There is an air of unconfined joy in the small village of Thedinghausen in northern Germany, where its celebrity residents Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Markus Beerbaum have announced they are expecting their first child.
While the show jumping community adjusts to the possibility of a winter season without the challenge of the reigning Rolex FEI World Cup champion, the lady herself is well settled in a new home regime. All being well, she will return to the saddle in time to attempt a record fourth World Cup title at Geneva, Switzerland, in April.
Meredith said they had always intended to have a family, it was just a matter of when.
“I have spoken about it with other female riders and did not want to be one of those who worried they were missing out—say a [World Equestrian Games] or the Olympic Games—by having a baby. Markus felt that while Shutterfly and Checkmate were at the top of their game I should keep riding if I wanted to,” said Meredith.
The baby, a girl, is due on Feb. 20.
“We could not be happier with the way things have turned out,” said Meredith. “Because of my age [she will be 40 in December], I have stopped showing already. It’s not so much the physical thing at this stage but trying to keep down the stress levels. Markus and my doctor agreed it was the right thing to stop before the start of the Western European League in Oslo [(Norway) Oct. 9-11]. Judging from some of the e-mails I’ve had, a lot of riders think it’s a good thing too!
“But it is still very important to me to have a goal and a reason to keep in shape, so the 2010 Rolex Final is just right.”
Like every other aspect of the Beerbaum operation, you get the feeling that the baby-horse balance has been meticulously planned. Meredith will ride daily in the manege and jump Shutterfly once a week over small fences to keep his muscles and ligaments toned “for as long as I can,” after which Markus may be allowed to exercise the stable star. Otherwise, her top horses Shutterfly and Checkmate—two years younger and better at keeping himself in condition—will rest over the winter.
“As Shutterfly is coming up to 17, I am keeping aware of what both his mind and body are telling me,” said Meredith. “We hope and believe that both of them will be refreshed by their time out, but you have to be prepared for the possibility they could come back rusty.
“Rustiness may be an issue for me too, but I have had other spells on the ground through injury without being affected. I am looking forward to the change, though, for I have been competing for 18 years more or less without a break,” she added.
U.S. fans will be sorry to learn that Meredith has already ruled out Shutterfly—her flamboyant World Games, Olympic and World Cup partner—from the WEG. She tries to limit the number of rounds he is asked to jump in any contest and said he is not suited to the rider-swapping format of the individual final, which he had to do in 2006 when Meredith made the top four (and finished with the bronze medal).
“It’s a difficult decision when the WEG is in the U.S., but I made a promise to him that he would not have to go through that again, and I will not break it,” she said.
“At the moment, I would expect that either Shutterfly or Checkmate will take me to Geneva, and as Le Mans is coming back into work after his injury, he will take the pressure off them in grand prix classes next year.”
The Beerbaums have 40 horses at their barn, which spans a collection of attractive, traditional white and black timbered buildings, some of which date back to 1790. They bought it 10 years ago following the untimely death of former World Champion, Gerd Wiltfang. Wiltfang had created a seamless network of looseboxes, arena, walkways, storage barns and wash-down areas, which are entirely under cover.
“Apart from creating a guest annex out of an old bakehouse, we have made no changes,” said Meredith. “Gerd added on facilities as he went along, and it’s perfect. Even if you brought in an architect to start it from scratch, he could not have done a better job.”
A short distance away, the Beerbaums make their own hay and straw on a separate parcel of land. The main barn stands in about 25 acres, and the whole set-up supports a horse management regime that aims to get the jumpers out of their stables two or three times a day with a mixture of work, horse-walker, hacking out or time at grass.
Meredith’s competition horses are in a smaller barn, with Shutterfly in the box nearest their charming “Hansel and Gretel” thatched house, where he can survey the arrival of their many visitors.
Scouting New Talent
It rained non-stop on the day of my visit, but as usual Meredith looked immaculate, a gift that belies the fact that both Beerbaums are 100 percent hands-on with the competition and business aspects of their operation.
Once the riding is finished each morning they move into the office. They have never employed a secretary and manage all their competition planning, entries, travel arrangements and financials themselves.
