The Appeal Or Lack Thereof Of Eventing Dressage

Oct 1, 2010 - 3:21 AM
A fluid dressage test put Ingrid Klimke and the mostly Thoroughbred Butts Abraxxas into a good position for cross-country. Photo by Lisa Slade.

There is a line in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which I just love because it describes how so many feel trying to understand the intricacies of dressage and dressage judging, particularly after an explanation from an expert: “I’ve just decided to switch our Friday schedule to Monday, which means that the test we take each Friday on what we learned during the week will now take place on Monday before we’ve learned it. But since today is Tuesday, it doesn’t matter in the slightest.”

There are some things in life, which are destined to remain a mystery, but for the future success of eventing in the popularity stakes, it is actually vital that this is not the case with dressage and dressage judging.

Yesterday for short intervals throughout the day I sat watching the dressage with a truly delightful companion—a wise and charismatic hunting rider who is observant and intelligent in his approach to life. However by the end of the day the competition had left him ready for a nap!

So although I was left energized and excited by the brilliance of Ingrid Klimke on the experienced Butts Abraxxas, currently in second place, and William Fox-Pitt on the young Cool Mountain, now in third place, my companion went back to his hotel thinking it was a very long time until Saturday when the jumping starts.

If we are to present dressage as an integral and important part of the sport, we need to find more ways to build a bigger audience and leave my companion with the feeling that he enjoyed and understood what was going on. We cannot expect to attract the Grand Prix dressage audience because the level of the test is so much lower, but I believe there is more we can do.

The radio commentaries available at major championships are a great innovation, but the commentators need to be more than dressage judges themselves. They need to have the skills of the best sports commentators with not only expert knowledge but also a wide background knowledge of the riders and horses involved, a sense of fun and a surprising turn of phrase that will keep my companion involved.

There is an acronym for the process of selling anything that has stood the test of time—the AIDA principle. No. 1 when selling you need to Attract customers, then develop their Interest, followed by their Desire to buy into what is on offer, before the Action of the deal itself. We can follow this principle to sell dressage, and it would be a win-win situation.

So these commentators, and of course all coaches, riders and organizers, need to continually do more to Attract and then Develop the interest of our customers. We need the background stories, the human stories, and particularly the horse stories. And we need a sense of fun! At the moment, for many who watch the part they love best is when the riders take off their hats after saluting at X, wave to the crowds and hug their horses. In years gone by this was frowned upon, but it’ss an example of what is important in a spectator sport.

The customers’ Desire to watch and willingness to take Action is helped enormously by both simplicity and an acceptable time frame. We can do so much better by simplifying the judging and explanation of dressage rather than hiding the truth. Without doubt we can make it easier for the customer to participate in and care about this process. We’ve already made a big step in the right direction by presenting the scores as percentages, but we need more accessible key words and phrases and to use language that attracts a wider audience.

Time’s A Wastin’

We also need to cut down the time needed to follow this phase. All sports have moved to shorter time frames, and we should be no exception. All options should be examined, including having only three rather than four members in each team. In addition, it would be easy to run all the individuals first before putting all the team tests together, especially as the top riders and horses are on the teams. A more radical move would be to seed all the combinations and have all the top seeds doing all their tests in one session. This would create a very special viewing experience and a big audience.

I was lucky enough yesterday to watch not only William Fox-Pitt’s test on Cool Mountain but also his morning ride in the training arena. It was a master class as usual with several elements that my companion wouldn’t have noticed. William used his jumping saddle instead of his dressage saddle, riding with a lighter seat, repeatedly using rising trot to encourage Cool Mountain to use his back. His is a beautiful rising trot—his superb balance means that the seat just kisses the saddle before rising again. Later in the day in the stadium itself he even did the same rising trot round the arena before beginning his test.

It reminded me of watching Reiner Klimke about 18 years ago at a World Cup dressage round in Gothenburg, Sweden. I was there to watch and learn, and I watched as he rode a quality chestnut horse for two days in a snaffle and largely in rising trot. I thought it was a younger horse he had brought along to get used to the general buzz of the show. However, on the third day I looked up and saw he was changing the bridle to a double. A few minutes later he rode in to the arena and did his Grand Prix test. He didn’t win, but he wasn’t far away.

A High Percentage Of Thoroughbred Blood

Reiner Klimke’s daughter Ingrid yet again rode flawlessly on Butts Abraxxas although he possibly did not quite show the level of impulsion and spring as in recent championships. The thing that confuses me about Butts Abraxxas is that he is described as a Hanoverian and indeed features in the advertisements for Hanoverian horses at WEG. However, in truth he is almost 100 percent Thoroughbred; 96.875 percent to be precise. His Thoroughbred sire Heraldik is also the sire of Butts Leon, ridden by her teammate Andreas Dibowski. Butts Leon is 87.5 percent Thoroughbred.

For good measure Heraldik also sired the dam of another German team horse and another “Hanoverian,” Michael Jung’s horse Sam. Sam is actually three quarters Thoroughbred. This hidden truth behind the breeding of these German horses should have all other teams really worried, because the German team is almost certainly going to be in the lead after dressage, yet they are now mounted on horses that have real quality and can really gallop across country.

Current dressage leader Simone Deitermann with Free Easy is not on the German team but rides as an individual. This combination is fantastic to watch across country, but the reason they aren’t on the team is that they hit three show jumping fences in the spring at Badminton to drop down the order. The truth is that modern eventing requires a high quality performance in all three phases, and for that reason the event horse and event rider belong to what Reiner Klimke himself described as “the foremost horse discipline.”

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William Micklem is an international coach and educational and motivational speaker. He is a Fellow of the British Horse Society and author of The DK Complete Horse Riding Manual, the world’s top-selling training manual. He found Karen and David O’Connor’s three Olympic medalists Biko, Giltedge and Custom Made and breeds event horses, including Karen O’Connor’s Olympic horse Mandiba and Zara Phillips’ High Kingdom. He is also the inventor of the Micklem Bridle, which is now approved for use in dressage by the FEI.








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