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erhaps no Arabian halter trainer in recent history has enjoyed the success that Frank Spönle has had in Europe and the Middle East. In a career spanning 20 years he has led countless international champions and had the pleasure of handling some of the greatest horses of the breed. Early this year, Frank’s training center moved to a new state-of-the-art facility in Geldern, Germany, a small town that lies in the plains of the lower-northern Rhineland, west of the Rhine. There we caught up with Frank, who in this candid interview reflects on his career and on his own Arabian breeding program, shares the secrets of his training philosophy, and ponders the future of the breed he loves.

… from an Arabian horse industry point of view, Elisa and our daughter Virginia have let people see a little bit of the real me, the part that maybe I have a hard time expressing to the public during several high-pressure events each year. 2 6 ARABIAN HORSE WORLD 6 NOVEMBER 2009


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erhaps no Arabian halter trainer in recent history has enjoyed the success that Frank Spönle has had in Europe and the Middle East. In a career spanning 20 years he has led countless international champions and had the pleasure of handling some of the greatest horses of the breed. Early this year, Frank’s training center moved to a new state-of-the-art facility in Geldern, Germany, a small town that lies in the plains of the lower-northern Rhineland, west of the Rhine. There we caught up with Frank, who in this candid interview reflects on his career and on his own Arabian breeding program, shares the secrets of his training philosophy, and ponders the future of the breed he loves.

… from an Arabian horse industry point of view, Elisa and our daughter Virginia have let people see a little bit of the real me, the part that maybe I have a hard time expressing to the public during several high-pressure events each year. 2 b ARABIAN HORSE WORLD b NOVEMBER 2009


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Describe that first moment when you knew that Arabian horses would be a part of your life. Where were you and who was the horse? As a young teenager I started to work as a plumber, it didn’t take me very long to figure out that this was not really my future. It was just not me; I could not imagine myself stuck inside a factory for the rest of my life! I grew up here in Germany in an area called the Black Forest, my family never had a thing to do with horses but in a village nearby there was an Arabian breeding farm. My attention for some reason (destiny?) just kept going back to this farm and what was going on there. Eventually I went and asked for a job; like most farms they were always looking for willing help. Perhaps I should mention that this farm was Om El Arab. In that moment there was not a particular horse that made me fall in love with this breed, it was just the allure of this amazing animal that was nothing like any other horses I had seen! The farm was full of amazing Arabian horses: Estopa and El Shaklan to mention two. I still remember all the afternoons I spent as a young kid riding El Shaklan through the hills of the Black Forest. These are the kind of memories I’ll never forget.

disappointments, but after many years we are still together enjoying the horses. Since I am not the type of person who shows much emotion, I want to say how much my lifelong, and also the new owners and breeding customers, mean to me and how seriously we take the decision they have made to entrust us with their special horses and lifelong horse investments and dreams.   We know that you have had great success as a breeder of Arabian horses as well. Please cite a couple of your greatest accomplishments in that realm. How many mares do you own? How many foals do you typically breed per year? If I would mention one horse I bred who has had the greatest success, it’s without doubt FS Bengali. I bred his dam Om El Sanadiva the year after she became World Champion Filly, to Kubinec. The following year Kubinec also became World Champion. After 11 months of waiting, one night I received a phone call, Om El Sanadiva had foaled a colt! I immediately drove a few hundred kilometers to see my foal, and have to admit in that moment he didn’t look like I wished. As he grew older and more mature his beauty came forward and

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Facing page: Frank Spönle, Elisa Grassi, and their daughter Virginia in Ajman. This page, left: Frank and Ibn Estopa in Paris 1988 celebrating the World Champion title, Frank’s first World Champion.

Right: FS Bengali (Kubinec x Om El Sanadiva), bred by Frank Spönle, was World Reserve Champion as a colt, and U.S. National Champion Senior Stallion and Scottsdale Champion Stallion.

