for more engagement from the horse when it’s being lazy or ineffective. His ideas on rider balance and its relationship to a horse’s movement and balance reflect an inquisitive mind and an excellent eye. He is, without a doubt, an excellent trainer.

That is what I thought when I asked him if he could recommend any exercises for helping riders find a distance to a jump. My dad taught me to count “1-2-3-4-5” for each stride as I approach the jump. And that works for me. However I’ve found that finding a distance is one of the hardest concepts to teach a student.

Other jumper riders have different methods for finding a distance, most of them centered on the notion of paying attention to the rhythm of the stride, for example by counting “1-2, 1-2” every stride. Still other riders, including Ingrid Klimke, don’t count at all, they just “see” a distance. To me that’s amazing, and I am curious what Herr Giebmanns thinks.

“The rider should never find a distance,” he explains. Instead he believes it’s the horse’s responsibility. Apparently every horse can see a distance to a jump four strides away. And if he can’t? “Well then, get a new horse.” The proof, says Herr Giebmanns, can be found by watching a horse free-jump. He believes that without a rider, a horse will always find a distance to a jump.

This is a little hard for me to believe. It was as if I was listening to a biology professor lecture on the origins of the double helix, and then all of a sudden he slips in that he is actually a creationist. It made me go back in my mind and replay everything he said before. It made me question all his theories.

I don’t believe what he says is entirely true. But I think I can see what he was getting at. If a horse, especially a green horse, is brought to an obstacle at an awkward distance, he is forced to be more careful. If the horse finds a deep spot, then he will learn to rock back and lift his knees. And if he is constantly brought to awkward and deep spots, he will learn to think for himself a little. This means a cleaner jump and better bascule. In theory it sounds great. You do less, and you get more.

But what if the horse finds long spots? With a young horse this could cause him to rush and to jump flatter. With a more experienced horse jumping Grand Prix, it could be even more dangerous: the higher the jump the less room for error there is. And what about a tight turn in a jump-off when the horse doesn’t even see the jump until two strides away? Herr Giebmanns doesn’t have answers to these questions, but he still maintains, “It’s my theory, and it’s the best theory.” Typical German, I think.

Ingrid Klimke, on the other hand, is anything but typical. At 38, with a 6-year-old daughter, and a very supportive husband, she competes at the highest levels of eventing and dressage. She is always presentable and never yells, but every word she speaks carries the weight of her family’s dynasty. Her late father, Reiner Klimke, would be the only person who I would consider to be a better rider. I’m supposed to meet her for our final talk after the horses are all ridden. I’m leaving Germany tomorrow. A “talk” will make any guy nervous, but I have my notes, my questions. I’m prepared. That thought comforts me—until Ingrid looks over at me and says, “It’s nice out. Let’s take the horses for a walk around the field and talk now.”

I thought we’d meet in her office, maybe at lunch, maybe with a coffee. It’s OK though, I’ll remember the important questions. I can jot down some notes later. Ingrid leads me along a narrow footpath that separates one crop field from the next. The rows of dead crops make a sad scene. The field and the path are both muddy, and in places I can’t tell where one begins and the other ends. Together with the grey sky they create a formless, colorless background, and as I walk next to Ingrid all my concentration is on her.

I forget almost all my questions and start instead with the Big Question. “Can I come work here again? In the future I mean…maybe next year? When you have space…” I should have started with a smaller question first. But Ingrid doesn’t seem to notice, so I follow her lead. She explains that she already has a full staff booked for this year. But she encourages my ambition to be a working student at three different stables over the course of one year, and she says I would be welcome back at some point in the future. I breathe again, and, flattered and relieved, vow to keep in touch.


As for the other questions, they give an odd rifted rhythm to our conversation, because each question relates in no way to the previous one. It’s like a game of Trivial Pursuit, and I keep switching topics. How often do you use cavaletti? At what age do you start piaffe? Can you tell me about Herr Stecken? Herr Stecken is Ingrid’s dressage mentor. This is a man I should write a book about. Two paragraphs will not do him justice. But I will try.

A Legend In His Own Time

Before I met Major Paul Stecken I saw a photograph of him taken during WWII. The edges are curling a little, but it’s still sharp. There are four bay horses, all the same height, and four military riders posing for the camera. The riders are wearing the cavalry outfits of the Third Reich. They look young and proud, and they sit easily and confidently. (I wanted to ask what horses were doing in a war of tanks and planes and machine guns. But my dad’s advice came to mind and, for better or for worse, the moment passed.) After the war, from 1950 to 1985, Herr Stecken managed the Westphalian Riding and Driving School in Münster. During that time he also helped Ingrid’s father, Reiner Klimke, achieve international fame in the dressage arena.

Today, Herr Stecken will be coaching Ingrid and also staying late to give a group lesson to her working students. (I am hoping I will also be invited to join.) Ingrid says he also teaches theory classes once a week to a group of seven or eight bereiter students. She says his riding theory is without equal. When she was writing her book, Basic Training of the Young Horse, she would often consult him. She could ask him anything: for example, “Who invented the light seat?” and he would be off.

Training with cavalletti and with it the ‘light seat’ was developed in about 1930 in Italy. Whereas the ‘forward seat,’ which today is accepted as a matter of course, goes back even earlier to the Italian Captain Caprilli. Caprilli recognized that horses are best able to balance themselves over obstacles, when, by bringing the upper part of his body forward, the rider takes his weight off his horse’s back.  

Ingrid pauses at this point before adding “Or something like that. I’d better check my notes when I get home before I talk to him again.”

Even an Olympic gold-medalist has to be prepared for a lesson with Herr Stecken. Major Paul Stecken is 92 years old but has the eyes and intellect of someone 50 years younger.

Arriving back at the barn, I notice the horses have wet mud splattered all over their legs, right up to their girths. More tack to clean I think. Ingrid tells me one more thing before she dismounts and goes on to her next horse: “Tik, you’ll be riding Jazz Rubin in the lesson with Herr Stecken this afternoon.” Our walk, like my 4 1/2 months in Germany, is over just when I am starting to get some answers. The problem, I suppose, is that every answer produces two more questions. Before I have a chance to ask them, it’s time to go.   

This article was originally published in Gaitpost magazine in March of 2009.






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