Totilas. How a Magnificent Stallion Became a Poor Creature.

(rough translation from my German article)

It is not easy to be objective in the case of Totilas. I’m following the discussion about about this exceptional horse (in German we call him the ‘wonder stallion’) already for some years, and I must admit that I’m quite emotional about it, too. Totilas’ latest comeback under his rider Matthias Alexander Rath and the way he is trained has sparked yet another discussion about the black stallion, in both the real and the virtual world. Totilas seems to divide the horse community and is the subject of heated discussions.

How did the Totilas-hype develop at all? Let’s follow the steps of Totilas’ ‘career’.

Totilas was bred by Jan Schuil and Anna Schuil-Visser in Broecksterwald/ the Netherlands, where he also got his basic training. In 2005 Jiska van den Akker showed the five-year old at the World Breeding Championships for Young Horses at Verden, Germany, where Totilas was placed fourth in the final ranking. As you can see in the video below, the young Totilas had some trouble concentrating but showed a very good quality of gaits. In the report on eurodressage it says that already then, there were some tension problems and the horse had a tendency to show piaffe and passage in the transitions. Aparently, the judges remarked that Totilas wasn’t very happy in the mouth and opened it all the time. Have a look at the video, it’s quite nice to see a young Totilas with natural gaits:

(see the report on eurodressage here: http://www.eurodressage.com/equestrian/2005/07/05/total-pleasure-totilas). This is a very talented horse, no doubt. However, who would have thought that he’ll cause such a stir some years later?

In the same year the owners contacted Edward Gal and asked him to work with the horse and show him at competitions. Gal started training the horse in 2006 and his sponsors Cees and Tosca Visser bought the horse in the name of their investment company Moorland BV. That’s why his name was changed to Moorland’s Totilas. Gal and Totilas started to compete at grand prix level in 2008. At this point I should tell you that Gal trains his horses with hyperflexion, a very disputed training method that over-flexes the horse’s neck, so that it almost bites his own chest and doesn’t see where it’s going, which puts a lot of mental and physical stress on the horse. It’s supposed to make it obedient. The German word for this method is ‘rollkur’, because the neck of the horse is extremely rolled-up. Rollkur is especially popular in the Netherlands, but high level riders of all nations train with it. Have a look at this youtube playlist if you’re not familiar with hyperflexion:

For written information, also about the health impacts for the horses, see here (German, for English see here).

Let’s watch a few videos. Eight year-old Totilas at the stallion show at Van Uytert in 2008:

Amsterdam 2008, Gal and Totilas win the Intermedaire I freestyle with 78,4 %:

If you read the comments you will notice that they are mainly positive, like most of the comments made during this time. It is said that Gal is such a talented rider, how he can make the horse dance like this. People admire the lightness and elegance and remark that Totilas looks just like his sire (Gribaldi), also trained and successfully competed by Gal. There are some critical comments, though. Do we see glimpses of rollkur-training? We do, if we pay attention. Totilas rolls up his neck in the halt, the poll is not the highest point of the neck (‘false bend’), the lower shank of the curb bit is almost horizontal. Totilas hollows his back instead of arching it, the movements of his forelegs are unnaturally exalted, whereas the hintquarters are almost left behind. Totilas develops his ‘speciality’, the showy front legs with their horizontal movements that remind us more of a Tennessee walker than a Dutch warmblood. (If you think “Well, that’s just the way he moves” please have a look at Gal’s other horses). Yet, rider and horse still appear to be in harmony, Totilas’ nose-line is often even a little before the vertical and his tail is relaxed, a sign for suppleness. Here they are in Rotterdam:

In 2009 they have their big break through, breaking one record after the other. They score 89,50% at the Grand Prix Freestyle in Hickstead, that’s a new world record:

A little later, they break their own record at the European Championships in Windsor with 90,7%:

If you don’t let yourself be impressed by the flashy forelegs, you clearly see how Totilas’ neck seems as if it’s somehow broken in the middle. Gal rides him with a very short neck, very contracted. The nose-line is often behind the vertical now (good to see when you stop the movie). The TV commentator says “he has to be careful so he doesn’t hit himself in the teeth with his own knees, he lifts them so high”. Her kollegue remarks that “you could criticise the horse being a little tense in the walk” but quickly adds that the horse is just nine years old. The judges and spectators reward this artificial movement which “doesn’t look real”, in the words of the commentator. Everyone agrees that this is perfection, this is the way riding should be. Totilas is just nine years of age, very young for a horse with this level of performance. Another record follows, they score 92,30 % in Olympia, London:

Comment: “I don’t believe that in my life time we will see a horse as good as this again”.  2010 is just as good: they win three gold medals (freestyle, individual, team) at the World Championships in Lexington, that’s a first! Here the freestyle:

Try to watch without the compelling music. To me, it looks less in harmony, more tense. They make more mistakes and Totilas appears slightly disobedient and swishes his tail a lot more. As already before, he lifts the left foreleg much higher then the right, there is little lengthening of the frame in the extended trot (‘ground coverage’), he has his forelegs cramped under in the piaffe (supposed to be straight), and the neck is super contracted. How can this horse breathe at all? But what do I know.

A short summary. A horse that is obviously being trained with hyperflexion breaks all records and enchants judges and audience alike. Only a few voice some kind of criticism and mention that Totilas was not trained according to the directives of classical dressage. Gal already used Totilas for breeding (since 2009), already with Gal there was no paddock time for at least a few hours a day and with physical contact to other horses. Gal already trained him hard and with debatable methods. Due to their success, however, and the sheer awe that this impressive animal inspired, the dressage scene is beside itself and celebrates its new glamour. And everybody cheers.

Then came the big shock for Totilas fans: at the end of 2010 German breeder Paul Schockemöhle and Olympic champion Ann-Katrin Linsenhoff purchase the stallion for approximately ten million Euro. Totilas is the world’s most expensive dressage horse ever. 26-year-old Matthias Rath, Linsenhoff’s stepson, is his new rider. Have a look at Rath performing at the German Championships in 2010:

His horse is 15-year-old Sterntaler, his stepmother’s former top horse (he also got to ride Renoir before that). There are mixed reactions to the news that he will ride Totilas. Some doubt that these two will fit together, some would like to see Totilas get trained without rollkur.

Here is their first competition in June 2011 (had to be postponed due to an injury of Totilas):

Rath and Totilas win the German Championships in Balve with 85,65%:

Most people can only dream of these scores, and yet, Totilas seems tense and cannot perform as good as before. His movements appear a bit laboured, the problem with the uneven foreleg movement is more obvious now. It’s still enough to win, and one might think that they just need more time to grow together. The little mistakes that even the TV commentator realises can be corrected soon, for sure. 82,83% are enough to win the CHIO in Aachen:

Happy faces, lots of optimism and just a few, mostly foreign voices say that ‘Toto’ lost his brilliance. Some argue that Gal rode Totilas with so much tension that now, when he is being ridden the classic way, a few mistakes are likely to happen and it’s nothing to worry about. ‘Give them more time’ is the mantra. These mistakes slowly become a problem though. Especially, the flying changes seem to trouble them. At the European Championships in Rotterdam in August 2011 they are only ranked fifth:

At the height of their success, Gal already trained the horse for at least four years, and Rath had less then one year with him. A horse is not a tool you can just pass around and it will deliver the same performance. Every rider gives the aids a little differntly and a horse needs time to adjust. We all know the phenomenon that our riding teacher makes our horse move in a way we didn’t know it could, and that a kollegue at the stable just makes our horse buck. When seem from the perspective of modern sports riding (not with the classic guidelines in mind, that goes without saying), it didn’t go all that bad for Totilas and Rath. The problem is that expectations are extremly high in this case. You don’t pay 10 million for a fifth place! Schockemöhle earns money with the semen of his stallions and thus depends on Totilas outstanding performance. It’s simply bad for business if Totilas doesn’t win anymore. For the remainder of 2011 Rath and Totilas don’t succeed at competitions anymore, in fact, appearances at shows are being cancelled. Then Totilas gets injured at a performance for a German TV show. The German magazine Spiegel online writes: “A little more than six month before the Olympic games in London disillusion prevails at the Totilas-camp. The glamour is gone.” (German artikel hier) Just a few months before, the German TV commentator calls Totilas an “idol”, “hero”, “master of movement”, “black magician with white ballet shoes”. “He just has to let him shine”. When the victories stay away, public opinion flips very quickly.