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Give us a thumbnail sketch of your Arabian horse involvement over the years. Tell us about a couple of longtime clients and why you feel they have stayed with you over the years. I have to say I have been very lucky in my career. Many times clients come and go, but I’m thankful that most of my clients have stayed with me and have appreciated the years of work. It would not be right to mention one or two, as there are many more longtime clients who entrusted me with their horses. We have shared together success and sometimes

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turned him into the champion everybody knows. As a junior colt he was named World Reserve Champion; this was quite an achievement for me, but his most important success was in the States, where he was named U.S. National and Scottsdale Champion Stallion. This was a great accomplishment for a European horse to come over to America and defeat the tough competition. Another important horse for me is FS Cayenne, a daughter of AS Natsir Apal and out of my Alidaar daughter FS Cleopatra, whom I also bred. She is a beautiful young mare that now is in the ownership of Sheikh Ammar — this means I still receive the pleasure of showing her and enjoying her

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as she develops into one of the jewels at Ajman Stud. In the string and breeding center. We are a real full-service breeding/ past few years some other “FS” horses have made their way to showing facility. I will not have a factory where horses just get several different countries, including a nice group in Italy: FS schooled, conditioned, and put back in the box — I want a wellAl Shabha, a Shakaar Ibn Sanadiva son (a full brother to FS balanced true “Horse Farm”! For me, it is a great working place Bengali), was twice Italian National Champion and FS Positano, and it gives the horses the chance to enjoy their life out in the also by Shakaar Ibn Sanadiva, was named Italian National many big, green fields. For me it is mandatory that the horses Champion Colt. I don’t own many mares, but I’m always very have the chance to enjoy a “horse life.” Even our show horses selective and try to breed to the best stallions. I have been very go out in the paddocks for a few hours a day. The young ones pleased with the results I’ve had in the are normally outside together, so that last few years breeding and I have some they can play and enjoy themselves. The Sheikh Ammar Bin Humaid Al exciting plans for the future as the FS average number of horses in training Nuaimi, Ajman Stud: I started with breeding program is expanding to other throughout the year is 30, but we have Frank from the very beginning of continents! many more who stay with us all year my true involvement with Arabian and that we always keep in good show horses. Why him? I heard from Please describe your facility, condition, so that they are always ready several people that he was the number of horses in training, for the showring in case we decide to best one in Europe and that he was stallions at stud, client foals per take them to one or two smaller shows. extremely clever with the horses year, etc. We normally keep around 10 stallions and the business. I wanted to start After 15 years in the same place, I at stud and we have nearly 50 foals with the top, and that’s why I chose moved to a new horse farm a few per year; most of them are, of course, him. It’s been a great relationship kilometers away from my old training clients’ foals. Especially nowadays with from the first moment on. And as time went by, our business relationship grew more and more, and I can say now it has turned into a true and genuine friendship. I wouldn’t trust any other handler with my horses. He showed all my horses several times, but I think he gives his very best with my stallion Escape Ibn Navarrone-D. They are truly the perfect match. And I am happy to say that it is not all about the shows and the success. Many times he has my complete trust also regarding breeding decisions and the management of my horses. We shared so much success together and so many important victories. center. The new facility, in Geldern, the possibility of embryo transfers, some I am happy to entrust him with my Germany, can host up to 120 horses mares may give you two or three foals very best. (keep in mind we have a totally diverse per year, so recently the number of foals facility so that number represents has increased for sure. training/show horses, breeding mares,   and young stock growing up and being developed). Most You are recognized as the consummate professional. Who people don’t realize this, but I am a breeder at heart and I only are the important people behind Frank Spönle Show get enjoyment from the day-to-day when the farm is a truly Training helping to keep everything running smoothly? Of course well-rounded program. This means from the ground up — we we know Elisa and Virginia — how have they affected your life? have foals being born, weanlings and yearlings learning the ropes And who else? and playing in pasture, and then come full circle with the show

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I am very lucky to have a great team of people who work with me. Without them I would not be able to travel so much from show to show. Sabine Widmaier is the person in charge of the office work and client services. She manages the billing and takes care of the needs of the farm. My two right hands are Katrien Van Dycke and Frederik Van Sas, who are a great help to me as they take care of all the show horses. They school the young ones and condition and work all the horses in training. They are also a big help at the shows, preparing the horses and sometimes showing them. Another important person is Kathrin Brietzke, who is in charge of feeding and caring for the show horses and who is always a big help at shows preparing the horses for the ring. Barbara Dorer, Babsi, is a key figure in the stables. She is the breeding manager and is in charge of the stallions. She is also the person that makes me feel comfortable while I am away from the farm — she treats it as if it were hers and pays attention to every detail of the daily management. Gregor Aymar is another important part of the Spönle team. He has his own advertising company and helps us with the Web site and with all the advertising material. Gregor also comes to all the shows and keeps a close eye on details for me when I

