Defying Neigh-Sayers, a New Star Hoofs It Onto the World Stage
Totilas the Stallion Brings a Jolt of Celebrity to Genteel Dressage; a LeBron James Moment
By MARY M. LANE
MÜHLEN, Germany—Two teenage girls peeked around a barn door to catch a glimpse of this small German town’s most famous resident.
“Oh, my God, it’s really him!” one squealed, as the two rushed to stroke their idol’s glossy mane and the white star on his forehead. Moorlands Totilas, an 11-year-old ebony stallion with rippling muscles and 11,800 Facebook fans, pricked up his ears and tilted his nose to be petted, as his admirers cooed.
Totilas has never been on a racetrack or the silver screen. “Toto,” as his fans call him, has earned his celebrity by shaking up an obscure corner of the horse world: dressage.
With a sweep of competition victories and world-record scores since his 2007 debut, the Dutch-born Totilas has sold out dressage shows world-wide and brought a jolt of celebrity to a sport that has struggled to attract a following beyond the horsey set. Along the way, his super-star status—and recent sale price of at least €8 million ($11.6 million)—has upended the genteel world of dressage.
Star Stallion Wins Dressage New Fans
Derived from the French word for “training,” dressage is an equestrian sport rooted in cavalry traditions. Some devotees complain Totilas’s flamboyant, high-stepping style and the merchandising that surrounds him are detracting from the purity of the conservative sport.
Totilas T-shirts—a marketing first for dressage—sell for €119 online and at shows.
“Such exorbitant commercialism must stop,” said Jan Tönjes, chief editor of Germany’s St. Georg magazine. At a recent show in Wiesbaden, he said, a woman tried to buy a rubber glove that the horse had spat on as a souvenir.
More recently, the October sale of Totilas to a horse breeder in Germany, the Netherland’s big dressage rival, sparked a fury among Dutch fans not unlike the outrage in Cleveland last year when basketball’s LeBron James left the Cavaliers for the Miami Heat.
Bereaved Totilas fans reacted with a Facebook campaign to keep the stallion with his popular Dutch rider Edward Gal. When the stallion’s new owners chose 26-year-old German rider Matthias Rath instead, fans threatened to throw tomatoes at him in competition.
“You’re buying yourself an Olympic medal!” wrote one fan.
Would-be spectators typically complain that, unlike the more action-packed performances of race horses and show jumpers, dressage talent is difficult to appreciate by nonexperts because the horses all move in a similar fashion. Even at the Olympics, dressage competitions tend to draw thin crowds.
Totilas and his showboat style have changed that. At last year’s World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, he won all three gold medals for dressage before a sold-out crowd of 25,000. At the packed 2009 European Dressage Championships in England, several female spectators burst into tears as Totilas won a score of 90.75%, becoming the first horse ever to score above 90%. In contrast, recent Olympic dressage champions have won with scores in the high-70% range.
In freestyle dressage—the most popular form—riders are given mandatory movements like walks, trots, and pirouettes to incorporate into a performance and choose music that fits the horse’s gait. The horses are judged not just on executing required paces, but on how they move to the beat.
“I remember well the first time I saw Totilas live. I called a friend of mine and said, ‘I’ve seen God.'” said critic Catherine Haddad of American equine magazine Chronicle of the Horse.
At a smaller show last month in the northwestern town of Balve, the dressage arena was half empty for other performances, but as Totilas’s time drew nigh, crowds filled the arena—trickling in with a chilly rain. Low murmurs gave way to silence as Totilas glided through trots, twirled pirouettes and burst into canters.
The crowd erupted as Totilas’s winning score of 83.42% was announced. The stallion was then whisked behind the arena for a swift wipe-down. The average score for other riders that Saturday was 74%.
Dressage experts attribute Totilas’s star power to his high-stepping, lithe bounces, similar to the spring of Lipizzaners, the white stallions that perform at Vienna’s Spanish Riding School. His spurts of power make his hooves appear as if they’re floating across the ground and give him a pep that other dressage horses lack with their more understated moves, they say.
Some riders and critics, though, worry that buzz surrounding Totilas may skew dressage scores.
“No one is jealous of his success, but riders are worried the hype will force judges to give higher marks to keep attention on the sport,” said St. Georg’s Mr. Tönjes.
Balve is only 24 kilometers (about 15 miles) from Holland, where for a decade, Dutch fans dreamed of Olympic glory with the star stallion and his longtime rider Mr. Gal, a 41-year-old dressage veteran who raised Toto.
Last fall, though, Mr. Rath’s stepmother purchased Totilas with German breeder Paul Schockemöhle from his Dutch owner, dashing Dutch dreams of showing Totilas at the 2012 Olympics in London.
“It’s like taking an oil painting from Matisse and writing Monet’s name on it,” said Ms. Haddad, the dressage critic. “Edward Gal created a masterpiece, and now someone else will put his name on it.”
At home in Mühlen, Totilas can be a bit of a diva around his barn mates, Mr. Rath says.
Unlike the other horses there, he lives in a padded stall so he won’t hurt himself and has two bouncy balls for play during his downtime. Before and after daily training sessions, he relaxes in his solarium—a roomy stall with infrared heat lamps to loosen the stallion’s muscles. Once, when someone tried to put a horse in the stall next to the solarium, Totilas pitched a fit until the offending equine was removed.
At night, his stall and barn are locked and a patrolman keeps watch outside. A camera overlooks his stall for extra security. Every two weeks, he sees an acupuncturist.
“He knows how good he is,” Mr. Rath said. “He has unbelievable self-confidence.”
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