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Pro-Dressage with Sabine Shut-Kery

  • Post category:HQ Pro
  • Reading time:13 mins read

Text: Amelia Campbell-Horne

What started as a grand dream thrown around by a few friends over a glass or two of wine has gradually developed into reality. The Pro-Series, which began as Pro-Dressage, was named such, as it is ‘pro’ dressage, jumping, breeding and all things equine-related, but also because the aim was to make professionals and expert equestrians available to equine enthusiasts within South Africa.

The team that came up with the Pro-Series concept was aware that most South Africans do not have the means or the exposure to participate in clinics in Europe with expert coaches and trainers, so they decided to bring the experts to us! They have capitalised on South Africa’s incredible tourism opportunities as an incentive and give the experts an experience in exchange for their expertise. From Pro-Dressage the project has grown into Pro-Jump and Pro-Breed and, in the future, will include Pro-Feed and Pro-Compete, but, ultimately, the opportunities are limitless. The team’s key aim is to fill a gap in the South African market. We have European standard horses in South Africa but lack international training and education opportunities, so bringing trainers out here could be game-changing for our sport.

There will be another Pro-Dressage Masterclass later this year, with a professional returning to South Africa due to popular demand: Jean Bemelmanns. Jean has already had his African’ bush’ experience and is now ready to come back and do the beach!

The latest event hosted was a Pro-Dressage Masterclass with Tokyo Olympic Team Silver Medallist Sabine Schut-Kery. HQ had the chance to pop into the first weekend of this Masterclass, hosted at Manor D’Or, to experience first-hand some of the magic Sabine worked and have a quick chat with her:

HQ: For those who have not yet done their research, could you please tell us a bit about yourself? 

Sabine: I was born and raised in Germany in Krefeld, which is close to Dusseldorf and Aachen. I started off riding as a kid, and I was more in the entertainment industry with riding. I did compete as a child in dressage and showjumping, so I had a good baseline all around, but I fell into a group of people who taught tricks. We taught horses to lie down, to sit on command and rear. I was lucky enough as a teenager to learn to drive a four-in-hand and ride side-saddle, and so I did that a lot.

I then moved to the US in 1998 and lived In Texas for seven years and worked as head trainer at a Friesian Farm. In 2005, my husband and I moved to California, and I started working more with the Warmbloods. I ultimately became a US citizen, and my first big international ride was at the 2015 Pan-Am Games, where we won Team Gold, which gave the USA Team their ticket to the Rio Olympics. Then, in 2021, I rode Alice Womble’s Sanceo in the Tokyo Olympics.

HQ: And you came home with a Team Silver Medal from Tokyo, congratulations! With such a broad base in equestrianism, how did you come to specialise in dressage?

Sabine: I have to say, being German and being so particular, even when I worked with the group of women in equestrian entertainment, we were always strict on wanting to do correct classical dressage as part of our shows. We also always understood that you don’t stop learning in this sport. We regularly brought in coaches, and it was never about the thrill of riding in front of an audience.

It was also about promoting breeds back then, so the gentleman I worked for was the first to import Friesian horses from Holland to Germany, so he wanted to promote them in exhibitions. They were riding horses, but we had to add some flavour, so we did the tricks as well as the dressage.

So, dressage was a passion from day one; it didn’t switch – it just veered off into Warmbloods. I was also curious and wanted to ride different breeds. I had ridden a lot of Friesians and Andalusians and a few Warmbloods, but I was interested in riding more Warmbloods and that automatically brought me into the competition scene. I did my apprenticeship with Jean Bemelmanns in Germany for three years, so I rode Warmbloods there, but that was about it until more recently.

Did you know?

The German National Federation has a “Bereiter” program that is a structured two-to-three-year program with exams, and often there is a school to attend. Once complete, participants receive their “Trainer A” certification, which is the highest teaching certificate. Sabine trained under Jean Bemelmanns to attain hers.

HQ: With so much experience with the classical training of Friesians, Andalusians and Warmbloods, what would you say are some of the breeds’ strengths and weaknesses regarding their suitability for dressage?

Sabine: So, if we are looking at the sport of dressage, the Lusitano and the Andalusian have been bred for a different reason. They have been bred for more of the collected work, so they are talented at passage, piaffe, pirouettes and stuff, but with classical dressage and competition, you don’t only have to show the collected work, you need to show ground cover and the lengthening of the frame. This has a whole gymnasticising element – getting the whole body supple – which is harder for the Spanish horses and the Friesians. The Warmbloods are good at this and getting so much better over time at the collected work as well. Twenty years ago, the Warmbloods really used to struggle with piaffe and passage, but with breeding, the Warmblood is improving dramatically as people are breeding to enhance their capabilities as they see what is missing.

Then the other difficulty with Spanish horses, because they are short coupled, is to make them swing over the back more and connect more in their bodies, to make them less ‘leg-movers’ and use their whole body. They always present a good picture because of how the neck is set, and to the eye, they look like they are on the bit and put together, but for classical dressage, it doesn’t mean they are. They are such talented and good-minded horses that you can teach them a lot by training them slightly differently and teaching them to be more supple.

HQ: How did you begin coaching? 

