Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum: Success Between the Systems

A successful Junior rider in the 1980s, Germany’s Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum talks about the differences between the American and European riding systems and the evolution of her winning style.
Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Fibonacci at the 2014 CHIO Aachen in Germany | © Shannon Brinkman

Born in 1969 to film director Richard Michaels and actress Kristina Hansen, Meredith Michaels fell in love with horses at an early age. At 7, she started riding at the Foxfield Riding School near Los Angeles, California, and later trained under top hunter, jumper and equitation trainer Karen Healey. While she had a successful career as a Junior rider, she began studying politics at Princeton University in New Jersey in the late 1980s. But horses were always in her life and she continued to show on the A-Circuit, winning her first grand prix on the stallion Quick Star in 1989 in Wellington, Florida, under the tutelage of George Morris.

Although Meredith wasn’t planning on a riding career, she realized that to be successful in the competition arena, she needed to learn in Europe. So she went to Paul Schockemöhle’s stable in Mühlen, Germany, for the summer—which turned into three years. During this time, she fell in love with German show jumper Markus Beerbaum and decided to stay. They bought a stable in Thedinghausen in Northern Germany and married, and Meredith adopted German citizenship in 1998. A year later, she earned a spot on the winning German team at the 1999 European Championships—the first woman ever to do so.

Numerous gold, silver and bronze medals at European and World Championships followed. She placed fourth individually in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was a member of the gold-medal team at the 2010 Kentucky World Equestrian Games and earned team and individual bronze medals at the 2006 Aachen WEG. She won the World Cup Final three times—in Las Vegas in 2005 and 2009 and in Gothenburg, Sweden, in 2008. In 2004 she was the first woman ever to top the world rankings in show jumping, which she did for 24 months. Her successes have come with several horses including Quick Star, Stella, Shutterfly, Le Mans, Kismet, Bella Donna, Checkmate, Cantano, Malou, Unbelievable, Concetto, Alvaretto and Fibonacci. 

Meredith with members of the 1999 European Championship German team (from left) Carsten-Otto Nagel, Marcus Ehning, Ludger Beerbaum and coach Herbert Meyer | © Arnd Bronkhorst

In February 2010, Meredith and Markus welcomed daughter Brianne Victoria, and since then the top rider’s priorities have shifted. She is still active in international sport but today devotes much of her time to her daughter. She and Markus also train several students, including U.S. rider Lucy Davis, who rode on the U.S. show-jumping team at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France.

Practical Horseman spoke with the now 45-year-old rider about her journey from being a successful Junior rider in the United States to becoming the world-class rider she is today.

Practical Horseman: Growing up in the United States, what lessons did you learn from your trainers? 

Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum: Every lesson and every coach contributed to my learning. As a child, I was lucky enough to train at the Foxfield Riding School. The school’s founders, sisters JoAnn Postel and Nancy Turrill, are ultimately responsible for my enthusiasm of horses. They taught in a playful but professional way, and the children learned not just about riding but also about basic horsemanship. We groomed and cared for the horses, mucked the stalls and cleaned tack. In short, we learned to take responsibility for the horses and everything that has to do with them. And we learned gratitude.

Representing the U.S. in a 1995 competition in Arnhem, the Netherlands, Meredith confers with George Morris. | © Arnd Bronkhorst

As I got older, I wanted more in terms of competition—I wanted to conquer the sport. So I began training with Karen Healey, where I learned specifically about show jumping and especially about the discipline and desire needed to win. She also taught me about a polished riding style and professional management. While at Karen’s stable, Canadian riding instructor Robert Leger showed me how to successfully ride against the clock.

George Morris was responsible for whetting my appetite for international competition while I was still a Junior rider. He took me to the Pan American Games and also to the Aachen horse show in the late 1980s. He also strongly influenced me in terms of discipline and management and establishing a successful training program—from his meticulousness, I was able to learn about every detail of riding, horse care and stable management.