Time for another summary: A German breeder buys Holland’s best dressage horse, the one that broke all records and was a sure chance to win gold at the Olympic games. Now a German rider is expected to win this medal for Germany. It doesn’t go according to plan, however, the horse only performs at about 10% less (in scores) then he did before. As Spiegel writes correctly, that’s a gigantic difference in the world of dressage.

It’s a new year and again the hopes are being shattered. Rath planned to show Totilas in the US, but the stallion is injured again and cannot compete. Gloating, some say that this rider is just no good for the horse. If only Gal could ride him again! The tone in the press articles is quite different now, the ‘wonder stallion’ does not perform as expected. Then, it is announced that Dutch trainer Sjef Janssen should help Rath and Totilas to get ready for Olympia. Sjef Janssen, husband of Anky van Gunsven, Dutch national coach and enthusiastic rollkur advocate, some even say rollkur-perfectionist. (Oh, wait, he prefers to call it LDR (low, deep, and round), sounds much nicer.) The Dutch Equestrian Federation won’t allow it, for now. Until after the Olympic games, Janssen is the Dutch national coach and is forbidden to train the horse of the arch-enemy (Germany and Holland have a history of competitiveness in dressage), the one they snatched away to ruin the prospects for the Dutch team. In the meantime, a heated discussion errupts in Germany about the use of hyperflexion in horse training. Spiegel online picks up the topic and writes:

“It is a tricky undertaking. Klaus Rath, father and trainer of dressage rider Matthias Rath, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that his trainer-to-be Sjef Janssen will use his current method on horse Totilas as well. Part of his method is the controversial ‘rollkur’.

“We disapprove of everything that is not within the animal protection laws. There are studies, however, which conclude: up to a certain extend rollkur is not harmful,” says Klaus Rath. “In Germany, we also need to learn to accept and appreciate other, very successful systems like the Dutch system. And, by the way, there is much more to Sjef Janssen’s system than this method [=rollkur].” Rath refers to athletic exercised for horse and rider, among other things.

Janssen is regarded as the inventor of the rollkur, during which the horse is forced with the reigns to unnaturally bend and over-flex the neck. Due to the forced position of the head, the horse’s field of vision is severely restricted. The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) approved of this method, though, when used “without force”.

The method is very much disputed, however. Klaus Balkenhol, Olympic champion, former trainer of Rath und former US-coach, stated: “We deeply regret that Matthias Alexander Rath has chosen this controversial method. According to our knowledge the method represented by Sjef Janssen is not consistent with the fundamentals of an education that puts the animal first.”

In 2010, the German Equestrian Federation started a petition for the general abolition of rollkur. Klaus Rath was among the supporters of this petition. Today he says, “It is a part of life that we sometimes change our opinion. After much consideration we deliberately decided for this way. If something should be done to our horses that we don’t agree to we will interfere immediately.”

After the Olympic Games in London, Janssen will quit his job as the Dutch National coach and will take care of Matthias Rath’s horses, including record-holding stallion Totilas. Janssen already worked with Totilas and his former rider Edward Gal.” (German article here)

Is it so easy so sacrifice your beliefs? (You can see a translation of the mentioned petition against hyperflexion here. Signed by Klaus and Matthias Rath as well as Ann Kathrin Linsenhoff.). Totilas has been trained with hyperflexion for years, and Janssen already trained Gal and Totilas. It was a delusion to think that German riders would not treat him this way. For Totilas it is only a return to something he already knows. In Germany, it was seen as the betrayal of the fundamentals of the classic art of riding and a bowing down to the Dutch system. Janssen will train Rath and Totilas, but only after the Olympic Games. That they do need help becomes obvious at the Schockemöhle stallion show in Vechta:

What happened here? Horse and rider do not seem to get along at all. Totilas seems to have quit the contract. Father and trainer Klaus-Martin Rath takes the mikrophone and the show becomes more like a training session. It’s almost hard to keep watching. Then, rumours appear that Edward Gal, or rather the Glock Horse Performance Center, wants to buy back the horse. What a circus.