Photos from left to right: Frank Spönle and the stallion Edin (*Laheeb x Edina), owned by Joseph Arabians, France. Escape Ibn Navarrone-D (AS Sinans Pacha x Navarrone P) and Frank at the 2009 Dubai show. Escape is owned by Ajman Stud, UAE. *Kwestura (Monogramm x Kwesta), owned by Ajman Stud, and Frank at the 2009 Menton show, where she went champion. Bess Fa’Izah (WH Justice x Shazo El Kendal) with the roses of the Abu Dhabi Senior Champion Mare.

am in the ring or occupied with client relations. When the van pulls away from the farm I get quite nervous about the great responsibility we have with such breed icons and rising stars. Gregor, along with Frederik and Katrien, makes living up to our responsibility something that we can accomplish 100 percent of the time. Typically, I am a very private person; my personal life has always been away from the spotlight of the showring and never put out for the whole world to see. I also believe, though, as I get older that in this business many of us have very incorrect preconceived ideas of who people really are in our industry.

They base those opinions on seeing an individual at several horse shows a year in a competitive and high-pressure environment. This is not a good way to get to really know someone, so I decided a long time ago that there is probably the person who we think we know and see, and then there is the real person away from the shows. How this relates to your question is that from an Arabian horse industry point of view, Elisa and our daughter Virginia have let people see a little bit of the real me, the part that maybe I have a hard time expressing to the public during several high-pressure events each year. Horse business aside, the effect they have had on my life is deeply personal and

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I can’t ever truly express how complete my life has become since is so strong and you see such an amazing quality of horses. To we became a family. be successful at one of these shows is very difficult, and if you achieve success, it’s a lot more rewarding. What percentage of your livelihood is derived from   marketing horses and what percentage from training? What are your thoughts on the status of the Arabian What kinds of horses are selling best in this economy? breed today, both in terms of the health of our breed and The economic situation has affected the marketing of the European/Middle Eastern show scene? Arabian horses for sure. The main problem today The market for the straight in my opinion is that What you see me doing with my horses at a show Egyptian horse seems to there is not enough support stay strong no matter what for the small breeders and when I ask them to be better than ever is not what — there are always people the newcomers. We need to the journey to that moment has been like for that looking for good Egyptians. I remember our roots and the find it very difficult to market fact that the industry is fueled horse in training at our farm. the medium quality horses in by the small breeder. We this economy — you either should also encourage new have a real superstar that can horse owners no matter what be marketed with reasonable ease and the middle-tier are very level they buy. This is incredibly important. We all know when difficult to sell. This is an area that we as an industry need to you sell that one great one but still have ten at home you can’t work on. We need to attract new Arabian horse owners as these sell (and they are eating up the profit), it’s not long before you are the horses that a new horse owner is comfortable paying realize the “big sale” was for nothing. I noticed this show season

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for in the beginning. I believe if we address this we will see an answer to this marketing dilemma. How many shows do you go to per year, and what are the “never miss” shows on your calendar and why? Sometimes I think it’s crazy, but we go to nearly 35 shows per year. There is no break anymore. Shows happen all year round because as the European show season ends, the Middle Eastern show season starts. There are several shows I never miss, but the two I enjoy the most are the All Nations Cup in Aachen and the International show in Dubai. The competition

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that the small breeders who used to go to small C and B shows in Europe are not present anymore. Even there they have to face the tough competition of the very high-quality horses from the Middle Eastern owners. If you think about the important breeding stallions of today, many of them are too expensive or their books are closed, and the small breeders can’t possibly afford the high stud fees. But I am very excited about some things going on at my farm with some special fillies and great stallions that are still owned by the “little guy” and winning the big shows and being offered at stud to the European breeder! This year at our Open House we organized a lottery where

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Photos from left to right: Frederik Van Sas and Stival (*Gazal Al Shaqab x Paloma De Jamaal) with the roses of the 2009 All Nations Cup Reserve Champion Colt. Katrien Van Dycke with Al Lahab at the Dubai show. The Spönle team, from left to right: Vittorio, Gregor, Frederik, Frank, Katrien, Birthe, Sabine, and Kathrin with the stallion Esparto (Ekstern x Ekspozycja). Top right: FM Gloria (WH Justice x Psity Of Angels), the 2009 All Nations Cup Champion Filly, owned by Swatam Arabians, Belgium, shown by Frank Spönle.

anybody could purchase a ticket for a very reasonable price and have the chance to win a breeding to some of the most prestigious European stallions. WH Justice, Ajman Moniscione, Psytadel, El Amin, Kubinec, Eternity Ibn Navarrone-D, Al Lahab, and Marajj all offered one breeding in the lottery. I was very pleased once the winners had been called to realize that it was all small breeders who probably would never have been able to afford a breeding to these stallions. I was happy that the party I organized gathered together nearly 500 people. They all came to enjoy a day and an evening together, to see these amazing stallions and to spend some time with the horses without the stress of the shows.

