This gifted stallion was not only an Olympic medallist with Germany’s Helen Langehanenberg, but also a talented jumper, too, finds Alice Collins
DAMON HILL is in the small and exclusive club of horses to score over 90% at international grand prix, with his rider from the age of nine, Germany’s Helen Langehanenberg. He’s also an Olympic medallist, a World Equestrian Games (WEG) and Europeans medallist and World Cup champion. His sweet face and beautiful conformation coupled with his fantastic elasticity and reliability in the ring made him a firm crowd favourite during his time at the top from 2009 to 2015.
Everyone connected with Damon Hill highlights one standout characteristic: his wonderful temperament. One story from Olympic eventer Ingrid Klimke – who trained him from three to grand prix at age nine – perhaps encapsulates it best.
“‘Dami’ was out in the stallion pasture fooling around and I rode past on a mare,” she recalls. “A few minutes later he came galloping up behind me. With other stallions that would have been frightening, but not him.
“When I returned to the barn with a loose stallion running alongside, everyone laughed, but he behaved himself coming home next to the mare,” Ingrid says.
It turned out that Damon Hill was actually also a talented jumper.
“I wanted to show the owners that he could jump, so when he was five I took him in a young horse jumping class,” says Ingrid. “He came into the grass arena with his beautiful dressage canter and his lovely changes, and he won.”
THOSE owners, the Becks family, had a somewhat circuitous route to buying Damon Hill back in 2000.
“My parents were looking for a Donnerhall foal,” says Jil Marielle Becks. “They saw Damon Hill in the stable, but the breeder Heinrich Sauer, who was a special character, wouldn’t bring him out.
“Still, my father Christian knew he was the foal he was searching for. It was love from the first moment.”
The family returned a month later to see Dami move. It confirmed what they already knew: they simply had to have him. At weaning, he moved to their yard and stayed until he was prepared for licensing.
“When he was three, I asked Ingrid if she would ride him,” says Melanie Becks. “She said she wasn’t sure. I asked her, ‘Please at least try him once’ – and if she didn’t like him, it was OK.”
Ingrid remembers that first ride well.
“He was quite tiny, but the first time I trotted him, I could see his front legs coming out in front of him and he had a wonderful rhythm,” she says.
Under her training, Damon Hill blossomed. But, just before the World Young Horse Championships in 2005, Ingrid broke her shoulder and handed the ride to her apprentice, Helen. He made an instant impression on her, too.
“I thought he was the best horse ever and I was in love with him straight away,” Helen admits. “He was simply perfect in walk, trot and canter. He was spectacular, but smooth and supple over the back and everything working through the body into the contact with no tension.
“And he had these amazing natural gaits; not pressed into position or made by the rider.”
Helen found herself thrust into the spotlight when she and Dami were tipped to win the five-year-old world title.
“I was completely shocked because I hadn’t even thought about winning,” she says. “I just didn’t want to disappoint Ingrid or the owner and hoped I was good enough to present this horse.
“I was a nobody and I wasn’t going to win against all the names – but we did. It was surreal; something that happens to other people, but not to yourself.”
Fully recovered, Ingrid returned the following year with Dami and repeated the feat. She then sculpted him from a young protégé into a confident if green grand prix horse by the age of nine. He was willing, talented and extremely friendly.
“When my daughter was young she could sit on him,” she recalls. “She’d play around on her pony next to Dami and he loved that. Also my groom could plait him lying down.”
WHEN Ingrid was pregnant with her second child, the Becks family turned to Helen Langehanenberg to take on the ride. Their real breakthrough came four months into their grand prix career, in the spring of 2011, when the pair posted almost 77% to claim the special in ’s-Hertogenbosch. From there, their performances rocketed. Over the next four years, they were regular heavy scorers for the German team, delivering performances that coined the phrase “power-grace” for their lightness and seeming effortlessness.
“My parents were so happy that Helen knew Ingrid’s training and was a perfect match,” says Jil Marielle. “It was an amazing journey to see him develop and it was a dream for my parents that they could live out.”
Helen attributes her soaring scores to figuring out what made Dami fire on all cylinders when it mattered most.
“He wasn’t a horse with endless energy, so I couldn’t ride him too much,” she explains. “Ingrid is an eventing star and had conditioned him brilliantly, but I had to find my own way.
