For most high-performance equestrians, getting to the Olympics is the fusion of years of dreaming, tons of talent, decades of hard work, and luck. Finding that right horse and preparing it for the rigors of international competition is an all-consuming job that takes a toll on the psyche.
But what if you have two horses you’re preparing for the Olympics? That’s twice the effort, planning, expense and stress. Enough to make a rider crazy if he or she lets it.
But if you’re Guenter Seidel, who qualified two horses for the 2004 U.S. Olympic dressage team’s short list, you’re not a stranger to that situation because you simply planned it that way.
“To end up in the situation I did this year is a combination of having the right horses, the dedication to think ahead for years, having the luck that the horses stay healthy, and having the support from owners, like Dick and Jane Brown. All those things together made it happen,” said Seidel. “It was a real luxury.”
While many may have been surprised to see him ride the greener Aragon in Athens, Seidel wasn’t surprised. After all, it was part of the plan to have two horses ready for the Olympics. But he was deeply satisfied with the horse’s rise to the occasion.
When the Browns bought Aragon in 2000, he only just knew how to do a flying change. The horse had very little dressage training, as he’d been a jumper.
Seidel brought him out in the small tour and won the 2001 U.S. Equestrian Team Intermediaire I reserve championship with him. True to form, Seidel took the time to thoroughly prepare the horse for Grand Prix, disappearing from the show scene with the gray for almost a year before he showed him at Grand Prix for the first time in April 2003.
“Because of his temperament, [he can be a little wild and spooky], he took a little bit longer to settle in than I thought he would. But at the same time I knew there was a lot of quality there,” said Seidel. “Just at the beginning of this year he started getting steadier and steadier, more comfortable with the Grand Prix, and by the time the trials came he was in excellent form.”
At the CDIO Aachen (Germany), the final show before the team was chosen, Seidel and team coach Klaus Balkenhol decided to place Nikolaus on the Nations Cup team and Aragon in the CDI***.
Nikolaus, whom Seidel rode in the 2002 World Championships, wasn’t at his best, finishing 22nd and 21st in the Grand Prix and the Special. But the gray upstart peaked at the right time and took the blue in the CDI Grand Prix (73.50%) over a very solid field of competitors.
“He was so good at Aachen,” said Seidel. “To win at Aachen is unbelievable–and with a very good score. It was so exciting and really,
really wonderful. That made the decision [as to which horse to choose for the team] for us; we were very fortunate to be able to wait until then to make the decision.”
Always Seeking Improvement
Ask Seidel about his Olympic experience with Aragon, and his answer is quintessential Seidel.
“Yes, I was pleased with Aragon, but I thought I could have done a little better. But at the same time it could have been a lot worse too,” he said. “The horse is a little bit green overall, and in the dressage arena a lot of horses were spooking. Obviously all that started worrying me a little because my horse is a master in spookiness. So considering how electric the arena was, my horse was good. It’s not beyond him to take off bucking or running or squealing.”
Seidel added that Aragon’s tenseness instead manifested itself in a lack of connection, which cost them some valuable points.
“I knew I wasn’t going to go in and win the gold medal, but at the same time if he had given me what he gave me in Aachen, we could have been in the top five or six, I would think,” he said. “So overall I was pleased, but next time I want to do better.”
Yes it was OK, but yes, it can be improved on, and that is the mantra that Seidel lives his life by.
The discipline and focus he brings to his training and to riding allow him to simply set goals and meet them as a matter of course. He is also renowned for his unflappable demeanor under pressure.
“Yes, I stay very focused in the ring. I am always in a concentrated zone when I seriously ride, and people think I’m in a bad mood,” he said. “When I school a horse, I ride the same as I do in a show–I use the same amount of concentration and focus, and I try to put that same focus on my daily routine.”
That steadiness is the key, said O-rated Judge Axel Steiner. “Once you gain a horse’s trust, they will relax under you, and then good things can happen.”
Focus and control–that is the quintessential Seidel. It’s why Seidel appears to be so calmly self-assured. He simply meets the challenges on the way to his goals.
“That discipline and control is everywhere in his life,” said Jane Brown. “When we go to dinner, he’ll have his one Cosmopolitan martini before he eats. No matter how delicious he says it is, he only has one. At dinner, you’ll pour him a glass of wine, and he’ll protest and say, ‘No, no, not too much,’ and then he’ll barely finish that glass. The discipline is everywhere. It’s not just with the riding, it’s how he eats, how he lives; it’s in everything he does.”
Sometimes that control can make Seidel appear remote and unemotional. But Debbie McDonald, his friend and Olympic teammate, said that’s not the real Seidel.
“I can see why people think he’s a bit cold. He takes his time to himself very seriously; especially before he has to ride, he needs to be by himself, to focus. We’re all like that, so we give him that time and understand that he needs it. But he is one of the nicest people out there.”
McDonald said that as a teammate, Seidel is second to no one. “It wouldn’t be a team without Guenter. He’s such a positive person to be around. Whether you need support as you school or on a more personal level, Guenter is there with positive input. When you’re away from home and a little stressed out, he’ll take you for ice cream. I couldn’t imagine being on a team without him,” she said.
Jane, who freely admits to being a little over-emotional herself, said, “There are times when I’ve been on the brink of tears with how cold he can be when he comes out of the ring. Even if you think he has had a good ride, if he’s not happy with it, watch out.”
But as in any successful relationship, those moments when one person can unintentionally hurt another are always balanced by sweeter moments.
