Friday, May. 24, 2024

The Schultheis Chronicles, Part 8: Learning From The Master

Dear Rita,

In the last segment of the Schultheis Chronicles I told the story of Mr. Schultheis’ death. That was a bit premature since I hadn’t really finished telling you all of the stories from my time with him, but I guess everyone knew how the story would end anyway.



Dear Rita,

In the last segment of the Schultheis Chronicles I told the story of Mr. Schultheis’ death. That was a bit premature since I hadn’t really finished telling you all of the stories from my time with him, but I guess everyone knew how the story would end anyway.

A recent clinic tour across the USA brought a memory back in HD when I “pulled a Schultheis” on an unsuspecting student. I rode her horse for her for two days to tackle a difficult problem in the self-carriage. On the second day, I stopped after about 20 minutes, put her back in the saddle and without further explanation said, “Ride her like that.”

That exact same scenario was how I learned the most from my time training with Willi Schultheis. It was not the words he said that educated me. I learned with my eyes and with my body after trying to copy what he showed me.

In the summer of 1994, I was working hard on my black Hanoverian mare, Traviata, to teach her some things I had never tried before. I was trading off with one of Schultheis’ Bereiters, Juergen Hoefler, every few weeks. Between the two of us we had managed to start respectable piaffe, a bit of passage and some sets of three to four one-tempis. But neither one of us could get that mare to do anything close to a canter pirouette.

One day I was sitting next to Mr. Schultheis watching Juergen try to solve the problem. But the canter was in two pieces, the pirouettes were out of balance, and I was getting discouraged. Mr. Schultheis had explained to me the day before that some horses had a “stopper”—just one thing they would never do well enough from the Grand Prix movements. He thought the pirouettes might be the stopper for my mare.

But he hadn’t given up, and on that day he got intense, and he laid into Juergen to get the job done. He shouted instructions, he went red in the face, and the Jack Russells scattered from his lap. I sat very still in the chair next to him and tried to make myself small as he tried with sheer force of will to get more engagement in Traviata’s canter.

Finally, fully frustrated, Schultheis screamed: “HALT. HALT!” Juergen halted. “WARTE!” Juergen waited. And Schultheis got up and left. Juergen looked at me, I looked at him, we shrugged and we waited.

Twenty minutes later, Schultheis came back into the arena wearing a very old pair of wrinkled riding breeches. And his boots were from another era. They were cut straight at the top (remember those?) and looked a bit dusty around the edges.

Now, Rita, Mr. Schultheis had not ridden in more than two years. He was 72 years old, he had a bad heart, and the last four vertebrae of his spine were fused together. His doctor had advised him to stay on the ground. We were anxious, but we were not stopping him. Everybody wanted to see him on a horse again.

Schultheis, much to his own irritation, could not mount my horse without help. We brought him a stool. I held the mare, who was not at all happy to have him struggling onto her back, and Juergen somehow managed to launch him into the saddle with Traviata already beginning to piaffe. (She was smarter than all of us.)

Schultheis asked for the boot stick. We didn’t have any in the arena. His blood pressure soared. Then he looked me in the eye, blew his nose in his glove and wiped it on the inside of his boots. I didn’t dare laugh, but I did catch the little twinkle in his eye before he looked away.


He asked for a whip. Thank God we had one right there because I don’t know how he would have improvised that.

Juergen took the stool, and we both went back in the corner to watch as Traviata jigged off and Schultheis adjusted his own stirrups with one hand. He switched from a Fillis hold on the double reins to classical and then back to Fillis. As soon as his contact was the way he wanted it, my mare switched over to total attention and relaxation. She tuned into him and said so with her body language. I learned.

Schultheis asked Traviata to trot, but we could already see that he was too stiff to sit. He swore: “VERDAMMT.”

Juergen and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows, and as we did we heard (we did not see) the soft whistle of the whip through air, and then the one short whack as it landed on my mare. We looked up. I learned.

Traviata piaffed like a world horse: Through the neck, poll high, chewing on the bit, reins soft, croup down, withers up and rhythm you could set a metronome with. Completely through from behind with her neck larger than life. She looked one hand taller. I have to this day, never seen a better piaffe nor such a startling transformation from one stride to the next.

