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June 3, 2010

Changes And Preparations Abound

Photo by Sara Lieser.

Our columnist reflects on the first half of 2010 and the many challenges and accomplishments the dressage community has seen.

The world of High Performance dressage has indeed had quite a dynamic year so far!

Let’s start with Moorlands Totilas, who has become the international sensation with rider Edward Gal. Records have been shattered with inconceivable high scores, and the stallion captured his first FEI World Cup Dressage Final in his first attempt. And as we witnessed at the 2009 European Dressage Championships, this amazing creature continues to bring a few other top horses into high-score territory along with him.

In the United States, we’ve had our own sensation in Ravel and Steffen Peters. Following his 2009 FEI World Cup Dressage Final win in Las Vegas, Ravel went on to an unprecedented victory at the Aachen CHIO in Germany. I think the world would agree Steffen is maturing into a phenomenal rider, and together this pair just keeps getting better.

Another highlight for United States dressage was the Palm Beach Exquis World Dressage Masters CDI***** (Feb. 19, p. 74). In its second year, the series brought top European riders to Florida, giving U.S. audiences a chance to see these horses and riders compete live.

More importantly, the competition gave our riders a chance to compete on U.S. soil against some of the world’s best. As a country, we need to find more ways to attract the Europeans. Competing on a regular basis against the best is an effective and necessary step to get to the top. When you’re in that environment you cannot allow yourself to become complacent—you must constantly hone your skills to achieve new levels of performance.

Since it’s difficult to attract the European riders here even occasionally, much less regularly, our riders have no choice but to travel there. Obviously, this is an expensive undertaking.

Fortunately, we have some dedicated sponsors who help our riders, but it’s not enough and they cannot be expected to carry that burden single-handedly. Even if it were possible, it would simply be unfair to expect them to do so.

We have many top riders on top horses that can’t do it alone and need assistance. The U.S. Equestrian Federation is able to help some, but not all, who qualify for grants and too frequently with not enough money.

This country needs to reach the point where we can send our top dressage horses to Europe as we do the show jumpers. We have to go in great enough numbers and to enough shows so that we become a force to be reckoned with.

I believe partly because of the success of the jumpers, we’re seeing more foreign riders at the Florida shows. This situation benefits us in so many ways. Not only, as I mentioned, do our riders perfect their techniques competing against top riders from all over the world, it also exposes our young riders to a higher quality of riding.

The trickle-down effect improves all levels and creates a greater number of top-notch riders, allowing all of us greater access to this type of knowledge and experience.

Exposing the audience to a higher level of riding will also allow new levels of understanding and ability to discern quality riding, thus creating a demand for it within our own national ranks.

Difficult Issues

There’s no doubt a successful international presence is good for dressage in this country. The financial challenge we’re facing for 2011 isn’t only the need to send a team (that competes at the small tour level) to the Pan Am Games in Mexico; we must at the same time send Grand Prix horses to Europe to prepare for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

The international dressage community has had to grapple with some difficult issues this past year as well. As captivated as the dressage world was by Totilas, it was equally obsessed by the rollkur/hyperflexion debate.

Rollkur came to a head last fall with a viral YouTube video, illustrating the good and bad of modern technology. An incident at a show not many of us had heard of suddenly grabbed the world’s attention, and it seemed that everyone was talking about Patrik Kittel’s warm-up aboard Watermill Scandic.

When all is said and done, we’ll be better off having been forced to have this discussion. But, of course, as the discussion continues, more questions arise, such as: how much authority should the stewards have? Are they appropriately educated to make decisions on training and abuse?

The recent controversy at the Rolex FEI World Cup Show Jumping Final, when McLain Ward’s Sapphire was eliminated by the ground jury for hypersensitivity, makes one stop and think. There’s no doubt we have to tackle these issues of training versus abuse and effective methods versus excessive or extreme methods, but we also need to take our time and not overreact so the pendulum swings from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Nonetheless, we must be willing to police ourselves so that we don’t lose the right to have equestrian sports governed by equestrians.

When a rider as high profile and beloved as Courtney Dye suffers a tragic accident, it can have an international impact. In Courtney’s case, the topic of safety headgear is now centerstage.

Not only are helmets discussed on the showgrounds, in the stables and online bulletin boards, but helmet use is also being studied by several committees that write the rules for dressage. The increased awareness in safety is a positive step, and the unity and support of the other High Performance riders has been moving.

The Master Plan

The roots of dressage go back more than 400 years as a form of horsemanship practiced and pursued by the royal courts of Europe. To this day, its European heritage and dominance has to be recognized. Because of her international perspective, I believe the USEF was fortunate in bringing Eva Salomon, the FEI Director Of Dressage (2003-09), on board as managing director and chef d’equipe for dressage. In her first six months in that position, she’s already proven to be a real asset.

The U.S. dressage High Performance programs have probably seen more activity than ever over the past 12 months.

While Anne Gribbons only officially started as the technical advisor in December, she made certain several High Performance clinics were held last fall. I was fortunate to ride in one with Guenter Seidel.

Most of us know Guenter as a talented rider; only a few of us know him as a talented teacher. And, I have to say, it’s such a pleasure having Americans teach Americans! As we move forward we’ll see more of this occurring. Steffen Peters and Anne also gave an excellent clinic together, which I, once again, was lucky enough to ride in.

Debbie McDonald has now been named the official U.S. developing coach. In the future there will be even more opportunities for the elite and aspiring High Performance riders to work with America’s best.

All of these pieces are part of a “master plan” based upon recommendations from an Eligible Athletes Meeting held in November of 2008 in Chicago, Ill. For dressage, this meeting was truly extraordinary as it brought together more than 25 athletes face-to-face for the first time.

Assisted by a mediator, these athletes discussed their sport, what they felt was needed to make it better, and how they would like to receive help to attain their goals in training and competition. The overwhelming response were three key directives:

            1. A desire to be able to maintain their personal coaches.

            2. To supplement and complement their training with additional trainers

            3. To maintain a leader as coach/technical advisor to guide them in areas of strategy, further instruction,
                etc.

Kyra Kyrklund was one name put forth by the athletes. In keeping with the spirit of the meeting, Kyra conducted several clinics for the elite riders. The common theme, which is so crucial at this level, was attention to details and a well-established foundation. Her creative teaching style and ability to relate the basics to the advanced movements were enthusiastically and well received. More clinics with Kyra are planned as are those with Morten Thomson, Catherine Haddad’s coach.

In watching the world prepare for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, it’s obvious that every country, (well, with the exception of perhaps one), struggles with having enough depth upon which to draw.

Depth isn’t created overnight, or even in a year. When we talk about depth, we have to think about the short term and long term.

Long-term depth is created over a greater period of time and when well developed starts with the juniors and even ponies. If we want to continue to be a strong international force we must no longer be afraid to take this on and must start to build a system now. It will be a major undertaking, but it’s a commitment to our future.

When I look back, I’m quite amazed at how much has changed. Who would have thought that we’d have a whole new FEI Dressage Committee? I think we’re in an exciting time. Of course there will be changes, but with careful planning and support we can position ourselves well for the future.

We have the horses, and lately I’m impressed by how our riders have stepped up to the plate in their preparations for the WEG. I think, in fact, we’re in for some exciting competition in Kentucky this fall! 

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.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Changes And Preparations Abound" ran in the June 4 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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