Gigolo FRH: A hippo and a Houdini who became an Olympic champion *H&H Plus*

  • Notching up an astounding tally of gold medals, Gigolo helped launch the career of one of the best dressage riders of all time, finds Selene Scarsi

    “THE combination of the 1990s,” is how Harry Boldt, in his iconic volume The Dressage Horse, describes the partnership formed by Isabell Werth and Gigolo. “The ’90s belonged to Gigolo.”

    A list of the liver chestnut’s achievements, however impressive, isn’t enough to explain the full impact the horse had on dressage, a sport that his then-unknown young rider – who would in time become the world’s most successful dressage rider – helped shape.

    Impressive isn’t the word Isabell would have chosen when she first set eyes on the gelding in 1989.

    “I was already training with der Doktor, and riding his horse Weingart,” she says, referring to her trainer and mentor Dr Uwe Schulten-Baumer. “One day, der Doktor told me that his son, Schulten-Baumer Jr, felt he had too many horses to juggle with a busy job as a hospital doctor, and that I could choose one for myself. So off we went to Warendorf, to a little yard where I tried two horses.

    “The first one was called Whiskey, and the second was Gigolo, then six. He was a bit ugly: a big, long-legged chestnut with big eyes and ears, but without any muscles.

    “My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, I hope he moves better than he looks,’” she reminisces. “I had to ride a few metres from the stable to the arena, and when I got on it felt like I was about to set off down a ski slope: he was that downhill.

    “But then, from the very first step of trot in the arena, I knew he was my horse. Der Doktor saw my face and started to smile. I loved everything about him – the elasticity, the swing, the connection – and he gave me the feeling he really loved to move.

    “I first competed him that same year, and there was talk of young rider Europeans the following year,” remembers Isabell – but Dr Schulten-Baumer insisted that the horse should be aimed at grand prix.

    “For me, that was almost a disappointment, as I was 20 and of course I wanted to do young riders. But der Doktor said we shouldn’t confuse him with other stuff, as he was clearly a grand prix horse. That was the first lesson Gigolo taught me in my career – the importance of choosing the right goal for each horse, irrespective of immediate, short-term ambitions a rider might have.

    “At the time, I was so young I didn’t fully understand what I had. Now, after a lot of other horses, I really realise what a present and a privilege it was to get such an honest, willing, and motivated horse, so focused and intelligent, so concentrated on the performance, and such a trier. Every day, he wanted to work, and there was never a situation where he said ‘no’.

    “Whatever you asked, he tried, and gave you the feeling that he would do everything for you. He was never spooky, and was always the same in any condition – rain, extreme heat; nothing mattered. Throughout all of his career, his strongest point was, without doubt, his incredible mind. Learning was very easy for him. The journey from M/S level [advanced medium/advanced] to grand prix was very quick, because he was so quick to learn.”

    03-AUG-96 ... Atlanta Olympic Games .... Dressage - Equestrian ..... Germany's Isabelle Werth on Gigolo

    The Atlanta Olympic Games

    THE combination’s major breakthrough came at the 1991 Europeans, initially planned for Lipica, Slovenia, then moved to Donaueschingen, Germany, because of the Yugoslav Wars. They won their first individual title as complete outsiders, beating reigning Olympic, world, and European champions Nicole Uphoff and Rembrandt.

    “We got to Donaueschingen without any expectations – there was a bit of interest surrounding ‘the young girl on the young horse’ on the German team, but no pressure. I was able to just go in and fight, and ride just for fun; to show the best we could show.”

    MC3RTK World Equestrian Games, The Hague, 1994, Isabell Werth (GER) riding Gigolo FRH. Image shot 1994. Exact date unknown.

    Isabell salutes aboard Gigolo at the 1994 World Championships at The Hague, where the combination secured the team and individual gold medals

    French judge Bernard Maurel, who was part of the ground jury at those Europeans, remembers the championship vividly. The panel was made up of five young judges, none of whom had judged at a Europeans before – but who all went on to become leading judges in the following decades.

