“Extremely emotional”

An interview with Germany’s most successful rider at the World Championships, Benjamin Werndl, about joy and fears, horses, failing, riding for Germany and of course about Aachen.

It is his time. First of all, the dressage rider Benjamin Werndl convinced across the board at the CHIO Aachen 2022, then he smashed his own personal bests at the World Championships in Herning, Denmark. We met the 38-year-old business economist in Aubenhausen, Bavaria, where he runs an equestrian establishment together with his sister, the Olympic gold medallist, Jessica von Bredow-Werndl.


Have you returned to the everyday routine in the meantime?
Yes, I am totally back to everyday life. I came straight back to Aubenhausen the day after the World Championships and rode all the horses. Who I had incidentally missed a lot, I only rode one horse in Herning the whole time – that was totally strange.


But you knew how to occupy yourself or did you tend to spend time pondering?
Both. Because being at a show for such a long time was new to me, the longest show so far has always been Aachen. The World Championships were – mentally speaking – very strenuous and psychologically taxing. Hence, one automatically asks oneself the question: Is this really what you want to do you in your life? And retrospectively I know: Yes, that is exactly what I want to do, that is what I have worked towards my whole life long. But it was extremely emotional.


You grew up with this show and competition situation.
It was the dimension of it, World Championships are something totally different. There I am not riding for myself; I am riding for Germany. I only experienced this for the first time in Aachen, shortly before the World Championships. And the pressure I felt there didn’t come from the outside, but you simply feel that it is there. That was new for me and very exhausting. But: It was also very cool, because the work I put in paid off because I got so far. I would be delighted to experience it all again.


Were you well-prepared for it, did you know what awaited you?
I was well-prepared, but actually experiencing it is something totally different, it was indeed extreme. The thing that helped me was confronting myself with the worst case: What will happen if everything here actually goes totally wrong? It can happen. And I knew: Luckily, not an awful lot will change, because I will still have the most important people around me, my family. And I will continue doing what I love, working with the horses and my team. But all of a sudden one starts asking oneself pretty elementary questions.


And all of that just because you had too much time to think things over?
Yes, probably. It wasn’t just the competition days, there is a whole week of preparation too. Yet, this energy that arose, was obviously good for something. I rode to results that I have never achieved before in my life.


Did you have fun in spite of the pressure?
Definitely in the dressage arena, not so much beforehand (laughs).


Have you developed methods for such situations?
We are convinced that if you are in balance in your life, then you will of course be able to cope better with extreme situations. It is not about manipulation, or about suppressing something. And beyond that there are concrete methods to calm oneself, for example via the breathing. I meditate too and am simply well-prepared. But for me it is also very important that I accept my fear of failing. I don’t even try to suppress my fear. Because the more you try to do so, the more it pops up in a different place. I totally admit my fears, my insecurity, I accept them and completely focus on my capabilities, on my strengths. The art is capturing the moment. That you are totally in this present moment and nowhere else. That is not only the case for riding – when you are climbing a mountain and you are not focused on that present moment, you will fall. It is exactly the same with a horse – it gives you direct feedback, it mirrors you. And if you are intensely focused on that moment, you can shine out in the dressage arena together with the horse.


Being able to cope with and accept the fear that a show can go wrong – is that the result of a long development?
It is definitely something you learn. We occupy ourselves with development in every respect. Of course, this also includes personal development. If you like, I have been preparing myself for this moment – and hopefully for all of those to come – for 20 years. By the way, I have also learned a lot through failures. My attempts to get on the German team failed again and again. When it finally happened and I was on the team for the first time, it was like an explosion. An explosion of joy. But it was a real struggle reaching that point.


World Championships and an explosion of joy are history – did you fall into a hole afterwards?
No, first of all I rode all of the horses and was delighted at the fantastic horses I have for the future too. Then, I went on holiday, only for five days, but it did me good, simply to get away with the family without horses. And even after that I didn’t fall into a hole, on the contrary: I am totally motivated and am looking ahead to the future.


Your horse Famoso was totally motivated too…
He was already a very special horse for me in the past and I have learnt a great deal from him. His most special characteristic is his reliability. For example, something like the Freestyle in Herning is new for him too. I already noticed in Aachen in the Deutsche Bank Stadium during the Spécial that Famoso thought: “What is actually going on here?“ We competed in Aachen for the first time in 2022. And in that particularly difficult situation, he listened to me more than ever. That was the case in the Freestyle on the Sunday and in Herning too. The crazier the atmosphere, the more he listens to me. That is an incredible asset, because there are horses that do the opposite as well. On top of that he has exceptional qualities, especially his piaffe and passage, he is world-class there.


So you are saying Famoso senses the special moment?
Well, I often ask myself regarding horses: “What are they actually thinking now”? They don’t know that it is the World Championships or that Aachen is Aachen. I try to keep it that way too, by giving him the feeling “Hey, it is just a show”.


Was Herning exclusively training/concentration/hotel for you or did you have chance to take in a little more?
It was pretty one-sided. I set myself a pretty uniform daily schedule: Jogging, dressage fitness exercises, breakfast, then I drove to the showgrounds, rode Famoso at walk for a while, drank a cappuccino, meditated, went through the test, trained again in the afternoon, then had my evening meal and went to bed. Of course, I watched the other riders now and again, but I wasn’t there for a holiday. I was definitely in my tunnel.


