“Master of Disaster at Ballywater Farms”. That is Marlen Schannwell’s current job description on her Facebook profile. Looking back on the four years she has been head groom for Irish wonder-kid Bertram Allen though, there has clearly been a lot more masterly than disasterly - although she strongly advises not to use her 20-year-old boss for trimming horses’ forelocks or letting him loose with a clipper.
“He tried his best though, I will give him that,” she laughs. “But those forelocks, it took me at least a week to get over it!” Apart from these two incidents, Marlen has nothing but nice things to say about her young chief-in-charge. “He is hard working. Bertram knows how to use a fork to put it that way.”
Marlen is very much a part of Bertram’s success story. After working seven years for Heiner Engemann and his then-wife Karin, she moved on to Italy for two years before she returned home. “Bertram had just come off ponies, and had moved his horses to Germany.
The family were looking for someone to come and help out during Christmas, and I was recommended to go by a few friends. They were so nice, so I decided to stay on. It fitted quite well as I was kind of planning to retire, and I thought it would be good to work for a junior rider and have a bit more of a quiet life. Bertram had four horses at the time, and did a few shows a month - which suited me. Yeah,” she laughs - “That worked out really well. Now we have shows every week and twenty horses!”
In the beginning it was not only about taking care of the horses. With Bertram being only 16, Marlen found herself keeping an extra eye on him as well. “To begin with he was very shy and barely talked. Now, he never stops talking,” she smiles. “Back then it was a lot of 'Whatever you think’ and 'I don’t know’. Now he has a lot more opinion.”
Marlen realised early on that Bertram had something special though. “It was just the way he was with the horses and the way he got the contact with them; it was so natural for him. From the beginning, Bertram would always adapt to the horses and never tried to change them - instead of going the other way around. I think all that pony hunting in Ireland did the trick,” she says smiling. “He spend every weekend on a different kind of pony - small, big, short, long, fresh, lazy.”
Although she is currently living a dream, those early days were not all that glamorous. "In the beginning we did loads of one and two star shows. We did not have a truck or a show trunk; we went with two bridles and one saddle to the shows - looking like complete farmers,” Marlen smiles. "There were not so many Irish riders in Germany at that time though, so we got in for a few three and four star shows early on. I remember at our first four star show in Braunschweig, Bertram was not even old enough to be allowed in the Grand Prix - but we went anyway and won the Grand Prix qualifier on the Friday night!”
“I think we were lucky that it started this way. Bertram got Molly when she was seven, and they grew together all the way. They had the time to get to know each other, and nothing was ever rushed. You might think that Molly must be such an easy horse with this little boy on the back, but she is absolutely not. She is so strong and has so much character. If you start to pull or fight she would win anyway, and it does not matter who sits on her then - she will just take off with you if she wants to,” Marlen says of Allen’s top horse that he won the 2014 Grand Prix in Dublin and 2015 Grand Prix in Lummen and Dinard.
"Molly is the princess, and she knows it,” Marlen laughs. “She is a diva, but she is a clever one. For example she knows her daily routine; you could basically open the door for her and she would like do everything herself, it does not really matter if you hang at the end of the lead rope or not. Although she loves her field, she gets quite grumpy if she is too long at home - she is a show horse.”
To travel is a challenge though, an accident when Molly was a youngster has left it's scars - literally. “Molly travels quite bad,” Marlen explains. "As a four year old when she was with her former owners in Britain, she actually went through the wall from the horse part into the living and needed to be cut out of there. So, she is quite special to travel with and needs a lot of space - there is no chance to have her on a two-horse-box or trailer. She has been flying quite ok, but she needs to be on the right side of the container with an extra space - and you have to be really careful how you do it.”
Molly has gotten more chilled out over time though, and has clearly benefitted of Bertram and Marlen’s field regime which involves every single horse going out on the grass no matter what. “When she comes home from the show, she will drag you straight to her field,” Marlen laughs. “She is crazy; head down, eat, roll. When we got her she hated other horses, and we tried to get her more relaxed and to accept them. We tested with our little pony Magic, that she chased around the field - but after a few tries we managed to match her with one of our other mares that had a few foals before. Molly loves her. Now she is more relaxed and calmer. Before she struggled with a lot of stomach problems, a few colics, needed calmers non-stop - but now all this is gone.”
Marlen's plan to have a bit more of a quiet life working for a junior rider didn't turn out quite as planned. "Now we have shows every week and twenty horses!” Here Belmonde, a nine year old gelding that has been with team Allen for little over a year.
With some of the world’s best horses in the stable, we ask Marlen if they don’t worry about the injury-risk with all the field activity and especially with putting the horses together. “No. I have seen many more injuries with other systems that have included only riding and hand walking. If the horses can’t make a 1.20 air jump in the field, they will not survive 1.60 competitions in the ring - that is my opinion. I also think they get a lot more motivated for work when they are allowed to be horses. We actually had a mare that was so stressed that in the end we decided to leave her out the whole summer with the pony, taking her in for riding only. This is what cleared her mind in the end, and made it possible for her to do the sport."
The now 17-year-old Romanov is also a proof that what they are doing at Ballywater Farms is something very right. The veteran is in the shape of his life, and better than he ever was - this year he won the World Cup in Bordeaux and the Global Tour Grand Prix in Paris just to mention some. “We just try to keep him happy,” Marlen says. “He goes straight to the field every morning, and hacks out a lot. At home, Bertram almost never rides him - at this age he knows everything and there is nothing to teach him. Instead Bertram’s sister takes him out a lot."
He might be getting older, but at home Romanov is a a proper stallion - it’s his territory. “But once you bring him to the show he is a different horse! So nice to handle and to ride, quiet and no screaming like at home. And Romanov has the biggest heart; he is just such a fighter,” Marlen smiles. “What is also funny is that he loves Molly. He will just stand there and stare at her with hearts in his eyes. Once at the show he ripped the stable guard off, and went out of the box and being right next to Molly and Tinka’s Serenade everybody got quite stressed. But he did not even consider to go to the girls, instead he started eating hay. He for sure dreams of them, but would not touch them - Romanov is a real gentleman,” Marlen laughs.
Like Molly, many of the horses in Bertram’s stable have come as youngsters. The talented 8-year-old Barnike, winner of two gold medals at the FEI World Breeding Jumping Championships, Dancing Queen Z and Cheese W Z are some of the big hopes for the future. "The plan was to sell one or two, but we have kept them as they all developed so nicely. Barnike is just about the most clever horse I ever met; she just knows how to deal with everything. If she makes a mistake in the ring, she will never do it again - she is quite amazing,” Marlen says.
Did she ever expect the story to play out like it did - with Bertram winning five star Grand Prix classes, jumping at the championships, winning medals even, and then going into the Top 10 before he even turned 20? Marlen laughs, and replies; "Maybe in like 20 years, but not as quick as this! It’s been like pushing a fast-forward button!"
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