    “We were a young panel and we were really focused on judging the performance on the day, without looking at who was in front of us. And Gigolo, that day, did the better test,” Bernard says.

    “I have many memories of judging Gigolo over the years,” he continues. “Once, at a show, a Dutch judge was saying how Gigolo could be more flexible in the poll and neck, and told Isabell and Dr Schulten-Baumer that was the reason he was a little bit lower than us in his score. Rider and trainer took heed, and said they would ask for more flexibility of the hindquarters and, as a result, Gigolo would then be higher and shorter in front. They did so brilliantly.

    “It’s an important lesson: today, some people want too much flexibility in front, without realising that it can only come from engagement behind. That connection between engaged hindquarters and expression and freedom in front is something that Isabell and Gigolo never missed.”

    Atlanta '96 double Olympic Champion Isabell Werth of Germany on her horse "Gigolo" wave to the crowd after her free program dressage at the European Championships in Dressage in Verden, 17 August. Werth with her performance overtook Dutch Anky van Grunsven |

    Atlanta 1996 double Olympic Champions

    IF the rivalry with the elegant bay gelding Rembrandt marked the first part of Gigolo’s career, in the second half of the decade Gigolo’s main opposition came in the shape of another bay, Anky van Grunsven’s Bonfire. Natural competitiveness was further complicated by German-Dutch hostility.

    “Between the Netherlands and Germany, things weren’t so easy. There was often a lot of negative noise around the arena in those years. There was one European Championship where the whole situation saddened me, as it had become more than just normal sport antagonism: I felt hatred,” Isabell says, quick to clarify that such negativity always came from outside the dressage boards – the relationship with Anky and her trainer Sjef Janssen was characterised by a mutual respect for their accomplishments, and always sportsmanlike.

    The climax of that period was the 1996 Atlanta Games: Gigolo’s double Olympic gold.

    “Atlanta was really special. It was a show of big ups and downs for us: we had a top grand prix, but a weak special, and then a super freestyle: a lot of emotions in one show,” explains Isabell, who topped the leaderboard after the first test, was edged out by Anky and Bonfire in the special, but was finally crowned Olympic champion on kür day.

    HOR07 - 20000929 - SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA : German Isabell Werth and 'Gigolo' take part in the Olympic equestrian individual dressage grand prix 29 September 2000 in Horsely Park near Sydney. |

    The Sydney Olympics

    Even from a judge’s perspective, that freestyle was an absolute highlight.

    “I remember it fondly as it was the first time freestyles debuted at the Olympics, at a time when some people were still thinking – wrongly of course – that it shouldn’t be part of the sport,” says Bernard.

    “The stadium was full: 31,000 spectators. Gigolo’s first two tests had been good, but for the freestyle we were in for something special. They entered, halted at D, and immediately set off in passage. At the time, very few people were starting their tests with such difficult movements right at the beginning.

    “Isabell got fantastic elevation in the passage, and then started a spectacular counter change of hand switching effortlessly from trot half-pass to passage half-pass. It seems, at this time, so difficult to switch between passage and trot half-passes, but there was such a fluent change of rhythm, such an easy change of flexion, no hint of irregularity. I remember thinking ‘wow!’,” enthuses Bernard.

    03-AUG-96 ... Atlanta Olympic Games .... Dressage - Equestrian ..... Germany's Isabelle Werth celebrates her gold medal on Gigolo

    Isabell and Gigolo impress at the Atlanta Olympics for their highly technical freestyle

    That half-pass was immediately followed by a piaffe-pirouette; the test concluded with more piaffe-pirouettes, and one-handed passage. Technically, the choreography could not have been more difficult.

    “We were giving her nines, at a time when it was rare to be awarded such high marks. There was absolutely no doubt they should be the winners,” Bernard adds.