Rath did not compete with Totilas since the European Championships in Rotterdam. Totilas is supposed to show at the Grand Prix Special in Hagen to score points for the qualification to the Olympic Games, but Rath withdraws and enters for the freestyle instead. Have a look at their performance in Hagen:

Finally, the ‘wonder stallion’ delivers again, no more problems with the flying changes, happy faces everywhere. They score 88,07%. The German comentator has an interesting theory: it’s breeding season and Totilas gives sperm three times per week, so he must be much more content. The press celebrates a successful comeback. It would all be perfect if there were not some observers who are very critical about how Rath warmed up Totilas before the show. See for yourself:

Rath and Totilas are victorious at the German Championships in Balve, but only at the Grand Prix. They come in second in the Special and freestyle:

Whereas after Totilas’ purchase in 2010, everyone thought that now the German gold medal in London is almost safe, Rath has to fight for his Olympia ticket at the CHIO in Aachen now! Unfortunately, Rath comes down with infectious mononucleosis and the dream of Olympic gold shatters. The Olympic Games happen without Totilas, and the German team, for the first time since 1976, does not win gold (not counting the boycott-games of 1980). It’s getting silent around Totilas, until the animal rights organisation PETA threatens to sue Rath, Linsenhoff und Schockemöhle on the grounds of violation of animal rights (keeping him only in a box without regular chance to move freely on a paddock and training with hyperflexion). Indeed, Totilas lives in a box unless he is let out for training or breeding, but that was the same with Gal. Most sport horses around the world are kept like that. Afraid of injuries their owners wrap them in blankets and bandages and keep them isolated in a ‘cage’ (that’s what it is!) that would not meet the legal requirements for an egg-laying hen (if seen in proportion). (Don’t believe me? Check it out!) No playing with other horses on a paddock, no daily grazing.

Totilas’ comback is postponed for 2013. In December 2012 Rath and Totilas lose their place in the German national team.

In April 2012, retired major Paul Stecken, person of respect and ‘primary rock’ in the German dressage scene, gives an interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Germany’s most influential newspapers. “Is he [Totilas] a victim of a sport which values show over health?” The paper seems to ask the right questions. It’s worth reading some passages:

“Expectations of the twelve-year-old horse are still high. But since the rumpus around the charismatic black stallion has died down, the voice of the sceptics can be heard again. They are the advocates of the classic way of riding, who since years caution against the meandering of modern dressage. Most of all, they criticise the ‘rolllkur’, which is mainly practised in the Netherlands.”

“The dressage scene is shocked and looks towards icons such as retired major Paul Stecken, the incorruptible doyen of German riding. […] Stecken trained sixfold Olympic medalist Reiner Klimke and still supports his daughter Ingrid Klimke, a successful eventing and dressage rider. He was also an international judge for many years. […] Until now he did not speak about Totilas in public. „I think it’s time for me to say something,“, he says.”

“Stecken writes about the contact to the bit that “the horse’s nose should be allowed up to the vertical.” He explains: “From around 1995 we see horses with contracted, sometimes very contracted necks. This was a big mistake.“ A horse that is behind the vertical cannot have “a swinging back as the center of all movement which results in an inferior quality of movement“.”

“Dutchman Sjef Janssen, husband and trainer of threefold Olympic champion Anky van Grunsven, is regarded as the most important advocate of the rolled-up horse necks. He advertises his training method as being advanced and managed – with persistence and indefatigable lobbyism-to overtake the German dressage riders in all committees.  More and more rollkur-trained horses won competitions with their tense and unnatural movements, which were awarded high scores by the judges.”

