Dressage Legend Karl Mikolka Aug 21, 1935 - May 12, 2019

Thursday, May 16, 2019
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Karl Mikolka training Shannon Peters.jpg

In the world of Dressage a legend has passed, but he left a legacy of his wisdom, knowledge, and passion for all that he did. Karl Mikolka's life spanned over eight decades with a history that is among the names of other legends who brought the art of Dressage to the level it is today. He influenced the early foundation of Dressage in America as the messenger and mentor to the talent that is present here today. Even if he did not ever teach some of the rising stars today, his words and influence on those who do, will live on.

Like many artists, he was a man of big personality and a passion for his work. While his struggle with Lymphoma weakend his body, it did not subdue his spirit. He continued to teach, write, and record his legacy, and devote his dedication to the training system, horses and riders who passed through his life.

Shannon Peters

Karl Mikolka with Shannon Peters"Steffen and Karl had a running joke . Steffen would greet him as “Karl the Great!” And Karl would reply “The Greatest!!" What an honor and a privilege to call Karl my mentor. One of the greatest horsemen of our time, and my friend and mentor for 25 years.

He was steadfast in his classical training at the SRS, and proud of his heritage. You are with me every day , sir, and I will work hard to carry on your life’s work.

Til we meet again, you are , and always will be “The Greatest”

Robert Dover
I am sorry to hear of the passing of Karl Mikolka.

He was always a very respectful and a positive influence on my career. His dedication to horses and classical horsemanship will be his legacy. R.I.P.

Cindy Sydnor, Karl's wife 1968-1977

Karl Mikolka and Cindy Sydnor
Karl Mikolka and Cindy 

Karl and I were married outside Vienna in early December of 1968. We left for Rio de Janeiro within weeks and lived and worked there and near São Paulo, for four years.

We came to America in early spring of 1972, and worked at Richard and Julie Ulrich’s Friars Gate Farm in Pembroke MA.  He and I were peacefully divorced in the spring of 1977, and ultimately stayed friends.

At this point in my life and having experienced many dressage trainers from all over the world, I think Karl was the most knowledgeable and historically most educated trainer.

He was also a very good rider on certain horses but had favorites and ones he could not ride. Good luck for me, as I got those!

His classical teaching has been well-appreciated by many and will happily be passed on for the next generations. Ultimately, I feel he was successful in spite of life’s difficulties.

My heartfelt sympathies go out to his wife Lynn, who has been so supportive and devoted to Karl. He was very lucky to have found her. 

Excerpts from his bio on his website

Karl Mikolka (third from last) at The Spanish Riding School
Karl Mikolka (third from last) at The Spanish Riding School

Born in August of 1935 in Vienna, Austria, into the turbulent times of ‘the war generation’ in the heart of a motherland facing the inevitability of World War II. Adolf Hitler was already in power and, by the time Karl was four, his mother and he would bid his father a fearful farewell as he marched off to battle on the Russian front.

Karl was born in August of 1935 in Vienna, Austria, into the turbulent times of ‘the war generation’ in the heart of a motherland facing the inevitability of World War II. Adolf Hitler was already in power and, by the time Karl was four, his mother and he would bid his father a fearful farewell as he marched off to battle on the Russian front.

His First Lesson Led To The Spanish Riding School
1950 was a year of firsts: Karl had his first job working at a harness racetrack and, later that year, took his first riding lesson – on his 15th birthday to be exact – at Reitstall-Kottas Heldenberg, a riding facility owned by an aunt of Arthur Kottas, a former Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School.

In 1955, upon submission of a letter of interest to the Spanish Riding School at the age of 19, Karl was interviewed by the then director Alois Podhajsky and subsequently accepted as an elévé, the lowest rank of rider-employee at the school. At that time, the School was still in exile at Wels in Upper Austria.

Under the guidance of his first mentor Alfred Cerha brought out of retirement after the war and return of the Spanish Riding School to Hofburg he was promoted to Assistant Rider and eventually achieved the rank of Oberreiter, or Chief Rider, in 1967.

Dressage in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo
In 1968, Karl left the School to accept an invitation in Brazil to create a nucleus of Dressage in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo with the goal to eventually put a team together that could show in Europe. This move marked the beginning of a long separation from his two young sons, Alexander and Günther, who were living in Vienna with their mother and stepfather. At that time, Karl was married to Cindy Sydnor.

In 1972, Karl’s contract with the Confederação Brasileira de Hipismo ended and although invited to stay, he found the tropical climate unsuitable for training horses.