Schultheis smiled his Cheshire cat smile. At 72, he still had it, and we two whippersnappers were but flecks of dust on the edge of his sword. He was truly a Warrior of the Light.

He executed a perfect piaffe pirouette in 180 degrees, tapped Traviata with one tick of his spurs into a beautiful, quick, elevated passage for about 10 meters and then asked her to canter. We were sitting on the C end of the arena, and by this time he was almost to A. He turned up the centerline in canter.

My mare was light in the reins, her neck was enormous, she was carrying the weight on her hindquarters for the first time ever, and she looked like she was having a conversation with her best friend over coffee. I learned.

Schultheis executed a perfect canter pirouette to the right in six strides, he rode nine one-tempis and then another perfect pirouette to the left. He halted, looked at us and demanded: “WAS IST EIGENTLICH DAS PROBLEM?” What IS the problem?

Neither one of us even attempted to answer. We were dumbstruck with awe, and he knew it.

He started again. One impulse from his Kreuz, and Traviata began to piaffe on the spot as if she had never stopped. I learned.

Schultheis tapped her into passage again, turned left, turned left again; rode 15 steps of piaffe on the centerline and then executed a perfect turn toward us. He halted. My mare stood there quietly and happily chewing on the bit, shedding foam, as if touched by God himself. I learned.


Juergen started to stand up. Schultheis pointed the whip at him and said: “SIT DOWN.” He pointed the whip at me and said: “COME HERE.” I did. He somehow got himself off my horse and handed me the reins. He said: “RIDE LIKE THAT.”

Schultheis had a comical dialect from Berlin that was hard for me to understand. When he wanted to be clear, he just spoke louder, even in English. “RIDE LIKE THAT.”

I got on. I did what he did. I adjusted my stirrups. In a rare moment of cheekiness (I was always very serious in Schultheis’ school), I looked him in the eye, and I blew my nose in my glove. His eyes crinkled. I took the reins in Fillis and paid attention to the contact. I made the whip sing. I dropped my pelvis in the saddle with a thump, tapped Traviata with my spurs near the girth, and she piaffed like the Master was still sitting on her. I made my first transition to passage out of piaffe, picked up the canter, turned down the centerline, sat like Schultheis, pretended I was Schultheis, and rode a pirouette to one-tempis to a pirouette. I halted.

Willi Schultheis nodded and said: “Good. Put her away.” I learned.

Every day for two weeks after that remarkable episode—which is forever etched in my memory as clear as if it had happened this morning—Schultheis rode my horse. He let me warm her up and then he sat on her for increasingly longer intervals until he was up to about 20 minutes near the last ride. I got to ride her every day after he educated her.

At the end of those two weeks I could ride an entire Grand Prix on my 8-year-old horse who had arrived in Germany the year before as a second level trainee. And it was easy.

And I learned, Rita. I learned so much from those two weeks that I am not even sure I have finished learning from them today. Bits and pieces arrive back in the saddle with me when I need them. On those days when I ask myself: What would Schultheis do? I find myself back in his body, sitting heavier, using my weight and the strength in my back, pushing my elbows forward, letting go of the reins, asking ultimate engagement and throughness from the finest whip and spur aids.

Sadly, the end of those two weeks was the end of an era. My horse was the last horse that Willi Schultheis ever rode—Traviata, my little black, half-bred mare who was a cross between the German Hanoverian, Aktuell, and an American Thoroughbred mare from the Northern Dancer line. Imagine that, Rita. The irony just struck me for the first time.

I sold Traviata a few months later and moved on to bigger and better horses. But I never moved on to bigger and better riding. I am still trying to achieve the level of excellence I witnessed in that arena in Warendorf so many years ago.

Willi Schultheis was a genius, and I am forever grateful that he touched my life.

I’m Catherine Haddad Staller, and I’m sayin it like it is from Vechta, Germany.

Training Tip of the Day: Good riding never changes with the times. See it. Copy it. Learn from it.




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