Bernie Traurig – A Man for All Disciplines

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Bernie and Springdale. Photo courtesy of Bernie Traurig

BY ANN JAMIESON

“My first ride on a horse was with my mother, and I was 11 years old. It was at a place called Whitey’s Stables on Long Island. My mother was a pleasure rider, so she took me for a trail ride. 

“The horse ran away with me, and I thought, ‘Oh that’s enough of that.”

Of course, it wasn’t.

Starting Out

Bernie’s mother convinced his father to buy three acres in Syosset, New York, and erect a pre-fab two-car garage and convert it into a barn. Half was for the horse, half was for the tack room. Then they fenced in a one and a half acre pasture.

“She bought a prehistoric looking roan called Rusty and wanted me to ride it.  One day she talked me into it; she enticed me with Pony Club. But she said, ‘You know you’ll have to ride.’ 

“She enrolled me with Meadowbrook Pony Club, and I loved it. That’s how I got my ears wet in the horse world.”

Bernie shared Rusty with both his parents. Purchased from Jimmy Fallon for $600, Bernie showed him in both equitation and jumpers.

 “He was quite a good jumper,” Bernie notes. A picture of Rusty jumping a coop shows just how talented the little horse was!

Bernie has ridden at the top of our sport in all three disciplines: Grand Prix Dressage and Grand Prix Jumping, as well as on the USET 3-day team. In addition he showed some of the top hunters in United States history, and raced steeplechase horses for a year. He is quite probably the only rider who has accomplished such an amazing array of horsemanship triumphs. 

In 2009 he was inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame. In 2010 the California Professional Horsemen’s Association honored him with their Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2012 he was awarded the USHJA President’s Distinguished Service Award.

Initially Bernie just mucked stalls and learned some stable management skills in Pony Club. Later he learned basic dressage with a woman named Sarah Schwartz Cavanaugh whose sister Cora Cushny was the D.C. 

“Sarah took an interest in me in Pony Club. 

“She put me on a lunge line without reins. She taught me the accuracy of the letters. ‘You know Bernie, when it says ‘trot’ at A, it means trot at A, not four feet past it.’

Littauer

Bernie met Captain Vladimir Littauer, who would become the single most powerful influence in his life, when he was 14. “I was having trouble with a horse I had that my father had bought, and my father was not a horseman so the horse was not a good horse. 

“Somehow my Dad had heard of this man who lived in the same town we lived in, and he said to him, ‘Would you train my son?’ 

“Littauer said ‘I don’t know.’ He was semi-retired.

“He said he’d come to watch me ride. He gave me two lessons, and he said, ‘Ok, I’ll take him on, but I want you to know I’ll show up in your backyard every two weeks so he’s got to do his homework.’

“For six years I stayed with that man and did my homework. He showed up in my backyard every two weeks. He didn’t go to horse shows and he trained that horse but he couldn’t do too much with it so he said ‘I’ll try to find you a Thoroughbred horse that is suitable’ so he called Harry DeLeyer (who had Snowman) and Harry sent over a horse.

“Littauer declared ‘That’s the one!’ That horse was off the track only about two months. We started training him and a year and a half later I was 15 and I was 5th in the Maclay and 8th in the Medal Finals. The following year, when I was 16, I won the Maclay and Medal Finals on him.

“His name was Troublemaker, because in those days you had to swap horses with the other top riders in the finals, and ride without stirrups. And nobody else could ride him without stirrups, he was so sensitive. And he knew me and I knew him, and he was a wonderful horse to have in the ride offs because no one else could ride him.

“I sold him to a client of ours, and she won the finals with him, and then I bought him back and retired him. He lived till he was 30. He was a good guy.

“The finals were at the old Garden, back to back Saturday and Sunday, and Littauer, who never went to horse shows, actually showed up, and I won the Medal. And Littauer comes to me and says ‘Bernie, congratulations. Call me tomorrow and let me know how you do in the Maclay.’

“He was the major influence in my riding career, the master of masters of the forward riding system, and a great educator, and I must say, probably 80% of my coaching is right out of his mouth. He wrote a wonderful book called Commonsense Horsemanship, I highly recommend it.”

The Team

At 18, Bernie and his father had conflicting opinions. While Bernie wanted to become a professional, his father wanted him to go to college and get an education. 

“So Littauer organized a dinner with Bill Steinkraus and my father to discuss my future. Steinkraus said they train the team at Gladstone and Bert deNemethy is upstairs with the jumpers and Stephan Von Vischy is downstairs with the three-day horses. And they have all these donated horses and they need riders for them and I can get you a position on the three-day team and if you do well you might make the team.”

Bernie’s father realized that his son would have the best education in the world, in effect a college education in riding and horsemanship. Steinkraus sealed the deal.

