The Danish princess is known for riding horses from the royal family’s breeding program. But it’s the harmonious flawlessness of her riding style that has made her a shining star on the international dressage scene.
Photography HENRIK BULOW Text MARIA GRAAE/ The Horse Rider’s Journal No.4
Born in Copenhagen in May 1975, Nathalie is the youngest daughter of Prince Richard and Princess Benedikte, and niece of Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. A team bronze Olympian and one of the world’s leading dressage riders, she has thrilled and captivated the international dressage crowd with her incredible horse-riding skills.
Despite all this, Nathalie’s attitude is reassuringly down-to-earth; likewise, her beauty is on the fashionably androgynous side for a princess. When we first meet in the newest stable in her home in Bad Berleburg, her blonde hair is in a sleek and practical ponytail, and she’s wearing navy blue breeches of her own design and brand, teamed with an aqua blue pullover which perfectly sets off her energetic eyes. Next to the stable is a beautiful indoor arena flooded with natural light, built using wood from the family’s pine forests that grow on the low mountains surrounding Bad Berleburg. “The natural light was a demand from my father,” Nathalie explains. “There are so many arenas where you’re practically riding in the dark, and he wanted light for the sake of the horses.”
While the afternoon belongs to her son, morning is Nathalie’s time for riding. You immediately sense her passion for horses and dressage as she rides out on Dolany, a beautiful six-year-old by Don Schufro, the first of this morning’s five horses. For Nathalie, the quality of teaching and patience are the most important factors in training. “If you want to develop a top horse, you have to give it room and time to become something special,” she says. “You can’t let it be just another horse in the line.”
After the light indoor warm-up, Nathalie and Dolany take a short ride through the streets of Bad Berleburg – a small spa town near Dortmund in North Rhine-Westphalia, all charming white houses and narrow streets: the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and the silence can be almost deafening – and into the outdoor arena, beautifully situated in the park of the castle. The white building, the ancient, majestic trees, the surrounding dark stone wall and the orangery with its fountain – all create a cinematic backdrop that makes for a unique atmosphere. The sound of hooves is only interrupted by bird song and a distant car now and then. The park is open to the public, which means it isn’t an unfamiliar experience for Nathalie and her team to do their dressage training in full view of weddings and horse carriages, tourist buses or the occasional unleashed dog.
This morning however it’s the neighbour’s chickens that are proving to be a distraction for Dolany, pottering and clucking around the hedges and making the young horse tense and nervous. While the horse jumps around, performing moves that would make the Spanish Riding School in Vienna proud, Nathalie keeps cool, patting him but at the same time keeping up the pressure, insisting on Dolany’s full attention. “It’s always difficult for a horse when faced with something out of the ordinary at home. This is worse than riding at shows,” she says, smiling and shrugging her shoulders after regaining control and completing perfect flying changes.
As Nathalie continues her training with her other horses, tourists keep passing through the park. One asks if the royal family is home, another asks when the guided tour starts, and a couple of locals loiter to ask about the horses. Nathalie gives her time to everyone and greets the passers-by while she trains. It’s in this very park that she celebrated her marriage to her long term partner Alexander Johannsmann in June last year, in the presence of members of the equestrian dressage elite as well as the Danish and Greek royal families.
The picture-perfect castle Schloss Berleburg is the family home of the Sayn-Wittgensteins. Nathalie lives in one wing of the former stables along with her husband and their toddler Konstantin. It is also the home of 25 Danish Warmblood horses, from yearlings to the two retired Grand Prix seniors Fantast and Rigoletto, who are enjoying life in the original castle stable, where beautiful grey and turquoise tiling elegantly sets off a golden-framed picture of Øxenholms Pamina, the founding mare, on whom the family’s breeding is based (Pamina is the mare who founded the Wittgensteins family’s horse breeding) . Even today there are a couple of offsprings by the founding mare in the stable and all the horses are family breed with a Michellino and Milan offspring exception.
Once Nathalie has finished riding for the day, we talk over lunch. She casually orders French fries and chicken nuggets in the comfortable and stylish castle café, and I ask her how this all started, and why she chose a life devoted to horses.
“Horses are always exciting and interesting,” she says. “No two horses are ever alike: they are all different. My favourite challenge is to find the unique qualities within each horse and develop them as best as I can, to make the most of the horse’s potential.”
