If I’m really going to tell you the stories of the most important horses in my life, we need to take a step back to Ada, Michigan, in the early 1990s. I was training with Bodo Hangen, a German immigrant and a disciple of Willi Schultheis, and it is under his tutelage that my education as a dressage trainer really began. It was Bodo who found me Traviata. She was closely related to his Grand Prix horse, Trebbiano, and she was the first horse that I ever trained to Grand Prix from scratch—with a lot of help!
Y’all know that I firmly believe in the horse as a service animal, and Traviata, named after the first opera I ever attended, was no exception. In the four years she spent with me, she was both a vehicle and an instrument in my life—transporting me from the Midwest of the USA to Warendorf, Germany, to study under one of the great masters of dressage, Willi Schultheis, and consequently serving as the violin upon which he played a masterpiece before handing her back to me—still warm and humming—for my lessons in dressage.
I am certain that Traviata was the start of my love affair with beautiful horses. She was 6 years old when I first laid eyes on her and a remarkable doppelganger of “The Black Stallion” trapped in a female body. She was coal black. She had a beautifully set on neck and a regal, “come-hither” attitude that dripped off her softly dished face whenever anyone approached her with a currycomb. Her mother was an American Thoroughbred from the Northern Dancer line. And she was by the sought-after Hanoverian stallion, Aktuell, who was himself a half-blooded Thoroughbred.
I did not know this at the time, but Schultheis was a huge fan of Thoroughbred horses for dressage. In later years when I began breeding warmbloods, I would return time and time again to full Thoroughbreds and half Thoroughbreds to improve my foals. But that’s another story…
At 16.1 hands, Traviata was a very handy package—spicy, dead sexy and ready to travel. In 1992, after Bodo passed away from a long illness, Traviata and I boarded a plane for Germany. This was the first of many international flights that I would take with horses. Eventually, we found our way to Willi Schultheis. Even though I had traveled with two horses, it was Traviata who took me to him.
I had gone to Germany to train with the Master. A trip that was supposed to last three months stretched into 20 years.
Traviata wasn’t terribly remarkable by competitive dressage standards. Her trot and canter were very normal. She did have a most excellent walk—full of swing, impulsion and over-step. It was her only exceptional feature as a young horse. She was my type of horse though—slightly short-legged in the front, a little bit long in the back, with an ample shoulder, and a well set on neck—like most of the horses I have succeeded with in my career.
Her transformation at the Schultheis stable was fascinating to watch and to feel. In the first six weeks of two years, I rode another horse most of the time to work on my seat, and I watched Traviata being trained by one of Schultheis’ bereiters. In the last six weeks of that time, Schultheis rode my mare himself every day, and I got to sit on her directly afterward. It was those six weeks of training that hooked me on training Grand Prix horses for the rest of my life.
Traviata, you see, for all her normalcy, had one secret weapon in her toolbox. To this day, I have never had another horse that could piaffe like Traviata. And Schultheis made her a virtuoso at it. From this little mare, I learned all the gears of the piaffe—neck up, direction levade, faster hindlegs, higher hind legs, knees up, through the neck, power loaded into soft reins, on the spot, foam flying everywhere—she embraced the dance and became the first horse to show me the power of positive tension in training. Draw the bow, stay there, stay there, stay here… It was EXHILIRATING, FASCINATING and ADDICTIVE.
In piaffe, Traviata was absolutely world class. She showed me the delicate relationship between balance, impulsion and elevation needed for that spectacular exercise. Mr. Schultheis said to me one day after our lesson, “If you learn how to train piaffe on every horse like you did on this one, you’ll never need a sponsor.”
OK, that’s funny, we could all use a sponsor. But what he meant was, I’d never have a problem making a living. Which is true. How many Grand Prix horses have I made in my career? How many Grand Prixs have I ridden? (The first person to name all the horses and declare the correct number of Grand Prixs gets a free lesson. Email me!)
Even today, if I’m having trouble with a horse in piaffe, I ask myself, “What would Mr. Schultheis do?” When I picture him riding Traviata, I immediately transform my seat, my contact and my energy to get the balance, elevation and impulsion required for the exercise. And as much as I have dedicated my life to teaching this skill to other riders, this is a feeling that stays with me like breathing. I will take it to my grave.
Sadly, oh so sadly, Schultheis died in 1995, long before I was done learning from him. I am proud that the last horse he rode in his life was my beautiful, black mare, Traviata.
I sold her within weeks of his death, knowing full well that I did not yet have the skills to maintain her excellence without his help. I showed her to a local horse dealer assuring him with, “Oh she’s easy; a 72-year-old man rode her last week.” Eventually, she was sold to a student of Georg Theodorescu, and she found a new home in Mexico.
Traviata was the first horse I ever sold for a real profit. (That became addictive too.) And her sale allowed me to stay in Germany and start my own training business, which led to a life of training and competition success.
Over the years, a lot of excellent horses have passed through my life. But only a handful have really changed my life. Traviata was the first time I had created something out of nothing. She didn’t just open doors for me; she opened my eyes. Had I not gone to Schultheis with that mare, Rita, I would not be the rider that I am today.
I’m Catherine Haddad Staller, and I’m sayin it like it is from Khiimori in Califon, New Jersey.
Training Tip of the Day: It’s not piaffe until you can do it without the reins.