Fresh Ideas Mix With Old-Fashioned Principles At The Global Dressage Forum

Dec 19, 2007 - 10:00 PM

It takes discussion and disagreement to make changes for the better, and there were plenty of both at the seventh annual Global Dressage Forum at the Academy Bartels in Hooge Mierde, the Netherlands.

As usual, the GDF covered a wide range of topics relating to dressage. This year’s discussions included training methods, scientific results on learned helplessness, the marketing of the sport and the judging at the European Dressage Championships.

As in 2006, a lively exchange of ideas and opinions took place, and more of the 350 riders, trainers, judges, journalists and dressage fans attending the forum from 24 countries could participate in the discussions, held Oct. 29-30.

Germany’s Franke Sloothaak, the 1994 World Champion in show jumping and Finland’s Kyra Kyrklund, the 1991 FEI World Cup Dressage Final winner, led the first training session. Kyrklund rode competitively in show jumping and dressage as a young rider before focusing on dressage.

Both riders made strict statements against horses and riders specializing too early.

“The more different things one has done with horses, the bigger is one’s tool box, which is at one’s disposal,” said Kyrklund. “I’m aware that the time is short for the young riders to be successful as pony riders, juniors or young riders. Nevertheless, one should take care about a good basic education of the rider and to think about the future, not just look for medals at a young age.”

Sloothaak showed the dressage work of a show jumper with his grand prix horse Legurio. To relax and strengthen the Holsteiner gelding’s back muscles, Sloothaak rode him forward and downward with his hindquarters stepping well underneath him, but not with a short, hyperflexed neck.

Sloothaak explained that he uses dressage exercises to teach his horses to be more responsive to the aids, something that’s important for jumpers. Although the show jumper wasn’t built for dressage, Sloothaak was able to ride him through and in perfect harmony.

Kyrklund outlined how show jumpers—riders as well as horses—can profit from dressage training and also that dressage riders and horses can benefit from riding over small fences.

She said that the guidelines for training and educating a horse have not changed since Xenophon wrote them down more than 2,000 years ago. The dressage requirements as used today in the sport were developed for the training of an all-purpose military mount. Quick reactions to the rider’s aids, suppleness and the ability to collect were all crucial criteria for safe riding cross-country and over fences.

“This supports the balance of the horse and rider and toughens spooky horses,” she said.

Always Go Forward

Jean Bemelmans’ training session was an absolute highlight of this year’s GDF. The Spanish team coach and former German champion worked with two Spanish riders, Jordi Domingo and Juan Manuel Muñoz Diaz, with two very different horses, The 10-year-old, Dutch Warmblood stallion Prestige (by Ferro) and the 9-year-old, Spanish stallion Fuego XII (by Utrerano).

“The horses shall always be in front of you and your leg,” said Bemelmans. “Never block the door in front of the horse. If you do that, the horse does not know where to go anymore. If you leave the door open in front, you will never have a problem, but if you block the flight possibilities for the horse, you will always produce a problem.”

Bemelmans demonstrated relaxing the back muscles by riding a strong, forward and downward rising trot with long reins, and then, by using weight in the saddle, he produced relative elevation of the horse and an immense increase of expression.

“I have nothing against it when a horse is ridden for a moment deep and short in hyperflexion,” said Bemelmans. “But, in general, it should be ridden through the warm-up phase and in periods of relaxation forward and downward with a long neck, and the aim must be an elevation with the nose short before the vertical.

“We have to work each day on the basics,” he continued. “Always give the horse freedom for its neck again, and then it keeps a positive attitude and feels well. Interval training is important, so don’t work for half an hour or even longer on the same movement.”
Since both horses in Bemelmans’ training session showed trot extensions with a clear lengthening of the frame, the Netherlands’ Laurens van Lieren wanted to know how much lengthening of the frame of the horse is requested in the extended trot. In his opinion, riding the extensions with an elevated and higher neck, like in collection, would look better.

French Olympic judge Bernard Maurel replied, “Just a little bit.”

But, after a journalist questioned this answer, FEI O-rated judge Stephen Clarke of Great Britain said, “There should be a clear lengthening of the frame. First of all, there should be a great impulsion from the hindquarters and the fore feet should touch the ground on the spot toward which they are pointing. The movement of the fore and hindlegs should reach equally forward in the moment of extension.”

Johann Hinnemann and Coby van Baalen led the last training session. Although van Baalen was supposed to explain her training program from pony rider to Grand Prix, she couldn’t begin her training session without discussing the “Power And Paint incident.”

In July, at the European Pony Championships (Germany), a French photographer caught van Baalen and her student, Angela Krooswijk, longeing the pony Power And Paint with extremely short side reins. When the photos were published, van Baalen defended herself by saying that the pony was only longed in an extreme position very briefly, and that it was a mistake. But officials from the Dutch Equestrian Federation are currently investigating the situation.

