Famed for her light bridle contact, invisible aids and flawless seat; when Helen Langehanenberg enters a ring riding the gorgeous stallion Damon Hill the spectators are in for a treat. The only thing growing faster than their fan club is the number of recent successes in the dressage arena.
Photography CAMILLA STEPHAN Text MARIA GRAAE / The Horse Rider’s Journal No.7
Measuring 165cm and weighing 48kg, petite Helen Langehanenberg, could easily be mistaken for some pony-riding kid. However, in the past year this 30-year-old rider has won the German Championship and Olympic team silver, and she has secured individual fourth place aboard the powerful stallion Damon Hill, taking the world by storm in the process.
Raised near Münster in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany, as a young girl she already knew her life would be dedicated to riding horses.
“I grew up in a suburb and the pony madness started when I was six or seven years old,” she says. “By that point our family was forever having to stop whenever passing a field with horses in. Eventually, at 10 I got my own pony called Flummi. In order to realise my dream, my mom worked a lot. She gave great support and helped me clean my tack, even though she is a bit afraid of horses.”
Helen has been working her way up to the top in dressage by training and riding ponies and horses in sport and breeding classes. She has presented many horses at the famous German Bundeschampionat, in which show she won three titles in 2007.
She attributes recent success and arrival at the very top level, ranking third in the world, to “hard work, some luck and meeting the right people”.
Now residing in Havixbeck, she and her husband Sebastian Langehanenberg run their own training stable, Reitanlage Westrup, in Münster, where Helen rides 10 to 12 horses a day. She has been working with her husband for four years. “We’ve known each other for 11 years, so by now we know each other’s thoughts without even speaking, and we help each other a lot.”
How do you feel about your recent success?
“It’s amazing, and no one expected it of me. It’s like one of those dreams you have as a child.”
How has your success changed everyday life for you?
“I didn’t notice until after the Olympics in London. It’s incredible how many people talk to me and come to me, to ask for an autograph now, and it’s very nice. I enjoy my sport and my horse, and if that gives other people some pleasure, then that’s even nicer. When I’m home I live a normal life, and I’m still very much the same, I don’t feel different. It was great to come home with a medal. Even better than I ever imagined. At the same time, it still feels unreal; I know I was there, but it’s like something like that only happens to other people.”
How did it feel to win an Olympic medal on your very first attempt?
“Generally I’m a happy person: As long as the horses are healthy and in a good mood, I’m happy. But I have to admit that, being in the Olympics and marrying my husband were the happiest moments in my life. Living in the Olympic village with all the other athletes from different cultures and sports was amazing, and I met a lot of really nice people.”
Over the last year, Helen and Damon Hill have attracted more attention than usual; from the public and from the media too. But this isn’t something that Helen feels pressured by; she remains calm in the arena. Following her instincts to the latter, she never pushes for too much, yet produces work of the highest calibre, always balanced and correct, and a joy to watch.
Her riding and training philosophy is influenced by former employer and trainer, Ingrid Klimke, as well as her current trainer, Klaus Balkenhol. It’s all about training horses according to classic principles.
“Ask only what the horse is able to do at that time. Try to have the feeling that the horse is effortlessly working on its own; let the horse go in the test and be patient.”
She explains her magic touch: “It’s down to physics really. I’m petite, so I can’t ride horses by using pressure and I wouldn’t know how anyway. This also means that not every horse is for me: I don’t ride really lazy or strong horses very well. In those cases, I prefer to be honest with the horse owners, so they can make a more suitable match for their horse”.
Damon Hill is truly a world-class horse, and has been in Helen’s stable since 2010. It’s no secret that a change of rider for an educated Grand Prix horse can be complicated to say the least. But the partnership of Helen and Damon Hill is the exception to the rule. The stunning stallion started his dressage career with German legend Ingrid Klimke, but six weeks before the 2005 World Young Horse Championships, the dressage and eventing rider broke her shoulder and offered the ride to Helen who was her student at the time. Then aged 23, Helen triumphed and won the World Championships in the five-year-old division, crediting her trainer for the good education of the impressive stallion. The following year, Damon Hill lived up to all expectations under Klimke herself, capturing the six-year-old title at the World Championships in Verden. Klimke continued the successful training of the stallion to Grand Prix level. However, the partnership ended when the owners could not agree on a balance between the stallion’s competitive and breeding careers. This meant Helen and the chestnut stallion were once again reunited in 2010.
Ingrid Klimke is known for using her skills as an eventer to train her dressage horses, hacking and jumping them. Is that something you’ve been inspired by?
“My heart is in dressage. I used to jump when I was young, but my pony was very nervous and I fell to the ground often and in every way possible. Even now I’m not the best showjumper – I’m always a bit scared and I’m not really good at measuring the distance. I’m most comfortable in doing cavalettis and hacking out, which I enjoy doing.”
How would you describe Damon Hill?
“He’s something else. Sometimes I almost think he can read and write. I immediately felt at home riding him, he just does everything right. Just before I enter the dressage arena, I get the feeling that he grows taller and prouder with every step. Dami is a horse that really enjoys dressage and for me he’s the best. When I first saw him at the age of three, I thought he was the best horse I had ever seen – or would ever be able to imagine. It’s a feeling of fitting and being friends.”
For the past seven years, Klaus Balkenhol has trained Helen. Asked how to describe him, she says:
“I was already training with Klaus while working for Ingrid so it felt natural to continue. He is the best, definitely. He’s got such a great feeling for horses, for motivation without pressure, and for really classic dressage.”
Helen and Damon Hill have improved on their previous best score at the Olympics, now placed third in the world rankings, and have recently notched up their first freestyle victory over Adelinde Cornelissen and Jerich Parzival, who ranked second, on Dutch home ground in Amsterdam. Coming a close second in the Reem Acra FEI World Cup final last year, the pair is now considered a favourite for the very top spot when this year’s final takes place in Gothenburg, Sweden, in April.
Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
“When I look at recent pictures, I can still think, ‘I look like a pony kid.’ I’d like to continue and go on from here, but it’s going to be difficult; realistically, to ride at this level you need a horse like Dami and to keep it healthy. At the moment, I’m absolutely living my dream and most of all I want to make sure I enjoy it all.” •