Stephen Colbert helped us laugh at our sport, but seriously, healthy competitor numbers and a complete pipeline in place are positive signs that dressage is on the upswing.
2012 may be best remembered as the year the mainstream media discovered dressage, reaching comedic heights on The Colbert Report. But it was memorable in many other ways as well.
For instance, 2012 was the year dressage started to make a comeback from the lows of the economic downturn of the past couple years. There are definitely some positive signs starting to emerge. Five out of the nine U.S. Dressage Federation regions saw an increase in the number of championship rides at the GAIG/USDF Regional Championships. USDF membership numbers are showing an increase in at least three regions over the previous year, some Group Member Organization rosters are up, and the number of dressage competitions held in 2012 remained strong.
Some of those numbers may be skewed by the trend of licensing multi-day shows as multiple shows instead of just one. This became even more popular in the weak economy and is in response to competitors wanting to double the opportunity to qualify for Regionals for approximately half the expense.
2012 had an all-time high in the number of Grand Prix rides at USDF-recognized competitions. However, training and first level are still below the 2003 numbers. At second level, numbers were off their all-time high in 2008 and are more comparable to prior to 2007. Third level and up is where we start to see steadier numbers throughout the past 10 years. As we seem to hear every day on the news, there are signs of improvement that are encouraging, but it remains a weak recovery.
The 2011 winner of the U.S. Equestrian Federation National Developing Horse Prix St. Georges Championship became the winner of the inaugural USEF National Developing Horse Grand Prix Championship. Lisa Wilcox and Anne Sparks’ Pikko del Cerro HU handily won and were later awarded The Dressage Foundation’s Anne L. Barlow Ramsay Grant for U.S.-bred horses. Let us not forget that Pikko del Cerro was the 6-year-old Markel/USEF National Young Horse Dressage Champion in 2009. This is a good example of how the much-discussed pipeline is intended to work.
2012 saw the number of CDIs in Florida double. A CDI has become a commonplace event with 12 CDIs taking place over a 13-week time period at three different venues. Even with all of the CDIs, there was an average of 22 rides in the Grand Prix test. The World Dressage Masters five-star became a four-star, but nobody minded because the change allowed Carl Hester to compete on Wie-Atlantico De Ymas. That was a treat.
However, the juicier treat was, for many of us, the preview of coming attractions: watching Charlotte Dujardin ride Valegro for the first time. It was a wonderful preview for London.
If those were treats, the best dessert of all was seeing Steffen Peters and Ravel win the Masters. His test and Adrienne Lyle’s win in the Grand Prix Special on Wizard were memorable rides.
When I look back at the year, another truly memorable American ride was Calecto V with Tina Konyot in the second Grand Prix at the U.S. Olympic selection trials. Tina and her dark bay partner laid down a spot-on performance in the Gladstone arena where some of our greatest dressage horses had centerlined before her. It was harmonious, flawless and inspiring. For those of us who know Tina, we knew her spontaneous hug around her stallion’s neck was deep down from the heart.
Another highlight was Jan Ebeling taking the Olympic bull by the horns and saving his best performance on Rafalca for the London Olympics centerline. He made all his American homies proud.
A lot has been written about the Olympics and even more about the incredible performances of the British trio of Charlotte, Carl (who deserves a lot of the credit as the quiet mastermind behind his yard’s successes) and Laura Bechtolsheimer. Totilas broke the glass ceiling, and by this Olympics it had come crashing down. An even 80 percent in the freestyle would’ve earned you a mere 10th place. In Hong Kong you would’ve been second.
The winning team total in 2008 wouldn’t have come close to making it to the podium in London where the average score for the gold-medal team was an incredible 79.88 percent. The second-placed Germans had an average score of 78.31 percent; four years earlier they won the gold with an average of 72.91. This year the Americans had an average of 72.43 percent, which in 2004 would’ve given them the silver medal. It’s really turned into a cascade of high scores over the last two years. The beauty of it now is no one country and no one trainer or coach can claim the honor of breaking 80 percent.
What is fun to analyze is the resurgence of the Germans and the comeback of the Dutch. In my humble opinion, what we saw is the true depth of the Germans and the supreme competence of the Dutch as competitors. There is no doubt that Adelinde Cornelissen on Parzival was a strong anchor.
For both countries, the Olympic Games are just another weekend. Their ability to perform under pressure is so honed through thousands of hours of competition. I’ve always said the disadvantage the Americans have is every time we go down the centerline it counts, whether it’s to qualify for the selection trials, the National Championships or a World Cup. Florida with its packed schedule of CDIs has helped ease this some, but we still need more time competing against the world’s best in the competition arena.
For those who were closely watching CDI scores from around the globe, the U.S. placings weren’t a surprise. The British were favored to win, and the Germans were catching up. (I couldn’t resist saying that. How often in the past have we been able to make that comment?) We knew the Dutch would get it together for London (ditto—I couldn’t resist).