“So I went to Gladstone. 

“I went as a working student for Frank Chapot, and lived at his house in New Jersey. I’d get up at five with Frank and ride horses and then we commuted an hour to the team each day where we all started at seven. At that time you had to be an amateur to be on the team so Frank sold wallets. And he would actually drive around selling these wallets. 

“Then we would drive home, sleep a little bit and then start riding again at seven p.m. to avoid the heat of the summer.

Bernie & Envoy. Photo courtesy of Bernie Traurig

On a donated horse named Envoy, Bernie placed second in the trials for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games for the 3-day event team. A mishap prevented him from competing in the Games.

“Our coach Vischy decided to have us all take the horses to the Far Hills Training Track and breeze one week before shipping to Tokyo and my horse did a tendon, and I was off the team.

Denny Emerson leading Bernie on The Caddy Master on his way to a steeplechase. Photo courtesy of Bernie Traurig

“I rode with Bert deNemethy for the next year, and then Denny Emerson called up and said ‘There’s a good horse named Caddymaster in Southern Pines, and we’re looking for a jockey. Do you want to ride him in a race?

“I said ‘Sure’! And I went off to Southern Pines to ride him, and I met a guy named Mike Smithwick who was a leading trainer of steeplechase horses. So I rode steeplechasers for nearly a year. 

“Mike was a horseman. He taught me so much! That was a great education! Total horsemanship.”

Thoroughbreds 

“I got married early to Tiffany, and we bought a farm in Pennsylvania and my son Michael was born. Thirty acres, 50 stalls, a nice little indoor arena, beautiful stone Bucks County house. We paid $90,000 for it; it sold decades later for $5 million dollars.

“I was training, braiding, driving the truck, wearing a lot of hats. 

“We started importing Thoroughbreds from England. It was around 1968. I brought 150 horses from England to America. Sold them like hotcakes.

“Met a guy named Tony (Tully) Rector. I was teaching his daughter, Kelly. He was a flamboyant kind of guy, said ‘Let’s go to England and buy some horses.’ I said ‘Ok!’ You pick up a magazine there were horses everywhere. I found a guy to ship horses to America. He said how many horses do you have?

“I said 10. I didn’t have any. So he said $3500. So we went out and bought 10 horses. They were $1000, $1200, bought them all over the country from sales and brought them home and they caught on like wildfire. We bought nice types. So we did that several times.’

Grand Prix

“I started riding hunters and did hunters for a while, till I got my first good jumper, a little mare named Springdale. I won my first Grand Prix, in Cleveland. And she was wonderful. And then I started riding for Ronnie Beard at Winter Place Farm. He was a great trainer. He bought Royal Blue who was a great working hunter, and Springdale for me,

“And then Jet Run and Gozzi. I had lots of Ferraris, you know!

Bernie & Gozzi. Photo courtesy of Bernie Traurig

“Then I married Amy Brumder and moved to Wisconsin for seven years. I was on the team on a horse named Edenvale, owned by the Van Dykes, I was helping their daughter Ellen in her junior years.

 “And they bought Edenvale, and The Cardinal, and a horse called Southside. So I had three top Grand Prix horses. That’s when I got on the team for the World Championships. And after that I took a little sabbatical and started importing warmbloods.” 

Bernie & The Cardinal. Photo courtesy of Bernie Traurig

The Warmblood Invasion

“At that time the exchange rate in Europe was so good, particularly in Holland. The farmers had good horses, and good auctions to send their horses to. 

“I met a dressage meister named Johan Hinneman. He was a star in international sport, and we started importing horses together. You could buy a great horse from a farmer for 20,000 guilders, which was $5000. I was a kid in a candy store! They were plentiful; they were everywhere. And there was virtually no competition. No one else had caught on yet. 

“I saw one horse I really liked, and I was told it was too expensive. It was 50,000 guilders. That’s only $12,500! I bought him. It was Victor, the horse Joanie Scharffenberger showed on the team.

“We bought another horse, it was $50,000. It was Don Carlos, who went to the World Championships.

Dressage

“One day Johan put me on an Olympic horse that he had in training. He said, ‘Come on, piaffe,’ and I said ‘How do you do that? Where’s the button?’ 

“He showed me the buttons, and the piaffe was kind of all right. But what got me hooked was the passage because I’d never experienced passage in my life and I didn’t know a horse could move like that. It was amazing!”

Bernie also learned tempi changes “all the way to one, first day.

“So I was hooked, he had me from the get go.

“We put several horses on the Olympic team, we mounted Robert Dover twice. We had a horse named Orpheus, a horse Jessica Ransehousen rode on the Olympic team.

