Louise Parkes talks to the most medalled athlete in equestrian sporting history Isabell Werth about the impact of COVID-19, her past and future.
She’s fun, focused, fabulous and sometimes a little formidable. The most medalled athlete in the history of equestrian sport, Germany’s Isabell Werth looked set to add yet another title to her very long list at the FEI Dressage World Cup™ 2020 Final in Las Vegas, USA before that was cancelled due to the pandemic.
“I try to take the good things out of all this”, Isabell said when we spoke recently (Saturday 18 April). “I have more time to concentrate on my young horses, more time for the family, for all the horses, for the whole stables, especially now that spring is here and there is so much to do”.
Like everyone else, she’s had to adapt in order to keep everyone safe at home. “We have three generations living here on our farm (near Dusseldorf), and my parents are still really well and I hope we can keep the virus away. We try to go on like normal but keep a distance. At the beginning, it was quite hard for my son (10-year-old Frederik) not to visit my parents, but now he’s a bit more used to it and so it’s fine”.
My Q&A plan goes a bit astray from the outset. I’m taken aback when I find out that the great Isabell Werth, known in the sport as “The Queen”, is just like so many of the rest of us – girls in particular – who are so passionate about horses and horse sport.
She too was a pony-mad kid, and in a way she’s still just living that dream….
When I ask: Who were your childhood heroes? she tells me “well it all started with the Bille and Zuttel books about a little girl and her pony. I loved to read, and Bille was my first hero and I wanted to be like her! Today my son (10-year-old Frederik) is playing with an iPhone and an iPad, but when I was his age I was reading those books” she explains. “It’s a different world now”, I comment, and Isabell replies, “yes – although for sure it’s not better!
She continues…”When I got more serious about my riding I looked up to all the big names like Reiner Klimke and Margot Otto-Crepin (sadly 1989 FEI Dressage World Cup™ winner Margit passed away on Sunday 19 April), and when I started with Dr Schulten-Baumer then Nicole (Olympic gold medallist Nicole Uphoff) was in the stable. It was the time of Christine Stuckelberger and Anne-Grethe Jensen – so many great riders”, she says.
So how does it feel to be the hero for others now? “To be honest I don’t think about it. It’s lovely when kids come up and ask me questions – I’m really touched by that but I don’t think about why they are doing it!”
The person who influenced you most? “During my career for sure it was Dr Schulten-Baumer (world-famous dressage trainer and coach, nicknamed Der Doktor). He taught me how to build up a horse and about management. He was always thinking about the future and how to deal with unexpected things so I was quite well-prepared for what happened later in my career. When I eventually had my own stable all this gave me a strong basis.
“And then, of course, the second person is Madeleine Winter-Schulze (a great patron of German equestrian athletes including Isabell). These two people were, and are, the most important during my riding career next to my parents, my partner (Wolfgang Urban) and my family”.
Who is in your back-up crew? “My family, my life-partner and my parents always have my back. I can discuss everything with them in and around the sport, and even though he’s not experienced with horses Wolfgang has management experience because of his business and profession so he has helped me a lot. When we come to the daily work in the stables, first of all, it’s Steffi (Steffi Weigard), my groom, she’s really close to me when it comes to what happens with our show horses…she has a very good eye and feeling. The stable staff, my riders and then Mary (her right-hand woman) of course. I’ve been working with most of these people for more than 10 years and it’s a close partnership”, Isabell explains.
What do you like best about being around horses? “Being in the middle of them, working with them, just sitting on them and being in my own world. I love it!”
Anything you don’t like about being around horses? “No, only in the horse business sometimes it’s difficult to deal with the people! You have to learn not to say everything you want to say, to know when it’s better to keep your mouth shut! Sometimes that’s hard for me and sometimes I can’t do it, but I have learned to be better at it!”, she says with a laugh.
The horse you liked the most? “Gigolo, Satchmo and now Bella Rose have been the most important horses in my life. At the moment I have Weihegold, and of course I love her and we’ve had great success together, but it is something different with Satchmo for instance”. There is real emotion in her voice now…… “Today he was in the field when I was riding back from the racetrack with Weihegold. I was talking to her about the fact that we should actually be in Las Vegas doing our Freestyle today when Satchmo walked up to remind me that he was there with me 11 years ago (finishing second in the 2009 FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final).
“To see him grazing with the little pony Kelly, coming over for a chat and then going down to eat more grass without a care in the world, and to feel Weihe passaging under me because she was so awake and so keen, that’s something special for me personally. She is still enjoying the sport, he is so happy in his retirement, and nobody else sees that moment but it makes me feel so good!”