“At the European Championships 2009 in Windsor, where Totilas had his break through, you could recognize the rollkur especially well”, writes Stecken. Totilas could be seen with „an unnaturally contracted neck and exaggerated, exalted movements.”  “You need to ask yourself, how long can the horse endure this?“ This position does not agree “with the horse’s health and well being”. „The position of the neck is constrained, the back does not swing but is tense. The movement is unnatural and cramped. The muscles are harder and stiffer year after year.“”

“National coach Schmezer is optimistic. He says that Rath would ride more energetic than before, which is good. „Of course, I’m a hundert percent on Paul Stecken’s side“, he emphasises. However, Schmezer’s mission is success, and success has it’s price in top level sports. „Lots has changes in modern sport riding“, he says. „And the people cheer.“ At the basis [=not top sports], he also preferred working in accordance with the rules of classic dressage. „But if we adhere to all of this“, says Schmezer, „then we will come in eighth or ninth and cannot compete anymore.“” (http://www.faz.net/aktuell/sport/mehr-sport/dressurpferd-totilas-unter-zwang-11709951.html)

Come again?????

In 2013 Totilas is taken out of the breeding program, all concentration is on his athletic performance. Sjef Janssen is his trainer now. In Januar, Totilas injured a tendon (!) when jumping on the phantom and cannot be trained for while. In April 2013 the public prosecutor’s office drops the charges of animal cruelty. Then, it is reported that Totilas will not take part in the German Championships in Balve, the qualification for the European Championships. The new date for the comeback is now spring 2014. In December 2013 Charlotte Dujardin wins the World Championships in London and breaks Totilas record with a new high score of 93,975%. Edward Gal and Undercover come in second. Just recently, Schockemöhle announced that in 2014, again, Totilas will not compete in Balve. He was out of training for too long.

Then, almost surprising, Rath and Totilas have their comeback after all in Kapellen, Belgium, where they win the Grand Prix with 78,680 % and the Grand Prix Special with 82,219 %. See for yourself what has become of Totilas:

 All right. Objectivity doesn’t come easy, I told you so.

Totilas is now 14 years old and seems to be injured more and more often. His sire, Gribaldi, trained by Edward Gal as well, died at 16 due to a ruptured aorta, one week after his retirement. Success has it’s prize, hasn’t it? Easy to say as a rider/ trainer. The single, unique feature of riding, the cooperation with an animal, is also its sore spot. The horse is the one to perform at his physical best and yet has no right to a say in the matter. If it is unwilling we force it’s cooperation. The horse has to obey, has to surrender its body, is bred to win with features that score highest marks. A talent such as Totilas cannot be wasted, can it? Even more, such an expensive talent as Totilas. That’s the harsh reality of horse sports.

Which ever way you look at it: the horse is on the loosing side. You can think whatever you want about Gal’s training method. At least it looked like he and Totilas were a team and like the horse was fighting to win for his human. You can see it in the video of the stallion show in 2008, how often Gal pats him and how Totilas tried to please him. Did the hyperflexion change the horse so much that he became more and more unwilling, maybe already with Gal? Does the horse, just like Paul Stecken suspects, have more serious injuries then is being admitted? Do owner, trainer, and rider just not want to admit that the horse is past the high peek of its amazing ability to perform? Did Gal’s sponsor sell Totilas in exactly the right moment? A rider, especially such a professional rider, knows his animal inside out and notices every small change in his behaviour. The Dutch team has proven, and continues to prove, that hyperflexion produces unnatural, exaggerated movents, which are liked by the judges and the audience. But can their method keep the horses healthy, mentally and physically? We remember, this is the goal of dressage! Are we allowed to train our horses this hard, is every method justified that produces a winner? Are we allowed to lock up our horses, these ever-moving animals, 24 hours a day in such a confined space? Should modern dressage training be allowed to give a damn about the classic principles? How did it happen that we have two standards, that the classical training scale does not apply to grand prix horses anymore, that a tense, goose-stepping horse has highest scores whereas bending of the haunches, an active hint leg and most of all, suppleness (content facial expression, relaxed tail, calm mouth) is not more than a bonus? The message is clear. If you just want to have fun with your horse, the traditional rules, the rules of the FEI rule book, apply. If you want to win, the new, unwritten rules will take you there.