“We sold another horse, Azurit to Sis Steinkraus, Bill Steinkraus’ wife, and the horse developed an allergy to microspores in her stone barn. She called and told me she couldn’t keep him, so we bought him back. Then Johan said, ‘Why don’t we keep him and you ride him?’

“I said ‘Me in a top hat? No way!

“We started training, he helped me, Christolot Boylen came down from Canada and helped me a few times. A few months later was the first time this horse had started Grand Prix. My first class was on this Prix St. Georges horse. I was going down the centerline and Peter Doubleday announced ‘Ladies and Gentlemen Bernie Traurig is making his debut into the dressage sport on the other side of the grounds.’

“It was a stampede, it was like the British invasion.”

It wasn’t an auspicious start. “You know that little bell that rings when you go off course? Three times.

“But I got over the top hat, and the next class was the trial for the World Championship and I don’t know how but I won it. I went on from there to be short listed for the World Championships in 1986 and two years later I was short listed for the Olympic Games and I just missed making that.

“I won 15 Dressage Grand Prix and Grand Prix special on Azurit. 

Bernie & Azurit

“And that was the end of my dressage career. I much more enjoyed the training of it than I did the showing. And of course I’m much more a hunter and jumper rider by trade. So I went back to what I liked the most.

“But it was a turning point in my career and I look back and say that was probably one of the best things I’ve done in my life because it really cleared up for me the differences between the jumping discipline and the dressage discipline, and the methodology that we use in both of those divisions is so different, the training and the philosophy. 

“The forward system that we teach is based mainly on non-clashing aids and balance in your stirrups and not so much on the sophisticated relationship of driving and restraining aids and balance on your seat. And I didn’t know until I experienced it. It got it clear so I coach better now because I can explain the difference to the people I’m teaching.

California

“After I divorced, I moved to California with Christine Stover, and eventually married her. We have two children, Natasha and Lucas.

“I had always wanted to come to California, I had an itch for decades. I came out here and loved it. We found a really great place called Royal Oaks Farm. Nice people there, they sponsored me. In 1988 I was showing Grand Prix dressage and trying out for the Olympic team and also showing a horse called Corsair in the Grand Prix Jumpers. Norman Dello Joio sent him. He had an injury and Norman didn’t think he could do the Grand Prix anymore at the age of 15.

“I got him out here and he looked like a broodmare. I got him fit and he was a great horse. I took him to a little Grand Prix and I won it and thought ‘Gee that was fun.’ So I took him to the Santa Barbara Grand Prix and I won that. I won 15 Grand Prix on that horse. I’ve won over 60 Grand Prix total in my life. 

“Later I landed a job with The Oaks and also began training Elise Haas (of the Levi Strauss family). The family sponsored Christine for the Sydney Olympics and she was part of the bronze medal winning dressage team there. 

Coaching and A Return to Thoroughbreds

Bernie has been married to his current wife Caitlin for 17 years, and they have a daughter named Michaela, and a small ranch in San Marcos, CA. “I feel blessed to have found it,” says Bernie.

Bernie stopped competing in 2010 because he wanted to coach more. In order to reach more students, he created EquestrianCoach.com, an online video training website which to date has over 400 video training topics and includes over 60 world class and Olympic coaches who share their knowledge as well. 

Now he coaches and does clinics…and pursues his passion for Thoroughbreds.

Bernie created WellspringThoroughbreds.com, a sport horse training and adoption center located at his farm in San Marcos. The facility was approved by the government as a non-profit 501 (c) (3) just as the pandemic started.

Bernie’s first four Thoroughbreds have just been acquired. One of his goals is to “create a real demand for Thoroughbreds that can save thousands of their lives.” The plan will benefit both horses and riders. 

 “We need affordable shows and affordable horses. Every person with a passion to ride should be able to.”

Bernie personally chooses the best horses, ones that will be good show horses at very affordable prices. And he will train people how to train Thoroughbreds, and help foster circuits for Thoroughbred shows. 

“If you create the jobs,” he says, “you will create the demand.”

Bernie Traurig is one of the very few people on this earth who has the stunning ability to compete at the top level of the sport in all the English disciplines, from A-level hunters, to Grand Prix dressage and Grand Prix jumpers, and international-level eventing.

 Perhaps the only one. It is an amazing feat, accomplished by an unbelievably talented man.


About the Author: Ann Jamieson wanted to be a horse show judge since she was a child, and has now held her USEF “”r”” judge’s cards for over 30 years. She writes about both horses, and travel, (and particularly loves combining the two). Ann is the author of the “”For the Love of the Horse”” series, four volumes of amazing true stories about horses, and the proud mom of her Secretariat grandson, Fred Astaire (Tucker).
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