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May 21, 2012

Highlight At Devon

While the question of how much dressage training is too much for an event horse remains a topic of discussion, horses like La Biosthetique-Sam prove that good dressage and good jumping aren't mutually exclusive. Photo by Lisa Slade.

Sept. 30, 1949

The following is an editorial following the first selection trial for the 1952 Olympic Games. The U.S. selectors were still trying to sort out how they would choose an Olympic team, and no amateurs showed up at the trials, held at the Devon Horse Show grounds in Pennsylvania, to try out for the eventing team.

This editorial also highlights an issue that is still debated today: How much is too much dressage training for an upper level event horse?

Highlight At Devon

When six entries turned out for the first trials designed to select horses to compete in the Olympic events in 1952, few of the spectators at the Devon Show grounds or at the Radnor Hunt property had any clear idea of the type of performance they were going to see or the qualifications that a horse should have to be suitable for the Olympic competition under the rules of the Federation Equestre Internationale.

Unfortunately, only riders of Army experience entered and it was a definite disappointment to have many well known show ring amateurs and professionals on the sidelines. Is it possible that the regular horse show exhibitors are really not interested in advanced horsemanship or is it that they do not feel qualified to undertake tests calling for it?

As the Three Day Trials proceeded it became obvious to even the uninitiated that these tests have been designed to search out in every sense the real qualifications of horse and rider. A horse competing under F.E.I. specifications is obliged to show suppleness, balance, and obedience; this is the purpose of the first day’s dressage phase. On the second day, the endurance phase is intended to test thoroughly the horse’s endurance, fitness, and ability to jump at speed; and in addition to test the skill of the rider in judging pace and the capabilities of his horse. The stadium jumping phase, on the final day, is meant primarily to prove the horse’s soundness following the second day’s grueling performance. Held over a 4 foot course, it is only secondarily a jumping competition and so does not include obstacles as high as would be found in open or prix classes.

From a horseman’s point of view, the performance of Mr. Greenhalgh’s Flying Dutchman highlighted the entire three days. The last appearance of the German import had been at Devon in the spring where performances had been disappointing.

In Germany he had been trained for Individual dressage competition—which calls for sharp collection, high elevation of gaits, and great engagement of the hocks. Individual dressage training, when carried to an extreme, displaces a horse’s center of gravity so far to the rear that it will seriously curtail his ability to gallop and jump across country with complete freedom. Further, when carried to an extreme, this training will place a horse permanently in a position to refuse, because he has lost the ability to displace his center of gravity to the front, and if he does jump he will be unable to properly “use” himself. Consequently for successful jumping it was necessary to re-educate the Flying Dutchman.

Because a horse should use his head and neck to maintain his equilibrium, just as a fox uses his brush, the Flying Dutchman was put to work at certain exercises intended to restore his natural balance. In fact he was not ridden over a fence during the period of time between the Devon Show in the spring and September 23rd—a matter of nearly four months of patient, persistent, time consuming re-education. The performance of The Dutchman in the cross country and stadium jumping phases leaves no doubt of the success of this effort to restore freedom of movement to an over collected horse. His Arabian ancestry showed itself in his exceptional stamina. Cured of his collection, he demonstrated unexpected ability to gallop and jump, and proved himself to be excellent material for these Three Day Trials.

The performance of the best of the Army officers in these trials points out what can be done to improve the quality of horsemanship seen in American horse show rings. The Devon contest may not have uncovered the Olympic team for 1952, but it showed conclusively that events of this nature are far more interesting than the regulation hunter classes and that F.E.I. competitions should be here to stay.

This article was first published on Sept. 30, 1949, in The Chronicle. It's part of a series celebrating 75 years of Chronicle history.