Van Baalen repeated her earlier statement at the GDF that the short side reins were a mistake, but that it had been corrected quickly, and the pony suffered no harm.

She then moved on to demonstrate the system she and Hinnemann have put together for training pony riders, and Power And Paint was one of the models for the session.

Hinnemann suggested that a training scale for riders be established, like the training scale for horses, to create well-rounded young riders.

Revising Learned Helplessness Theory

Australian scientist and former international rider Andrew McLean returned to the GDF again to discuss learned helplessness in the training of dressage horses.

He made quite a stir in 2006 when he discussed learning theory in horses and suggested that over time if a horse was exposed repeatedly to pain or to contradicting stimuli, then it would no longer react and would feel absolutely helpless.

This year he revised his remarks somewhat.

“I have more scientific results on learned helplessness, although it was only researched so far in dogs, rats and in some part for human beings,” he said. “Learned helplessness in horses remains unresearched and speculative at this stage. However, many researchers have identified the possibility, and I have seen it in trail horses. But, when a horse shows the LH syndrome, it’s not able to react anymore, nearly dead.”
Therefore, it seems unlikely that dressage horses are experiencing learned helplessness.

“But, on the way to [learned helplessness], there are many different stages, which can be caused through contradictory stimuli like the harsh use of the double bit and the bending of the head to the chest on one side and the strong use of spurs on the other side at the same time,” continued McLean. “There are certainly dressage horses that are on the way to the LH syndrome, but I would prefer to speak of ‘learned dullness’ in that case, which has produced hard sides and dead mouths. It’s important that the training of dressage horses is done with ease and with as little pressure as possible. Stress harms the immune system and can, among other diseases, produce colic.”

Austrian psychologist and trainer Ulrike Thiel, who resides in the Netherlands, suggested that contradictory aids could be used on purpose to subdue the horse on one side and to put it into tension to make it look more spectacular on the other.

But McLean emphasized the point that aids, to be understandable for the horse, must be clear and strict.

“We must know if the horse is able to answer the aids, otherwise problems may occur, since the horse becomes more and more confused,” said McLean. “Only one aid at a time should be given. They may come close, but should not take place at the same time, otherwise the horse might block or ignore the weaker aid.”

Again, he requested that the Grand Prix tests have the “Überstreichen” of the reins to test if the horse remains in self-carriage without the support of the reins.

A Look Behind The Scores

One of the most educational aspects of the GDF is the opportunity to hear and see why certain movements were marked the way they were directly from the Fédération Equestre Internationale judges.

This year the participants were able to scrutinize a few dressage tests from the 2007 European Championships (Italy).

The spectators and panel members got to score the movements, and then the actual results were discussed.
Clarke discussed how he rewarded riders who went for risk. He also said that he wouldn’t mark down the swishing tail of Sunrise, ridden by the Netherlands’ Imke Schellekens-Bartels, or Balagur, ridden by Russia’s Alexandra Korolova, because he didn’t see resistance.

Bemelmans confirmed his opinion and said in both cases the swishing tail wasn’t a reaction to the leg or the spur of the rider and would not be a sign of resistance.

Wim Ernes, one of the judges at the European Championships, confessed after seeing the video that he now believed he’d given too low a score for an extended walk. Clarke reminded the audience that judges are human too and do make mistakes.

Schellekens-Bartels, who earned an individual bronze medal for her freestyle performance at the European Championships, presented bits of her freestyle in an excellent demonstration led by the freestyle composer, Wibi Soerjadi.

The world-famous Dutch pianist accompanied Schellekens-Bartels live and discussed composing “The Spirit of Sunrise.” Soerjadi is an enthusiastic dressage rider himself.

“Music deals with emotions. Everybody can judge music,” said Soerjadi. “It’s like with a good meal. You do not need to know what is in it. You just have to taste it. Riders have a good feeling for music, since riding has a lot to do with a feeling for rhythm.”

The Future Of Dressage?

Frank Kemperman, the general manager for the Aachen, Germany, horse show facility, traveled to the GDF with fresh and controversial ideas to broaden the appeal of the sport.

He recalled the 50,000 spectators for the freestyle final at the 2006 World Equestrian Games as an example for the successful marketing of dressage.

He requested a new summer dressage series similar to the World Cup qualifiers in the winter. He even suggested that the European Championships be decided by three events instead of one.

Furthermore, he suggested that the Grand Prix test be shortened. He compared the six-minute dressage tests to the 60-second jumper rounds. He also called for more horse and rider stars like Isabell Werth and Anky van Grunsven, as well as a better distribution of the prize money for the top-placed riders to make it possible for more riders to live from their sport.

But Kempermann also had requests for the dressage riders. He asked for them to commit to actually starting at dressage shows and even to make contracts stipulating where they would start.

Birgit Popp

Category: Dressage

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