Ingrid Klimke: Let’s stay optimistic!

Ingrid Klimke was cooking dinner while we chatted on Saturday evening. No surprises there, the German star is a born multi-tasker, so juggling an interview and an evening meal is a breeze for this lady. 

Text and photo by FEI /Louise Parker

In the sport of Eventing she has five Olympic Games, four FEI World Equestrian Games™ (WEG) and 10 FEI European Championships under her belt. Her medal collection includes two Olympic team golds and one team silver, two WEG team golds and an individual bronze, and last summer’s double-gold in Luhmuehlen (GER) brought her European Championships tally to six golds along with a silver and a bronze. 

Her prowess as a Dressage rider has been key to many of these successes, and just to prove the point she finished seventh in the FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final in ’s-Hertogenbosch (NED) in 2002. It’s a staggering record but far from complete. As we begin our chat she reminds me that she was selected for the German A squads in both Eventing and Dressage for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, “with three horses in the two disciplines, so already a dream has come true! Now I’m very much hoping that they all stay healthy for next year!”, she says.

One of my dreams

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So what prompted you to try to qualify in two Olympic disciplines this time around? “I watched Mark Todd (New Zealand superstar) compete in Jumping and Eventing in Barcelona, so it was one of my dreams to do the same some day! My father (the late, great German horseman Reiner Klimke) competed at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome in Eventing and later changed to become a Dressage rider.”

Apart from your father who were your heroes when you were growing up? “I really admired Lucinda Green and I read all her wonderful books. She was World and European Champion when she won here at Luhmuehlen (team gold for Great Britain at the World Championships in 1992) – I ran around the course after her that day! She was so brave and horses did everything for her. I really liked the way she talked about her horses and the kindness of her – she was fun and open-hearted and had a lovely personality.

“And Mark Todd has always been a legend – when I was at my first Olympics in Sydney neither myself nor my horse (Sleep Late) had ever done a 4-Star. When I saw the cross-country I thought ‘Oh my God!’ and I followed behind Mark when he was walking the course hoping to learn something from him!” 

Has it been a pressure for you being Reiner Klimke’s daughter? “When I was young people would say when I did well ‘Oh for a Klimke that’s a typical result’ and when I made a mistake they would say ‘a Klimke should be doing better than that’. So I tell my girls (her two daughters Greta and Philippa) don’t worry, you can’t make everything right for other people, but you don’t do it for them you do it for yourself because you love the sport and you love the horse.”

Ambitious

Are your daughters ambitious? “The oldest, Greta, is now 18 and will be in Young Riders next year and she’s very ambitious and very determined. The young one is almost 10 and she likes to play with the horses, to ride bareback. She comes into the arena and goes ‘OK I’ve done one round of dressage so now Bye Bye Mam!’ She’s having a lot of fun and she has a lovely pony but I’m not sure what she will do with herself!”

I realise Miss Philippa has inherited some of her mother’s characteristics when I ask my next question….

What do you like best about being around horses? “I’m starting a four-year-old again and a friend said to me why are you starting a four-year-old, let the girls do it! But this is what gives me such fun, to see how they discover the world, how they trust you, connect with you. And the other part I enjoy is the horsemanship, going bareback, riding with a neck-rein (see what I mean?), I feel like I’m playing with my ponies again!” 

Is there anything you don’t like about being around horses? “No, although my father didn’t want me to become a professional rider when I was young. He thought it would change my attitude to the horses because I’d have to sell them. He wanted horses to be my hobby and it took me a while to persuade him that I could find another way, but I did and I love it.”

Ingrid created her own business model. “We don’t sell horses but keep them and compete them, and I’m really happy to have very good sponsors and try to take good care of them. Asha (her now nine-year-old star Eventing mare), could have been sold for so much money but her owner said we don’t sell family members!”

Pinot

The horse you liked most? “Pinot, my first horse, a little Trakehner stallion. I did my first Dressage, my first Jumping and my first Eventing with him. I had no idea what I was doing, and on my first cross-country round I was looking around and thinking how wonderful it was so I was nearly two minutes too slow! 

“He was small with so much heart and not much scope but he was a great schoolmaster and because of him I decided I wanted to do all three disciplines.”

The horse you liked least? Ingrid hesitates here, she doesn’t really want to be critical of any horse and doesn’t name him but..”there was one horse that wasn’t my favourite but I knew there was something in him that he wasn’t showing me. I said to myself, ‘Ingrid you are a Reitmeister (Riding Master) and you’ve got to be able to ride every horse so look for other ways with him!’ We got there in the end and he taught me a lot about having to be patient, and later he won my heart – but it certainly wasn’t love at first sight!” 
 
The best horse you’ve ever ridden? “The mare Escada, she was in the winning team in the WEG at Caen (in 2014) and she had all the qualities you can imagine. She was a unique jumper, careful, powerful, so much scope with lovely gaits, and she could go forever cross-country. Unfortunately because she was always giving too much we couldn’t keep her sound. She and Hale Bob grew up together and Bobby was always No 2 when she was at her most brilliant.”

