Olympic gold medallist Ingrid Klimke could ride a horse before she could walk, such is the fondness her family holds for horses and classical training.
Photography JULIA RAU Text MARIA GRAAE/ The Horse Rider’s Journal No.9
“I was born and raised in Münster, Germany. My childhood was a very free and happy time, playing with ponies and other children; in spite of everything else going on, my parents were always very supportive of both me and my two brothers.”
Ingrid’s mother Ruth was a top showjumping and dressage rider. Her father Reiner was one of the equestrians who introduced the modern athletic dressage horse, but still remained true to classical training. He won an incredible six Olympic gold medals from 1964 to 1988 before his death in 1999. He not only rode and trained, but also ran a law firm and served on several boards, including the FEI Dressage Committee. His teachings live on through the work of his daughter who, like her father, has been competing in dressage, showjumping and eventing since her youth.
We meet ringside at the outdoors warm-up arena at CHIO Aachen, under ever-present grey clouds and drops of rain threatening to blur my notes. After a firm handshake, Ingrid speaks enthusiastically while watching some of the greatest dressage stars of the moment: her colleagues, who are training just a few metres away.
“For me it’s important that the horses enjoy being with me and always understand if they did a good job. They have to believe in me and be willing to trust and follow me. My training philosophy is my father’s. He and his classical approach will always be my ideal. For me, no one ever got as close to perfect as he did. The rider’s most important role is to support the horse, building its confidence and encouraging it to do better, and making it want to keep on learning. Experience has taught me that this is achieved by being very precise and positive in your training – be aware that mistakes will happen, but that it’s possible to do better next time.”
In 2001 Ingrid married Andreas Busacker and they now have two daughters. Injuries are a part of any rider’s career, and Ingrid has had her fair share of falls, bumps and bruises. “I love my family more than anything and we are very close, but having children didn’t change anything for me with regard to my sport. If I ever started to think ‘what would happen if…?’ I would stop. You have to be strong to do what I do – there is no room for being scared. The minute I start to worry is the minute I hang my spurs.”
Training and competing in dressage, jumping and eventing is something very unique in modern equestrian sport. The focus of Ingrid’s work is the effective training of horses from the beginning all the way through to championship levels. Ingrid is known for including cavaletti in her daily work with her dressage horses, who profit from it in the same way as her eventers. “Jumping and cross country were always very natural things for me to do. As a pony rider I rode with and without a saddle, I jumped whatever I could find to jump – I even did vaulting. My father was also an eventer, so the cavaletti were always just there and we jumped for fun. Later I couldn’t work out whether I preferred dressage or eventing more – that’s why I still do both.”
Her father taught her how to train horses in the classical way. Like his daughter, the legendary equestrian rode in both eventing and dressage at international level. It is no surprise her father has been the most influential person in her career. Learning from a six-time Olympic champion has helped shape her own unique path in the sport as she started to work with horses at a very young age.
“As I grow older, I recognise even more of my father in me. He is almost always in my mind; what would he do, say or think in a given situation. My brother Michael and I are quite close, and when I turn to him for advice, his reply is often: ‘What would our father have done?’”
Michael Klimke, like his sister, also competes at the Grand Prix level in dressage. “Our father counted in Olympic years, and his dream was that one of his children would go to the Olympics.” Today Ingrid’s long list of accomplishments includes four Olympics Games from 2000 to 2012, including two gold medals from Beijing and London. As well as several German championships in eventing, she has competed in the World Cup Final in dressage at ’s-Hertogenbosch and won several medals at the European eventing championships, including team gold. She won the World Championship in 2006 for six-year-old dressage horses, riding Damon Hill. And just last year alone Ingrid was awarded the prestigious title Reitmeister (in English, “riding master”) by the German Equestrian Federation and of course an Olympic gold medal as a part of the winning German team in eventing in London.
“It’s the young horses that are my passion,” she reflects. “The feeling of a young horse who’s ready for adventure is just wonderful, it’s pure joy everyday, and something that I’m so lucky to have in my life.” One young horse in particular comes to mind: the wonderful Damon Hill, whom Ingrid educated from novice to Grand Prix level. A horse that could easily have taken Ingrid to the German national dressage team. Instead he now excels with Helen Langehanenberg, who was taught by Ingrid from the age of 12.
“It has taught me a lesson: I try either to own a share of the horses, or do contracts. I don’t want to invest time in horses that are taken away later, as my heart is attached to all my horses. Damon Hill is the best horse I’ve ever ridden, he has a unique personality and was a true friend. I’m thankful for every good moment we shared.”
Initially Ingrid never considered a career in equestrianism. She began an apprenticeship as a bank clerk before studying to become a teacher. However, the studying stopped when she realised it wasn’t possible to keep riding at the same time. She took a Masters in Equestrian Management after university, and since then Ingrid has been devoted to horse riding. By the end of 1991, in addition to many honours and national championships, she won her first bronze medal at the European Championships. In 1998, she opened her own stables, and today home is still Münster, where she keeps and trains her many eventing and dressage horses at Hof Schulze-Brüning.
Ingrid may well be one of the busiest riders on the international circuit. “I try to be on my first horse at eight in the morning and ride until two in the afternoon. I’m so happy when I’ve turned my mobile phone off, have put my cavalletti in the arena and am enjoying the horses.”
When not in the saddle, Ingrid assists in the training of advanced pony, junior and young riders, lectures on equine physiotherapy at the German Institute of Equine Osteopathy and stages highly popular clinics in dressage, stadium-jumping and eventing in a number of countries, including Canada, the US, Belgium, South Africa and Norway. Last but not least, she’s also an FEI Solidarity Ambassador to develop global sport.
“My best advise to anyone would be to work hard and give a lot. A lot of focus, a lot of time, a lot of your life. And learn to say no – it’s a lesson I maybe learned a bit late, but it has made me happy. It’s not possible for me to work any harder, because the horses need you every day.” •