Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023

2004–A Year With A Dark Side

For some reason, I'm less content with the past year of American dressage than I've ever been before. And when I try to analyze it, it doesn't make any sense.


For some reason, I’m less content with the past year of American dressage than I’ve ever been before. And when I try to analyze it, it doesn’t make any sense.

It’s just a “feeling” without many facts to back it up, especially since we did have an internationally successful year, landing our third Olympic bronze medal in the last 12 years, and we were even treated to television coverage! Robert Ridland did a superb job with his commentary on the rides, especially since jumping is his real game. Still, one might wonder why the TV producers didn’t call in a dressage person to handle that part and what the jumper people
would have thought about having one of us dressage folks narrate their rides. Not that we don’t all overlap, but for that real inside touch, I do believe that you need someone who lives and breathes the specific discipline.

I do know that one thing that’s ruined the fun lately has been the drug issue. It started with the positive test taken from Rusty at the 2003 World Cup, which ended up giving Debbie McDonald and Brentina a victory long after the fact, a bittersweet scenario at best. The penalty side of the issue took well into 2004 to resolve, and although we never really doubted that Rusty would somehow show up at the Olympics, it put a negative slant on the sport that has never been present before. This situation, in combination with the positive tests at the Athens Olympics from the show jumpers and eventers, has negatively changed the atmosphere of international-level competition. From now on, perhaps we’ll have to delay the awards ceremonies until the drug tests are in!

As we approached the Olympics a year ago, the U.S. squad of horses looked great. Then we lost Rocher (George Williams) to injury, while Relevant and Lisa Wilcox, our trump card and great hope, almost suffered the same fate. Luckily, Kennedy appeared under Robert Dover to fill a void, but as a brand-new combination, we could never be sure it would work as well as it eventually did. Brentina and Debbie had to be excused from the Olympic trials due to an injury that happened while winning impressively at Dortmund (Germany) in March. At that point, it seemed the pretty Olympic picture we’d painted was slowly cracking in front of our very eyes.

In spite of it all, the actual performances by all the U.S. riders in Athens were a source of pride to anyone who was watching from the sidelines. While following the rides on the TV screen, I was also acutely aware of the difference between sitting in an easy chair at home and sitting in the judge’s box, with all the action actually happening a few meters in front of you.

So the Spanish onslaught did come as a bit of a surprise, especially since when I watched the team ride of Juan Antonio Jimenez, I certainly didn’t anticipate the score for his performance on Guizo to soar into the 70s. Beatriz Ferrer-Salat, however, was on top of her game, and when she’s on, she deserves every point! The strength of the Germans is a force we’ve learned to respect, and although there was a small chip in their armor as Weltall built up steam with Martin Schaudt, it didn’t happen in time to crack their golden wall.

Perhaps our bright prospects at the very beginning of the Olympic build-up put us in a mood of false expectations. Although a cocky attitude is part and parcel of a winning cadre, we forgot (and were reminded as time went on) that the only thing you can be sure of with horses is that things will change, and not always for the better. Those powerful partners of ours are as fragile as hummingbirds. All it takes is a misstep, and they’ll be gone for the season or gone for good, as happened to the noble Royal Kaliber. We are all proud of our team for bringing home another Olympic bronze medal. But even though I wasn’t in Athens, I thought I could sense the disappointment among our team members over not being able to step up to the silver medal in a year that started out looking so opportune.

Is Florida Killing The Other Shows?

While judging a lot of shows last year, I noticed a disturbing trend to which we need to pay attention. In the spring and early summer, there were three established and well-run shows offered in the Northeast and Midwest that didn’t draw the kind of entries they deserved.


Although the national-level entries at Saratoga (N.Y.) were plentiful, the FEI division was sparse and generally weak. I do realize that some riders object to the racetrack footing, which is hard to guarantee from year to year, but it appeared just fine last year. The management, stabling and audience appeal (with a big trade fair) and the general ambiance of the show is always excellent.

The Paxton Farm (Ohio) organizers took great pains to put on a CDI with an impressive group of foreign judges, and the facility offers everything a show rider could desire, from perfect footing in every ring and ample warm-up space, to permanent stabling that’s nothing less than luxurious. Again, hardly any entries in the CDI division, although the show was a USEF-championship qualifier as well. The same scenario played out at Tempel Farms (Ill.), another show with a long tradition of excellence.

All this makes me believe that the Florida season is killing off our Northeastern and Midwestern shows, even when they’re better run than some of the southern varieties. I just found out, as I was writing this (in late December) that the Port Jervis CDI (N.Y.) scheduled for April has been cancelled, and rumor has it that we may soon lose the Paxton show as well.