“I just rode him 15 minutes a day with maybe one or two movements and always put him away with the feeling he would like to do more. That really motivated him. We also walked him a lot – long and active, mostly in hand.”
HELEN and Dami went to the London 2012 Games off the back of claiming silver at the World Cup Final four months prior. It was a bittersweet championships, with the Germans clinching team silver and Helen missing out on individual bronze to Laura Bechtolsheimer and Mistral Højris by just 0.036%.
“London was very emotional for me,” says Helen. “We were a young, inexperienced team so silver was a great success for us.
“I didn’t really expect an individual medal, but it was honestly disappointing to be so close, particularly as one judge [Denmark’s Leif Tornblad] had us lower than the others. I wondered if I will ever be in that position again, to be in contention for an individual Olympic medal.”
But horses have no understanding of medals and Helen maintained that Dami simply adored competing. She remembers when he really stepped up to the plate in Herning at the Europeans in 2013. The Germans – favourites for gold – had all made mistakes and a medal of any colour was hanging in the balance.
“I had to ride more than 2% more than I’d ever ridden before – which is kind of impossible and there was a lot of pressure,” she recounts. “I talked to Monica [Theodorescu, team trainer] and asked if I should go for it; risk everything. She replied, ‘Is that a question?’
“As soon as he was through the gate into the arena, he grew and said, ‘Look at me!’ I’d never felt anything like it before. We got the 2% and we won the gold. He really loved crowds and was always yelling at them in the prize-givings,” she laughs.
That fourth-place finish in London galvanised Helen, solidifying her belief that Dami was rightfully in the mix with the world’s best. Subsequently, they never again finished out of the top three in any test; all 32 of them. In February 2014 they joined the plus-90% club with a spellbinding performance to win the World Cup qualifier at Neumünster.
Later that year, they secured double silver (behind Valegro) and team gold at the Normandy WEG, their final show together. The family had always planned to bring Dami home for Jil Marielle to ride, and with some changes taking shape in Helen’s personal life, now was the time.
“It was a dream for me to compete him,” enthuses Jil Marielle, who posted just under 80% at prix st georges with him in 2015.
“He feels amazing and always does everything he can for his rider. He has a lot of swing and he moves always through the body, uphill, so nice in the contact and with absolutely no stallion behaviour.”
THAT show in Hagen turned out to be his very last as he injured his foot shortly afterwards. The family considered bringing him back to competition, but they looked around their stables, which was – and is to this day – stuffed with his offspring, and decided that at age 16, he had given enough already.
“He made amazing things happen for us,” says Jil Marielle. “In my childhood he was always there, a part of the family. We decided he should have a wonderful retirement; he’d been injury-free and competing since he was three.”
Now, Damon Hill occupies the same stable he did all those years ago, keeping an eye on his breeding legacy as mares and foals come and go around him. It’s rare for a horse to excel both in the arena and the breeding shed, but Damon Hill is just that, a rare and legendary horse.
DAMON HILL is classically dressage-bred, being by the prolific sire Donnerhall and out of Romanze, by Rubinstein. Both stallions are known for rideability, and Damon Hill inherited that in bucketloads.
Romanze had 11 foals, but only one other by Donnerhall: the chestnut mare Donna, in 2001. Romanze produced three licensed stallions, including Freudentaenzer 8. He is owned and ridden by Ingrid, who was very excited to find him because he is so closely bred not only to Damon Hill, but is by Franziskus, whom she rides at grand prix.
Ingrid competed Damon Hill in pure dressage, but always jumped him for fun, too (pictured).
“Once we jumped him for some photographers and before I knew it, the jumps were very high,” she recalls. “He would never stop; you could always rely on him and he’d never let you down. I would use him to breed a jumping horse or an all-rounder – not just dressage.”
Carl Hester on Damon Hill
DAMON HILL was at his zenith during Valegro’s reign, so Carl saw a lot of him.
“He was one of Valegro’s big rivals,” he says. “It was also the time I was riding Uthopia [pictured], so Helen and I were both on slightly lazy little stallions trying to get them to do everything on command in the ring, and not just when they felt like it in the warm-up.
“Helen and Damon Hill had an incredible relationship. He was very athletic and it was interesting to see him grow from almost a pony-type stallion into a charismatic performance stallion. He was a great influence on the sport as he was always very correctly ridden. He was a great benchmark for Valegro as he had to keep improving to stay above Damon Hill.”
This feature can also be read in this week’s Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 6 May
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