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f you could change one thing about horse shows, what would it be? Your thoughts on the halter scoring system in use today? The comparative system has been used in the U.S. for many years and now it has been changed into the scoring system like we have in Europe. I don’t think that one is better than the other. They both have their good and bad parts. What I think is, the system is as good as the people who use it. It’s all in the hands of the judges, and if they judge the horses properly then either system will work.

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In reflecting on the numerous wins earned by your horses, name a couple of the sweetest wins. Best experiences? The win I will never forget is the one with Ibn Estopa in Paris. This was my very first World Champion and it will always stay in my memories. It was 1988, I was young and I had to compete against some of the most famous handlers in the world — this was really exciting for me. One other special memory goes back to the year I started my own training center. That year I showed Essteem and Kubinec in Paris, and they were respectively named Junior and Senior World Champion. It was a great start for the Frank Spönle Show Training and a great achievement for me. Please tell us about the allure of the showring for you. In what ways does competing — and winning — satisfy your soul? I think I am going to tell it just the way I feel here. I love to win! At my point in life there is no more silly self-described ladder to climb or mountaintop to reach. It’s simple, when we

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personally, but now I know different. At the point when a horse achieves the main goal, I have a moment of reflection, and then it’s on to how we maintain this moment for the horse and what’s next. This is because for me the planning and the road forward to the win are what excite me and keep me interested.

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Your horses always seem to be impeccably prepared, well trained, and still bright. What are your secrets? Please summarize your halter training philosophy and techniques, and tell us how you think the Spönle-trained horse stands out from the crowd. As I said before, I have great people at home who care so much for the horses. They always give their best to make the show horses look impeccable. I don’t like to school my horses for hours, as I think that this might take away in some ways the lively spirit typical of the Arabian horse. I think there is a line that you should not cross and as long as you stay away from this line the horse will give you all it has. That’s why most of my horses look well trained and still bright. I just always make sure that we never push too close to the point where it becomes fear. As they understand more and more this line gets pushed back

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At the point when a horse achieves the main goal, I have a moment of reflection, and then it’s on to how we maintain this moment for the horse and what’s next.

go to show, we go to win! Now in the same breath I also know that I myself have never really been the winner — the horses do the winning and I just go along for the ride and try my best to stay out of their way and point them in the right direction when I need to. There is not a single great horse I have ever had the pleasure to show that from the very beginning did not have that special spark in it that said “I am the best!” I think as a trainer the sooner you learn that it’s not about you, it’s about the horse and you just let them do their thing — you will be a much happier trainer with much happier horses! I guess there was a time when I thought that winning alone would satisfy me

and just like a coach pushes his players on a great sports team I can ask the horse for more — to be its best at the time it counts the most! I think people have a real misconception about me (and all trainers) and what they see at shows, so I will take this opportunity to say this: What you see me doing with my horses at a show when I ask them to be better than ever is not what the journey to that moment has been like for that horse in training at our farm. This means that in the beginning we ask for only a little, and when they give it to us, we stop asking. Over time we ask for more and more and when they get confident in their jobs, and only then, do I ask them to be at their best like you

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Chen Kedar, Ariela Arabians, Israel: I think that we were among Frank’s first clients, when he just opened his own training center. He first came to us sometime during 1995 to see our horses, and especially Tiffaha, whom he showed later that same year in Paris when she became World Champion Mare. Since that time we have been working together, and Frank has shown our horses in Israel and Europe. He has a special touch with the horses; he stands in front of them and within two minutes, they are doing exactly what he asks them to do. It has always fascinated me to watch him work the horses. For me, Frank’s most important features are his integrity and honesty. He will not tell you what you want to hear. He will tell you exactly what he thinks, straight to your face, without making it prettier or cutting the edges. True, it took me some time to get used to this, but I think it’s the best way and the only way to work in this business.

