An Un­likely Cham­pion

The life and ca­reer of Chris­tine Stück­el­berger’s Olympic cham­pion, granat

Dressage Today - - Content - By Silke Rot­ter­mann

The life and ca­reer of Chris­tine Stück­el­berger’s Olympic cham­pion, Granat

In 1969, in an in­door arena in the south of Bavaria, a strong-boned, old-fash­ioned-look­ing, plain bay horse with a big head showed his gaits by roam­ing loose around two peo­ple with sharp, knowl­edge­able eyes. Not even back then, when the breed­ing of dres­sage horses was a far cry from to­day, would any dres­sage rider have looked for a horse like that: a horse “that shouts for the wagon tongue,” as was later printed in a renowned ger­man equestrian mag­a­zine. But the peo­ple watch­ing in­tensely—and fi­nally buy­ing the heavy 4-year-old Hol­steiner geld­ing later named granat—were ge­org Wahl, then chief rider at the Span­ish Rid­ing School (SRS) in Vienna, Aus­tria, and his faith­ful stu­dent, 22-year-old Swiss dres­sage rider Chris­tine Stück­el­berger.

No­body would have guessed that day would mark the be­gin­ning of an in­cred­i­ble ca­reer in the sport of dres­sage. Although his looks de­nied it, granat—gar­net in English, as all the horses pur­chased by Wahl and Stück­el­berger were named af­ter pre­cious stones—would go on to com­pete at the in­ter­na­tional grand Prix level for 11 years and be­come one of

the most suc­cess­ful horses ever in the sport of dres­sage. Un­beaten for close to five years, he and Stück­el­berger won 17 in­ter­na­tional medals, among them five in­di­vid­ual ti­tles.

Granat’s Breed­ing

granat’s part­ner in crime for 21 years, Stück­el­berger con­sid­ers her horse’s breed­ing as one of the main rea­sons for his longevity in the sport and his fine health. While to­day’s horses move bet­ter, have a bet­ter in­born bal­ance and are much lighter bod­ied than granat had been, the strict stal­lion se­lec­tion of the Hol­steiner breed­ing made sure that he had a ro­bust body. His fa­ther, Con­sul, was an off­spring of the leg­endary Thor­ough­bred Cot­tage Son, whereas his dam’s sire, Heißs­porn, was a son of Heintze, who was said to be a heavy and strong horse with bones of the same qual­ity.

granat, who stood 17-hands, pre­sented the strength and stur­di­ness of the old Hol­steiner type, which had been bred to serve on the farms in plow fields. But he also pos­sessed the Thor­ough­bred’s sen­si­tiv­ity, in­tel­li­gence and de­sire to go for­ward. What sounds like an ideal com­bi­na­tion for a sport horse would pose some se­ri­ous prob­lems for granat’s ex­pe­ri­enced trainer and his pe­tite rider.

The Train­ing Fac­tor

True for the train­ing in all dis­ci­plines, the horse’s nat­u­ral pre­dis­po­si­tions are one de­ter­mi­nant. The other is the train­ing it­self, which should meet the in­di­vid­ual tal­ents and dif­fi­cul­ties in a suit­able way.

In granat’s case, his start in life as a rid­ing horse was quite rocky. Bought as a wean­ling in Hol­stein, he went to a farm in Bavaria in prepa­ra­tion for the Bavar­ian auc­tion. The horse’s train­ing, how­ever, wasn’t con­sis­tent, as granat turned out to be very dif­fi­cult to break and train. He showed all the vices that a rider de­tests: buck­ing, rear­ing and bolt­ing.

granat was first sold to buy­ers from Italy through the auc­tion, but a cough pre­vented the of­fi­cial sale and the horse came into the hands of Wahl and Stück­el­berger. Both were con­fronted with ex­actly the same prob­lems when they started their work with this rough diamond. “While it was surely no plea­sure deal­ing with his vices, they took care that granat did not have to work too hard when he was pre­pared for the auc­tion,” said Stück­el­berger. “I am con­vinced it did him—a strong and heavy horse—very well only to have en­coun­tered slight work at the be­gin­ning of his life as a rid­ing horse since he was still grow­ing.”