Sabine: I train horses for a job, so coaching is naturally part of working with horses. For me, I also work hard at keeping my passion and not being burned out, so I do not ride ten horses a day. That’s not because I’m lazy, but I want to do it well; I’m very particular, and I’m also a perfectionist, so that has downsides too. I need to fill my day, so I have to bring the coaching into it; otherwise, I would have to ride more horses. I have never ridden more than eight horses a day, and now it is more like five a day, but it makes a good day, and I also enjoy the teaching.

HQWould you say you are still learning and training yourself while you are coaching?

Sabine: Absolutely! As a rider, I have horses at home that switch over from time to time, but not too quickly, as production is a long process, so it’s nice for me how much I learn from teaching. I see lots of different kinds of horses and am able to implement my training concept and system with them; it’s incredibly rewarding to see when it works. Actually, it is as rewarding as being in the saddle.

HQHow has your experience so far in South Africa been?

Sabine: I was super excited to come! Everyone talks about the safari, of course, and for anyone who loves animals, it’s an amazing experience, and I can’t wait to do that this week. In general, South Africa is such a beautiful country, so I get to see it. It’s also been really nice to see South Africa from the eyes of a local person because I am staying with Christina Herden. I think I am getting a much more authentic experience of South Africa because of this.

I am also really excited about the riding here. It has been good, which is amazing because South Africa is so far away from everywhere else. This wasn’t a problem I experienced growing up in Germany, but it is a problem in America as everywhere is so far from other places that it’s hard to get a proper (equestrian) education, so it must be even harder for South Africa.

I have to say, I teach a lot of clinics, and the horses and the riders have really been fantastic. They have been like sponges; it’s not always easy working with people you don’t know, but everyone has been so excited and keen to learn. It’s also been fun because everyone is capable of doing the work, and when I explain an exercise, they can all do it.

HQAnd the quality of horses you have seen?

Sabine: It’s hard when you have a horse that lacks certain abilities, especially in a symposium format like we are doing, as this is not a private clinic for riders, but I must demonstrate something for the audience. But the horses in this Masterclass have all been great, and I would say they are comparable to Europe and the US.

HQLastly, how would you describe your coaching principles and concepts?

Sabine: I learned in Germany and am very much into gymnasticising the horse. By gymnasticising, I mean suppling and bending. If you look at the training scale, you start with rhythm and relaxation, and then you have true bend and straightness. Straightness, in dressage terms, does not mean straight like a rail but that when you ride through a turn, the horse’s back feet follow the front, so there is a curve in the spine from poll to tail. Only after this do you have collection, because you can’t collect if a horse is not straight because he’s not stepping under his centre of gravity. So, I follow the training scales very closely and work with how they intertwine.

I’m also strong on the basics, foundations, precision, and consistency; I believe this is important for the horse and will help you bring a stronger partnership because there is more clarity. For me, mistakes are fine – they are simply training opportunities. It’s also important to stay positive with the horse. Horses can easily ‘shut out’ the rider and not be present, so we have to be careful not to get too ‘loud’ on the horse; after all, a horse can feel a fly. This means that sometimes you need to go back and focus on a particular element, try and get lighter, and explain more clearly to the horse, breaking things down into an easier exercise. So, we need to remain positive and try our best to help the horse understand what we are asking.

HQ: Thank you so much to Sabine for taking the time to chat with us and share your wisdom and knowledge! 

Comments from Spectators/Riders/Coaches:

Ashleigh Robinson (comment taken from FB)

This was hands down one of the most relevant and effective clinics that I’ve been too. Sabine is warm, engaging and without doubt, a talented coach on top of being an Olympian. Her coaching blends both classical and functional elements all with an understanding of modern competition participation, which is also something that few coaches can do.

She imparts a wealth of knowledge that is just as valuable to spectators, so change your weekend plans and go watch, learn and train your eye!

Gen McNeill (KZN) – Grand Prix Dressage Rider

The Masterclass has been absolutely fantastic! Sabine can read a horse and rider in minutes; it is phenomenal how quickly she works out what your horse needs and what you need to help your horse.

Andrea Harrison Buchmann – Masterclass Rider and DSA Coach Developer

I found Sabine to be extremely clear with her instructions. She hit the nail on the head with every horse – not only mine. After a 30 second assessment, she knew exactly where to go and where to take the horse and rider. It wasn’t only informative for me and my horses, but she aimed what she was teaching towards the spectators.

Victoria Ford – WEG Para-Dressage Rider

Sabine’s depth of knowledge, and the way she can watch a combination for 30 seconds and adapt her plan in that space of time is phenomenal. The horse I had on day 1 and day 2 were two totally different horses, and she was able to turn a page, realise what they were dealing with that day and react accordingly. Her interaction between the rider and the crowd was also super; even as a spectator you felt completely involved. When you make a mistake, she doesn’t make you feel bad about it, but helps you fix it, and gives you tools and homework rather than a quick magic fix.

Debbie Van Wyk – National DSA Judge and Coach

It was fantastic, and I learnt a lot from a judging point of view; specifically, I learned what to look for in the lateral work, and how she concentrates on the bend through the rib cage, and the lateral suppleness, working over their back. I learnt a lot about what to look for!

Calet de Vos (KZN) – Professional Grand Prix Coach and Rider 

Sabine advocates for beautiful riding and accentuates the simple things we tend to forget. Her way of teaching and explaining concepts were simple and easy to follow. Sabine emphasised that one’s riding should always give the horse confidence – I loved that! I think she is just such a great ambassador for the sport and a true horsewoman.