United States Equestrian Team veteran Bernie Traurig has accomplished in four equestrian disciplines what most people only hope to realize in one.
He’s been short-listed for the Olympic teams in show jumping, eventing, and dressage. He won both major equitation finals—the AHSA Medal and the ASPCA Maclay—as a junior. And he’s been inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame.
Now, Traurig is taking on the Internet, too.
Six years ago, the California-native hung up his show coat to focus on bringing elite instruction to the masses. These days, you’ll find him filming lessons with world-class instructors for EquestrianCoach.com. Or on the road, teaching clinics.
I caught up with him at the Exclusive Equestrian Events clinic at Fox Den Farm in Richmond Hill, Ontario last December to chat modern day masters, happy circumstances, and the secret to versatility.
1. George Morris says competition is easy. It’s teaching that is hard. What do you think makes a good teacher?
George is a master teacher. Master teachers walk a thin line between challenging and supporting. Destroying complacency without destroying confidence. That’s an art we all strive for. That requires great understanding and empathy from both sides.
I think, especially, master teachers know when to move on. If someone gets stuck on a particular exercise, don’t drill and drill and drill into the ground where you tear somebody down. Get it a bit better, then move on and give [the rider] something to work on at home.
2. You and George Morris both mention Bert de Nemethy and Vladimir Littauer as mentors. Who would you say are the modern day masters—the ones who’ll be remembered as the most influential teachers in the sport today?
I hope I’m in there somewhere. George, of course. But he’s always been. A modern day master, that’s an interesting term. Who were the masters? Who developed our sport? The forward riding system started with Federico Caprilli. It went on to Brig Gen Harry D Chamberlain in the US, Captain Vladamir S. Littauer, Gordon Wright, Bert de Nemethy, George Morris, Bill Steinkraus.
The people who taught me and taught George, they were masters and they are timeless. So they are the modern day masters. Two centuries from now they’ll still be the masters of the sport. There are some things that never change but they get refined.
Who is refining the sport—to some degree improving it? I hope I’m influential in that. George for sure is. I don’t know who out there teaches as extensively, but I’m sure there are several people who should be on that list.
3. You’ve competed for the USET in show jumping, eventing, and dressage. Not to mention a highly successful hunter career. Were you always interested in different disciplines or was it a product of circumstance?
I think my whole life has been a product of circumstance, probably my birth! By a stroke of luck I lived in Long Island, the same town as Littauer. I was 14 and struggling with a horse and my father asked him if he would teach me. So I run into one of the world’s greats in my backyard, who taught me for six years as a junior. He had a huge influence on my junior career. I won the ASPCA Maclay and AHSA Medal Finals under him. I learned how to train a hunter under him. I learned how to train a jumper under him. He’s the basis of my education.
Because I didn’t want to go to college, I wanted to be a professional, my father and Steinkraus and Littauer got together. Steinkraus said there is a spot on the three-day team. He can ride on the three-day squad in Gladstone on the horse loaned to the team. If he’s good enough, he can make the team. So boom! I get on the Olympic team and I’m a three-day rider.
I started business early. I was 21. Because I won the Maclay and AHSA Medals, I had been on the eventing team, it meant I had a stand to teach. And I’d been with Littaueur, so I had a good education. I did the normal hunter/jumper career.
Then by chance I stumbled into a dressage career through my association with Johann Hinneman in Germany. I was a dealer at that time in my life in Wisconsin. I walked into his place to buy a horse with Canadian dressage Olympian Chistolot Boylen. He was his usual aloof snobby self. I said, let’s get out of here. I don’t have to deal with this.
When he found out who I was, he invited me to come back the next time I was in Europe and, to make it up, let me ride his Olympic horse. I did piaffe, passage, one tempies. My god, I’d never felt anything like it! We started buying and selling dressage horses together.
I sold a horse to Sis Steinkraus, Bill’s wife, that developed an allergy in her barn, so we took him back. Johann said, Bernie, you’re going to show the horse in Florida. You can do it. Four months later, I win the first trial for the World Championships in Florida. Crazy! So I stumble into the dressage sport. I spent three years studying that sport, riding with Hinneman, riding with Christolot, and I was short listed for the Olympics and the World Championships.
So my disciplines have been a bit of a circumstantial situation. It wasn’t planned.
4. Few riders, if any, have accomplished what you have in so many disciplines. What do you owe your versatility to?
Ian Millar once told me it takes three things to make a great rider: a great horse, a great coach, and a great ability to watch somebody great and apply some of their techniques to your own riding. To actually see something, experiment with it, and apply it.
I’ve always been a good visual person. I could try to imitate what somebody does.
I didn’t start dressage with a green horse. I started on a Grand Prix dressage horse. In eventing, I got a Canadian horse called Canadian Envoy that was ridden by Norman Elder, Jimmy’s brother, in the 1960 Olympic Games. In show jumping, I had some very good Grand Prix horses. I bought some. I made some.
And I’ve had great coaches. As a junior, I got a lesson every two weeks from Littaeur and I got homework. That’s how we worked for six years. I did my homework and then we moved on. On the US Team, Richard Watjen was our coach for dressage; Stephan Von Vichy for eventing. Bert de Nemethy, I was with him for almost a year. Hinneman gave me homework for the dressage horse and I’d go practice, practice, practice. I was a dedicated student.
I had great horses. I had great coaches. And I had a good visual ability to apply. Maybe Ian’s got the formula.
5. Which discipline do you favor the most?
Show jumping. Cut and dry. Objective. Exciting. Very exciting! I love it. Dressage is one of the best things I ever did for myself because I learned differences in the training techniques versus the hunter/jumpers that are instrumental in my teaching.
6. Do you miss competition?
No. I’ve done enough of them. I stopped competing about six years ago and stopped going to horse shows about two years ago. Filming coaches is exciting because it takes me to wonderful places. I meet great coaches and I learn so much every time I film topics with world-class coaches and Olympians. So I’m always adding to my own knowledge, which is a great thing. You never stop learning. For the rest of my life, I like teaching so that’s what I’m doing.
Carley Sparks covers show jumping and related ridiculousness at getmyfix.org.
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