Ulla Salzgeber Unplugged at Dressage Clinic

German Olympic gold medalist Ulla Salzgeber emphasizes concentration and a correct position at a Texas dressage clinic.
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German Olympic gold medalist Ulla Salzgeber emphasizes concentration and a correct position at a Texas dressage clinic.
German Olympian Ulla Salzgeber teaches Lyndon Rife on Prestige. | Photo courtesy of Julie Madriguera

German Olympian Ulla Salzgeber teaches Lyndon Rife on Prestige. | Photo courtesy of Julie Madriguera

The name Ulla Salzgeber conjures up an image of incredible concentration and determination. The photos of Salzgeber riding Rusty in a huge extended trot or flying tempi change are mesmerizing. Her gaze is fixed, and her body position demonstrates ultimate control. Her horse moves every fiber of his being, but she appears to be so concentrated and supple that she does not move one millimeter out of position. The intensity sensed in these images is intriguing. What might she be like in person?

The Ulla Salzgeber symposium was held in March 2005 at the Stargate Sporthorses facility in Bartonville, Texas. Riders included Lyndon Rife on Prestige, Amy Bock on Hondo, Sue Malone Casey on Lamborghini, Audrey Zequiera on Frexienet, Anne Hornbeak on Gambler, Marina Parris Woodhead and Ricki Brozman.

Salzgeber arrived on Friday morning to instruct each of the riders in a private lesson. These lessons were closed to all but the rider and groom or owner of the horse.

The remaining riders were left to amble about the palatial Stargate Sporthorses facility to care for their equine partners or watch the lessons through the tinted glass of the viewing lounge, without the aid of sound. Most riders absorbed what they could through the glass and anxiously asked each other what they thought upon the completion of each lesson. Life with Salzgeber in the bright light of day and full audio changed everything.

Saturday morning arrived, and the crowd gathered in the large indoor arena to watch the international dressage superstar put the riders through their paces and explain her training theories. Salzgeber introduced herself and asked each rider to do the same as they entered. A short summary of the previous day's training was touched on, each pair's overall strengths and weaknesses were described and then it was off to work. The riders arrived already warmed up so they started into the exercises directly.

Salzgeber handled each horse differently and each rider exactly the same. Each rider was consistently schooled to improve and strengthen her position and concentration. Mistakes of the horse, such as unnecessary flying changes or rhythm errors, were always attributed to faults in the rider's position or mental outlook. She stressed that the rider must have the feeling, image and idea in his or her mind of what he or she wants to accomplish or she cannot communicate it to the horse effectively.

The horses had to go strongly forward from light aids to a steady, elastic contact. This sounds simple, but almost every flaw in the exercises boiled down to a horse that did not accept the rider driving him to the contact. Some riders were told to work their horses in a rounder way and some were instructed to bring the horse "above the bit"--to elevate the neck, open the outline and develop more freedom of movement and expression. Salzgeber said that no one actually rides their horses above the bit when she tells them to but, by saying that, she gets them closer to the desired response.

Salzgeber had the riders ride with very long and flexible whips when they schooled the piaffe and passage. The whips could reach all the way to their horses' hocks, if necessary. This choice of whip--long and very flexible--was Ulla's preference as it made a noise that the horse reacted to, instead of only the touch creating a reaction. Also, its flexibility prevented whip marks.

Riders had to find and dedicate themselves to the rhythm of piaffe or passage and not give the aids faster than the rhythm. The long whips were used--sometimes one in each hand--to touch the horse at the correct moment to dictate the rhythm to the horse.

Passage was schooled out of a forward trot and introduced to green horses while the rider posted. In piaffe, riders were encouraged to prevent their horses from traveling too far forward and falling on the forehand and escaping the task at hand. Great appreciation was extended to the demo riders for their efforts to post to the passage, tap the horse by the hock with a whip in each hand at the appropriate time and rhythm and, of course, try to maintain a correct and controlled position.

Equally as interesting to the training sessions earlier in the day was the Saturday night gala hosted by Stargate Sporthorses. There was a huge buffet dinner, open bar and fashion show presenting new collections from the Horse of Course tack shop. After thanking everyone in attendance, Salzgeber thanked Rusty because without him, she said, no one would be interested in her. "Without me, he is nothing, and without him, I am nothing, but together..." It was a touching sentiment about what could make dressage amazing--becoming a part of something that makes you greater than yourself.

Salzgeber played a film that included footage of Rusty as a 4- to 6-year-old. Watching a young Rusty swim his previous owner across a lake for fun and jump a course of fences put the veteran dressage star in a new light--all present remembered that he is a horse just like our horses. She described the young Rusty as an unattractive sales prospect in her barn that was behind the bit to the point that he stuck his tongue out and had a very lateral walk. When asked how she solved these training issues, she gave her standard answer of how she rode him again and again, concentrating on her goal, until he learned what she wanted as a new movement. The footage went on to show Rusty and Salzgeber's first Grand Prix and continued on to the Olympics in Athens.

Through the entire film, Salzgeber narrated their career and experiences together. She specialized in a self-deprecating type of humor when it came to piaffe--their least favorite movement--and seemed genuinely stung when footage was shown from their ban from competition following the "doping" incident.

She told the audience that losing the Olympic gold medal by less than half of a percentage point was difficult. She replayed the mistakes in the ride that she attributed to their loss but said that she knew if she had been strong enough in her mind on those days she could have earned the gold medal. Salzgeber's ego was tempered with a true sense of self-responsibility and an appreciation for all of her partners--be it Rusty, her husband or daughter.