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April 22, 2010

Celebrating 25 Years Of Horses And Music

Photo by Dream.

Our columnist reflects on the birth of the FEI World Cup Final and the many changes happening in the sport today.

Light years ago, I was at a dinner hosted by the then top brass in the Fédération Equestre Internationale. The
subject of introducing music as an element of Olympic dressage competition was brought up at the table by Eric Lette, a prominent dressage judge and later the chairman of the FEI Dressage Committee.

Eric waxed eloquently about the possibilities such an idea could open up to our sport. He painted a picture of dressage becoming attractive to larger audiences, of dancing horses and relaxed riders showing their best features to a mesmerized crowd.

His inspired presentation didn’t elicit much enthusiasm from the other diners, who listened politely but with a doubtful look in their eyes. Eric knew that I was an avid believer in adding music, and he gave me a hint to show my support. I chimed in, to no avail. When we ran out of air, and the table broke up, I think we were both convinced the concept had fallen flat.

Eric forged on with the support of Wolfgang Niggli, the chairman of the FEI Dressage Committee, and they managed to plant a seed that took root. This process occurred even though there was a tremendous resistance to introducing music in any form among the dressage leaders, especially from the Germans.

I remember listening to legend Dr. Reiner Klimke giving me a passionate account of the demise of dressage if music were to become part of the competition. It would destroy classical dressage, turn it into circus and confuse horses and riders, not to speak of judges, beyond repair.

A few years later, in 1995, Dr. Klimke placed fourth in the FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Los Angeles, Calif.,
on his stallion Biotop with a great performance, looking like he enjoyed every minute of it.
Music and performing horses is an old tradition, dating back hundreds of years, and now it’s definitely back to stay.

Imke Impresses

The World Cup, which became an instant hit when it started 25 years ago, has led the way in such a convincing fashion that for the 2012 Olympic Games in London there’s a format suggested in which the individual medals are decided by the results in the freestyle alone. This baby has come a long way!

New freestyle rules will be in place for the shows starting in 2011. The proposals by the FEI Task Force are being tried out as a test run at major events such as Rotterdam (the Netherlands) and Aachen (Germany) this year. If the experiments are successful, the judging for the freestyle will be split between technical and artistic judges.
Had this system been in effect at the FEI World Cup Dressage Final in ’s-Her-togenbosch (the Netherlands) this year (April 9, p. 18), there’s a chance that the winner would have been a mare.

Like most members of the dressage world, I’m very much in awe of Moor-lands Totilas, the eventual winner, but Hunter Douglas Sunrise had what might have been the freestyle test of her life at this year’s World Cup.
In the Grand Prix, Totilas was tense and hollow on several occasions, especially in the transitions. It’s rumored that Totilas has discovered girls, and breeding him could have contributed to his testiness. By the freestyle, Totilas was back in super form for Edward Gal, and the “attitude” had evaporated. Among the many impressive features he displayed were several pirouettes, which could earn a 12 in each direction.

Nevertheless, when it came to the artistic element, the evening belonged to Hunter Douglas Sunrise, the mare owned and ridden by Imke Schellekens-Bartels. They were tops already in Rotterdam last spring, but in ’s-Hertogen-bosch they managed to absolutely nail the interpretation of the lovely piano music created by Wibi Soerjadi, (who was there watching and reliving every moment of his creation) from the first note to the last.

I don’t know what Imke could have done to deliver a more fluid, supple and spot-on performance. The knowledgeable audience sprang to their feet in a standing ovation the instant the mare halted, and it was a well-deserved gesture of appreciation. Imke was teary-eyed with emotion, and it must have been a great experience for her parents, since her mother Tineke is a former Dutch team rider and her father, Joop, is the mastermind of the World Cup and was its organizer for many years.

What a nice way to celebrate 25 years of work well done by watching the success of their daughter at their own game! Although Imke and Sunrise finished third after Totilas and Jerich Par-zival with Adelinde Cornelissen, it was the image of Imke and her mare that lived on my mind’s eye when I left the show, and their piano music that played in my head.

