Legends of the sport: Totilas — ‘one of the most beautiful things I ever saw’ *H&H Plus*

  • The late black stallion and his phenomenal scores lit up the dressage world. Alice Collins tracks his path to fame and the story behind his high-profile sale

    Few horses have owned the spotlight like the magnificent Totilas, who died on Monday, 14 December 2020 following a severe case of colic. Under Edward Gal, he set fire to the dressage scene with an almost 80% grand prix at their first international, when Totilas was just nine. They swept the board from summer 2009 to September 2010, winning everything there was to be won.

    But unlike Britain’s sensation Valegro, Totilas didn’t seem to have all the hallmarks of greatness from the get-go. He didn’t dominate in young horse classes and was a busy, impatient young colt.

    Totilas – named after a distant relative who survived a long trek at the end of World War II and helped found the Trakehner breed – was born in 2000 in the Netherlands. The Gribaldi son was a picture-book foal, jet black with four matching white socks.

    His breeders Jan Schuil and Anna Schuil-Visser gave him his basic education before asking local rider Jiska de Roos-van den Akker to take over when he was four. Totilas didn’t make the instant impression you might think.

    “I saw him ridden and thought, ‘That’s not for me.’ He wasn’t much to look at and didn’t move that well,” recalls Jiska. “I wasn’t that enthusiastic about riding him; he seemed anxious and wasn’t very friendly. I know now that he just wanted to work, but at the time I thought he was misbehaving. But my husband, who knows a good horse, said that maybe he’d surprise me.”

    So Totilas travelled to Jiska’s place three times a week for her to ride him. It didn’t take long for her to be persuaded.

    “He was so intelligent and it was so easy for him to understand everything as he was physically so naturally strong,” she says. “When I asked him to move bigger he did, and then a bit bigger again, and he always said, ‘OK’. I’d ridden big-moving horses before, but not one who could move that big at such a young age.”

    Jiska took Totilas to the Pavo Cup (Dutch warmblood young horse championships), where they were unplaced. She still had faith in the horse though, and the following year they headed to Verden World Young Horse Championships in the five-year-old division. They finished fourth, the best placing for a KWPN horse. Interest in Totilas was piqued, and she remembers the day Edward first sat on him.

    “Totilas had had a little holiday and he was very excited, so Edward was a bit scared,” laughs Jiska. “But I could see that they had a good connection.”

    Luckily for Edward, one of Totilas’s most admirable traits under saddle was that no matter how excited he got, he wouldn’t buck or rear, just move bigger and bigger. He was safe, but with abundant power.

    “The first time I sat on ‘Toto’, I already felt a really exceptional feeling, but you had so much energy you didn’t know if you could control it,” he recalls.

    Kees and Tosca Visser bought Totilas for Edward from the breeders (same name but no relation) as “a bit of a diamond in the rough,” remembers Kees.

    “Tosca saw him on a DVD. The quality wasn’t good and it was dark, but with those four white feet, you could see that he was a good mover. He was really a stallion back then, showing off and wanting all the attention.

    “As a six-year-old he was quality, but an old fashioned type, and with a big belly. He wasn’t the dashing beauty that he became.”

    At his new home, his impetuousness subsided and Edward’s relationship with the high-octane young stallion quickly blossomed. Vanessa Ruiter, groom to Edward and his partner Hans Peter Minderhoud for the past 17 years, remembers the early days.

    “We’d heard stories about Verden that they’d had to move him a couple of times as he was too wild in the box,” she says. “He settled quickly once we found him a nice spot. He had the first stable next to the wash box and we’d clean tack there and talk to him. I quickly fell in love as he was magical already.”

    Edward’s relationship with Totilas went well beyond just the riding.

    “Totilas looked for Edward the whole day, and Edward adored him,” continues Vanessa. “He really loved Edward. If he heard him, he’d prick his ears and look around for him. It was really special.”

    Kees was also in awe of his horse.

    “Edward and Nicole [Werner, his trainer] did the right things for Totilas at the right times,” he credits. “They trained him at home for two years until he was eight, and then the magic started. It was one of the most beautiful things I ever saw.”

    As soon as the pair hit the competition scene, they achieved instant superstar status, igniting justified worldwide hype. He was the first in the world to score 90% – in front of an adoring British crowd at Windsor, during the European Championships – and attracted enraptured fans like iron filings to a magnet.

