Raising Riders Right: A Conversation With Helena Stormanns

Helena Stormanns (left) at the LGCT Paris Grand Prix coursewalk with Israel’s Danielle Goldstein. Ph. Erin Gilmore for NF

Helena Stormanns has led a multi-national life. The British native was born in Yorkshire and grew up riding ponies. “I did all the usual things you do in England,” she says; i.e. pony and European championships through the junior levels. She wouldn’t have guessed that she’d ride at Aachen one day, much less for the nation of Germany, but her marriage to Peter Weinberg led to a nationality switch, and as Stormanns recalls, “the Germans accepted me as a rider very quickly, so I never felt like I wasn’t accepted.”

Stormanns racked up a slew of grand prix wins from the 1980s through the early 2000s, including the Grand Prix of Rome (1988) and the Queen Elizabeth II Cup (2003). In recent years, she’s become known as a successful coach, as well as a scout for special superstars such as Michael Whitaker’s Viking (she found him as an 8-year-old), and is a frequent face on the five star European circuit. The respected professional shares her thoughts on the state of the sport as she sees it today, and how we might improve it for the future:

A lot of people, in England and Ireland, they keep a pony in the backyard. The kid will hop on it with no saddle, and gallop around the field, or hack out on the road or go hunting—doing all these things that American kids never get the chance to do. Many children in America, they don’t have horses at home, so their riding can’t develop in the same way. Growing up, I did Pony Club gymkhanas and did sack racing and slalom racing—it develops skills that you use later on, but if you didn’t learn to do it when you were a kid, you struggle to catch up later because it’s a thing you have.

“It’s just a different way of growing up. It’s either walk home or ride home, so you learn to ride home.”

When you’re a child, you maybe fall off five times a day and you don’t worry about it, you just get back on and carry on. The trouble is if you’ve never done that as a child, you can’t do it later as an amateur. If an amateur is 25-30 years old and starts riding at that age and falls off five times a day, they’ll for sure give up. They’ll pick up the tennis racket and do something else. My little 9-year-old son fell off the other day, and I picked him up by the scruff of his neck, put him on his feet, and said, ‘right, get back on.’ He got on, cantered around and fell off again. It’s just a different way of growing up. It’s either walk home or ride home, so you learn to ride home. The
trainers in America get up at 5am and lunge them and ride them and get everything going right, and then put the child on so the child doesn’t get upset. If they never learn to actually get up by themselves, then they’ll never learn to make that next step in developing a horse. Also, there are no young horses in America—nobody rides four and five year olds, they buy old experienced ones.

It’s just too expensive to produce them in North America—that’s the problem. If you take a horse to Wellington and try to produce a five-year-old over three months, it will cost you a fortune. So there’s no point in taking it, you just leave it in Europe, let someone ride it, and in three months it will probably cost you the same amount it would cost to show in two weeks in Wellington.

Because they have their own amateur division in America, it’s okay if they stay in that division, but if they decide to branch out and go from the high amateurs to the five star, it’s a very different world. They probably get a false sense of security and they think, well, that’s 1.45m and that’s 1.45m, but there’s a difference and consequently, it’s not as easy to step out of that amateur division and go into the international five star. I was talking to Rodrigo [Pessoa] yesterday about how long ago it started that shows began to be rated by stars, and I think it was just ten or twelve years ago, no more.

Before that, there were World Cup shows, Nations Cup shows, and CSIs. The big CSIs had big money, but only invited the good riders—they didn’t invite anyone else. So if you were in the top 30 in the world, you got to go to that show, and otherwise you didn’t. But to get to the top 30, you had to be good. It’s a different system now—if you have ‘X’ amount of money, you can buy grand prix horses and you can buy yourself a place in a five star and you can compete—that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

Stormanns & Goldstein talk strategy. Ph. ©Erin Gilmore for NF

How do we improve this system, and make it safer? A certificate of capability or a qualification is the way to go. For anybody wanting to ride above 1.50m. Because from 1.50m upwards, things change. And that’s the place to go and say, you are thinking of the horse, the horse’s safety, the rider’s safety. Not only their safety, but their confidence.

I’ve taken a lot of people from a lower level up to the top. But you can’t do that in a year or two. You need to go through the motions and follow the rules. But you have to do it one step at a time. Consistency rules in this sport. If you’re always knocking on the door, you’re in a good position. But if you just come out and do one good round or maybe two, it’s not enough—you’ve got to have consistency. Otherwise, the horses don’t keep growing, and that’s sad. It’s very important to make a good match between a rider and a horse.

I always say, even a top professional needs at least six months to get used to a new horse. Even the top professionals don’t have it that easy, so how is anyone else going to do it? It’s not that simple. For me, I would feel really good about the future of the sport if we required a certificate of capability for riders above 1.50m.

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