Markus has always been Meredith’s “eyes on the ground,” so she is looking forward to returning the favor and has temporarily handed him the reins of two talented 8-year-olds with London 2012 in their sights. The two could not be more different: Kismet is a willful fireball in the Checkmate mold while Holsteiner-bred Lancaster is an “old-fashioned” type, produced by their business partner Holger Wentz, and stands more than 17.2 hands.
“People know that we like horses that have a lot of blood and are quick-thinking and careful, so there was a lot of laughter when we first took him out,” said Markus. “That soon stopped when people saw him jump!”
The Beerbaums put little emphasis on bloodlines and believe that producing untried or homebred youngsters from scratch is too time-consuming a risk. Instead they busily scout for 5- and 6-year-old talent around Germany’s huge array of quality national shows.
Kismet caught their attention from some video clips sent from northern France. “I am pleased to say she is less wild than when I tried her,” said Meredith. “I nearly didn’t get on, but as I’d flown to Paris and then had a 21⁄2-hour drive, it seemed a waste not to. I found that inside this little monster there was a nice horse! Her name means ‘Fate’ anyway!
“Markus did not like her at all, but he has always had the ability to sit on a horse and assess how it will go for me. That is his amazing talent, and it has played a big part in our success,” she noted.
Meredith has already earmarked Lancaster as an alternate for Geneva.
“His experience says that’s too early for him, but his ability says otherwise,” she said. “The arena at Geneva is more spacious than some, which makes this an exciting prospect for him.”
Best In The World
Meredith has confirmed her pre-qualification for the Rolex World Cup Final with the Fédération Equestre Internationale. Eligibility rules in World Cup jumping are clear-cut compared with its dressage equivalent, so a re-run of the Anky van Grunsven dispute that dogged last year’s World Cup in Las Vegas, because her reigning champion Salinero was not qualified, seems to have been avoided.
Less straightforward is Meredith’s request to have her FEI rankings points “frozen” while she is out of action. The notion was first brought up 18 months ago by some lower-ranked riders. Meredith has picked up the baton, though she has already met resistance from male riders, which she described as “sad and pitiful.”
“Equestrian sport likes to make something out of the fact that its men and women compete on equal terms, but as we are the only ones that can have the babies it seems ridiculous that we should lose out,” argued Meredith, who was the first female rider to rank No. 1 in the FEI show jumping rankings, in 2004.
“It may not be such a big deal for someone in my position, but when you get down to riders who are ranked, say, 40th, it would be very easy to drop to 500th over a period of six months and then so much harder to claw your way back up,” she said.
Meredith is currently ranked third after a long spell at the top. “I really missed Le Mans this summer. It was much harder to stay up in the rankings without him around, and I’m looking forward to him being ready to go when I’m ready to go,” she said.
Neither will her exclusion from some Nations Cup shows earlier this year have helped, after the German Federation imposed a blanket ban on its elite riders in team competitions as part of its crackdown on alleged medication abuse, which affected riders who were not remotely implicated. Meredith was one of the first to be reinstated, in time to jump a double clear with Checkmate at Aachen (Germany) this summer.
The Beerbaums welcome new procedures set down by the Federation. The stable log they are required to keep is little different from the normal practice of their respective barn managers, both of whom have been with them for more than 10 years. But Meredith suggested that the FN could have handled the issue more tactfully in the public domain.
“I am disappointed that the main impression that came out of this was that the welfare of the horse is not paramount, when it always has been in our yard,” she said. “But the issues are being cleared up now, and the World Cup Finals and WEG are great opportunities to restore the sport to where it should be.”
As an armchair viewer, who will Meredith watch most closely over the winter World Cup season?
“The Americans and Germans, of course,” she said. “Plus [Swiss rider] Steve Guerdat, and the new European champion champion, Kevin Staut, has got an exceptional string.”
To Meredith, the World Cup—which she’s won three times—will always be special. “Las Vegas this year was my greatest achievement, because I won all three legs, and as everyone knows, emotions were tied up in it because my father had recently died,” she said.
“But the important thing is that you don’t rely on being selected; you qualify for the World Cup on your own merit. It will always be the one true marker of the very best,” she concluded.