Did the fact that you were extremely successful at the CHIO Aachen beforehand help you? Did it give you security?
Definitely, that helped enormously. In Aachen I was able to prove that I could cope with the pressure also on a major stage. Whereby, I was often on the team as a Young Rider and when it came down to it, I was mostly especially good. Naturally, I have a bad day occasionally, but I am normally really good, when it comes down to the crunch. That is one of my qualities or to put it more accurately: One of our qualities in Aubenhausen, because Jessi and Raphi (Raphael Netz, who just won the U25 European Championship title for the third time, editor’s note) also share this quality.


What was Aachen like for you this year?
Because I competed at the Soers with three horses: Eating, riding, sleeping. And then, right at the end, after qualifying for the World Championships, I sat down on the stand and watched the Rolex Grand Prix and relaxed for the first time and thought to myself: “What a fantastic life I actually lead!” (laughs)


Do you try to watch the other disciplines, go shopping in the CHIO Village, visit the Media Night…
I attended the Media Night with my team and I really enjoyed it. The food, the organisation, it is a very special evening. One also senses that professionalism there. I would love to enjoy the shopping more, but with so many horses that wasn’t possible this time. When I competed with just one horse in the past, I watched the eventing – very impressive.


Are you enjoying this currently so successful period of time?
Well. Everyone always says: “Enjoy it!” Which I am of course, but it is indeed also very strenuous. I particularly enjoy it in retrospect. With my workload I didn’t really have time to enjoy Aachen more. It is fantastic riding into that arena, the crowd, the stables, the professionalism, the flair, it really is unique. The best show in the world for me. But enjoy it? If I were a spectator that would be more the case. As a sportsman I am – luckily – part of the world elite of riders and I perform for the spectators. I like being part of this and riding there, but it is a different kind of enjoyment. It is a bit like hiking: What I really enjoy is arriving, stopping for a snack, enjoying the view… but the actual hiking itself certainly isn’t all enjoyment.


Is hiking a balance for you, a way of regaining your strength?
Yes, it certainly gives me something. We live near the mountains here. I have climbed the mountain a few times before important shows, sometimes on my own. It gives me strength. More than if I were to simply lie on the couch. Whereby I enjoy doing that as well, ideally with a book. By Reinhold Messner for example, I have read a few of his books. What has stuck in my mind is his “Step for step, grip by grip”. When you say “I want to come third at the World Championships” at the beginning of the season, it is a huge mountain to climb and it seems incredibly high. First it is the next show and the preparation for it and on the day of the competition itself, it is riding into the arena, the salute, trotting away… It really is step by step, grip by grip. And then you see how far you get. That really helped me.


What was it like during the COVID lockdown: Did it enable you to relax or did it irritate you more?
We made use of the COVID period to develop Dressur-Fit and the Aubenhausen Club. We wanted to show how we train and that this training brings our riding up to a different level. Whereby that didn’t just kick off because of COVID, it was merely intensified as a result. We already wrote down our goals, our visions over 10 years ago. COVID has enabled us to continue putting it into practice more intensely. And then I also asked myself personally: Is that everything in my life? Because it can’t just be about achieving pre-defined goals. Because then you soon find yourself in a rat race. That is why one should perhaps have a mission alongside the vision. What is the deep meaning? What is our why? In Aubenhausen we pursue the goal of helping horses. Communicating with them, understanding them, schooling them in a friendly way. If we are able to carry our experiences out into the world, then perhaps we will also be able to help horses in Australia, in New Zealand or in South Africa or India too.


Did you ever have any doubts? Or an alternative plan for life?
Yes, there was one. I was with the German Armed Forces in Warendorf and then I decided: I wanted to try out a life with and for horses. And then we found ourselves in a rut for five years, then I took a degree and worked in my father’s real estate company and then I wasn’t as sure any more. At that time I took part in a show with 4 horses, there was a class every day and I came home without one single rosette. And that was the point where I thought, things couldn’t get much worse. But then as a family we decided we’d give it a go, carry on along that path. We encouraged each other. There’s that saying “Only people who persevere achieve great things”.


Does everything revolve around horses at home?
No, not at all. My wife doesn’t ride and she is not as sport crazy as the rest of the family. And that is a good thing too, that is a nice balance. We occupy ourselves with totally normal things, just like other families. With one exception: My children only talk about horses.


What are your horses for the future?
Oh, there are a few stars among them. Dalera’s brother, Dallenio, he is seven. Then, Discover, he is nine, he competed in the Small Tour in Aachen, a very exciting horse. Then I have Dionysos, he is very challenging, but he has incredible potential. And then there a few very good five-year-olds, which are fantastic horses!


Here and now: Are you happy or more tense because you have aroused expectations through your achievements and thus created added pressure?
I am content and very grateful. By concentrating on what one has, everyone can make the decision themselves to be happy. I was already happy before the World Championships, above all because of my family and my healthy children, of course. I am grateful because I can live out my dream. And I am also grateful for a certain amount of ingenuity that I can live out in the saddle and on the horse. Everyone has something they are good at. And I am very grateful for the fact that I am able to live that out to the full.


Tickets for the dressage at the CHIO Aachen 2023

Benjamin Werndl at home in Aubenhausen. Photo: CHIO Aachen

Benjamin Werndl at home in Aubenhausen. Photo: CHIO Aachen