Several of the other countries had strong combinations. We knew fourth through eighth were up for grabs. We’d have to get everything perfect, or the others would have to make mistakes to lead that second group. Our riders knew what we knew, and I believe they rode well and put up a good fight. Much has been written about what might have been done better and about what we need to do in the future, but it’s not my intention to go there in this article.
A Pipeline Realized
In the fall, Anne Gribbons announced she would retire as the technical advisor when her current contract expired. I’ll miss her no-nonsense tackling of the job. One of the highlights of her leadership was the firming up of the pipeline.
The pipeline is a concept that has been tossed around for many, many years. We dreamed of it in the late ’80s back when I was at Tempel Farms (Ill.), and founding fathers like Col. Donald Thackeray, Capt. Jack Fritz and Maj. Gen. Jack Burton were pushing Linda Dreher and Howard Simpson to build the North American Young Rider Championships. A pipeline was part of that vision, and Fiona Baan, director of dressage at the U.S. Equestrian Team, was an indomitable force behind it for dressage.
My wife and I were fortunate to be part of the organizing team for the dressage portion of the NAYRC and participants in those early discussions. Like all of these things, it takes years for them to come to fruition.
Several years ago Scott Hassler signed on as the USEF Young Horse Coach. About six years ago we first tried to bring Debbie McDonald on as the USEF Dressage High Performance Developing Coach. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to keep the funding in place to keep her.
There were and still are a lot of pieces to put in place. Pieces for the horses include the multifaceted young horse program, the national Young Horse Championships, which celebrated their 10th year in 2011, and the Developing Horse Championships.
Pieces for the riders include the USEF Dressage Festival of Champions and the need to include FEI Ponies, Juniors, Young Riders and Brentina Cup. Of course there are corresponding educational programs required as well.
The High Performance Developing and Elite programs for horse/rider combinations require continual tweaking and probably always will in order to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of our competitive sport. On the other end of the spectrum, the Dressage Seat Medal Finals is searching by trial and error to find just the right formula.
When Anne took over as technical advisor, she recognized the importance and necessity for a pipeline to create not only more riders able to compete on the international circuit, but also for the trainers who help the horses and riders to get there. She made it her mission to put all the pieces of the puzzle together and truly connect the various programs we already had in place with additions and modifications. All of the dressage leadership believed in the need for a pipeline as well.
Under Anne’s tenure Debbie was brought back as the Developing Coach and Jeremy Steinberg was named the USEF Youth Coach. The roles continue to be defined, and the programs keep evolving.
“Private” programs such as Lendon Gray’s Dressage4kids are also improving and becoming more encompassing. For example, 2012 was the inaugural year for their Emerging Dressage Athlete Program National Clinic. These programs, along with USDF’s offerings, complement one another and are an integral part of an overall educational system. No one organization can, nor should, handle from cradle to podium every single aspect of dressage education and training.
Forging A Brighter Future
Anne’s vision was always to look beyond the London Olympics, even beyond the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, in 2014 to create greater depth in our high performance ranks. It may take four years to train a horse; it can take even longer to train a rider.
Similar to four years ago when Klaus Balkenhol resigned as coach, the USEF Dressage High Performance Committee hosted an Eligible Athlete Forum in late November. In 2008, the athletes met in Chicago; this time around they met in Houston. The term “eligible athletes” is clearly defined by the U.S. Olympic Committee. We learned from the Chicago meeting, and, as a result, this year the eligible athletes were invited to include their trainers and sponsors in the forum.
These forums are wonderful opportunities to hear what the riders, trainers and sponsors have to say about what works for them, where they feel they need help, and their opinions regarding the future. The idea of a Dressage Owners Task Force was discussed and embraced enthusiastically. The continued refinement of the job description for U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor was discussed extensively. A search committee will be put together very shortly, and the effort of finding a technical advisor will soon officially commence.
2013 is a crucial year. Preparations for Normandy will ramp up for the horses and riders. I hope many will be competing in Europe this summer.
It will also be a big year for adult amateur competitors. For the first time in the history of U.S. dressage, amateurs will have a national championship. It has been 15-plus years in the making. When the vote was tallied, it showed the desire for a championship, and it is finally here.
Adult amateurs are a substantial group of competitors. At the 2012 Regional Championships just more than one third of the championship rides were in the AA divisions. Amateurs will be in the spotlight, as only two divisions, AA and open, will be offered at the U.S. Dressage Finals. For me, this is a longtime goal finally coming to realization, and it will be a proud moment when the first horse enters at A in Lexington, Ky., in November.
If as they say, horse sport is the sport of kings, and as there is one self-proclaimed king of beers, then I say: “This Bud’s for you, Stephen Colbert. Thanks for giving us something to laugh at this year!”
George Williams is the president of the U.S. Dressage Federation and has served on and chaired numerous committees for the USDF and the U.S. Equestrian Federation. A rider, trainer and coach, training for Havensafe Farm in Middlefield, Ohio, and Wellington, Fla., Williams earned national and international fame with several Grand Prix mounts, including the Chronicle’s 2003 Dressage Horse of the Year, Rocher. He began writing Between Rounds columns in 2010.