Isabell Werth, Olympics’ greatest equestrian, faces Tokyo question: which horse to take?
Over 27 years after winning her first of six Olympic gold medals, German dressage rider Isabell Werth is beating herself in the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) world rankings.
Werth, 50, sits in second with her three-time World Cup winner and Olympic gold and silver medalist horse Weihegold Old, a 2005 Oldenburg mare. But it’s her self-described “dream horse” Bella Rose 2 who takes the FEI’s top spot.
Werth can only compete with one of the two horses at the Tokyo Games.
In less than a year span, she swept the 2018 Tryon World Equestrian Games, won her fifth World Cup title and took her 20th title at the European Championships. After a busy year, Werth has her sights set on a bigger goal: a sixth Olympics.
Already the winningest equestrian in Olympic history, at Tokyo, Werth could build on her collection of 10 Olympic medals and claim a gold medal from four different decades.
This would extend her era of winning Olympic titles from 24 years (tied for the women’s record) to 28, which would tie the overall record held by Hungarian fencer Aladar Gerevich.
Werth debuted at the 1992 Barcelona Games, picking up team gold and individual silver on Gigolo FRH. The pair swept both the team and individual titles in 1996, and Gigolo went out on a high note, picking up one more team gold and individual silver in 2000 before retiring a few months later.
Werth returned to the Olympics in 2008 with Satchmo 78, taking team gold and individual silver.
After passing the bar eight years post-Barcelona, Werth worked in law and marketing until beginning her own training stable in 2004.
She initially thought she would retire from riding around her 30s—until Madeleine Winter-Schulze, a prominent and longtime supporter of German equestrians, offered her sponsorship that remains active to this day.
At the Rio Olympics, Werth was relegated to individual silver after Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin defended her individual dressage title, but two years later, Werth flipped the script to take gold in Tryon.
Like many elite equestrians, Werth started riding at a young age. She show jumped and evented as a teen until Uwe Schulten-Baumer, a six-time European Champion, introduced her to dressage and his horse Gigolo.
Unlike many riders at such an elite level, Werth is known for bringing her own horses along from the beginning stages to the world stage.
Werth, known as the “Dressage Queen,” first laid eyes on Bella Rose when the horse was 3 years old. Werth, already a four-time gold medalist with six World Equestrian Games titles, saw something special in the Westfalen mare.
“I saw her, and I got goosebumps,” Werth said. “I said, ‘Wow, the charisma of the horse, the way she moves, the way she showed herself, she presents herself and her character’ -- that was what touched me in the first second. And then of course later on, I was really happy that she also was very, very kind and really motivated every day.”
In 2014, Bella Rose was part of Germany’s team gold at the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France.
Then a stretch of soundness issues kept the mare out for the next four years. She announced her return to competition with a roar in Tryon, and then followed it up less than a year later with team gold, special gold and freestyle gold at the European Championships last August.
“Most people know that my heart is so close to this horse,” Werth has said about Bella Rose. “She is a gift. I saw that when I first met her as a three-year-old and she has never lost it.”
Sitting just below Bella Rose on the FEI dressage world rankings is Weihegold Old, Werth’s Rio mount. Together, they captured team gold and individual silver at the Rio Games.
As Tokyo approaches, Werth must decide between her No. 1 “dream horse” Bella and her proven Olympian Weihegold.
Chief among her concerns is the potential for extreme heat and humidity in Japan during summertime. Training in Germany can’t prepare a horse for those conditions.
“Of course, I have a little plan for each horse in my mind, but most of the time you have to be flexible because the horse makes their own plan,” Werth said. “We will see what happens next spring.”
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