How did you learn to master three tough disciplines?  Because of the chances my parents gave me, to feel different dressage horses and schoolmasters, and when I was with (Canadian Jumping legend) Ian Millar I had the chance to see the Canadian way of showjumping. And Fritz Ligges (German gold medallist, Munich Olympic Games 1972) was also competing in Eventing and Jumping and was a close friend of my father so when I was growing up I went on holidays and did a lot of jumping there, so I think from youth on I had a good chance to feel wonderful horses in the three disciplines.”

Your favourite discipline and why? Eventing cross-country – I’m really competitive when I’m out there. The buzz going into the start-box is what I love the most!

“And in top Dressage when you ride the Freestyle to Music. My father always said try to have invisible aids so the spectators can’t see what you do and the horse seems to be doing it on its own…when you have that, and it’s not too often but when you have it, then I also really like dressage a lot!  

“It depends on the horse too. In my next life I would maybe like to become a Jumping star!” 

Memorable moments

Memorable Cross-Country Moments?  “At Sydney (2000 Olympic Games) the cross-country was so long – 13 minutes and five seconds – with steeplechase and roads and tracks, and it was so hot. I really wasn’t sure I was ready for it. I went at the very end, and so many people before me had falls and it didn’t go well for the German team either. When I came in the 10-minute box I heard someone say ‘I don’t think Ingrid will make it’…. 

“I said to Blue (Sleep Late) we have to do something we’ve never done before and that we’ll never forget, you have to show you are a thoroughbred and run forever! The second water was jumping onto a bank and into a deep drop followed by a brush fence and I was leaning too far forward at the drop. But he just jumped everything totally straight without any attention to me trying to hang on. He galloped the last minute uphill and kept this incredible rhythm and I was in time and I couldn’t believe it! 

“And then there was my last ride with Braxxi (Butts Abraxxas, two-time Olympic team gold medallist) when he was 16. It was at Burghley (2013) and I couldn’t believe how huge the fences were! He gave me his everything – twice on that cross-country round I wondered if I should stop, but when we finished it was so emotional. I said to Braxxi this is our last competition together, you can’t give me any more! He showed more ability than he had, more scope than he had. I hadn’t planned it but I retired him then”.

Where did he retire to? “Greta was 11 at the time and he was a great schoolmaster for her. He’s now 23 and still in my barn. I did send him to a retirement home with other horses but he decided he didn’t want to stay there and kept jumping out. He wanted to be with us, so I took him back and I love it every day when I see him out with the ponies. He’s still in Stable No. 1 which he deserves!”

Philosophy

What’s your philosophy when things go wrong? “Get back on your feet and look for the positive things even though sometimes you don’t see them right away. A good example was me and Braxxi, he was not a good showjumper and all his life I tried everything with him but finally I had to accept that there are some things you cannot change. When I did that then I could appreciate our wonderful dressage and cross-country rounds even though I knew I was never going to win an individual medal because he would never jump clear. But I was always a good team member.” 

Was European double-gold in Luhmuehlen last summer particularly special for you? “Yes I was so thrilled for Bobby (Hale Bob) because in Strezegom (POL in 2017) it was a close battle between Michael Jung (German team-mate and multiple champion) and me, and it was very close this time again. Bobby did such a wonderful cross-country round, it felt so easy, I looked at my watch and we were so much ahead of time we could canter home! He did a brilliant showjumping round. In Tryon (WEG 2018) we had the last (showjumping) fence down and lost the medal, but this time we showed we really could do it when the pressure was on.  

“And it’s alway more special when the horse is getting older. Now he is 16 and these are our last years together so I treasure it even more.”

INGRID KLIMKE

Three mothers

The important people in your life? My family of course, and I have three mothers – (two along with her mother Ruth). There is also Faith Berghuis (Canadian patron of equestrian sport) who supported me with great advice and gave me the chance to work with Ian Millar, and Aunt. She’s not my real aunt but she owns a little farm behind my parents house and I spent a lot of my childhood there learning about animals and farming and nature. 

“After my father died (aged 63 in 1999) his advisor, friend and teacher when he was young, the old cavalryman Paul Stecken, became my mentor and just four years ago he passed away aged 100. He was a lovely man. 

“And my friends, some who have nothing to do with horses who were in my school here in Münster (GER) and we have many things in common. And then there are my ‘culture’ friends who take me out to cultural events so my life is not all about horses!”  
   
What makes you laugh? “Kids, and young horses….the way they see the world can be really funny!”

What makes you cry? “Seeing the refugees sitting in those camps in Greece and nobody willing to take them. When people are poor and born into hopeless situations, that makes me very sad. I’m a member of PLAN International, an organisation that works to improve children’s rights and equality for girls who live in poverty. We have to help as much as we can. 

“And also the animals, when you see the rhinos and other beautiful animals being slaughtered by poachers it makes me so angry – that really makes me cry.”

Finally how are you coping with life during this pandemic? “If you listen to the news it’s very easy to lose your positive attitude, because there is so much uncertainty. But I tell myself I’m privileged, I’m healthy and so are my family so we must stay patient. We don’t now when the vaccination will come but until then we must stay optimistic and be thankful for what we have.”

Therese Stub Alhaug
Therese Stub Alhaug

Editor

Therese is the editor of Equilife, and is truly dedicated to equestrian sports and horses. She started riding as a little girl, and enjoys her free time with her two horses back home. Portrait interview is her favorite topic, as it has the gift to inspire others through peoples stories, knowledge, training and general life-philosophy, and certainly, their lives with horses.

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