Our columnist is pleased with what she’s seen at the dressage equitation finals and the national finals, though she still has suggestions for improvements.
The dressage equitation division developed while I was busy in high performance, and although I was aware of it through the work on the U.S. Equestrian Federation committees, I never took active part in it except for judging an occasional class. But I had a good crash course at the Markel/USEF Young Horse Dressage Championships in Illinois in August!
My assistant trainer, Tamra Brown, has a student who had qualified for the USEF Dressage Seat Medal Finals, which were held at Lamplight Equestrian Center in conjunction with the young horse championships. Since I had several other students there, Tamra and I decided it would be redundant for both of us to spend the weekend away, and we agreed I should help out with our young finalist.
Melanie Doughty is 14 going on 25, and both she and her parents agreed the arrangement could work. We thought it would be too much for Melanie’s new mare to travel the distance in the heat, so she opted to use a borrowed horse. This system is a great opportunity for kids who live far away from the finals or don’t own a horse, but it demands generous sponsors of suitable horses to make mounts available.
We totally lucked out with a choice of horses owned by the Barteaus of KYB Dressage. Melanie is quite tall for her age, and the horse she picked, a large 7-year-old warmblood named Bellagio, was suitable in size and had lovely gaits but was a lot of horse for a youngster to guide around. The Barteaus could not have been more helpful and supportive. Their daughter Hudi was at hand with advice and encouragement all four days, and we were allowed plenty of opportunity to practice.
Melanie was a super sport, even when Bellagio became a bit strong and challenged her, and she showed she has the makings of a good competitor. She quickly developed a nice understanding of how the horse was thinking and worked with him and me every moment in total concentration. I realized the grit it takes from all these kids, but perhaps particularly those who ride horses unfamiliar to them, to go through the warm-up class and the final class without losing their mental grip or desire. This group of finalists had a weekend of almost 100-degree weather to deal with as an extra test!
The warm-up class for our age group landed Melanie in seventh place, and there was more work to be done before the final countdown. By the end, she’d earned the bronze medal, and she was the only one of the three top finishers who was on a borrowed horse.
The riders in all the divisions looked capable and comfortable on their horses, and the judges had their work cut out for them. I was very impressed with the caliber of the instructors, many of them with strong “name recognition,” and the intensity with which they coached their students.
I’m now an informed follower of the equitation division, and I came to realize it has great value as a starter kit toward future development as a rider. I especially enjoyed seeing the socializing between the youngsters, the friends they make, and the fun they had while competing with each other.
Of course we are always looking to improve on our programs, and I think there are opportunities to make this event even more exciting. I discussed some ideas with George and Roberta Williams, who are old hands at the project, as well as Janine Malone. My impression was that the tests allowed could be made more variable and interesting to watch if we took some elements from the regular hunter/jumper equitation division.
For example: Do not run every rider through the long tests, but separate the class after some preliminary work and excuse those riders who are definitely not in the top six or eight. Then run longer and more complicated tests for those remaining. When it comes to the top three, the riders could be asked to change horses for a short program, which would tell a lot about their ability—and keep the audience alert!
I was immediately warned that such an idea would invite lawsuits and complications, but I’m not convinced. I think with signed agreements this hurdle could be overcome. After all, the three top riders should be able to safely command a strange horse that has already proven its reliability with another rider of the same age group at the same show.
It also would level the playing field for those competitors who are on borrowed horses, which may bring even more kids to the game. While I’m not a strong proponent of the new USEF rider tests (which I find complicated to judge because they somehow take the horse out of the picture), I do think we can continue to develop good seats and proper horsemanship in the equitation division while encouraging the competitors to enjoy each other’s company.
Busy, Icy Finals
In the beginning of November more than 500 horses from all over the country traveled to the Kentucky Horse Park to compete in the U.S. Dressage Finals. When the horses from the South arrived they went directly from summer into winter with a daily high of 45 degrees, whipping icy winds, and intermittent rain and hail. The judges were protected in well-enclosed huts, but the look on the horses’ faces when the hail pelted them over the head was one of pure astonishment.
One smart horse just turned around at the walk, put his tail to the wind and refused to move until the sudden hailstorm ended. As the four days progressed, things improved, and on the last day we enjoyed perfect fall temperatures and lovely foliage.
This was the second year of this event but my first experience, and it lived up to the many great reports from last year. The organization was fabulous thanks to very experienced management headed by Lloyd Landkamer, with many other competent organizers at his side. Running six rings for four days with 13 judges and attached scribes, all the required officials and volunteers, plus seeing to every need of horses and riders is no small feat! But spirits were high, and the excitement of riding in the Alltech Arena showed on the faces of the riders even at 6 in the morning when they were all in there warming up.
This year, the regional championships in many areas were overwhelmed with entries, and it was obvious that the interest in qualifying for the championships has increased tremendously. In Region 3, for example, we had so many horses competing at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival showgrounds in Wellington, Fla., that nobody had a tack stall, and the horses that weren’t entered in the championship classes had to stable across the street. I’ve never seen that many trailers parked in a never-ending, shining row before!
Many judges received calls from various regions asking us to jump in as an extra judge because they were unprepared for this onslaught of entries. It’s great to see that we have such a surge of enthusiasm for something that took our U.S. Dressage Federation committees forever to get off the ground. Timing is everything, and the time for our national championships has finally arrived!
I see this as the optimum goal for our amateurs who love, live and support our sport but have “real lives” that cannot dovetail with the ambition to compete internationally or be on a team. This is the place in the sun for the people who quietly support our entire dressage system but cannot spend half their lives in Florida or California and Europe. I predict it will also become the place for professionals and hopeful team members to introduce themselves to the nation and the press on a green horse before having to face the rigors of the CDIs.
Improved Scoring System
This was my first experience with the computer system for scoring developed by Kevin Bradbury. I had worked with it in Wellington, but more as an experiment and always with a scribe available writing on paper in the traditional way.
So, when I found only one E-scribe and nobody else in my judge’s box, I was quite apprehensive as our first class started. At the end of each test I was twitching, since I always write my own general impressions and remarks. No test to write on, no pen needed. And I just knew my computer would have a meltdown, since I have that unfortunate effect on electronics.
Andrea, my very competent scribe, babied me through the morning while typing furiously. The fact that every arena had its own scoreboard with scores posted at the end of each ride was impressive. Surprisingly, the system never hiccupped once.
By the time we arrived at the evening freestyle, three days later, another great advantage dawned on me. Normally, the opportunity to make comments about the performance is extremely limited in the freestyle because of the many components that have to be evaluated at the end of the test.
With this system and a quick scribe, the judge actually has the time to tell the competitor the reason for some of the scores, in particular in regards to the artistic side! It was a good feeling to be able to address some of the issues about the choreography, difficulty and music without having the test ripped from your hands as the horse leaves the arena.
The national finals will stay in Kentucky for one more year, and then the plan is to move it to another somewhat central location for the next three years. Naturally, it’s fair to let another venue have a go at this event. Whoever wins the bid will have a tough act to follow, which is great because it shows that our national finals has set the standards high from the start.
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 started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995, and she was inducted into the Roemer/USDF Hall of Fame in 2013.