Totilas is the sad example of how seriously f*****-up and hypocritical modern dressage riding is. Should we blame the rider who tries to get his mega-expensive horse to perform according to expectations? Should we blame the owners, Linsenhoff and Schockemöhle, who (have) to treat the horse as an investment and have to market him in order to make profit? Maybe we should blame the judges who continue to award record-breaking scores to horses that are tensed up from nose to tail? Maybe we should blame Janssen’s ‘education system’, that produces winners worldwide and refuses to admid that rollkur damages the horses’ health? Should we blame the spectators who buy tickets to shows like that? Breeders, who buy semen from Schockemöhle’s horses? TV comentators who don’t seem to have a clue about dressage? It’s not as easy as it seems. If you want to win,  Schmezer expressed it so nicely, you have to surrender to the almost all-mighty rollkur fraction: „But if we adhere to all of this [= the classic training scale], then we come in eighth or nineth and cannot compete anymore.“

Horses can endure a lot of suffering for ‘their’ human. Now Totilas has to get along with a rider that he doesn’t seem to have any kind of relationship with. Now there is only hyperflexion training and solitary confinement. Even if his scores will improve again: I truely feel sorry for what humans did to Totilas, how they managed to turn this magnificent stallion into a poor creature, in the hand of proficient business men and without a chance to ever break free.

By the way: Rath already has a new, promising horse by the name of Bretton Woods. From the Netherlands, black, long-legged, bought by Schockemöhle/Linsenhoff, trainer is…Sjef Janssen. Rath and Bretton Woods just won the Prix St. Georg in Kapellen. The German equestrian magazine St Georg enthusiastically asks: “The Next Totilas?” Please, no…I would like to exclaim.

(This is a translation from my German article on http:///dressurpferdblog.com, sorry for language issues)

Note: In an earlier version of this text, I wrote by mistake “Did Gal sell the horse at exactly the right time?” and got some angry comments about that. It was a translation mistake from my German text. Of course it was his sponsor that sold the horse; I mentioned that Totilas was bought by Cees earlier in the text. Sorry for that misleading formulation. It’s good to get your facts straight 🙂

127 Comments on “Totilas. How a Magnificent Stallion Became a Poor Creature.

  1. poor champion horse, very sad story. Unfortunately, I am afraid is not the only one sad story about horses and their egoistic and cruel rider, champions vor not. Personally, I think first if the health and happiness of my horses, and I am proud not to be among this kind of champions or any kind of riders that do not deserve this name.

  2. I was at the Kentucky WEG in 2010.
    I was completely convinced that the chestnut horse that placed 3rd should have won. But I know nothing.
    I only have two eyes and a life long love of horses.

  3. Janssen is a coward and should be banned from the sport. Dressage has become too difficult to watch. I’m so ashamed of this sport. These are animals, not machines. I’m not at all surprised that Toto died at 20. Colic? His joints were gone. Poor management. I’ve been riding for 54 years and this is as bad as western equestrian sports. The ‘art’ is gone.

  4. Dressage isn’t the only victimized sport, their are other horse events that are judged on movement where the poor movement is scored highly. I believe judges need to take a higher accountability as if they didn’t judge highly for poor movement trainers would be forced to change. Take the peanut rolling quarter horses that canter at a 4 beat.

  5. We should do something to stop this kind of things!! too sad!! it s a torture!!

  6. Thank you for this, well said..only money matters..that is why I stopped competing a long time ago and started to rehabilitate them instead.

  7. That was a well written article, I actually read the whole thing. What a tragic story of this beautiful animal and what dressage has become. It absolutely breaks my heart that it is all about the $$$, just like horse racing. Thankyou for the time you put into this article.what a tragedy.

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