Have you retired many of your top horses at your farm? “Yes, all of them! Satchmo is the oldest now, he is close to 26, he will have his birthday in May so we will celebrate – maybe have a Corona-party for him! First Class is still here, and Fabienne and Anthony and Gigolo were with us for such a long time, until they were 25, 26, 29 years old and it was really great to have them. Also to keep them until the day they died, that was, and is, for me also important – they were much more than just successful Grand Prix horses.
“Most of them had about 10 years in the field after 10 years of top sport. Also Whisper – everyone knew him as my “doping horse” (Isabell was suspended in 2009 when Whisper tested positive for a prohibited substance) – but nobody asked later if he’s still alive, and he is still alive (now aged 21) and he is also with my retired horses in the field and we take great care of him in the same way as all the rest. And that’s also something that’s in my heart but nobody sees it!” she says.
Are there some other top horses you would have liked to ride? “Margit Otto-Crepin’s Corlandus. He was such an outstanding horse and Totilas – it would have been great to feel how he was to ride – and of course Valegro and Mistral Hojris too. They were all fantastic!”
The best horse you have ever ridden? This answer comes as no surprise….”Bella Rose! She’s the best I’ve ever had, the one able to do everything, and you can feel always there is something more possible – that makes her so outstanding!”
When you are competing you have a gift for working up a crowd – do you think you could have been an actress in another life? “Not really! To be an actress you must be flexible so you can jump into different kinds of roles. But my role is simple, it’s riding dressage, it’s horses, and I love what I do!”
How do you like working with the media? “You learn to have confidence in answering questions, sometimes with more humour, it depends a bit on the emotion at the time. But (and I think I know what’s coming here), when you are asked for the 120,000th time when are you going to stop riding because now you are 50…and you know they are still writing about 10 other riders who are 60 and older but they never ask them when they are going to stop…..”(let’s just move along here then…)
A Bit Of A Joker
If Johnny (Don Johnson), Emilio, Weihe and Bella were talking about you in the stables, what would they say? “Johnny is a bit like my son, he would say let her tell me what to do but I’ll still do what I want! But when it comes down to it we are a team. He’s a bit of a joker, but in the end, we really love each other!
“Emilio would always be a bit more like a little boy, a little less confident but trying to give his best. Weihe – she would always be saying, Ok just tell me what I should do and I’ll do it! No horse is like her, she can be so quiet, but she can switch from being a nice little mare to a serious competition horse in an instant.
“Bella is proud, she’s a real lady. She knows how good she is and how much I love her. The only thing is that she always wants to do more. She might say – why won’t she let me run like I want to run, because I could go so much faster! You take her out for a hack and go for a little canter but it’s never enough, after a few metres she wants to gallop!”
How do you handle your emotions under pressure? “It’s a question of discipline in the moment, and I had a really good teacher in Dr Schulten-Baumer. You’ll find a lot of photos of me crying in successful moments, but I’m sure you won’t find any of me crying from disappointment. When I’m really disappointed I work it out on my own. And it’s not because I’m older now, I’ve been like this since I was 20”.
A Hard Time
What do you say to people when they tell you how worried they are about the pandemic and the effect it’s having on us all? “I think it’s a hard time but I’m sure we will get through it and it won’t be as much of a disaster as some people think right now. But for sure it seems to open the gap more, even in our little horse world, between the rich and the people who are not so wealthy. I think everyone is going to lose in some way, and this puts more responsibility on those in the driving seat.
“Maybe we will go back to some kind of competition life in September or October, but that will depend on how quickly a vaccination can be found. This is a very infective virus and it’s making everyone very scared. I’m hoping that by the end of year we will see light at end of tunnel.
“For the first time in 30 years the Himalayas are visible from a long way. It seems the earth is taking a bit back from us, nature is telling us something important. So for now we have to calm down and know that life is possible without planes, without cars, without a lot of business. Life will go on – with the virus, without the virus – it’s just a question of how we get through it”.
How do you feel about the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games? “For a lot of athletes who wanted to end their career in 2020 it’s huge. In my personal case I say it’s bad luck, maybe the horses were in top shape this year but OK now we have to adjust and prepare for 2021.
All three of mine are young and fit enough to go next year, but I’m long enough in the sport to know anything can happen between now and then. In the end, I hold onto my dream of going with Bella to the Olympics, but we have all learned something very important over the last few months. We can have our hopes and dreams…..but nothing is worth more than our health”.