European trainers have been generous with their knowledge, time and talent by nurturing American dressage riders. Before the 1960s, there was precious little information here, but some of Europe’s finest “crossed the pond” or welcomed U.S. riders into their European barns. They have continued to enrich us in increasing numbers ever since.
Germany’s Herbert Rehbein, who was five-time Champion German Professional Dressage Trainer, changed the horizons of dressage in the United States forever, says World Cup rider Kathy Connelly. She says Rehbein’s particular genius was with Grand Prix horses. “He could take horses at Grand Prix and help you get them into the competition arena in the best way,” says Connelly. “He inherently knew so many different techniques and could individualize each horse’s training.”
Rehbein was also a mentor for Olympian Carol Lavell. “He didn’t teach how to ride,” she says. “He was a trainer of horses and a very good chaperone for those who already knew how to ride. You had to learn by osmosis.”
According to Olympian Lendon Gray, Rehbein was one of the few trainers who took her 14.3-hand Seldom Seen seriously. “I didn’t work with Rehbein long, but I loved him. He was thrilled to work with my horse and loved to show him off. When a German big shot came to the barn, he’d say, ‘Go get the American pony!’ We’d bring him out, and he’d get on and literally touch his toes under ‘Brillo’s’ stomach. He’d do piaffe and passage and extended trot. I could have been World Cup winner Ulla Salzgeber riding Rusty and gotten the same attention.”
1992 Olympian Michael Poulin spent two years with Rehbein. “He was a very kind and honest person who always tried to do the right thing,” says Poulin. “He went into the ring to help you–which is not always the primary goal of many trainers today. Rehbein was interested in helping the rider and tending to the long-term well-being of his horses–not the instant correction. Since issues didn’t need to be solved immediately, his riders learned to wait. He could plan to solve the problem four or five months down the road if need be. He protected the horse, because he didn’t want to damage the possibility of the horse understanding a concept.”
Olympian Robert Dover rode with Rehbein from 1990 to 1992, and he remarks on his ability with horses. “I remember him in the early morning hours after a party when he decided to ride a 3-year-old stallion. In street clothes, Rehbein warmed up the young stallion for about 10 minutes and then did about 35 one-tempis.”
Rehbein had a tremendous influence on U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) rider Betsy Steiner, who rode Unanimous in the 1990 World Championships. Steiner rode with the master from 1984 until 1993. “He was a professional’s professional,” says Steiner. “An all-round wonderful person and trainer. There were two great things at his barn,” she says of her stay at Grönwohldhof. “The first, of course, was riding. But the other was watching and seeing through his eye as he determined the needs of each horse and rider. He had an uncanny natural feel for what a horse was going to do before he did it. Then he could get a horse to do what he wanted with very little objections. He had a natural intuitive sense of timing and feel with the horses. I saw that time and time again.” For Steiner, he was an instructor who empowered her riding. “I never doubted for a second that I could do exactly what he asked. He was known to yell at times in order to get a reaction, but it wasn’t to be taken personally. On the contrary, he put heart and soul into getting the result he was looking for. He really cared.”
Olympian Charlotte Bredahl-Baker refers to Rehbein as the most remarkable horseman she ever met because of his amazing ability to communicate with horses. Rehbein rode her Olympic mount Monsieur once. “After about five minutes, he got off and said, ‘Don’t ever fight with this horse.’ The secret to my success with Monsieur was that he really tried for me, and Rehbein recognized that immediately. Monsieur had to think that everything we did was his idea, and Rehbein never tried to change that or push the horse beyond his capabilities.”
Herbert Rehbein, who died in 1997, was loved by his colleagues. “He was a gregarious and friendly man; no one ever spoke ill of him,” says Connelly. “He was extremely humble, modest and unimpressed with others’ money or fame. He treated everyone with the same respect and was especially appreciative of grooms around the world. When people were awed by his numerous talents, he would just turn and say, ‘That’s my job.'”
Read the compete version of this article in the June 2003 issue of Dressage Today.