Gunnar Ostergaard was “six or seven” when he was first hoisted onto the back of one of the workhorses on his grandparents’ farm in Denmark. At the age of 13, the young man wrote in his diary, “Is there anything more beautiful than horses? Oh, how I love my horse Johnny.” Here is the tale of his early dressage lessons – which did not go particularly well at first – and his first beloved horse.


After one of my first lessons, I nearly quit altogether. At that time, the actual riding hall was a good half-mile away from the stable, which was located at Haderslev Dam. This meant we had to—regardless of our level of experience—negotiate through streets and traffic on horseback until coming to the riding hall. Once I finally reached it, I was ordered back to the stable to retrieve a double bridle. Obviously, I had no idea what this was or what it looked like, and when I returned, carrying a leather strap I had grabbed at random and hoping for the best, I incurred the wrath of the instructor, and was told off in front of the other students. Things only got worse; then I proceeded to fall off on the very same discouraging day. Suddenly it didn’t matter how cute the girls were; I was fed up after this disaster of a day and, tail between my legs, I cycled home.

Upon entering the house, I declared to my father that I was “never going back there again!”

A black and white photo of Gunnar Ostergaard as a teeneager.

Gunnar left Denmark for Germany at age 16, becoming the youngest apprentice at Karl Diel’s training facility.

Sometimes life lessons are learned the hard way, and shortly afterwards, I thought this might be one of those times, as my father became uncharacteristically furious.

“You can’t just give up after your first lesson!” he barked. “You must finish what you start—this is the way it is in life. You are to go right back to the stable and schedule your next lesson, do you understand me?!”

It wasn’t until years later that I learned the actual truth: my continuing to ride was far less about developing integrity and courage, and far more about economics. My money-conscious father had paid in advance for 10 riding lessons in order to get a discount, and had I quit, he wouldn’t have gotten his money back!

I persevered and rode as much as I was allowed. When fall had passed, I was an enthusiastic rider, and by the time Christmas arrived, I was over the moon to receive my first pair of riding pants. Yet, as was typical of my dad, there was a note pinned to them, saying, “Not to be worn until spring.” It was terrible for a child to have to wait that long—and perhaps the rule was compromised a little, for it wasn’t long before I was turned out in my natty, balloon-thighed breeches, my mother’s scooter boots, and mounted majestically upon my 17.2- hand bike, cycling madly to the barn.

Of course, nowadays I am indeed grateful that I did not bid goodbye to the equestrian world after that experience. And yes, it was an important lesson in not giving up. Although I certainly didn’t agree with my father at the time, that challenging day was pivotal for the rest of my life. I became more and more enthusiastic about riding as my skills developed—any other hobbies I had as a child simply couldn’t compare. Frustratingly, I wasn’t fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to ride several different horses at the school because my weekends were fully scheduled and outside of my control. Other students were able to take advantage of mucking out and doing other chores at the barn to earn extra riding lessons.

Between being force-fed like a goose with Danish cakes on Saturdays and attending the dreaded dance and piano lessons, I only had time for one riding lesson a week, and it was difficult to watch Flemming, Torben, Peter, and the others soar past my own abilities when I so desperately wanted to do nothing but ride.

It was not long before my dream horse arrived. His name was Johnny, and he was an aged Knabstrupper, which, it must be said, had probably been sold to my father by the riding master with an overwhelming sense of relief. Johnny, with his inelegant head and traditional coloring—brown and black spots scattered over his white coat—had a well-earned reputation as utterly unsuitable as a school horse. He was far too spooky, and later on, it was only my fledgling skills as a dressage and jumper rider (we learned both in those days) that kept him manageable between seat and leg. In fact, we even went on to win a few shows, including three small combined winter competitions in low-level dressage, earning us a heady mention in the local newspaper Dannevirke.

But in the unfailingly tight-fisted manner of my father, it was agreed that while Johnny would board at the riding school, my father would only pay for his stall. This meant weekly trips to my uncle’s farm, where we would load hay and straw bedding into one of my father’s trucks, to drive it back, unload it, and store it in the hayloft. I can well remember being at the barn and seeing that area roped off specifically for Johnny’s groceries.

My father had learned to ride in his youth, in that sort of ramrod straight, “up-down” way of posting: gripping with the knees, with one hand on the reins and the other hand free to hold his cigar. So we shared rides on Johnny, with my father sometimes hacking through the forests, but more often enjoying riding through the city. I believe there was a bit of vanity involved—he rather enjoyed being the object of admiration.

I still smile when I think of how he rode out along Aabenraavej (a street in town) one fateful Sunday morning. Looking like a fashion plate from Abercrombie and Fitch, my father was quite dapper in his cap, brown boots, riding whip, and, trustingly, the reins in his left hand, cigar in his right. A hack to the harbor in Haderslev was what he had in mind, but Johnny had other ideas. As a horse that tended to move sideways more often than straight, Johnny may have had some Viking blood coursing through his veins—and so did my father, it was clear. What possessed him to choose to ride between the harbor and railroad tracks that morning, I’ll never know, but off they went, with Johnny’s eyes out on stalks as soon as he took note of the ships on the water. His heart thumping through his ribcage, he began to jig, and then, at the worst possible moment, a train rumbled past—and Johnny exploded. Terrorized between horse-eating ships on one side and an iron, smoke-spewing monster on the other, he plunged forward, and for the first time in his life, didn’t go sideways, as he bolted and ran away with my father. Miraculously, they made it home in one piece, although my father lost his cap and cigar along the way.

During this time, I experienced my own sort of rodeo, but not on Johnny. As happens when one develops friendships with older kids, I rather hero-worshiped a boy named Flemming. He was only a couple of years older than me, at 15, yet he seemed worldly, brimming with confidence, and was wildly enthusiastic about riding because there were far more girls at the barn than boys. Come to think of it, that was one of the original motivations for my learning to ride, too, so I rarely hesitated to do his bidding.

During our cycling trips back and forth to the barn, we would pass a field not far from where we lived, which housed a grazing Fjord horse. Flemming had often talked about trying to ride it. “We should give it a go,” he urged.

“I don’t know,” I replied.

“What, are you scared?” This was his foolproof way to get me to do anything. “C’mon, Gunnar, don’t act like a little girl!”

With the typical reckless abandon of youth—we had no helmets, no idea how old this horse was, and we did not even know if he had ever been backed—we lured the pony to the fence and somehow managed to scramble on. It was Flemming’s idea that he sit in the front, while I took the back seat behind him, probably directly on top of the animal’s kidneys. The pony took a hesitant few steps before leaping forward with a succession of violent bucks, sending us flying through the air like rag dolls to land heavily on the ground. Shaking the dirt from our hair and ears, we had not a moment to lose as, to our horror, we saw the pony spin around, head lowered like a bull, and charge straight at us. We ran for our lives, and barely managed to scrape beneath the barbed wire fence, in the nick of time.

As we cycled home, we came to the conclusion that it was better to stick to the school horses at the barn and my own Johnny.


Order your copy of Life As a Dressage Trainer in Three Countries from Trafalgar Square Books here.