She spent five years of her childhood at a boarding school in North Germany. “After graduating, my father thought I should try to live the dream and find out if horses where really what I wanted. So we agreed that I should spend a year with the legendary trainer and rider Kyra Kyrklund at Flyinge. I kept prolonging my stay until eventually I’d spent four years there.” The years at Flyinge came to mean a lot to Nathalie, both at a professional and a personal level. “Kyra was the mother hen who protected and nursed her chicks. We became like family; and even today, I’m still close to the group of people from back then. Kyra is an incredible person and the most amazing educator I know.”
So how has her training background influenced and helped to develop her own philosophy?
“I’ve been privileged to have a father who was able to pay for my stay with Kyra and later with Klaus Balkenhol. But I’ve never been showered with horses who were amazing movers, or given horses who where already schooled at Grand Prix level. I’ve worked with ordinary horses, developed them and made them into something extraordinary through hard work. I’ve worked to reach every one of my goals.”
After her four years in Sweden, Nathalie spent a further seven in Germany with Olympic champion and trainer Klaus Balkenhol. While Flyinge might have been an isolated world, it was completely different in Germany, tougher and much more competitive. Nathalie gives an example: “Balkenhol once put me on the legendary retired Goldstern, but I couldn’t even get him on the bit. From Kyra I was used to carefully feeling my way. But on this horse nothing happened. Finally I had to give up and ask for advice, and he told me to pull the right rein and then the left. As simple as that! It was an entirely different world.”
“I’ve been lucky to have been taught by two of the leading trainers in horsemanship,” she continues. “And the most important thing I’ve learnt from them is to be fair with my horses. In Germany it’s competitive, but it’s essential to never harm a horse or use violence. But when all is said and done, it’s sometimes necessary to put your foot down, draw a line and take a stand. A horse that weighs 600 kg is an intense and powerful animal and has to know who’s in charge. Respect is everything.”
Currently Nathalie trains with Kyra and her husband Richard White, but is always on the lookout for inspiration. “I get inspired from the other riders in the warm-up arena, when I see them work with their horses. When I see Isabell, Anky or Edward riding a horse similar to mine, I try to imitate what they’re doing in my training at home: some things I make work and some things I discard. I’m not a clone. I’m not Kyra and I’m not Klaus; my physique alone is different and I have my own way of doing things. I’ve developed my own handwriting.”
What’s the most important thing you can do to improve?
“It’s so important to have a pair of eyes on the ground that can help. Nobody can educate a horse alone, and the ones who think they can are making a big mistake. It’s so important to get help, to be told right from wrong again and again. You need a trainer who can occasionally get on the horse and feel whether the training is heading in the right direction. But at the same time a good trainer is someone who gives the student opportunity to learn, by working through their own problems.”
Has your royal status been an advantage or a disadvantage?
“I’ve tried not to give that too much thought. Everyone has to start somewhere, and for me that start was in the spotlight from day one. In the beginning there was a sense of ‘Oh, here comes the Princess’, but I don’t get that any more. Of course I made mistakes – everyone does. I wasn’t born a champion any more than a horse is born to do the Grand Prix – it’s all learned by training.”
Your mother Princess Benedikte is an active rider and patron of Danish Warmbloods – how has that influenced your riding?
“We’ve had horses in the family, but never a tradition of competitive equestrian sport. I think I was influenced mostly by my father, who’s an animal lover – he loves all animals and he passed that on to me. I think it’s a fine and important quality in being a good rider.”
How has having a child changed your life with horses?
“Children change a lot, if not everything, and it’s not something you can prepare for, even though I did talk to girlfriends who’d had children. When I’ve had a bad day in the stable where I feel like pulling the horse by the ears – yes, I have these days too! – seeing Konstantin come smiling towards me makes me forget everything else and I instantly unwind. Being a professional rider means lots of competitions and travelling. My husband knows this: His own father was a professional showjumper, so he’s been used to the lifestyle from his own childhood.”
We meet again at the outdoor arena the following day, where Nathalie is advising Sanne Glargaard who works for Nathalie as a rider on how to keep a lid on the exuberance of the talented Don Shufro chestnut. “You have to think quicker in piaffe,” she calls. “Don’t think in her rhythm – put the leg on and get a reaction!” She starts shovelling the droppings, watching all the while giving the occasionally cry of “Good!” and “Legs on, Sanne, legs on!”