When she started work­ing “granny”—Stück­el­berger’s nick­name for granat—she had al­ready trained with Wahl for 11 years—first as a child in the lo­cal rid­ing club in Berne, Switzer­land, and later in Vienna at the SRS. She knew his strictly clas­si­cal ap­proach to dres­sage, which didn’t al­low any short­cuts and where each horse was trained to his in­di­vid­ual needs. It soon turned out that granat’s needs would be very dif­fer­ent from any other horse Wahl had trained be­fore and that he seemed any­thing but a lady’s horse. Wahl, who died at 93 in 2013, loved to re­call ger­man dres­sage trainer ge­orge Theodor­escu’s ver­dict when he once told him, “granat is not a one-man horse, but a two-men horse.” Even though Wahl took over a lot of the horse’s train­ing, he saw no chance that Stück­el­berger—his

tiny mas­ter stu­dent—could han­dle the strong-willed and strong-boned Hol­steiner in com­pe­ti­tions.

granat’s un­de­sir­able be­hav­ior didn’t orig­i­nate from bad char­ac­ter, though. Shortly af­ter they bought the horse, an Aus­trian vet­eri­nar­ian found that he was to­tally blind in the right eye, some­thing no­body had known so far and was kept a strict se­cret through­out granat’s long ca­reer. But it wasn’t the semi-blind­ness alone. The Hol­steiner was like highly tal­ented kids at school who may be stamped as trou­ble­mak­ers be­cause they be­have badly out of bore­dom. The usual way to train young horses didn’t suit him be­cause he was so in­tel­li­gent that he wanted to be men­tally chal­lenged.

“It never had been our way of train­ing to ask grand Prix move­ments of com­par­a­tively young horses, and I still do not think this should be the norm,” Stück­el­berger ex­plained as she re­calls the spe­cial path she and her trainer went with this ex­tra­or­di­nary horse. “But with granat, it was the only way to achieve ride­abil­ity. Learn­ing some­thing new and chal­leng­ing kept him men­tally oc­cu­pied and con­tent,” she con­tin­ued. “His will to work was enor­mous and he owned such a high in­tel­li­gence that it was im­pos­si­ble to treat him like his equine peers. Only with men­tal chal­lenges could we talk sense into him. The more dif­fi­cult, the bet­ter for him. While this is ab­so­lutely noth­ing you can do with ev­ery horse, granat’s strength and his good con­sti­tu­tion al­lowed us to teach him grand Prix move­ments at an age you wouldn’t nor­mally ask them of a horse. And I am sure he would have never reached his po­ten­tial and gained the pas­sion for the sport if we had trained him like the av­er­age horse.”

For ex­am­ple, Wahl’s sys­tem was to first test the 5-year-olds once in-hand to see how they of­fered half steps and then leave them alone un­til the year af­ter. But granat took so much plea­sure in learn­ing and do­ing pi­affe that he showed the first good steps with a rider in the win­ter of 1970–71, when he was just turn­ing 6. “granat was a frisky horse and he learned the pi­affe within just two weeks in a to­tally play­ful way,” re­called Stück­el­berger. “He loved do­ing the move­ments, and it was so easy for him. We just had to re­fine them in the months and years that fol­lowed.”

The more granat could learn and was men­tally con­tent with him­self, the more he showed prom­ise, and the more he be­came sane, even though he re­mained a chal­leng­ing ride for a long time.