    Totilas wasn’t just another horse in Edward’s stables.

    “I think we treated him a bit different,” he admits. “I gave him a bit more attention, and at shows I spent more time with him. We had a special thing going on. It wasn’t only because he was so good, but also such a special character.”

    One of the best moments of Edward’s career was claiming individual European gold.

    “Windsor was his first Europeans and his first big championship,” he says. “We had the castle lit up behind the arena and it was really magical.”

    The Vissers also revelled in their horse’s glory, remembering seeing fans climbing trees just to get a look at him.

    “We loved the standard he gave the dressage world,” explains Kees. “And even people not interested in dressage liked what they saw. At Windsor, [Olympic showjumpers] Nelson Pessoa and George Morris travelled there just to see Totilas. Nelson said that even if you didn’t like dressage, you would like it that day.”

    Then, a bombshell. In 2010, just after Totilas and Edward’s triple gold at Kentucky World Equestrian Games (WEG), the news that Totilas had been sold to stallion mogul Paul Schockemöhle rocked the dressage world. The record-shattering four-year partnership was over and Totilas would be moving to Germany, the Netherlands’ arch dressage rivals.

    The price tag was said to be between €9m and €15m – the exact figure remains a closely-guarded secret – and Schockemöhle kept the breeding rights, while Ann-Kathrin Linsenhoff purchased the riding rights for her then 26-year-old stepson Matthias Rath.

    The Vissers simply couldn’t turn down that sort of money.

    “We’d had everything with that horse,” Kees explains. “He competed 55 times with our Moorlands flag and he won 53 times [beaten only by Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival]. We got three world records, three world championship gold medals, two European golds, and the World Cup final.”

    Presented with that list, it’s hard to see what more the Vissers could have asked for. Having been reluctant to sell, what finally tipped the balance? After three years of glorious ownership and awash with keen interest, the Vissers eventually lit upon a figure. If anyone met or exceeded that “extreme price”, they’d sell. It would make the final decision easy.

    “The price was so high that it would be impossible to keep him, especially knowing the risks of being an owner,” explains Kees, who had lost another good horse, Van The Man, that year. “It would have been economic negligence on our part not to have sold at that price.”

    Paul had previously expressed an interest in Totilas, but it wasn’t until the WEG in Kentucky, where Totilas became the first horse ever to claim triple gold, that the final deal was cemented.

    “I was fascinated by the horse,” says Paul. “He was a super fighter in the ring. He was the best horse in his time in dressage and he had special talent for the difficult things, like piaffe and passage. I never saw a horse so good; it was truly outstanding.”

    A small sector of the horse world understood the Vissers’ decision to sell, but many fans were agog.

    “You take away a bit of a fairy tale, and we understand that people sometimes react badly to that,” muses Kees.

    Although his rational self accepted the decision, Edward was heartbroken.

    “When Toto moved on, it was really difficult, but you could understand it,” he shrugs. “It was so much money, and it wasn’t for me to say that they had to keep him for me.”

    Vanessa remembers the day Totilas left.

    “I wanted to load him myself,” she says. “Edward was inside at home because he couldn’t cope with it. I put Totilas on the truck with his own halter. It was very sad and we cried all together, but he brought us so much. The time with Totilas was one of the most amazing things in my life and in Edward’s life. We lived the dream with him and were blessed to have him.”

    Edward concurs: “That period was awful but you have to deal with it. It was like missing a friend. Now that I have his sons Glock’s Total US and Glock’s Toto Jnr it’s easier, but at the beginning when I saw him it was really hard.”

    The next chapter of Totilas’s career did not pan out so majestically. Matthias opted not to compete him right away, instead appearing only at stallion shows until June 2011, where he debuted with a plus-76% win. They followed up with a triple win at Aachen CDIO5*, with three scores over 82%.

    Just as the combination was really bonding, Matthias was struck down with glandular fever and the pair had to withdraw from selection for the London Olympics. It was a bitter pill, but Paul had not bought Totilas on ridden merits alone.

    “At that time, he was the best dressage horse in the world and I was very interested in using him as a stallion,” says Paul, who breeds around 2,000 dressage and jumper foals a year. “For us in Germany he has a really different bloodline and is by Gribaldi, one of the best stallions from the Trakehner studbook. Besides that, I had the damsire Glendale about 30 years ago.”