    “ALL championships with Gigolo were special, though,” adds Isabell. “Sydney was special, too, as his last highlight. He was 17, after 10 years in the sport, and we’d had a bad situation in Aachen in 1999 when he got a tendon injury. That was my weakest day; I was really disappointed with myself that I didn’t feel it earlier, but I’m happy that he could enjoy a long, happy retirement.”

    ROM06-19981001-ROME, ITALY: "Gigolo" ridden by Isabell Werth of Germany during record-breaking dressage performance at the world equestrian championship in Rome 01 October. Werth gained the record of 1945 points paving the way for the German title win of t |

    “All championships with Gigolo were special,” says Isabell, pictured at the 1998 worlds

    Sydney also marked Bonfire’s swansong, where he finally beat Gigolo. They were both aged 17, but both still at the very top of the sport, and still unreachable. Gigolo was formally retired in Stuttgart in October 2000, and he spent his retirement at Isabell’s yard in Rheinberg, sharing a field with another international veteran, the mare Fabienne.

    “One of the greatest feelings was looking out of my window and seeing Gigolo, Fabienne and Antony [two of her most successful grand prix horses in the 1990s] in the field, happy in their retirement,” muses Isabell.

    Gigolo peacefully passed away aged 26, leaving an enormous legacy behind. He will never be forgotten as a symbol of modern dressage, and helped change the sport forever by launching Isabell Werth, the world’s greatest dressage rider, into stardom.

    Alchemy of the three


    GIGOLO and Isabell’s story would never have happened without Dr Uwe Schulten-Baumer (pictured), his experience and mentorship.

    Richard Davison says: “It’s impossible to leave him out of the equation. It really was a great partnership between a great rider, a great horse, and a great trainer: an alchemy of the three. Three great characters, fully committed, fully concentrated: that’s how the magic happened.”

    Bernard Maurel concurs: “I often thought that with such a horse, who didn’t seem the perfect athlete by nature, it was all the knowledge of Dr Schulten-Baumer, and all the talent of Isabell, that made him the winner.”

    A hippo and a Houdini

    ● Gigolo was a Houdini in the stable: “He was so strong with his nose, he could open any door: we needed special Gigolo-proof latches,” laughs Isabell.

    ● He loved water in any form: “He was always playing with water. I remember one freestyle in Aachen, it was raining like hell,” says Isabell. The dressage arena had virtually become a pool, and there was one huge puddle which lay on the path of one of Isabell and Gigolo’s freestyle trademarks, their line of extended canter into canter pirouettes.

    “I had no choice but to go into this puddle as I was about to collect from the extended canter for the pirouette. It was so wet that the water splashed straight up on to Gigolo’s belly. But he absolutely loved it – he was happy.”

    Richard Davison on Gigolo

    Richard Davison during his Guest Editor's week, taken at Richard Davison's yard (Combridge Farm), Combridge near Uttoxeter in Staffordshire, UK; on 5 February 2015

    “ON a technical level, there are a few things at which Gigolo was exemplary,” says four-time dressage Olympian Richard. “The frame he presented will stand out in my mind forever. He was always so uphill, nose in front, taking the bit, poll the highest point. This frame was his hallmark, in an era when that wasn’t always the case among top horses. He was living proof that such a correct, uphill frame was possible.

    “Secondly, he was always such a trier. Some people say he wasn’t the most athletic or supple horse, but what he did with his legs was incredible: he was a tick tock [like a metronome]. Especially in passage, his rhythm was unreal – you could tell the time by it.

    “In combination with Isabell, he was immensely consistent. They showed precision, balance, and consistency more than any other horse at that level.

    “Finally, he clearly went to his limit, but remarkably without stress. When watching Isabell and Gigolo, you could see he was performing at the top of his abilities, but you never felt he was pushed beyond his limit.”

    You can also read this feature in the 27 May issue of Horse & Hound magazine.

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