I’ve had several other coaches and learned something from each one. I think that’s part of the secret of success—you have to be open for learning and always keep your goal in sight.

PH: When you first traveled to Europe and rode at Paul Schockemöhle’s in 1991, what seemed different to you as an American rider? 

Meredith, at the 1998 CHIO Aachen with Stella, was the first woman ever to earn a spot on a German championship team. | © Arnd Bronkhorst

MMB:Well, at first it was kind of a culture shock for me. Most horses in Europe were much heavier types than our American Thoroughbreds, and men dominated jumping. Weakness was considered a blemish and compassion was discounted as sentimentality. In Mühlen, there were plenty of macho men who spoke about horses as they would about cars. They talked of acceleration, brakes and steering. 

But these riders were also straightforward and objective. And they did many things intuitively, not just following fixed rules as I had learned, like counting strides. As young riders, we acted more like machines. Though rules can give a rider a great foundation and knowledge, they also can take away the freedom to think and experiment. 

In general, riding lessons in the United States are very strict and structured. The rider is always being told exactly what to do and how many strides to take between fences. He is drilled instead of taught how to think for himself. Much emphasis is placed on aesthetics and developing the perfect seat, which is reflected in the many equitation competitions. Of course, there are a lot of good things about developing a solid position and seat. But while riders are taught how to sit and act on the horse, they don’t learn why they are doing certain things and what effect their actions have on the horse. 

From this approach, riders might learn to be consistent but they can lose the feeling, the natural instinct of riding. With its strong focus on sheer perfection of the seat, the American system can stunt the feeling and instinct of young riders.

On the other hand, this focus on the riding foundation is often lacking a bit in the German training system. Here you often see young riders with swinging legs, too much hand action or balance problems over the fence. But many still compete successfully because they have been allowed to develop the instinct for riding to a fence and getting to the other side regardless of what is happening or what the horse is doing. So from these observations I’ve realized that instinct is as important, if not more, than just good style. But ultimately, it is the rider with instinct and good style who will always go further than the mere stylist or purely instinctive rider. Over the last 20 years, there have been German riders who have learned from the American system of establishing a solid position and seat, such as Ludger Beerbaum and Marcus Ehning. 

PH: As you continued to train in Europe, from whom else did you learn? 

Markus Beerbaum and Royal Discovery get the thumbs up from Meredith at the 2001 CSI Twente in Geesteren, the Netherlands. | © Arnd Bronkhorst

MMB: When I was in Mühlen, [German show jumping champion] Franke Sloothaak often helped me with dressage work and also on developing rideability and control with my horses. At the time, he was the best in the business at getting any horse to do what he wanted immediately—go forward or back; he could make a horse almost canter in place. He also paid close attention to details. One of my horses at the time, Jack of Diamonds, had a stiff jump, causing me to lose my seat and balance in the air. Franke recommended I change my saddle to one that shifted my weight farther back so that I was able to sit better and be more with the horse. Then I met Markus, who competed very successfully, too. We often exchanged views about horses and riding styles and helped each other. Today, he is my best coach. 

PH: What strategies did you learn during this time that you have retained throughout your riding career?

MMB: I learned that in addition to having ambition and determination, being surrounded by a great team is very important. This includes top veterinarians, farriers, our barn manager and grooms as well as the people who organize the horse-show logistics, drive the horses to competitions and take care of our home and especially our daughter while we are working. There are five people who have been with me through the highs and lows for more than 15 years. They are part of our family, and they are integral to keeping our program running smoothly. They allow Markus and me to focus on riding and training. 

PH: How does the American forward riding system differ from what is taught in Germany?

