We have a lot to look back on from 2002, some of it with pride, some in disappointment, and some in anger.
Anger is my emotion regarding the continuing fiasco of the senseless battle between the U.S. Equestrian Team and USA Equestrian, which is still playing, but no longer to a full house. People are becoming less and less interested in the barrage of mail and the accusations from both camps. After the USAEq convention a year ago, we all thought this nonsense was history. But we celebrated too early and now can only hope that this time there really is a resolution.
An unpleasant side show to this dilemma is the way the riders have been used as pawns in a game that wasn’t initiated by them and is, in fact, a detriment to their activities. Few serious riders have the time or interest to become involved in organizational life and internal conflicts, and their names and votes should be kept out of the picture, unless they’ve honestly expressed an interest in supporting one side or the other.
It was not so many years ago that neither organization cared a fig about the feelings of the riders, who, if they expressed an opinion, were told to be quiet and stay on the horse.
Committee life is another area that has suffered from the strife. The spirit of creativity, which is the driving force for most people who give of their time and expertise and often pay their way to meetings and conventions, is slowly being choked to death. With no knowledge of how things will look in a month or in a year, how can we plan future programs of any kind, without feeling it is an exercise in futility? Staff members in both organizations have little or no job security, and some are rotating at an alarm- ing rate. This makes it even more difficult to protect the continuity and to follow up on decisions made by the committees. With- out a solid and stationary staff as a backbone, it is truly challenging to successfully run a committee.
Particularly at a time when equestrian sports are being viewed as undesirable in the Olympic family of sports, we absolutely cannot afford to waste our energy and resources on beating up each other.
In the meantime, a whole new philosophy is developing in international dressage, especially in the wake of the World Equestrian Games. Two catchwords are up on the screen: globalization and transparency.
Most horse people believe that we need to go to almost any measure in order to stay in the Olympics. I’m quite a bit happier at World Equestrian Games, which is all about horses, but the word “Olympics” has a magic ring to it that cannot be denied, and it draws the attention of the whole world to sports.
Naturally it is a matter of economics as well, since attracting sponsorship and a good income later on as a professional athlete is a lot easier with the Olympic label attached. The U.S. Olympic Committee’s contributions to the dressage teams we field for the World Championships, the Olympics and its precursor, the Pan Am Games, are substantial, and that source of revenue would dry up if it weren’t in the Games.
Globalization is something we saw in action at the WEG in Jerez, Spain. The results at the WEG showed that times are changing and that new teams can climb into the medals. Countries not considered eligible just a few years ago are knocking at the door and being admitted to the inner circle. Horses of breeds that five years ago wouldn’t get a second look in serious competition are climbing into the ribbons. Judges are now appreciating their special talents, such as the extraordinary ability to collect exhibited by the Spanish-bred horses. In short, we are becoming more open-minded about the nature of our sport, and we are at least considering widening our horizons.
The first step toward making dressage more “audience friendly” was the addition of the freestyle to the Olympics in 1996. That worked like a charm to fill the stands, but it didn’t exactly put us on TV. There is now a strong trend to involve the audience even more in the process of judging, in order to “demystify” dressage. To that end, all scores at championships worldwide have been given out to the press after the class is finished.
Last fall we took this concept even further: Both Dressage at Devon (Pa.) and the international indoor show at Stuttgart (Germany) sported large scoreboards where each score from every judge was posted as the ride was in progress. In Stuttgart it was a “pilot program,” and it had its funky moments. At times the computer would have a hiccup and show the scores as 9, 0, 2, 8 and 4, and some spectators would get a look on their faces that spelled “suspicions confirmed!” But, in general, the system worked well.
At the end, people even came up and congratulated us on the steadily even judging and called us “brave.” I didn’t judge this particular class, so I observed how some individuals in the audience would become so fascinated with the scoreboard that they hardly saw any of the rides. And that is, of course, not a desirable development. As time goes by, and the flashing scores become commonplace, I’m sure it will become just a way to “check in” and keep track of how the scores are going.
On the whole, I think it was a positive change. The audience realized that the judges honestly do try to call the class as it evolves and that huge discrepancies are very rare. As a competitor, I love the idea!
There is another suggestion in the wings, one that would completely rearrange the current system of judging and would take us back to the “way we were.” As is done currently in the Young Horse Championships and its qualifying classes, three judges would sit to-gether, then come up with anywhere from three to five scores that would be averaged to one score, to produce the final result of the ride. One of the judges would then give a short explanation of the scores as the horse leaves the arena.
I have rather strong objections to this idea, I’m afraid. As I have experienced from judging the young horse classes, there is always a “leader” among the three judges, and the other two take a more passive part. This way, you end up with what’s mostly one judge’s opinion, and I don’t consider that progress.
In addition, I wonder how many competitors would wish to repeatedly have the weak points of their Grand Prix horses announced to an audience, until the horse becomes “known” for his lateral walk or hitching a hind leg in the piaffe, for example. These are matters for the judges to point out on the test sheet, but not characteristics the competitor needs to have trumpeted to the world every time the horse performs.
Stuttgart will also be remembered for another premiere event: It was the first time in the 18 years the show has been in existence that the German national anthem wasn’t the tune that played at the awards ceremony for the Grand Prix Special. That was because our own Lisa Wilcox on Relevant had a superb go, while World Champion Farbenfroh (who had won the Grand Prix) had a Prozac day and saw ghosts every- where. When he spun around in the first piaffe, he lost his place in the winner’s circle, and Relevant moved in.
Lisa sat on the chestnut stallion in the floodlight, pretty as a picture, with her hand over her heart while the sound of the “Star-Spangled Banner” filled the arena. In second position was Beatriz Ferrer-Salat from Spain, and third was Lone Jorgensen from Denmark. The first German to place was Ann-Kathrin Linsenhoff, who was fourth on Renoir-UNICEF. How’s that for global?
Whatever happens next in our international quest, we will most likely always look back at the 2002 WEG as the turning point for American dressage.
Admittedly, for once, we were a little bit lucky. We knew before the WEG that we had four horses who were capable of scoring more than 70 percent if they each performed up to par. If all our horses stayed sound’a blessing we can never take for granted’and a few of our rivals experienced problems with soundness, accidents or disease, we thought we could be right there.
Timing is just about everything in life, but we had more than that this time: We had skill and concentration and a comfortable working relationship between our team members. And they came through.
Over the years American dressage has paid its dues: We have bought tons of horses from Europe, gone repeatedly overseas for training, and been ignored and sometimes laughed at by the press over there, and still we American riders and horse owners have persisted. With a considerable degree of self-restraint, we even choked down our disappointment over not seeing Brentina and Debbie McDonald in the individual medals at the WEG, well aware that there will be a comeback.
When our team received their silver medals in Spain, and Lisa was honored in Stuttgart, it was with complete honesty I could say to myself, “The USA has really earned this place in the sun, the old- fashioned way!”