Highs And Lows In Dressage

Mar 9, 2015 - 10:18 AM

Our columnist celebrates one of the sport’s best performances but worries about an impending threat to its tradition.

After watching the mesmerizing performance of Valegro and Charlotte Dujardin at Olympia in London mid-December, we all had to ask ourselves: How much more can this combination offer?

The horse never put a foot out of place, was in complete self-carriage through every movement, and looked thoroughly content in the connection while exuding elasticity and working at full power. In addition to the ground jury officiating at the show, there were another 80 judges in residence attending a seminar conducted by Katrina Wüst. All of them were treated to this royal performance and were in total agreement with the new world record of close to 95 percent posted after the freestyle ride.

I have to admit I thought a few more points even might have been given to this miracle horse and rider. Perhaps we will develop a need to work on a “Valegro system” of scoring to include up to 15 points per movement.

After getting home, I watched the ride several times on video, and although it was very impressive, I felt privileged to have been there on location, since a video can never express the total experience like reality. Personally, I do not expect to see a better ride anytime soon, and I think this kind of performance can elevate the whole sport to a higher level by serving as an example to strive for.

Watching Charlotte’s mentor and teacher Carl Hester warm up the day before the show on Nip Tuck, it was easy to see where Charlotte’s talent has been honed and developed. Carl has the same type of mental approach I used to enjoy when working together with Steffen Peters. Carl’s horse is young and quite spooky, but in an honest, frightened way. He spun around several times outside of the warm-up ring, and Carl just ignored his antics and quietly put him back on track until the horse exhaled and started to focus.

Ravel could be cheeky before a test and used to play and kick out in the canter depart. This little quirk sometimes made me hold my breath when he was in the test coming up to the canter transition from the passage, but Steffen always had the situation solved before leaving the schooling ring by just quietly ignoring his horse’s antics.

Studying Carl on his horse was like déjà vu in the respect of being in the presence of another great rider who could truly get into his horse’s head as well as physically ride him masterfully. I have watched horses and riders warm up for tests for many years and seen everything from rage to incapacity with all the degrees of frustrations involved, most of it due to show nerves. With riders like Carl and Steffen, their pre-performance nerves never get the better of them, and the horses become happy to follow their directions because they take their confidence from the rider.

In addition to his great ability as a rider and trainer, Carl also has a wonderful sense of humor and irony. Not many people in our sometimes over-serious sport have a true grasp of reality and can see the “wide screen” as the Brits put it. And he is the trainer of the combination that may just get a 100 percent score one day. Every show manager’s dream is to host that show!

Over the years there have been a number of exceptional horse-rider combinations that have elevated the standard and popularity of the freestyle. Etched in my mind are the rides performed by Anky van Grunsven, truly a dance in total sync between horse, rider and music. Even on the rare occasion when she had a not-so-brilliant Grand Prix, Anky would return to take your breath away in the freestyle. As a judge, you had better stay alert because Anky always came back to set the record straight!

Kyra Kyrklund had that same quality as a freestyle artist, and her work in one hand to display the suppleness of her horses is unequaled to date. Isabell Werth, need I say more? Horse after horse, all competitive in the top sport and all trained by her from the very start. I sometimes wondered about her choice of horses because I thought them too complicated either in conformation or mind, but she always made it happen! Her new mare is, in my opinion, the most naturally talented horse she has ever been on, and that could lead to another reason for giving a score of more than 10.

Shortening The Grand Prix

All top European Fédération Equestre Internationale show managers are not lovers of dressage, but they put up with it as an FEI requirement to enable them to host the jumping. The increasing popularity of the freestyle, which often sells out, is changing that attitude, but if some managers could drop the Grand Prix test or at least shorten it to become a “fault and out,” it would be more pleasing to them. Well, the International Olympic Committee is trying to help them out there. As I am writing this, there is a test event planned to examine the possibilities of cutting the Grand Prix test down from six to four minutes, and, as often happens when there are strange invasions into our sport, the reason given is that we have to comply to remain an Olympic sport.

In principle, I understand that to bring new people to the sport, we need to make our game more attractive, faster moving, less mysterious and more accessible. We need to create superstars like every other sport, and thereby fans, followers, and above all, sponsors. We try to give the illusion of it being a team sport, and all this will keep dressage in the Olympic Games and the funding rolling in for the athletes and the shows.

I know the drill after participating in a number of discussions about how to promote the sport going on in the FEI Dressage Committee meetings. Under the energetic leadership of our chairman Frank Kemperman, we progressed considerably in the direction of dressage as a spectator sport, which only a few years ago was a dream outside of Germany. We even managed to add another 10 dressage rides into the 2016 Olympic Games. At the time, we thought this was a major victory.

The euphoria about the growth and popularity of our sport has surely been dampened by the threat to the Grand Prix. I talked to judges and competitors last week in Wellington, Fla., to find out how they felt about the situation. Like me, most of them were definitely resistant, and some upset, about the FEI push for a shorter Grand Prix test.

There are new demands from the IOC that aim to present a medal at the end of each spectator day in every sport. That is, of course, impossible to accomplish with 60 Grand Prix rides. Consequently, efforts are being made to cut the Grand Prix down to the bones in order to demonstrate compliance. As testing is going on to shorten the Grand Prix, one could consider other solutions such as having only the Special and the freestyle, or perhaps just the freestyle at the Olympic venue and riding the Grand Prix elsewhere to qualify. This may please the IOC but disappoint the fans and spectators who rightfully believe that the technical demands of the Grand Prix as it stands is the true test of a horse’s capability and the means by which a combination should earn its spot in the freestyle.

How essential it is for us to remain in the Olympics at any cost? This question could make for an interesting discussion. As the debate goes on between the stakeholders there may be no objection to shortening or even removing the Grand Prix test.

I do, however, vividly remember the riders and trainers who revolted when freestyle was first promoted for championships by the FEI. One clear opponent was Dr. Reiner Klimke, with whom I had a long and intense argument about the subject. I was very much in favor of introducing freestyle and loved to ride it. Reiner was convinced it would be the death of classical dressage and turn competitions into circus. Because we were careful to make the rider qualify by riding the traditional tests, this never happened. And as I recall, Dr. Klimke rather enjoyed riding the freestyle in the end and had a great performance in Los Angeles on Biotop at the Volvo FEI World Cup Finals in 1995.

In no way am I a stick in the mud when it comes to inventing new ways to promote dressage, but I firmly believe we need to keep the basic training in focus. All the Grand Prix movements are in the test for a purpose, and once we start chipping away at the foundation in favor of riding to music, I think we are off to a slippery slide.

Valegro is so beautiful to watch because he and Charlotte went through the meticulous exercises of the compulsory training and made many a “plié at the barre” before they started to perform their Swan Lake. We will do ourselves a service to remember that. And I know Reiner is smiling somewhere as I am writing this.


Anne Gribbons was the U.S. Equestrian Federation technical advisor for dressage from 2010-2012. She has trained and shown 15 horses of her own to Grand Prix and competed in 10 national championships, as well as in Europe, including the Aachen CHIO (Germany). Seven of her horses have been U.S. Dressage Federation Horse of the Year, and she was a member of the 1995 Pan American Games silver medal-winning team for the United States. Anne is a Fédération Equestre Internationale five-star judge, and she was a member of the FEI Dressage Committee from 2010-2013. She was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2013. Anne started contributing to the Chronicle’s Between Rounds columns in 1995, and a collection of those columns is now available in the book Collective Remarks.

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