Above: Alma Al Tiglio, a successful yearling filly, sired by Ajman Moniscione and owned by the Buzzi Family, Italy. Facing page: AJ Bintan (WH Justice x RGA Kouress), a promising young colt, owned by Ajman Stud.

see at shows. Asking these horses to be their best is natural for them. It’s the same as when the Bedouin took them to war and asked them to be their best. But you must have a clearly defined relationship based on fairness before you can ever do this — if you have this, then they will give you their all. Name three to five Arabian horses not owned or shown by you that have had the greatest impact on you. El Shaklan is for sure a horse who had a great impact on me. I had the pleasure to be with him and ride him a lot when he was still in Germany. He became one of the most influential stallions in our breed. Another horse I always admired, even

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though I never saw him in the flesh, is Padron. He must have been an incredible show horse, as well as a proven breeding stallion. Then there is still one stallion that I always liked and would have loved to show, but never had the chance, and this is Simeon Sadik. He captured my attention the very first moment I saw him. I think he still could be an incredible show horse.

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What do you think of the type of horse that is winning in European and Middle Eastern halter rings today? Same question for today’s American halter horse. Anything you’d like to see change? Many people talk about the European and the American halter horse, the two without question have different looks, but the European show results of the last few years have proved that the American halter horse has great potential in Europe.

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We have also seen many European-bred horses go to America and win the big awards. As for my taste, I still prefer the European type. I feel an Arabian horse has to be pretty and have type first. What’s the best lesson, about horses or life, that you’ve learned from an Arabian horse breeder or trainer?

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Many years ago somebody told me: “You have no talent with the horses; you are only a good stable cleaner.” This gave me that extra kick to prove myself and the others that I could do it. As I look back at the last few years and the success I have had, I think that person was maybe wrong. What do you enjoy doing when you’re not doing horses? Hobbies? Favorite books you’re reading now? Favorite travel destination? Best recipe? Favorite movie or TV show? Horses are in my head 24 hours a day; this is what Elisa complains about sometimes. I enjoy the most now, in my free time, my daughter Virginia — she is a real blessing. Such a lively little girl and she loves horses as well, often she comes to the farm and wants to brush them and ride them. For her second birthday we got her a golden retriever puppy, “Olivia,” so now when I’m home I spend quality time together with my family and chasing a new puppy around the house! My favorite travel destination is without doubt South Africa. I have been there several times and I always love it. The Kruger Park and Sun City are my very favorites! Talking about favorite food, I go crazy for Buffalo chicken wings with ranch dressing — it’s

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Mike Wilson and Peri Tilghman, Wilson Training Center, Florida: In the past few years Peri and I have been fortunate and are grateful for the fantastic opportunities we have had in our industry. A big part of this success is due to our friendship and strong business relationship with Frank Spönle and Elisa Grassi and the entire Spönle Show Training team. We trust them with the most important details of our business and we have great hopes and plans for the future both in Europe and America, and where both training centers are concerned as well as our breeding programs. Stay tuned!

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not too fancy, but simple things make me happy. When I come to the States it’s the very first order I place in the restaurant. My favorite movie might be Harry Potter, but “Top Gun” is pretty cool, too! Decades from now, how do you hope your efforts in the training barn will be remembered?

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Frank and Escape Ibn Navarrone-D. Facing page are scenes from Frank Spönle’s 2009 open house: WH Justice (Magnum Psyche x Vona Sher-Renea) during the stallion presentation; the live band; guests mingling outside; and Heinz Stöckle picking the winning ticket for the Marajj breeding offered.

Shawn Crews, Arabians Ltd.: I first saw Frank show in 1996, at the World Championships in Paris. He was showing a Thee Desperado son, BJ Thee Mustafa. The horse could be very difficult to show, and I was amazed with Frank’s presentation. He won the title and it was then that I began asking Frank to consider showing for us in the U.S. It was not until years later that Frank would show for Arabians Ltd. at the Egyptian Event. He had helped us find and import the stallion Mishaal HP, and agreed if he was to be shown he would lead him. With Frank at the lead, Mishaal was named Reserve Senior Champion at the Egyptian Event. Frank always unselfishly looks out for his clients. He has an amazing eye for quality in a horse and he works hard. He loves to win, not just to win, but for the joy it brings the owner who has trusted him to show their very best. We have all grown quite fond of Frank, Elisa, and now their daughter Virginia, and are proud to work with such a talented, great guy.

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I have never considered that anyone would ever remember much of what I did in the training barn, but when I think about the question I guess one of the cool things that this business has created is some great friendships with fellow professionals who have worked with us here at Spönle Show Training. To think that maybe we could have played a small part in helping others realize their dreams as horsemen or women is really satisfying.

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An Interview with Frank Spönle  

by Elisa Grassi and Mike Wilson Published in the November 2009 issue of Arabian Horse World Magazine

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