Dressage Committee In Action

In conjunction with the World Cup, the newly formed FEI Dressage Committee met in person for the first time. Frank Kemperman is the chairman and was joined by Thomas Bauer of Germany (representing organizers), Margit Otto-Crepin of France (riders), David Hunt of Great Britain (trainers), Elisabeth Lund-holm of Sweden (chefs d’equipe) and myself (judges).

On Friday evening, we held an open meeting where the trainers, riders, organizers and officials were invited. This meeting gave them a chance to become familiar with our work and gain information about future plans. There was also an opportunity to ask questions and voice opinions.

For two days after the show, the Dressage Committee met in closed sessions and worked through a variety of issues. Many of them dealt with the implications of the proposals from the FEI Dressage Task Force, which have been approved by the FEI Bureau.

One item on the agenda concerned the dilemma of hyperflexion (formerly called rollkur) and forming a rule to control the method in the schooling and warm-up areas at shows. There have been roundtable discussions and heated debates in Europe over the subject, and the animal protection groups are strongly voicing their displeasure.

Curiously enough, there’s been little talk about the schooling methods in other FEI disciplines. Dressage stands alone in the spotlight over this issue, and there’s rarely anything mentioned about some horses being jumped tied down on various reins and fitted with bits that would make a dressage steward faint dead away. Or the young reining horse that’s being forced to slide stop and spin 15 times in a row.

The controversy has now reached the point when there’s a definite FEI statement being proposed targeting the hyperflexion but also other stressful or “rough” training methods, and the rule will cover all disciplines. There will be a specific time period allowed for the practice of hyperflexion, and it will be up to the stewards to police the action. The new guidelines will require giving stewards a great deal more training, responsibility and authority.

The Dressage Committee also spent ample time discussing the awards ceremony in championships. You may recall when Salinero bolted in the 2006 FEI World Equestrian Games at Aachen, Germany and almost lost his pregnant rider Anky van Grunsven, when Nicole Uphoff’s horse Rembrandt got kicked in the leg, and all of the close calls when horses have meltdowns during the awards.

However, the medal ceremony at the 2009 European Championships at Windsor (England) without horses was disappointing and received criticism. You may well ask yourself why meticulously trained dressage horses appear to be the worst behaved in awards ceremonies? I think it’s because they’re so focused and “controlled” all of the time in their performances. That can make them build tremendous anticipation or anxiety when people and horses let loose and give themselves to noisy celebrations. Most riders can handle a frisky horse, but a frightened horse is dangerous.

After long discussions—taking into account that the public and media want to see the horses who won receive their awards—and to protect the safety of the competitors and their mounts, we recommended bringing in the horses for the medal presentation but giving a rider who has previously received permission the option not to remount but leave before the victory gallop.

There are major changes in the wings in regard to the education and promotion of the FEI dressage judges.
As the only judge on the Dressage Committee, I’m concerned with some of the expectations and schedules that may be difficult for judges outside of Europe to follow. Non-European judges don’t have nearly as many opportunities to officiate as judges who live in Europe, and the judging conditions and quality of horses competing can vary a great deal from the standard there. Since one of the new methods of evaluating judges will be through statistics, this could give a slanted picture of what’s actually happening.

The Dressage Committee’s agenda was varied and long, but under the capable leadership of Frank Kemperman we got to the end of it and remained friends. The FEI Dressage Committee meets at least once a month by conference calls, and after each meeting there’s a summary of the minutes, which goes out to all stakeholders and is available through their clubs.

Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained more than a dozen horses to Grand Prix. She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and earned a team silver medal at the 1995 Pan American Games. An O-rated dressage judge based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as a longstanding member of the USEF High Performance Committee and a member of the FEI Dressage Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Celebrating 25 Years Of Horses And Music" ran in the April 23 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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