What’s the best advice you can give students?
“Never doubt yourself or what you do, but do remember self-criticism. Have patience and perseverance; keep at it and plan ahead. There are always going to be good times and bad times, so stick to your plan. Detours are fine and inevitable and don’t be afraid to improvise but always remember your goal.”
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt from a horse?
“I’ve learnt patience from Digby’s full sister Daydream. She was extremely talented, but sadly we lost her young. A stallion or gelding you can tell off, but a mare is different: It’s in her nature to defend herself and her foal at any cost. Another lesson I got from Balkenhol, when he put me on Gracioso, owned by Nadine Campellman. That experience gave me the sense of piaffe and passage, which has stayed with me ever since. When I started working with Rigoletto I somehow got the same feeling quite early on, and people looked at me as though I’d gone slightly mad when I declared that he was going to be something special. But I was right: In his days of glory he did piaffe and passage scoring nines and tens; he was going like clockwork. Rigoletto didn’t look like the picture-perfect dressage horse, but he truly had rideability and the will to work. I want to breed rideability. Donnerhall gives extreme rideability but often a very modest trot. But more than anything they all seem to come with a preinstalled piaffe and passage; As a rider, you just need to find the right button.”
Nathalie is famous for her excellent piaffe and passage. In recent years there’s been a trend towards starting to train horses in piaffe and passage when they are young. Nathalie explains that she starts the work “in the autumn when they turn six. It takes quite a lot of strength to perform, so I think it highly inappropriate to start any earlier.” As a rider she appears to have endless patience and self-control combined with a great seat and technique, but what does she think is her greatest strength?
“My sense of and feeling for the horse, and my understanding of how the rider and training influence the muscles and ligaments of the horse. To educate the horse is the easy part, really, it’s keeping it fit and healthy that’s the challenge.”
“I know my horse extremely well: at tests I use my feeling for the horse in the warm-up, to know how much I can demand in the arena. So even if he’s not having the best day, I always manage to steer clear of disaster and can still get a decent result.”
Nathalie’s current top horse is Digby by Donnerhall, bred by the family in Bad Berleburg with whom she won team Olympic bronze in 2008 and became reserve champion at the 2011 World Cup Finals. Whenever the princess commands “Bitte!” the charismatic gelding lifts his right foreleg and is rewarded by a lump of sugar.
What sort of a relationship do you and Digby have?
“Digby has a special place in my life. I’ve known him since he was a foal. As with every foal you have so many hopes and dreams, and with him it was extra special since his full sister Daydream had been such a special horse to me, which gave me extra hope that he would become someone special too. But growing up he didn’t look like a future star by any means. However the very first time I rode him, I could feel that he was born to be on the bit. At the same time he can also be quite naughty and wilful. But in my experience you need that quality and personality in a top horse. For me, rideability means that the horse is on the bit, has a positive attitude and is teachable.”
Is Digby spoiled?
“Yes, he’s a bit spoiled, he always receives a lump of sugar before I mount. I spoil him and in return he gives me one hundred per cent in the arena. Maybe it’s something psychological to believe the horse will give you its all, but I don’t think so. I truly believe that love and care makes Digby give me his heart in the arena.”
You and Digby are the strongest and most reliable combination on the Danish team. How are you preparing for the Olympics?
“I’ve made a plan: Four weeks between Aachen and the Danish Championships gives Digby time to rest and relax between shows and at the same time room to push him further. And then there are four weeks before (laughing) that little local competition in England.”
How does your future look after the Olympics?
“Digby is 15 and as long as he is fit I would love to compete at the European Championship on Danish soil in 2013. After that he will no longer compete for a place on the team. To aim for the World Championship the following year would be too much of a stretch: He’s given me so much already. As for me, I still love walking into the stable every morning, and I’d love to produce another top horse. Ten-year-old Fabienne by Future Cup is well under way, but whether she’ll be liked by the judges is too early to say; I’m going to give it a try, though. Otherwise I’ll work at home trying to develop new talent, I have a string of good horses on the way. I also teach on a regular basis in Denmark and I’ve been giving clinics in Melbourne, Australia, for several years. It’s something I enjoy, and Pernille Hogg, who arranges the clinics, has over the years become a personal friend.”
Do many of your friends come from the equestrian scene?
“Yes, most of my friends are horse people. Horses are my world: It’s who I am, it’s what I do.” •