By Whitney Campbell and Jackie McFarland
Bernie Traurig’s involvement with horses began early and never faltered. From his first trail ride to his genuine backyard stables, a pre-fab garage that his father made into a stall and tack room, it seemed as if a childhood passion was destined to turn into something more serious. Dedicating most of his young rider success to his experiences at Meadowbrook Pony Club in Long Island, New York, and his trainer of four years, Captain Vladimir S. Littauer, Traurig went on to win both the AHSA (now USEF) Medal Finals and the prestigious ASPCA Medal Maclay Finals at the age of 16.
Highlights of Traurig’s career included winning over 60 Show Jumping Grand Prix events and representing the United States Show Jumping Team several times including the 1982 World Championships in Dublin, Ireland. He has competed in eight World Cup Finals. Traurig mastered the high levels of Dressage, winning 15 Grand Prix and Grand Prix special classes. He was short listed for the 1986 World Championship Trials and the 1988 Olympic Games. In 2009 he was inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame. Reaching the top of the sport in three of the International Equestrian Olympic disciplines: Show Jumping, Dressage, and Eventing, he is recognized as a legend in the sport. As a teacher and trainer, he is successful and sought after clinician.
After building 53 years worth of training and riding techniques and experiences with thousands of horses, Traurig is not only driven to give back to the sport but realized the infinite value of the web as a teaching tool. He developed a virtual place,EquestrianCoach.com, where quality education is accessible and affordable for every equestrian online, regardless of background, level, or geographic location.
As the monumental 2010 FEI Alltech World Equestrian Games came to a close and Lexington resumed its life post-WEG, we got a chance to catch up with Bernie Traurig, George Morris’ Associate Chef d’Equipe on the West Coast for the United States Equestrian Team. Traurig was an integral member of the USET selection committee and we got the inside scoop on his lifelong journey in the sport, the team’s overall performance at the Games, a surprise Saudi association and his perspective on the future of the sport.
EQSOL: When did you know you wanted to ride at an international level?
BT: After I won the Maclay, I started riding jumpers with Vladimir S. Littauer (one of Traurig’s mentors). When I was eighteen I had a decision to make, college or professional rider, and of course my dad wanted me to go to college. I had an opportunity to go to Gladstone, New Jersey, headquarters of the Unites States Equestrian Team. Riders stayed there, rode team horses, squads were chosen, and I also had an open door to be a working student under Frank Chapot. It took a dinner with my coach, Vladimir S. Littauer and William Steinkraus (Captain of the United States Equestrian Show Jumping Team) to convince my Dad that going to Gladstone would be my college education. I spent two and half years riding under Stephan Von Vishy, coach of the US Eventing Team, almost a year with Bert de Nemethy and from there I went into the real world.
EQSOL: What was the transition from Bernie the rider to Bernie the trainer?
BT: I was second at the Olympic Trials for the 3-day Team, and my horse injured a tendon, one week before the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo so I wasn’t able to go. Soon after I had to find a way to earn a living. I tried racehorses but it wasn’t for me. So I went into business for myself. I was newly married and young, 21, but I had a ‘sheepskin’ to hang on my shingle, I had won the Maclay and trained on the US Eventing Team. We bought a nice turnkey farm in Pennsylvania. Of course I wore a lot of hats in the beginning. I drove the van, braided for shows, taught kids, including Cynthia Hankins and Cindy Weiner (USEF judges). Michael Matz was one of my working students. We also had sale horses – I sold Idle Dice to Rodney Jenkins. I specialized in hunters and equitation that was how I made a living. I went on to jumpers later, and didn’t win my first Grand Prix until I was 27.
EQSOL: What Committees do you serve on and your role in the sport?
