Ac­cess­ing The Horse World’s Most Fas­ci­nat­ing Sto­ries

Dressage Today - - Content - By Karen Brit­tle

Learn about the work of Dutch film­maker an­nette van trigt

Toti­las, an el­e­gant black stal­lion born in Fries­land, the Nether­lands, in 2000, was des­tined to be­come a fa­mous and con­tro­ver­sial dres­sage horse. Jan Schuil, the Dutch vet­eri­nar­ian who bred him, knew early on Toti­las was spe­cial: the float­ing walk, the defin­ing self-con­fi­dence tem­pered with un­ex­pected sweet­ness. Early in his life, Toti­las was rid­den by Jiska van der Akker, a Dutch rider who was paid 15 Eu­ros to ride him three times a week, count­ing on his sale to make the in­vest­ment of her time worth­while. Even­tu­ally, he was dis­cov­ered by Ed­ward Gal, the cel­e­brated Dutch rider who rode with a soft­ness that seemed in­nately suited to Toti­las. Gal per­suaded Kees and Tosca Vis­sers, Dutch bil­lion­aires, to in­vest in the pur­chase of Toti­las.

In 2009, Gal and Toti­las com­peted at the Euro­pean Dres­sage Cham­pi­onships in Lon­don. Com­men­ta­tors said: “Toti­las is mag­i­cal. He doesn’t look real.” In 2010, Gal and Toti­las pro­duced an­other record-break­ing score, this time at the World Eques­trian Games in Ken­tucky. Twenty-two thou­sand fans watched their per­for­mance. Com­men­ta­tors said: “He’s the horse of the cen­tury.”

Shortly there­after, with or with­out Gal’s knowl­edge, the Vis­sers agreed to sell Toti­las to leg­endary Ger­man horse breeder and busi­ness­man Paul Schock­emöhle and Ger­man heiress and dres­sage Olympic medal­ist Ann-Kathrin Lin­senoff. Lin­sen­hoff’s step­son, young Ger­man rider Matthias Rath, took over the ride on Toti­las and later that year, Rath and Toti­las per­formed at the World Cham­pi­onships in Hol­land. The stal­lion ap­peared re­sis­tant, un­happy. This time, com­men­ta­tors said: “He’s not the same horse.”

Cap­ti­vated? You’re not even half­way through “The Story of Toti­las,” a doc­u­men­tary by award-win­ning Dutch film­maker An­nette van Trigt.

Over a stat­icky in­ter­na­tional phone con­nec­tion, van Trigt ex­plains: “I love the chal­lenge of a dif­fi­cult story, the one that’s hard to get in­side. As a film­maker, I’m try­ing to ac­cess the most im­pos­si­ble sto­ries in the horse world.”

Based out of the Nether­lands, van Trigt is com­fort­able in the spot­light: She’s been a Dutch tele­vi­sion and ra­dio per­son­al­ity since 1985, cov­er­ing na­tional and in­ter­na­tional sport­ing events. In Hol­land, vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one knows her name, face and voice. About 10 years ago, van Trigt re­al­ized that de­spite her celebrity sta­tus and suc­cess, she had es­sen­tially been work­ing the same job for a long time. In a way, she just got bored. At that point, she founded her own pro­duc­tion com­pany. Soon af­ter, van

Trigt was rid­ing her own horse, a KWPN named Vin­nie, across a field when she re­al­ized she wanted to pro­duce a doc­u­men­tary about Toti­las. She says, “I asked my­self, what hap­pened to this amaz­ing horse? He was just so spe­cial.”

The re­sult­ing doc­u­men­tary is “The Story of Toti­las,” for which van Trigt was awarded Best Di­rec­tor for In­ter­na­tional Doc­u­men­tary and Best of Fes­ti­val for In­ter­na­tional Doc­u­men­tary Over 60 Min­utes by the EQUUS Film Fes­ti­val (EFF) in 2017. Ac­cord­ing to van Trigt, the first ver­sion of the film was 60 min­utes long and aired na­tion­ally on Hol­land’s pub­lic ser­vice tele­vi­sion in 2014. Van Trigt says, “Even peo­ple that didn’t have any­thing to do with horses watched. They started the film not in­tend­ing to fin­ish, but then couldn’t stop watch- ing—1.2 mil­lion peo­ple watched within two days. For a doc­u­men­tary, this only hap­pens two or three times a year.”

As Toti­las’ story seemed far from over in 2014, van Trigt (and her view­ers) won­dered what would hap­pen next. So she fol­lowed the story for two more years. In 2016, she com­pleted “The Story of Toti­las.” The 80-minute film was broad­cast on com­mer­cial, lo­cal and re-

gional chan­nels in the Nether­lands and is also cur­rently screened by Ziggo Sport, a mem­ber­ship sports chan­nel.