Com­pe­ti­tion Man­age­ment

granat ex­pe­ri­enced only a few starts at the lower lev­els and they were not ex­tremely suc­cess­ful due to the fact that he dis­played the same vices in the show ring. Just as in train­ing, his break­through in com­pe­ti­tion hap­pened at the grand Prix level. In 1972, granat was only 7 years old and he could do a whole grand Prix, ex­cept the 15 one-tem­pis. For the Olympic games in Munich, granat was al­lowed to travel as the re­serve horse for Stück­el­berger’s ex­pe­ri­enced long-time Olympic part­ner Merry Boy, but he be­came the horse she com­peted. “Forty-five years later, I still do not un­der­stand why our chef d’equipe de­cided I should start granat in­stead of Merry Boy,” Stück­el­berger rem­i­nisced.

granat, at 7, had nei­ther com­peted in a grand Prix be­fore nor had it been the plan to de­but him at this level as such a young horse. He learned the miss­ing one-tem­pis within two days on

His will to work was enor­mous and he owned such a high in­tel­li­gence that it was im­pos­si­ble to treat him like his equine peers.

the huge race­track where event­ing was be­ing held. But his grand Prix de­but was no dis­grace—granat be­came 15th out of 33 and was the best horse on the Swiss team, which placed sev­enth.

Even though granat’s first Olympic com­pe­ti­tion was promis­ing, Wahl and Stück­el­berger did not feel tempted to con­tinue at this level the fol­low­ing year. “In­stead, we took care to make sure the move­ments be­came more re­fined and that granat could gain even more strength to show them in a light-foot­ed­ness that no one would ex­pect of such a heavy horse,” Stück­el­berger ex­plained.

Once the move­ments were es­tab­lished and re­fined, granat’s com­pe­ti­tion schedule wouldn’t sig­nif­i­cantly change through­out his ca­reer: five to a max­i­mum only seven shows a year and all were pre­pared care­fully af­ter the same rou­tine. “We usu­ally only showed at the most im­por­tant shows, which were the Swiss cham­pi­onships, Aachen, Dort­mund, Berlin and the an­nual in­ter­na­tional cham­pi­onships,” said Stück­el­berger. “granat wasn’t re­ally in need of ring prac­tice, but of a care­ful prepa­ra­tion—at home and at shows. We never kept him in train­ing all through the year, but in­stead would build him up and af­ter each show re­duce his train­ing schedule again. Three weeks be­fore a show we would start a kind of buildup which meant we asked for sin­gle move­ments and in the course of the prepa­ra­tion we would also ride parts of or a whole pro­gram. At the show it was im­por­tant to get to the venue early enough to set­tle granat in. Due to his blind eye, it was para­mount that he knew all the sur­round­ings in­side and out.”

For this pur­pose, Wahl would take granat on early-morn­ing walks to get him ac­quainted with the sur­round­ings, to show him ev­ery lit­tle cor­ner of the warm-up and the com­pe­ti­tion ring to pre­vent spooks later. The warm-up could be par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult, but granat’s es­capades didn’t un­set­tle Stück­el­berger. “I knew granat was so in­tel­li­gent that he would not do it in the [com­pe­ti­tion] ring. In all these years, he never once let me down when it re­ally counted.”

This fact, which many fa­mous riders ex­pe­ri­ence with their horses, was owed to granat’s love for show­ing. Even though his ini­tial un­pre­dictabil­ity may not have showed it, granat loved the au­di­ence, and com­pe­ti­tions were the kind of par­ties he adored to be part of.

Af­ter ev­ery show, granat got the time to rest at home with­out hard train­ing. He was kept fit and happy, but didn’t do any dres­sage move­ments un­til the buildup phase for the next show.

Com­pet­ing at an Older Age

When dres­sage horses be­come older, the fo­cus is of­ten on keep­ing them healthy enough to com­pete, and some peo­ple feel the need to feed nu­mer­ous sup­ple­ments. In an at­tempt to keep the joints flex­i­ble and the horse sound, many for­get that it is of equal im­por­tance to keep the mind of the horse fresh and happy af­ter many years in the sport.

Thanks to his sen­si­ble man­age­ment through­out the years, granat didn’t suf­fer from ring tired­ness when he be­came older. At 15 he won the Olympic Fes­ti­val in good­wood (Eng­land) af­ter the 1980 Olympic games at Moscow were boy­cotted by many na­tions due to the Rus­sian in­va­sion of Afghanistan.

“When granat be­came older, he was sea­soned enough that we didn’t need to fine-tune move­ments any­more,” said Stück­el­berger. “He knew them and could do them very well. In­stead, we fo­cused on suppleness ex­er­cises to keep the smooth­ness of his move­ments.