BT: I have served on the Show Jumping High Performance Committee for almost four years. I have been George Morris’ Associate Chef d’Equipe on the West Coast for the United States Equestrian Team and the Chairman of the West Coast Active Riders for the past five years. This year I was one of the selectors for the 2010 World Equestrian Games Team. After all these years it’s nice to be able to take your expertise and give back to the sport through these committees. When you are competing, your focus is on yourself and your career. Serving on committees is volunteer and very time consuming, more than just a few meetings here and there. Now I’m able to spend the time and I find it very rewarding. I am also proud to be accepting the CPHA (California Professional Horseman’s Award) Lifetime Achievement Award in January 2011.
EQSOL: Your association with Chef D’Equipe George Morris goes back many years – give us an inside look at how his mind works.
BT: His mind is like a steel trap. He is quite an incredible person. I don’t know how he does it to tell you the truth. He doesn’t take it seriously, that is too light of a term. George is completely obsessed and possessed with the job. His contract is up after the next Olympics and I don’t know of anyone who could fill his shoes. He is on board at every show that the riders are at, especially the Team riders. He can tell you how many faults and scores each rider had at each show off the top of his head. No one has better insight than he does. His experience is unmatched and he is respected by everyone – riders, directors, executive committees – every level. They rely on him to put his insight into their program. He is instrumental in guiding the riders on how to be horsemen but never interferes with their individual programs. He is a master at his job.
EQSOL: How the Selection Process works – what you did in 2010 to help choose the WEG Team?
BT: The 2010 WEG US Show Jumping Team Selectors were Molly Ashe, Mark Leone, and myself. Alternates were Robert Ridland, Katie Prudent and Ray Texel. Everyone participated in watching the riders and in the selection of the team. After the trials in Florida the long list of fifteen was chosen, and then divided into three groups. I wanted to see each group, and went to Rome and Aachen, but I missed Dublin because I was ill. There were also many conference calls amongst us. Ultimately the selectors, in consultation with George and the team vet, Tim Ober, chose the team.
EQSOL: What was your impression of the WEG and what happened there.
BT: George said to me – ‘Bernie, it could have gone either direction. We had a great team and not one thing went right after the first day.’ The competition started off with a bang but a lot of unforeseen mishaps occurred. Mario Deslauriers was coming off of a solid European Tour and Spruce Meadows. He had a great first day going quick and clean for the lead, but then the horse pulled a shoe just before his second round, which probably played a role in faults there. And he had a very unfortunate ride at the triple bar on Wednesday. Mclain Ward came off two big wins, the Hamptons and the Pfizer Million. His speed round was excellent, as expected, and the third night Sapphire looked tired and not herself. He then made a brilliant comeback and jumped world-class in the individual on Friday.
Laura Kraut had a problem early on with a carriage going by the warm up arena. Cedric lit up and she was very strong on course day one. She had one unfortunate rub in the first round of the nations cup and then came back with a clean world-class second round.
Lauren Hough’s horse got spooked outside in the warm up, and as George put it, ‘got a bee in its bonnet’ and ran out at the last oxer several times and then had to go off that. Clearly that shook her up a bit, and threw her off her game plan. A fabulous team with a solid record and perfect preparation that collectively had a lot of mishaps coming together at the wrong time.
I talked with the Saudi’s right after it was over. I have a long history and strong connection with that team. Khaled was my boy. I trained him and the rest of the team, with the exception of Abdullah al Sharbatly who is younger, and several other Saudi’s for seven years at Albert Court in Rancho Santa Fe. I was very proud of all of them.
My association started by chance in 1987 when I met Ziyad Abdul Jawad. He was going to Pepperdine and came to me looking for a horse. He said, ‘I want to ride on the Olympic Team, but I have never jumped before.’ So we started from scratch and he did very well. He was ranked second in the country in the high Amateur Owner division and then retired to go into business with his father. He introduced me to his cousin, Fahad Zahid, whose daughter, Alya still owns and operates Albert Court Limited in Rancho Santa Fe where I trained the Saudi boys. Fahad was also extremely instrumental in my career sponsoring me with three grand prix jumpers, Maybe Forever, Eastern Sunrise, and Corsair. I went to Saudi Arabia several times, and together with Ziyad helped start the National Federation over there. That was a key chapter in my career; it was rewarding to see them do so well.