Van Trigt’s film is riv­et­ing in part be­cause she se­cures ex­cep­tional ac­cess to most of the ma­jor play­ers in Toti­las’ story. Gain­ing ac­cess took time, pa­tience and per­sis­tence, as many of those in­volved did not want to speak about Toti­las. As a TV jour­nal­ist, van Trigt had unique ac­cess to ma­jor sport­ing events, such as the World Eques­trian Fes­ti­val in Aachen, Ger­many. At­tend­ing these events, she re­peat­edly ap­proached those in­volved with Toti­las. Even­tu­ally, her per­sonal ap­proach and per­sis­tence paid off. Though Gal never agreed to speak with her, van Trigt was granted in­ter­views with Schuil, van der Akker, Lin­sen­hoff, Schock­emöhle, Rath and many oth­ers who knew or cared for Toti­las. With her cam­era, she vis­ited the farm in Fries­land where Toti­las was born, Lin­sen­hoff’s es­tate and Gal’s train­ing barn where “Toto Jr.” now lives.

“The Story of Toti­las” ex­plores cen­tral themes re­lat­able to al­most ev­ery­one in­volved with sport horses: a love for horses con­flict­ing with fi­nan­cial re­al­i­ties; pas­sion for eques­trian sport con­flict­ing with the horse’s best in­ter­est; skill and ta­lent in the sad­dle go­ing only so far when con­fronted against wealth and power. And, the horse is not a ma­chine: What he’ll per­form for one, he might not per­form for all. Ac­cord­ing to van Trigt, “This is a story about a horse, yes. But it’s also a story about peo­ple who are too eager to earn money ly­ing and hid­ing. In the end ev­ery­one who has had some­thing to do with Toti­las is left un­happy. Ev­ery­one had his agenda and no one put the horse first. The Ger­man jour­nal­ists say the horse be­came a mir­ror of the hu­mans in this sit­u­a­tion.”

Van Trigt’s film mas­ter­fully weaves the per­spec­tives of the many hu­mans touched by this “horse of the cen­tury,” cap­tur­ing every view­point from the breeder who never in­tended to sell, to the rider whose heart may have been bro­ken, to the fans who watched and won­dered about the fate of Toti­las.

“The Story of Toti­las” is just one of van Trigt’s doc­u­men­taries about the horse world. She has also pro­duced/di­rected “Amish 2.0” and “Golden Genes,” both of which were also EFF fi­nal­ists in 2017. It seems un­ex­pected that a Dutch film­maker would take in­ter­est in the Amish com­mu­nity of Gra­bill, In­di­ana. Van Trigt ex­plains: “I’m look­ing for big sto­ries. At an event I met Wim Cazemier, a breeder of Dutch Har­ness Horses (DHH) who de­cided to go to Amer­ica to sell his horses to the Amish. When I heard this, I thought, ‘This is the way for me to en­ter the Amish world.’ So I started re­search­ing. I sent an­other jour­nal­ist with whom I work to the U.S. with Wim, along with a small cam­era, to see what was go­ing on. One year later, with per­mis­sion from the Amish, I hired my cam­era­man and we went to fol­low them for two weeks.” Van Trigt had to over­come a ma­jor ob­sta­cle to make this film: Namely, tra­di­tional Amish be­liefs for­bid pho­tog­ra­phy. How­ever, the more pro­gres­sive Amish gave her per­mis­sion to film so long as the fo­cus of the film was on the horses and most of the hu­mans were cap­tured only from the back.

The film high­lights the in­ter­sec­tion of two cul­tures: DHH breed­ers from the Nether­lands and the Amish from the Amer­i­can Mid­west. They meet be­cause of their shared ad­mi­ra­tion for the DHH and mu­tual un­der­stand­ing of horse breed­ing as an agri­cul­tural busi­ness. Cazemier finds op­por­tu­nity in the U.S. by sell­ing, train­ing, show­ing and ad­vis­ing

on DHH, while his Amish ac­quain­tances ex­press deep ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the breed­ing, ap­pear­ance and abil­ity of these horses. They pur­chase and im­port ap­proved stal­lions and stand them at stud in the U.S. Djoe Zher and Lester Graber, Amish co-own­ers of the im­ported stal­lion Colonist, ex­plain the de­light in own­ing a horse like this. Not only does Colonist stand at stud and bring in­come, he’s also in ef­fect a sta­tus sym­bol in the Amish com­mu­nity be­cause of his great looks, ac­tion and sen­si­tiv­ity when driven. At times, Zher and Graber have en­coun­tered dif­fi­culty with church of­fi­cials who con­sider this horse “too lux­u­ri­ous” for the Amish com­mu­nity, where re­li­gious be­liefs dis­cour­age in­di­vid­u­al­ism and flashy ma­te­rial pos­ses­sions. (Com­pared to the av­er­age plain buggy horse, Colonist in har­ness is the Amish Porsche.)

