I am sad to share that George Schimpf died in his sleep at his home in Chicago yesterday morning. He turned 56 years old in January.
Karla suggested we gather stories about the impact George has made in our lives/with our horses, so please indulge me as I start.
You may not have realized it, but George was born in Germany. His rather large family moved to northern Illinois when he was young (I think 2 or 3). I've seen a black and white photo of George as a very young child, with several of his siblings and his dad, out with a hay wagon, loading up loose hay. No one looked very happy in that picture and I had wondered when I saw it why the photographer took it then. George's father was, by his stories, brutal. He and George's mother had died before I was on the scene. The only family member I ever met was one of his sisters who lived in a Chicago suburb. She and George were close.
Kyra Beth Houston, owner of Dressage Unlimited, had recommended George to me when I moved to South Dakota and was looking for someone to take lunge lessons from. She had gotten to know George when she used to run an AOL dressage chatroom, the precursor to Dressage Unlimited (Dressage.com). She said he was always classically correct and really knew the right thing for a horse and rider. She, unfortunately, never met him face-to-face, though she was quite a fan of his. I thought, yeah, this big shot trainer who used to run Lamplight and now runs a private la-de-da facility east of Chicago in Michigan City, IN, is going to want to teach ME--someone who had developed severe anxiety attacks because of a 'series of unfortunate events' with a bolt-and-dash off the track mare. It's not like Chicago was close to Pierre (where I worked at the time), but at the time Ky made the suggestion, I had two business trips planned to Chicago in the next two and a half months, so thought, why not give it a try. I called the barn and left George a message. Since I was going to be at my mom's the following weekend, I left her number for him to call back. I'll never forget that first call or what my mom said afterwards. George called me at her house and we just hit it off, talking about how I wanted to learn REAL dressage, but how I was practically unable to get on a strange horse because of the fear that I would fall off AGAIN and abandon my family or, worst yet, be in need of 24/7 care for the rest of my life. We made plans for me to come to the stable for the weekend after my first business trip to Chicago and we would get started with my training. When I got off the phone, my mom said, 'Who was that?' When I gave her the 'Why does it matter to you?' look I had perfected as a teenager in that very home, she added, 'because it must be a very good friend--the way the two of you went back-and-forth in an immediate conversation, this must be someone you know well.' My reply was, 'I'm sure he will be. That was actually the first time we've ever talked to each other!' It ended up being the first of many conversations, visits, shared hopes and dreams, and voiced frustrations.
George rode as a fox hunter, an eventer, and only later learned dressage. He was frustrated with the training he received in the US, so decided to learn German (which he had never really mastered as a child because they moved to the US when he was so young) and go to Germany to learn dressage. I'm pretty sure that he was working as an accountant west of Chicago at the time (according to a discussion at Santiago's restaurant in Michigan City with George, Patty Schultz, Teddie Adamski and several of George's friends one evening). I never learned HOW he made the connection with his trainer there, but he ended up being trained by Heikie Jurgens (I know I'm botching the spelling there-sorry!), a former German Junior National Champion dressage rider. He said she was tiny (which taught him there is no way you physically force a horse to do anything), but extremely effective. He said she would take a totally untrained horse and train it to Grand Prix, time after time after time. Obviously, George learned well from her. I'm iffy on his transition to becoming a trainer at Lamplight and how long he was there, though I know that one of his accomplishments there was that he started hiring German judges for the show series there and he said this was a major wake up call to the US riders. He used to say, 'How can you say you ride at the international level (FEI) when you have never competed internationally or in front of a judge from another country (especially Germany)?' He told me of famous US riders who got scores of '4' on movements from the German judges when they were used to '8's' and '9's'. In a typical George way, he would smile and would not be intimidated by the frustration this 'new' judging caused--he was just happy that someone finally forced these riders into realizing that they could not jam a horse into a frame or ride the horse crookedly and get fantastic scores that weren't deserved. A famous (frequent) George saying, 'Look at the horse and he will tell you--are you riding in balance? Are his ears even? If not, a German judge would give you a '4'''.
The first time I went to Royal Acres, I was excited and terrified at the same time. I rented a car in Chicago and drove out to Michigan City. I walked up to that beautiful barn, with its full event course, white fences, pond with a fountain, brick walkways and aisels and thought, 'These people are going to laugh in my face when they see me ride!'. Instead, everyone was gracious (or willing to ignore me). George acted like I was a friend he hadn't seen in a long time and wanted to show his barn to, rather than a complete stranger from South Dakota. He had me go get Lucas, his 5 year old STALLION who had been working under saddle for 6 months, from the pasture he lived in with two other stallions (same age) and the llama, Amadeus (Patty Schultz' favorite buddy!). That alone scared me. You have to remember that the only 'dressage' horse I had ever had was the appendix quarter horse mare who thought she was still on the track and dumped me every other ride or so after a bolt and jump move she had perfected unseated my seatbones and, soon enough, my entire body. Her little TB/QH hooves were nothing like the PLATTERS I was picking up to clean of Lucas'. I had NEVER seen such huge hooves in my life!
We lead him into the arena and I got on the mounting block. It was then that George saw I was shaking (badly). I kept telling myself to breathe in and out and to not pass out. I mounted. He was saying reassuring things, but I was only half hearing them and wondering if my friend Ky had sent me to my death because this guy was putting me on a young stallion with almost no experience! THEN George took my stirrups away and I really thought I would pass out. I launched into my, 'Perhaps you forgot our earlier discussion, but I'm here because I need lunge lessons to build my seat and confidence because I am TERRIFIED . . .' lecture. George nodded and had the horse walk on. Once again something new--I had NEVER felt a warmblood walk stride before (let alone one of a 17 hand Hanoverian bred solely for dressage). When he had Lucas trot on, I was once again totally amazed. This is NOT the trot I've grown up riding!! I've NEVER felt this before! Skipping all the rest of the details (including a hilarious story about the description of finding ones' seat bones . . .), I took 6 lunge lessons that weekend and rode Icon under saddle for about 20 minutes at the request of barn owner, Todd Much (who probably--incorrectly--thought he could sell this $30,000 package to the hapless adult amateur from SD. Boy, was he wrong about my motivations, needs, and finances!). I remember barely being able to walk from one gate to the other in the Minneapolis airport on the way home, but I was grinning ear to ear because I knew I had found the trainer of my life who would give me back my life with horses.
Thanks for listening. I hope I haven't bored you with the story of how George and I met.
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