    Though there were undoubtedly good times for Matthias and Totilas, like their unbeaten streak of eight wins in the summer of 2014, the monumental pressure on them to replicate Edward’s gargantuan scores was ever-present.

    And now Totilas was combining his ridden job with stud duties, he picked up niggling injuries that ruled him out of competition on numerous subsequent occasions, not least the 2014 WEG in Normandy.

    His major championship comeback was scheduled for the 2015 Europeans, on home soil at their happy hunting ground of Aachen. But as Totilas performed the first extended trot in the grand prix, there were warning whistles from the enormous crowd. The stallion didn’t look quite right. However, Matthias pressed on and was awarded 75.97% and sixth place. The show ground was abuzz with speculation.

    “He got a soundness issue and since that he never came back to the same quality as before, which is normal if you have a problem,” reasons Paul.
    Totilas was retired from the remainder of the competition and, the following day, diagnosed with periostitis of the coronet band – a bone inflammation – on the left hind. Just days later, he was retired from sport.

    “It was very unlucky,” adds Paul. “But I’m still lucky that I bought him because I have very good offspring from him. Since he stopped competing, he’s always been sound. Without that pressure, he’s relaxed and healthy. He has a really nice life now.”

    That happy life is spent hacking out at the Rath/Linsenhoff base Gestüt Schafhof, near Frankfurt, while he goes to Paul’s for breeding. He may no longer live in the limelight, but he’s still in demand as a sire and globally revered as the game-changing sport legend that he is.

    “He was great – he still is,” concludes Jiska. “But because of his greatness, he broke a lot of hearts. But all’s well that ends well, and he deserves that.”

    In the genes

    Totilas’s sire Gribaldi was by the eminently trainable Kostolany. Kostolany competed at grand prix, was awarded the stallion of the year title in 2009, and then lived a magnificent retirement at the heart of the Langels family at Gestüt Hämelschenburg, where he was bred. Gribaldi was another black grand prix stallion ridden by Edward Gal. Although known for being spicy in competition, he was Trakehner stallion of the year in 2008, led the WBFSH sire rankings in 2014 and sired a talented dressage dynasty.

    Totilas’s dam Lominka is by Glendale, a son of Nimmerdor, who is best known as a sire of jumpers and widely credited for Totilas’s outstanding canter.

    Totilas inherited the best that each side of his pedigree had to offer: the talent to excel at the highest level coupled with the trainability and willingness to execute the work with balance, power and enthusiasm.
    “His foals may not be the most fancy looking,” says Paul Schockemöhle, “but Totilas really gives his biggest potential to them – like piaffe, passage and canter – and later they become really good horses.”

    Timeline of a legend

    May 2000
    Born in the Netherlands to breeders Jan Schuil and Anna Schuil-Visser

    May 2005
    Finishes fourth at the Verden World Young Dressage Horse Championships under Jiska de Roos-van den Akker

    April 2006
    Kees and Tosca Visser of Moorlands Stables buy Totilas from his breeders
    for Edward Gal to ride

    June 2009
    International grand prix debut with Edward Gal, scoring 79.14%

    AugUST 2009
    Becomes first horse in the world to break the 90% barrier, carrying Edward to individual Europeans gold

    March 2010
    The pair claim gold at the World Cup final

    September 2010
    Performs his final test with Edward, securing triple gold at the Kentucky WEG, with 91.8% in the freestyle

    October 2010
    Totilas is sold by the Vissers to Paul Schockemöhle (breeding rights) and Ann-Kathrin Linsenhoff (riding rights)

    February 2011
    First public appearance with his new rider: Totilas appears at the Schockemöhle stallion show in Vechta. He is a handful; Matthias exits to regroup. A week later at another Schockemöhle stallion show, the display is more harmonious. Totilas’s stud fee is €8,000

    June 2011
    First test with Matthias Rath, scoring 76.78% at CDI Munich to win class. This month they become German champions

    December 2011
    Totilas picks up an injury in training

    April 2012
    The pair return to competition and win both tests at Hagen CDI

    July 2012
    Totilas and Matthias withdraw from Olympic contention. The horse is fit, but Matthias has glandular fever. They do not return to competition until 2014

    March 2013
    Totilas injures his leg while mounting the dummy mare for breeding

    August 2015
    Last test, scoring a controversial 75.97% at the Aachen Europeans. The following day he is diagnosed with periostitis of the coronet band. A few days later, he is officially retired from sport.

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 10 December 2020

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