The American Journey

Karl Mikolka, Cindy and Denny Emerson
Karl Mikolka, Cindy and Denny Emerson

After his time in Brazil, Karl fulfilled his childhood dream by relocating to the United States where, with the support of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Ulrich, he established a home base at their Friar’s Gate Farm in Pembroke, Massachusetts.

It was there that Karl founded the Massachusetts Dressage Academy to provide a systematic educational dressage curriculum. 

In 1974, invited by Lowell Boomer, president of the newly formed United States Dressage Federation, Karl traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska and was present at the official founding of the organization. By the mid 1970s, he was an AHSA (now known as the USEF) Dressage Judge and served on the judging panels of several Olympic selection trials.

In 2003, Karl was inducted into the USDF Hall of Fame.

Since that time, he has been publishing numerous articles about his riding philosophy.

This System of guidelines is based on a 400 year tradition of studying and finding the best ways to elevate the horse to the definitive equestrian athlete, thinking partner, friend and reliable companion through mental and physical education. 

The sanctuary for this time-honored System was once the Spanish Riding School.

Tempel Farms

Karl Mikolka and George Williams
Karl Mikolka and George Williams

In 1958, steel magnate Tempel Smith brought several Lipizzans from Europe by boat to America and hired Riding Master Alf Athenstaedt, a student of Germany’s most famous trainer Willi Schultheis, to start a Lipizzan training center in Wadsworth, Illinois. Tempel Farms, consisting of more than 6,000 acres near the Wisconsin border, was home to more than 400 Lipizzanerstallions. Alf Athenstaedt was frequently invited to perform in Washington, DC at the White House on his superbly trained stallion Pluto Fantasca, introducing the beauty of the Lipizzan horse to a number of Presidents.

In 1980, Karl moved to Wadsworth, Illinois to join Tempel Farms at the persuasion of Mr. Smith. Karl assisted with enthusiasm in the creation of an American Spanish Riding School. An American Spanish Riding School was the dream of Tempel Smith, which, unfortunately, rapidly lost impetus after his death in December of 1980. While employed at Tempel Farms, Karl trained many of the horses in the System he learned in Vienna, producing several ‘Airs Above the Ground’ stallions and training enough riders and horses to offer Young Stallion, Long Rein and Quadrille segments to the Summer Performances. These summer performances quickly gained a widespread reputation and were responsible for introducing thousands of people to Classical Dressage in the United States.

Writing and Teaching

Karl Mikolka teaching at Steffen Peters Dressage

Karl left Tempel Farms in 1997 and relocated with his wife, Lynn to Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Since that time, he has been bringing Classical Thinking to a few select locations where it is accepted and championed as a valuable piece of the equestrian culture, both past and continuing. He has been faithful to his alma mater by accepting all types of horses – not just those of carefully controlled breeding – as well as aspiring riders from all walks of life, rather than concentrating only on Olympic material.

Since the preservation of Classical Principles is Karl’s duty and first concern, he has remained steadfast to introducing it to the broadest audience possible, hoping to preserve a System that today is in danger of being suffocated by competitive training techniques. He has provided his students with a sound foundation for the well-being of their horses and their own benefit, only asking that they carry on and remain loyal to the System.

Karl has been fortunate that a few did, and have become credible teachers in their own right.

He continues to disseminate his teaching through his writings on all facets of classical and practical training of horses and riders for all major equestrian publications and the internet.

George Williams

George WilliamsKarl Mikolka was one of the greatest horseman I have known.

Karl has had a tremendous impact on my life and my professional career. I worked with him, and later alongside him for twenty years.

He was the best man at my wedding thirty plus years ago.

Much of my dressage education came through him, his knowledge of theory and the principles of dressage as an art and a sport were extraordinary, much of this can be seen in his writings.

He moved to the US just as the sport was starting to grow, shortly before New England Dressage Association and USDF were formed. He inspired his students to approach riding from an athletic perspective, with his love of karate, from an academic perspective with his commitment to classical ideals and most importantly with his love of horses.

He was a tremendous teacher. I started riding with him at his Massachusetts Dressage Academy at Friars Gate Farm. He quickly became a very popular clinician throughout the country.

I think the greatest tribute to him is how his legacy is being passed on. He definitely influenced a generation of riders, trainers and instructors, many of whom are my age and are incorporating what they learned from Karl into their teachings of what are now new generations of riders.

Every day in my riding and teaching I think of him and use exercises and the principles he taught me. In the last several years our paths didn’t cross and our lives were no longer so intertwined, however the respect for his knowledge as a horseman and the cherished fond memories will stay with me forever.