“Like after the medal ceremony in Sydney [the 2000 Olympics], we were at a celebratory dinner, and he reached over the table and put the bronze medal around Dick’s neck. Well, I want to tell you, Dick all of sudden got 9 feet tall, and then Guenter gave me the victory gallop bouquet, and that’s how it goes with him.”
The Seidel Look
Born in 1960 in Oberstdorf, Germany, to Werner and Else Seidel, Guenter said he became interested in horses though the influence of an uncle “who rode at a dressage barn.”
Horses quickly became a passion, and he often tried to skip out on school to ride. Only the threat of “no school, no horses” from his first trainer, Herta Beck, kept him going. But as soon as his educational obligations were over, Seidel pressed forward with his equestrian
He earned his Bereiter degree, Germany’s three-year professional trainer license, and then moved to the United States in 1985, settling in California, where he’s lived ever since.
“I wasn’t that experienced when I came to the States,” said Seidel, “but I was educated in the classic way of training a dressage prospect,” and it was as a trainer that he first met the Browns in the late ’80s. Dick, who used to ride dressage, kept a horse at the Rancho Riding Club, and he and Jane met Seidel when the club’s trainer introduced them.
Jane remembered their first meeting clearly. “Guenter was blond and curly headed and, well, a little bit heavier than he is today,” she said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘Well he seems nice enough.’ But then he got on a horse. Now this was 1988, we did not have the exposure to good riding that we have today, and certainly not the interest level. And I can tell you we had never seen anyone look like that on a horse in our lives. And all he’s done since we’ve known him is just get better and better.”
How he looks on a horse is Seidel’s hallmark. Not too many people can sit a horse like Seidel. In the Grand Prix arena, he’s classically elegant, with quiet hands and steady legs. He almost always gets 9s for his riding and rarely less than an 8. He radiates a serene presence in the saddle.
“He’s a master, there’s no doubt about that. All you have to do is watch him ride, and you can figure that out,” said McDonald. “He gets incredible things out of horses that no one thought would go as far as he takes them. It doesn’t get much better than Guenter on a horse.”
Seidel said his biggest influence and mentor is Dietrich von Hopffgarten. “He’s been a great influence on my riding in the way that he stresses correctness,” said Seidel. “He’s always trying to take the horse in the right direction and not stressing the horse in the wrong way.
“He always brings your feet back on the ground too. Even if you do very well at a show and you feel like you’re just the hottest thing out there, he will say after the ride, ‘You still have to work on this and on this,’ ” said Seidel with a smile. “He knows immediately what the issues are when he sees you ride.”
Not So Hot
The horses Seidel chooses to ride are often hot and sensitive; at least they seem that way to the average dressage spectator. But it’s a characterization that often puzzles Seidel.
Perhaps it’s his truly Germanic attitude: He has a plan, he follows it, and accomplishes it. He buys horses based on their potential to make an international level mount. If they’re hot, spooky, or a little wild, it’s not an obstacle to Seidel. It’s something he merely surmounts with calm assurance because he can.
“I have no idea sometimes why hot horses come my way. I think most of the top horses you watch are fairly hot horses. I don’t think my horses are that much hotter than other people’s horses,” he said. “I do rather like them to be hot than to be lazy. I try not to have a horse that makes me feel like it’s going to quit on me. To me there’s nothing worse than having to ride a Grand Prix and kick and kick and kick.”
Switching from one horse to another in international competition isn’t a big deal to him either.
“You really have to think about being on a different horse. You have to make sure you’re not carrying baggage from the first ride to the second. It’s great if you have a great first ride; you just carry that high with you,” he said with a laugh. “But it’s just as negative when you have a bad ride. You really have to totally let that go, and that can be difficult.
“I think I’m pretty good at that. I get really upset when I have a bad ride, and when I come out of the ring, people who know me just don’t talk to me, because I just don’t want to hear anything at that point. But I think I’m pretty good, that after I think about it and analyze it a little bit, I can let
But he has no intention of letting riding go anytime soon. He said that as long as he still looks OK on a horse, he’s going to keep riding. “Hopefully I’ll know when I start looking ancient on a horse, you know, bouncing around and it just doesn’t look good anymore. I hope I have good enough friends who’ll tell me when that happens,” he said with a laugh.
Birthdate: Sept. 23, 1960
Home: Cardiff, Calif.
Olympic Horses: Aragon (2004), Foltaire (2000), Graf George (1996).
First International Competition: 1995 Pan Am Games, with Batido.
Fashion Sense: “The only time I see his self-discipline slip is when it comes to shopping,” said owner Jane Brown with a smile. “He has a high sense of style and keeps himself ‘in fashion.’ “
Agreed Olympic teammate, Debbie McDonald, “He does love to shop. He talks about fashion lines and designer names I don’t even know exist.”
14th individually, team bronze ? 2004 Athens Olympics (Aragon)
1st ? 2004 Aachen CDI*** Grand Prix (Aragon)
6th ? 2004 FEI World Cup Finals (Nikolaus)
3rd ? 2003 World Cup Finals (Nikolaus)
1st ? 2003 U.S. Grand Prix Freestyle Championship/U.S. League Final (Nikolaus)
8th, team silver ? 2002 World Championships (Nikolaus)
1st ? 2002 Norten-Hardenburg CDI*** Grand Prix (Nikolaus)
26th, team bronze ? 2000 Sydney Olympics (Foltaire)
9th ? 1998 World Championships (Graf George)
8th ? 1997 FEI World Cup Finals (Graf George)
8th, team bronze ? 1996 Atlanta Olympics (Graf George)
5th, team silver ? 1995 Pan Am Games (Batido)