The film high­lights the story of Patijn, one of the first DHH stal­lions im­ported from the Nether­lands to Gra­bill, In­di­ana. Roelof Harm Veen­stra was the Dutch breeder who had pre­vi­ously owned Patijn. Veen­stra tells the cam­era he never in­tended to sell this horse, but an Amer­i­can buyer who was in the Nether­lands on be­half of the Amish per­sisted. Veen­stra re­ceives an of­fer, then a bet­ter one and fi­nally one that he felt he could not refuse. As in “The Story of Toti­las,” van Trigt brings the viewer close to the per­spec­tive of a breeder who is in­vested in his horse, both fi­nan­cially and emo­tion­ally. Van Trigt says, “I want the viewer to ask her­self: What would I do? Let’s say you’re this breeder. Would you sell?”

The Amish ten­dency to avoid cam­eras led to at least one cul­ture clash. Af­ter van Trigt and her cam­era­man had com­pleted two weeks of film­ing, one of the Amish who had will­ingly par­tic­i­pated in in­ter­views called her at her ho­tel. He said, “Just so you know, we’ve al­lowed you here with your cam­era, but it was never our in­ten­tion that you should broad­cast any of the footage.” Van Trigt had to let him know that the footage would in­deed be broad­cast—af­ter all, what was the point of them film­ing oth­er­wise?

Peo­ple like to talk, van Trigt ex­plains. From day one, she in­forms them of her in­ten­tion to pro­duce a doc­u­men­tary—that’s the rea­son she’s in­vest­ing time, money and en­ergy in the film­ing. But then, like the Amish breeder, sub­jects some­times see the press re­lease about the film or re­al­ize for some other rea­son the broader im­pli­ca­tions of hav­ing their sto­ries broad­cast. This re­al­ity check can cause panic and they want to back out, but van Trigt per­sists with telling the sto­ries she’s worked hard to gather. She says, “I love this life. It’s in­ter­est­ing and when things go well, it’s great. I can uti­lize my ac­cess, ex­pe­ri­ence and plat­form to get un­usual fla­vor.”

“Golden Genes,” a third van Trigt doc­u­men­tary, opens with gor­geous footage of KWPN brood­mares and foals. This film again brings us close to where KWPN great­ness orig­i­nates: the breed­ers. “Golden Genes” asks the ques­tion: What is the Dutch breed­ers’ se­cret to suc­cess? Van Trigt in­ter­views breed­ers in­clud­ing Wiepke van de Lageweg, who bred and stood the great Nim­mer­dor, and Cees Klaver, who bred world-class show jumpers Talou­bet and Big Star. She asks breeder Peter Rinkes why the Dutch are so good at breed­ing horses. Rinkes replies: “We’re also good at breed­ing pi­geons and rab­bits.” He’s ref­er­enc­ing Hol­land’s deep agri­cul­tural roots, the Dutch knack for busi­ness and the breed­ers’ pro­gres­sive ap­proach. As in “The Story of Toti­las” and “Amish 2.0,” view­ers find them­selves con­fronted with ques­tions about what de­ter­mines the value of a horse to the breeder and to oth­ers.

Lisa Diersen, EFF’s founder, com­ments on van Trigt’s ex­cep­tional abil­ity to en­gage the au­di­ence with her sto­ries. “An­nette seems to make the peo­ple she in­ter­views feel so com­fort­able,” Diersen says. “Some­how she in­vites you as the viewer to en­ter their sto­ries.” EFF trav­els around the coun­try, show­cas­ing more than 80 films through­out the year. The fes­ti­val was at the FEI World Eques­trian Games at the Tryon In­ter­na­tional Eques­trian Cen­ter in Septem­ber, screen­ing all three of van Trigt’s doc­u­men­taries.

Diersen says, “No mat­ter where I show An­nette’s doc­u­men­taries, au­di­ences are riv­eted by them. They play like ex­cit­ing fea­ture films, which is re­ally rare for doc­u­men­taries.” It’s van Trigt’s per­spec­tive—as a lover of sport and a lover of the horse—that brings us right to the point where hu­man drives (to com­pete, to earn money, but also to deeply love a horse) meet and con­flict and some­times get messy. As a brave and ex­pe­ri­enced jour­nal­ist, she does not shy away.

An­nette van Trigt com­pleted "The Story of Toti­las" in 2016.

Film­maker An­nette van Trigt with the world-renowned stal­lion, Toti­las

“Amish 2.0” high­lights the sto­ries of Dutch Har­ness Horse stal­lions, like Colonist (above), im­ported to Gra­bill, In­di­ana, from the Nether­lands.

“Golden Genes” ex­am­ines se­crets of Dutch breed­ers’ suc­cess.

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