Due to his blind eye, it was para­mount that he knew all the sur­round­ings in­side and out.

Through­out his ca­reer we never gave him any sup­ple­ments—they were not very com­mon or fash­ion­able then like they are now. granat only got three big por­tions of high-qual­ity hay per day plus 6 kilo­grams [ap­prox­i­mately 13 pounds] of Swiss muesli feed.”

Be­cause of granat’s ex­cep­tional health, which never saw a day of lame­ness or any se­ri­ous health is­sue through­out his long ca­reer, and be­cause he loved com­pe­ti­tions, it wasn’t easy to find the right mo­ment to re­tire him from the sport. “ge­org fi­nally said that we owe it to the horse to re­tire him when the peo­ple still want to see him,” Stück­el­berger re­called. The world cham­pi­onships in Lau­sanne in 1982 seemed to be the per­fect lo­ca­tion and op­por­tu­nity, as it had been granat’s world ti­tle in 1978 that had brought the cham­pi­onships to Stück­el­berger’s home coun­try.

granat neared his 18th birth­day when he cel­e­brated his last “party” there, com­pet­ing with the best horses in the world. While he reigned in the grand Prix, a not-fault-free in­di­vid­ual ride-off paved the way for a win by the late Dr. Reiner Klimke’s Ah­lerich, who would be­come a legend him­self in the years to fol­low. granat went off the com­pet­i­tive stage with the ti­tle of vice­world cham­pion—a dig­ni­fied way to go.


Stück­el­berger be­lieves that one of the worst things one can do to a sport horse, or to any horse who had worked all his life, is to take him out of his usual rou­tine and only put him in a field. “Af­ter granat’s re­tire­ment we first did not sig­nif­i­cantly change his daily rou­tine,” she said. “He was still worked ev­ery day and loved his work un­til the last day of his life. good stu­dents were al­lowed to ex­pe­ri­ence the feel­ing of pi­affe and pas­sage on him. When granat turned 22 we de­cided that from now on he would only be kept sup­ple through light ex­er­cises and go out in the field for a longer time.”

In 1989, granat’s legs still looked the same as 20 years ear­lier, but a stroke made them too weak to al­low him to stand up again, so he was eu­th­a­nized at the age 24 in his field at home. If there is ever a se­cret to suc­cess, in granat’s case, it is to re­spect the in­di­vid­u­al­ity of the horse. The good health of their “once in a life­time horse,” al­lowed Stück­el­berger and Wahl to fol­low a spe­cial path in his train­ing. It may have been the Hol­steiner’s unique char­ac­ter that lead to granat’s love for the work and pas­sion for the sport. But that, com­bined with his skill­ful train­ing based on the clas­si­cal doc­trine and his pur­pose­ful com­pe­ti­tion man­age­ment, re­sulted in a long, suc­cess­ful and healthy ca­reer.

Ge­org [Wahl] fi­nally said that we owe it to [Granat] to re­tire him when the peo­ple still want to see him.

Swiss Olympian Chris­tine Stück­el­berger com­peted her part­ner Granat un­til he was 17 years old. This photo was taken in 1989, just a few months be­fore the 24-year-old Hol­steiner geld­ing died.

Stück­el­berger and Granat at the 1974 World Cham­pi­onships in Copen­hagen, &GNMCRL CHěGR VKNNKNI ěJGKR ĂRSě ěGCM DRONYG MGFCĚ ěOIGěJGR

Stück­el­berger and Granat make a last lap of honor at the 1982 World Cham­pi­onships in Lau­sanne, Switzer­land, where they won in­di­vid­ual sil­ver. Granat’s groom, Nicky Kelly, led the pair.

Here is Granat as a 5-year-old, rid­den by Stück­el­berger, in the win­ter of 1970–71. He had the strength and stur­di­ness of the old Hol­steiner type, but also pos­sessed the Thor­ough­bred’s sen­si­tiv­ity, in­tel­li­gence and de­sire to go for­ward.

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