American Dressage: Four Ways Forward, Part I

Sep 28, 2012 - 9:32 AM
Catherine Haddad Staller shares her thoughts on a way forward for American dressage. Photo by Arnd Bronkhorst.

Dear Rita,

I’ve given much thought to the state of our sport in the USA since the London Olympics in August. Many people have offered their opinions about why the U.S. teams didn’t medal in London. I don’t believe that winning makes you right and losing makes you wrong. Sport is not that black and white. But I do believe in learning from past mistakes and in stealing every last bit of helpful information that you can from the people who out-perform you in competition.

I want to put forward a plan for the future development of High Performance Dressage in the USA, and hopefully it might benefit some of the other equestrian sports. Most of what I have to say will be obvious to the people who are intensely involved in these sports. What distresses me most about the state of dressage in my own country after having lived in Europe for 20 years, is a general lack of knowledge about the contemporary recipes for success that work in other nations.

I think a fourfold approach needs to be observed in the USA in order for us to surpass our competitors in the future.

Four Ways Forward: Training, Management, Logistics and Marketing

Each of our equestrian disciplines needs four strong leaders on each segment of a strategic plan. These leaders need not only to be successful in their specific jobs, but they also need to work together to bring our equestrian teams back to the top rung of competitiveness. Organization, commitment and a team effort are called for here.

1: Training and Coaching

U.S. dressage needs a leader, someone who takes responsibility for both success and failure. In all my years in Europe, I have never heard a successful international coach blame the horses for failure in competition. When the Germans were soundly defeated at the European Championships in 2011, they did not come home and say, “Totilas let us down.” They came home, trained harder and started beating the bushes for new riders and new horses to replace the Old Guard. A new era had dawned in international dressage, and the Germans were loath to be left behind.

We need a coach who is capable of identifying real talent in horses and riders and developing them to their greatest capacity—even if this means outsourcing the actual training to people who specialize in honing the abilities of Grand Prix horses. The best leaders know when to delegate.

Nearly anyone can identify the riders who have already been successful in international sport. We need a leader with the ability and inclination to recognize new, up-and-coming talent that will help us increase our depth for the future.

This means that communication has to improve in the USA. Let me give you an example of what we lack. Many members of the Swedish team have stayed at my house and my stable on the way to and from horse shows over the years. They’ve never spent a night in Vechta without at least one phone call from the Swedish chef d’equipe who inquires as to their readiness or how they felt about their results. I often hear these riders discussing what they hope to improve in the next round. And these riders are not yet on their way to the Olympics; they are on their way to normal CDIs.

My point here is that successful teams keep track of what everyone is doing. Not just the scores on paper, but also the feedback and discussion before and after the shows with each potential team rider. And for me, all Grand Prix riders in the USA need to be potential team riders now.

While the U.S. Team Advisor has implied that she would have a hard time naming four horse/rider combinations that could represent the USA in Normandy in 2014, I can think of seven or eight combinations she should already be preparing for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games including myself with three horses of my very own, something she can’t possibly know about since I’ve had no contact with any of the U.S. dressage officials since February of this year. We definitely need some better communication.

All of the pairs with any chance to make a U.S. team need to go to Europe in the near future to compete, but their training and competitions need to be chosen with strategic skill. Some horses need exposure to the biggest venues and the chance at the biggest scores. The shows at Hagen, Munich, Hickstead and Falsterbo are good opportunities for made horses looking for a boost in their ranking points. Others need mileage at smaller CDIs like Hamburg, Achleiten, Fritzens and Saumur where they can work out the kinks in their programs and slowly build a reputation before going up against the very best.

All of our combinations need support from a good show coach who serves as a positive ambassador for our riders at every competition. For me, the main job of the U.S. Team Coach has to be to promote his/her riders with clever repartee at the competitions they attend no matter what happens in the arena.

Positive Training Solutions

At home, our coach has to offer positive training solutions to the problems in the development of our Grand Prix horses. These solutions have to come from a deep well of personal knowledge and/or by outsourcing the job to capable trainers. For instance, some trainers are better with collection than extension. Why can’t the U.S. Team Coach pick up the phone and call Trainer A to say: “Haddad has a problem in her piaffe-passage transition. Fix it. I’ll be back next week (or send me a video) to see your progress.”

And if Trainer A turns pale at the thought, he ought to be able to pick up the phone and call Trainer B for advice. Our training at home has to be more precise, more goal oriented, more collaborative and more demanding for those combinations who will eventually compete with the Europeans.

Some of our combinations need to work quietly in the USA before going to Europe to compete. We need a leader who can recognize the different stages of development in Grand Prix horses and make recommendations to riders who need guidance in improving their horses. All horses capable of the Grand Prix have to be considered future team prospects, and we must not dismiss the horses with talent who are not yet scoring like we want them to. Heather Blitz with Paragon and Kathleen Raine with Breanna come instantly to mind. They need to be trained, honed and developed to their greatest possible performance level…starting now.

We have good trainers in America. Can’t we educate them further too? They also need more exposure to the best riders and trainers in Europe. If nothing else, they need to get over to a few big shows and sharpen their eyes once or twice a year. There is nothing more educational than sitting on the fence at a CDI***** warm-up. I have learned ssssooo much there!

Fifteen years ago, a team could medal at the Olympics with three riders that got through the test with no mistakes. Our teams in Atlanta, Sydney and Athens come to mind. Americans had perfected the conservative, do-no-harm type test that was effective back then. Unfortunately, our sport has changed dramatically since even the 2008 Olympics in Hong Kong where we did not medal.

This is 2012, three years after the appearance of Totilas on the world stage, an event that changed our sport forever. Accurate is not good enough anymore. Everyone can do that. Today, full power and expression have to be evident on every short side in the collection and every diagonal in the extension. I will never forget watching Totilas piaffe under Edward Gal. I sat closer to the edge of my chair with each step as that black stallion came more and more through his neck while bouncing on the spot. It was spell-binding and suspenseful, and he pulled it off!

The Brits added correctness and relaxation to the expression, raising the bar even higher at London. Getting the Grand Prix test done is simply not good enough anymore. Unfortunately, when you kick most of our top riders into the all-out-going-for-it-mode that is necessary to win in today’s arena, they are overfaced, and all relaxation disappears. If we are going to compete with the Europeans, this kind of riding needs to be practiced at home until it looks easy, because that’s what wins today.

This means we need sound, fit horses and excellent training conditions so that we reduce the risk of injury in training. Which brings me to Parts 2 and 3 that you can read in my next blog: Management and Logistics.

More soon, Rita.

I’m Catherine Haddad Staller, and I’m sayin it like it is in Vechta, Germany.

Training Tip of the Day: Are you riding your short sides with full collecting power?


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