Meredith and Shutterfly earned team and individual medals at the 2006 WEG in Aachen. | © Arnd Bronkhorst

MMB: They are quite different. The American forward riding system is based on riding Thoroughbreds who are light, quick and catlike going over the fences, like Joe Fargis’ Touch of Class and Michael Matz’s Jet Run. Riders are in a light seat to free the horses’ backs and ride them very forward; the horses stretch out their heads and necks and carry the riders to the jump. That is how I grew up riding. You could ride the horses forward to the base of the jump, and they were fast and agile enough to back themselves up and shorten their steps a few strides in front of it. Then they would pat the ground on takeoff with their front legs, jerk them up, rock back and spring off the ground to clear the fence. Though Americans now ride more warmbloods, they still use this forward system with a light seat around much of the course, encouraging the horses to stretch their heads and necks and carry them to the base of the jump.

The German system is focused on having tremendous control. It is based on dressage work that centers on making the horse extremely rideable through rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection. German horses aren’t bred to go the same way as American Thoroughbreds. They are not as elastic, flexible, quick and catlike so they aren’t able to be ridden in such a forward pace and back themselves up to the fence and pat the ground. These horses are big and strong and use power to get over the fence. So in Germany, riders tend to sit in a deeper seat around most of the course and ride the horse in a slower, very controlled pace and much more of a collected frame. They ride every stride to the jump the same, and often the takeoff point is a little farther from the jump so the horse has the time to use his hind end’s great pushing power to clear the fence. 

PH: What techniques have you taken from the U.S. system and the German system? 

Meredith hoists the World Cup after her 2009 victory in Las Vegas with Shutterfly. It was the third win for the pair. | © Nancy Jaffer

MMB: I have taken different components of these two great systems, focusing on the most successful of both, to create a separate method—my system. I ride my horses very forward around a course but I sit in a deep seat and, through the dressage work I learned in Germany, I teach my horses to collect their canter the last few strides, slow down and take time to jump the fence. This creates a lot of power to jump. The horse has time to rock back on his haunches and create the optimal bascule, jumping up and around, using the fence to create his shape. In riding this way, I help the horse turn his forward motion into upward motion over the fence without any loss of impulsion. Eventually my horses learn to back off at the fence by themselves even when I maintain more speed. I’ve found that most of the horses I’ve ridden this way find their individual rhythm. 

The former German team coach Herbert Meyer, who at the time appointed me as the first woman to the German team, once said, “Her horses go through fire and water for her.” I think that’s mostly true. There is mutual trust and teamwork between my horses and me. I’m a small person—just under 5-foot-4 and 110 pounds—so I can’t ride a horse with just my strength. My horse needs to be a partner who is not only capable of jumping a course but is willing.

PH: You have been giving some clinics in the United States and working with U.S. riders. Do you see any issues with how they warm up their horses?

Checkmate and Meredith rode at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games where they helped win a team gold medal for Germany. | © Amy K. Dragoo

MMB: Top American riders do everything similar to their European and German colleagues in terms of preparing their horses on the flat and warming them up. But riders at the novice and intermediate levels don’t work their horses in dressage as much as their counterparts do in Germany. Teaching dressage to jumping horses is common in Germany so that all horses are very under control and rideable. Very often, this is missing in the U.S. 

PH: What would surprise young U.S. riders training in Europe? 

MMB: Realizing that there are no special tricks in the top training stables—that there is just good horsemanship—would be an eye-opener. It starts with the feeding, continues with the farrier who adjusts each individual shoe for each horse and moves on to veterinary care—not because the horses are sick but because overall health care is of prime importance. In the good stables, the horses don’t come out of their stalls just once a day. They are busy all day long—being trained under saddle, taken for hand-walks, worked in the walker, turned out in paddocks or pastures. They are in the full program of an athlete. All of this together leads to success, and that would probably surprise most visitors from America first.

At home in Thedinghausen, Germany, Meredith and Markus watch as their daughter, Brianne Victoria, practices her own kind of show jumping. | © Alois Müller

PH: One last question: Has your riding style changed since you became a mother?

MMB: I can say that I no longer take big risks, especially with unfamiliar horses. I don’t get on every strange young horse as I used to. But I’m not sure if this is a question of motherhood—or age.

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

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