EQSOL: Talented riders – from EAP to WEG – how should we address all the levels, including grassroots?
BT: Where are we headed? Seems in the right direction as long as we keep in mind that the kids need the option of good programs, for every level of rider. The lower level rider needs help to get up to the high levels as well as giving opportunities to the top kids. We have plenty of talent in this country, but it needs direction. We have to keep up as well as beef up our focus for our youth programs and on how we can get them to the super league status. It’s happening, the Young Rider tour in Europe went very well this year, but we need to continue developing on an annual basis.
How do we define grassroots? It is pretty broad, as there are only a select group of kids that can afford to ride, train and compete at the elite levels. I used to argue that this sport wasn’t only for the elite; I didn’t come from a wealthy family, but these days it is extremely expensive to compete consistently at the best horse shows. I wouldn’t have had the means and I can’t keep my kids in the show ring. How many kids are out there that go unnoticed because they can’t afford a six-figure horse as well as to compete on that horse? Not that we don’t have some incredible talent, we most certainly do. Young Riders and George’s Mastership Program prove that, and I would like to see those kids reach super league status. But there are more.
What is the future of our sport? All the expenses shut out a lot of potential talent. It is tough to even have a barn in the backyard when a bale of hay costs almost $25. Today, the cost of the horse is so exorbitant. Even buying young horses to train and sell for profit, the cost to educate the horses at shows and the monthly costs on top make it near impossible to make any money, unless it’s a real superstar, which is rare. Is there a way we can slow it down? I hope so. I don’t know how, but I hope there’s a way for everyone to enjoy this fabulous sport.
So my hope is that some checks and balances occur. If I had a crystal ball I’d like to look ahead fifteen years and see ways for talented riders to have a chance. Bring back a little of the old ways to mix with the new. Part of the answer is sponsors – we need to continue to develop great sponsors of the sport.
From individuals to associations, many of us involved in the sport are seeking for more answers.
EQSOL: What is your advice for up and coming riders?
BT: Focus on apprenticeships with the best in the sport. Young riders need to latch onto a top person in the sport and get under their wing. Make it an education and utilize the knowledge that the pros have and absorb it. Today’s world is too quick. You can’t get an education in three months. Instead, spend a few years absorbing, training, riding and teaching. Find somebody that you respect and apprentice with them, don’t rush. And go to college, which is another essential part of education.
EQSOL: You have come up with your own answers to today’s world embracing technology…
BT: In 2007, I tried to figure out how to offer top-notch knowledge to the masses via the web at affordable prices. It was a long and arduous process learning and developing the content management, streaming, getting the best quality, high definition, wireless broadband, etc. Once we were on the path, it took almost a year and a half to get the site ready to launch. Finally in June of this year, we introduced EquestrianCoach.com, the online solution to affordable coaching. Our philosophy is to seek out the very best instructors in the world and bring that level of instruction to the subscriber. It’s a lot of work from concept to completed video piece. We have some great guest coaches working with us. We now have two editing bays, a green screen and full-blown plan for upcoming coaches. It’s fun, each one is a learning experience and I really enjoy it. I’m convinced that seeing it visually is the best way.
We are excited to be working with the USHJA, Pony Club, IHSA colleges, affiliate associations and individuals for member discounts. Our newest level of membership was just announced. At this new level, a member will send in their own video and in return there will be not only analysis but also video solutions to your specifics needs. The point is if you are serious and want to learn, you can access the best. It is not only one of the ways I am giving back, but one where riders have a chance to learn from top trainers annually for less than it costs to participate in a clinic.
Thank you Bernie. Those who take their expertise and offer it to all are an inspiration. From the grassroots to the Games, we appreciate your time.