This phenomenon isn’t causing any heartburn for riders and owners who routinely go to Florida for the season, but it’s not a good omen. Every aspiring team rider or young rider east of the Rockies shouldn’t be required to move south in the winter to be able to play the game. To force that on them is really discriminating, and we need to watch out before the picture of quality shows available in the Northeast and Midwest becomes hopelessly unbalanced because everything is happening in Florida and nothing is available north of the Carolinas.

One positive note about the fall shows was that Dressage at Devon (Pa.), where the entries were abundant, rearranged the schooling area for CDI horses to allow them to work in the Gold Ring most of Thursday, when the breeding and performance divisions had formerly “clashed.” With the new arrangement, things appeared to flow smoother, and the management of Devon needs to get major credit for being willing to give up precious space to increase the comfort and safety of their competitors.

Of Ethics And Sportsmanship

Having reached the point when U.S. riders are definitely a force to reckon with in the world dressage arena, we need to pause and consider how we want the American brand of dressage to develop from here. There is a lot of controversy about methods of training that may lead to medals but are questionable as they pertain to the welfare of the horse. There is the ugly problem of drugs, where the balance between sports medicine and unfair advantage is a delicate affair.

And then there’s the question of ethics and true sportsmanship, which has been addressed by my colleagues at the Chronicle in several columns and Commentaries. Denny Emerson’s column from Feb. 13, 2004, “We Have To Reclaim True Horsemanship,” put it all together. As he observed, our tendency to equate winning with excellence is a real problem. There is sometimes more “smoke and mirrors” around the person in the winner’s circle than there is
true background and foundation. It appears nobody cares how it happens, just as long as it does happen, and that’s a dangerous trend that those of us who’ve seen the sport develop in this country over the years can detect.

Knowing who the real trainers and horsemen are, we watch as innocent clients group themselves around riders with the best public-relations machinery, plenty of ready made and sponsored horses to compete, and precious little history. And we wonder where this is going to end.


For sure it will not produce a new generation of horsemen, since they have no mentors with the knowledge to pass on. There’s a tremendous pressure to “get in the ring,” as John Strassburger pointed out in one of his Commentaries last year. Nor is there much interest or pride in training, improving and developing our horses and riders.

Yet we do now have a large number of legitimate American trainers who have steadily produced both riders and horses, and if we could pool those resources to start our own national training program for coming generations of horses and riders, our prospects could brighten considerably. The power play of who should be in charge of such a program would probably be the greatest stumbling block to overcome, but imagine the possibilities if we could all work together to build the next American generation.

Already we have several privately initiated programs, which will bring good things to dressage. The incredible fundraiser that featured Debbie McDonald during the Olympic selection trials in California, where she raised $240,000 for the team by auctioning off her teaching skills and the hospitality of her sponsors, the Thomases, was an awesome initiative. Debbie’s offer to work for a month each with the three riders who each paid $80,000 did a lot to advance our team and will surely help those riders along.

The people at Hilltop Farms, the national leader in the young horse department, not least because of the recent top placing of one of their stallions in the World Breeding Championship for 5-year-olds, has started a brand-new trend. Having realized that this country is lacking in professional riders who are able and willing to devote their time to the most important time of a horse’s career–the beginning–the team at Hilltop is offering a unique opportunity to close the gap between the breeders and the competitive riders.

On April 25-27 they’ll offer a symposium directed by three experts–Dr. Ulf Moller, Ingo Pape and Scott Hassler–concentrating on the development and training of young horses. The riders selected for the program will be offered a scholarship to cover everything except travel expenses, and I can see a whole new group of professionals developing with an expertise that is sorely needed if we’re ever going to successfully market our American breeding

The third initiative made me smile. Only Robert Dover would have the clever idea to model his effort after the television show “American Idol.” Robert’s program is called the “Search for America’s Next Dressage Star” and is offered to riders 25 years and under.

They have to submit videotapes and bios, and two to five riders will be chosen to go to Wellington, Fla., for the month of April. The candidates will receive free board for themselves and their horses and will be judged during the month on their ability to ride, train, teach, manage the barn and interact with others. The winner will be given a great bonus from EuroAmerican Saddlery and offered a fully salaried job as Robert’s second assistant trainer. In a way all the riders will be winners, since the month of free training will certainly have a positive impact on their education.

Looking forward, we have a “year off” from major international competitions, with the notable exception of the FEI World Cup Finals for both jumping and dressage, in Las Vegas on April 21-24. The location ought to help an already exciting event to become something really special!

Of course, we expect our own participation to be strong, and being the host nation we’re likely to get at least two, perhaps even three, American horses into the competition. When Las Vegas is over, there will be a period of several months without an immediate goal to strive for, especially if our National Dressage Championships are moved to October, as has been suggested. I think the riders and their horses can use some down time to regroup, train in peace, and figure out how to deal with future challenges.




Follow us on


Copyright © 2023 The Chronicle of the Horse