Horse-friendly training and natural horsemanship are the two keys Uta Gräf and Stefan Schneider credit for keeping their competitive horses such happy athletes.
Not being born into a horsey family, German Grand Prix dressage rider Uta Gräf did not get her first horse until the age of 12. From there she progressed well in her riding, debuting at S-level competitions at age 18. While she was initially not planning to pursue riding professionally, but rather attend university, she eventually made the decision to make horses her career. Later, in 1999, she and her partner, Stefan Schneider, made the move to their farm, Gut Rothenkircherhof in Kirchheimbolanden, Germany. It’s here that Uta and Stefan work with their barn full of horses, with Uta training and showing them up through the levels to Grand Prix. While Uta and Stefan may come from different backgrounds, they have the common aim of developing good riding on motivated horses.
Uta is known for many things, including her outgoing nature (hairstyle included!), positive, classical teaching and training style, and competitive accomplishments. But what many may be surprised to discover is what a happy, natural lifestyle the dressage superstars in her barn lead. Equine Wellness caught up with Uta in between competitions to learn more about her horsekeeping philosophy.
Equine Wellness: Your facility differs from many other competition barns in terms of the lifestyle you offer the horses. Please share some details on the setup of the farm and modifications you have made to keep the horses more naturally.
Uta Graf: Our farm is located some kilometers outside a small town in South Germany. It is in the midst of a forest. We own 14 ha fields which are properly fenced. In the stable, we have considered the main needs of the horses that live here – horses need to move, and have light and fresh air. Our stable consists of two parts – one where the horses live together in a big stable and one where we mainly keep the competition horses (my dressage horses, and Stefan’s working equitation horses as well as some boarders). These horses have 3m x 10m stalls. The partitions are made in a way that the horses can interact with one another.
Attached to each stall is a grassy paddock of 3m x 20m. The horses have access to these all the time, including my two stallions, Damon Jerome and Le Noir – the horse that’s on the German Olympic dressage long list. Le Noir often goes out in an extra field with a donkey to keep him company.
A few of these horses run in our herd over the day. The herd includes about 20 horses of all sizes and breeds, among them Grand Prix and S-dressage horses. We have an older Cruzado stallion running with the geldings, which works fine. Currently we even have a second young stallion in the herd with no problems.
In the summer, they are usually out 24 hours a day. Over winter, they come in overnight and go out during the day in a huge, welldrained sacrifice paddock with several hayracks. We are lucky to have a creek running through the fields, so the horses have fresh water all the time while out.
We have paid great attention to the footing in our working areas in order to support the horse’s joints. We have a dressage ring, roundpens, and a working equitation ring on the farm, as well as a horse walker that can have water added to gently build and condition muscles.
Equine Wellness: Have you always tended towards offering your horses a more natural lifestyle, or did a particular horse or person inspire you to head in that direction?
Uta Graf: It was my partner, Stefan, who showed me that it is possible to keep high-level performance horses quite naturally. He comes from a horse-loving background and is a practising equine vet. For him, it is of uppermost importance to keep and treat horses naturally, which means lots of exercise on their own, with horsey friends, and lots of roughage as the basis of feeding.
Equine Wellness: Many competitive riders are fearful of giving their horses much turnout, or allowing them to interact with other horses. What are your thoughts on this?
Uta Graf: Before I met my partner I also kept my horses in stalls because I considered it normal. But once I experienced the big advantages one gets from keeping horses outside and in contact with other horses I wouldn’t want to have it differently. The horses are more content and more motivated to work.
EW: Have your horsekeeping practices positively impacted your competition horses? Have there been any negatives?
Uta Graf: It did and does, tremendously. My horses are always eager to work and they are more relaxed, not only toward outside influences, but also in their work. They are more attentive because they are content and they don’t feel they have to fulfil their desire to move when under the saddle. A horse is a flight animal, moving many kilometers a day in nature.
I have found no negative impacts, apart from the fact that the horses are quite muddy sometimes!
Equine Wellness: We saw a lovely video of you riding your Olympic hopeful, Le Noir, in a bitless bridle. Is this something you do often with your horses?
Uta Graf: The bitless bridle is not a regular part of my training. We tried it out more than a year ago on Le Noir because we wanted to demonstrate to the public that it’s possible to ride Grand Prix without a double bridle if a horse is correctly trained and carrying himself. I didn’t train any of my horses through the levels with it. Our dressage horses should be light in the bridle and carrying themselves, and you can easily prove whether this is the case when riding in the bitless bridles. We did demonstrations on this at Equitana, German FN seminars, and at the Bundeschampionate in Warendorf.
Equine Wellness: It sounds like Stefan does a fair bit of groundwork with the horses. What does this do for your relationship with the horses?
Uta Graf: Stefan worked with western legends Magda and Jean-Claude Dysli some decades ago, and also with other renowned western riders in Europe. He saw that respect is established on the ground first. If the horse learns to respect you as the leader from the ground, it is so much easier and comfortable for both parties to work under the saddle. You just prevent certain problems, which means you can work with more harmony. If the horses know we are there as a leader, they feel secure and are not distracted that easily.
Equine Wellness: Please share with our readers your training philosophy and program.
Uta Graf: Our goal in training is to advance and enhance each horse’s natural abilities. While Stefan and I have different backgrounds and priorities in our work with horses, we complement each other ideally. To start, it is important for us that each horse is well behaved in his daily handling – this is the reason we work with young horses from the ground before breaking them in. This way we establish faith and respect for us. Stefan is responsible for this part, using his great experience with different ways of horsemanship. Moreover, he does the lunging and breaking-in of the young horses; because he has already established general obedience from the ground and won the faith of the horses, we can give the youngsters positive first moments under the saddle.
We add variety to each horse’s program through Cavaletti and in-hand work, long lining and hacking. This not only conditions the horses physically, but also builds self-confidence. Stefan uses the long lines to help the horses learn to go forward on their own – he works them in the forest and through water to build their confidence. After the horses have passed through our “primary school” on the ground and under the saddle, I take over with classical dressage training.
The most important thing for us is to keep our horses as naturally as possible. No training in the world can replace social contacts and free movement in the fresh air – indispensable preconditions for a horse’s well-being and even temper. We are firm believers that the combination of positive training and natural horsekeeping generates a “happy athlete”.
Equine Wellness: You have also worked with some of Germany’s Paralympic riders for several years now. How has this influenced your riding style?
Uta Graf: I am the federal trainer of some of Germany’s most successful Paralympic riders, such as Dr. Angelika Trabert, Hannelore Brenner, and Britta Näpel. Several times a year we gather together for clinics. From them I learned that you need so little to communicate with a horse at the highest levels of dressage. They have inspired me in the work I do with my own horses.
Equine Wellness: If you could share one piece of advice with other horse owners/riders, what would it be?
Uta Graf: Never advance a respect his personality. horse at the cost of his pleasure to work with you. In other words, respect the possibilities your horse offers, which means respect his personality.