By Brooke Von Hoffman
This article was an honorable mention in the 2020 GMO Newsletter Award in first person experience for GMOs with 75-174 members. It first appeared in Hoofprints, St. Louis Area Dressage Society, January 2020.
An inside look at the Deutschen Reitschule an German medal system, from the only American group allowed to train within the school.
In December 2019, I had the privilege to return to Germany for the second consecutive year to study at the prestigious Deutschen Reitschule, the English translation being The German Riding School. This year I earned my Class 4 Large Bronze and Class 5 Lunging Medals. I went under my mentor and trainer Nicole Thuengen-Salwender (German Master). The school is located in the Warendorf, Germany which is a small town tucked in North Rhine-Westphalia. The city is the hub for all things equestrian sport, nicknamed “the city of horses”. It is home to the German Equine Olympic Committee and the State Stud, where the riding school is housed. To the Germans, the riding school is an exclusive academy where professionals are trained in jumping, dressage, and theory which cover topics ranging from training theory, nutrition, barn management, com- petition rules and regulations, equine medical conditions, and first aid.
Salwender brings the only international group allowed to train and study at the school, the group can go up to three years to earn the first three riding and lunging medals. German riders attend the school in hopes to progress through the medal system, in order to be classified as a professional in the industry and to be able to compete. A talented few can then choose to go on to achieve the German Master, the official term being Pferdewirtschaftsmeisterin FN, as Salwendar has earned. To achieve this title, one must demonstrate mastery in all aspects of equine theory, while riding and showing to the highest levels of the sport and working under other masters…this takes years.
For the select group of American students at the school, we work to earn the basic medals of all Germans who are competing professionals. Testing for all the medals is done before a panel of 2-3 judges who are all German Masters. In the first year of study, one will earn the Basis Pass Medal which is required before earning any other medal. This medal includes demonstrating loading a horse into a trailer, showing a horse through the “Triangle”, and showing you have an understanding of handling a horse safely. The next medal for a first-year is the Class 5 Small Bronze Medal. For this medal, the student is examined riding a dressage test equivalent to a US training level test, but half of the test is ridden without stirrups! We will also then jump a course set at one meter. Lastly, the student’s knowledge of theory will be evaluated through a verbal examination. All the examinees line up in the numerical order of their arm band number. The examiners call upon the students at random to answer a wide range of questions. Students are expected to talk on the topic presented to them until the examiners cut them off. Personally during the theory exam I was asked to talk about equine fitness for 7 minutes before I was stopped.
For the second-year student, the bar is raised…literally! The students have the opportunity to test for their Class 5 Lungeing Medal. Students must show proficiency in the basics of lungeing a horse. After the student demonstrates their lungeing, they undergo an interview with questions ranging from lungeing theory to the different types of equipment used. The Class 4 Large Bronze Medal becomes available to second-year students as well. This medal requires the student to perform a first level equivalent dressage test, a 1.10m jumping course, and a more in-depth theory examination. For example this year one of my questions was to recite and describe every point on the training scale, I talked for five minutes before being cut off.
The stakes get even higher for third-year students. This year includes the Class 4 Lungeing Medal, which is a more detailed test than the previous year. Not only will the interview questions become more technical, but students must show more transitions within the gait, and changes in circle size while working the horse on the line. Additionally, the riding becomes more intense for the Class 3 Silver Medal. Students ride a second level equivalent test, jump a 1.20m course and undergo a rigorous theory examination.
All this being said the preparation leading up to the exam begins months prior. Before we even get on the plane, we spend an entire semester studying theory and practicing our jumping and dressage with Salwender at The University of Findlay. Once we arrive at the school we spend the next two weeks in an intense boot camp style training program.
Each student was assigned three horses this year,two being dressage horses and the other a jumping horse. For the next two weeks the horses come under our care, stall cleaning, feeding and grooming were all our responsibility. In the mornings before breakfast or the sunrise for that matter, we walked to the school to feed and cleaned stalls. After chores we would have
our breakfast, then begin riding.
During our dressage training sessions, we ride and train the horses on our own while the German masters analyze us. If you are riding and aiding the horse well chances are the masters won’t say anything… this is rare, they always have something to say or yell! Frequently, the students are asked to ride over to the master, where the master will drill you with a list of questions such as, “What are you working on?” “Why are doing what you are?” “How can this be improved?” “What are you feeling?” However, when answering these questions the masters expect you to answer confidently and proactively, there should be a tactful reason behind everything you do, in order to extract the best out of your horse. Horses will always do horse things, it is our job as riders to communicate and influence the horse in a way in which they understand and can react.
Our jumping lessons are structured in the way of giving our horses a traditional dressage warm-up ride. Then we would proceed depending on the day either working through grids to enhance our balance, or we would jump the course working on our turns and rhythm. Again, the masters would structure questions about our rides to help us reflect and analyze so that we can become active thinking riders and trainers.
Depending on the day’s events, we would typically meet in the classroom for the afternoons theory lesson. At this time the head master of the school would lead lectures based on training theory such as the training pyramid or different movements of a dressage test. We covered an in depth look at equine nutrition one day, rider position and aids another day and horse conformation the next.
On exam day, the medal test is judged on a 1-10 scale. Another component that goes into the dressage and jumping score is your post ride interview. After each ride, students dismount and immediately approach the examination panel to explain jump by jump or movement by movement how your ride went. Students then receive a score for each section, dressage, jumping, and theory. Once completed, they receive an overall composite score. To pass the exam the student’s composite score must be a six or above.
Overall, my time at the Deutschen Reitschule has put my riding and knowledge of training and barn management to the ultimate test. When working with German Masters who expect perfection, and are not afraid to verbalize the harsh truth, you are pushed to your absolute limits. Yet, there I find the most growth as a horseman and competitor. It is only when you are pushed to your breaking point that you learn how strong and skilled you are. Then, when it’s all said and done (assuming you pass!), the medal you wear on your show coat, serves as a reminder of all you have learned, endured and accomplished.