Dressage For The Major Leagues

Apr 4, 2016 - 8:42 AM

Our columnist takes a tongue-in-cheek look at how to take dressage mainstream.

The Fédération Equestre Internationale Dressage Committee and all its stakeholders are on a roll to move dressage to a different level with a number of new proposals for rule changes. (Read about the FEI Sports Forum, April 4-5 in our April 25 issue.)

The enthusiasm is great and some of the suggestions bold, but perhaps not radical enough to truly make dressage more popular, which is one of the ambitions repeatedly stated in the agenda. This has been a desire of the dressage world and expressed by the Dressage Committee for years, but somehow it does not seem to get off the ground quickly enough.

So, here are a few suggestions that may move things along.

First of all, the never-ending problem of how to judge dressage has to be solved. Obviously the whole system is antiquated, annoying to everyone, and basically useless.

Dressage judges are expensive for management to ship around, demanding of hospitality, and most of all incredibly opinionated. Although they spend the better part of their lives studying and working on refining their impossible task, this does not give them the right to expect any kind of respect. Or money for their work.

And they cannot agree on anything, it appears. Judges are nothing but a giant headache and responsible for the majority of the problems in the sport. Removing them entirely would be the ultimate solution, preferably replacing them with computers, which, as we all know, never fail to perform to perfection. This way we could eliminate the necessity for assessing such details as suppleness, ambiance, presence, power, contact and overall impact of a horse/rider combination, and focus on the only important thing, which is mistakes.

For sure we can produce computers that can detect mistakes, and also possibly regularity or lack thereof. In the interim, we could allow one judge to remain in championships and such. This solitary judge would be responsible for 50 percent of the final score for each performance. The remaining 50 percent of the score will be given by the audience, who will send their scores in from their mobile phones as the performance progresses. Our perfect computers will have the final score sent worldwide before the horse leaves the ring.

The audiences, who profess not to understand our present system and therefore cannot follow our sport, will enjoy judging in a “learn by doing” fashion. If this is temporarily confusing to the competitors, it is a small price to pay for an enormous upswing in popularity, monetary prizes and sponsors. On television our freestyles will run back to back with Dancing With The Stars, and there will be fascinating interviews with the riders who will tell you their horse never put a foot wrong in its entire life, and that they barely had any help before bursting into stardom at Grand Prix from complete poverty and obscurity.

Moving Things Along

Dressage tests are too long for our audiences and for Olympic standards. Shortening the Grand Prix has been suggested, but luckily someone pointed out that stuffing more movements in at shorter intervals may not be good for the welfare of our horses, who eventually will not know if they are coming or going.

No problem, we can find other ways to move things along. The FEI has decided to penalize errors of course in a new fashion: one error, 2 percentage points off, and two errors will mean elimination. This quickly gets rid of the aging athletes who can remember nothing and the young ones who should have better control of their show nerves. And it could knock out a whole championship team if one of the superstars has a blonde moment.

This could be very effective, but even better would be a system of “fault and out.” One mistake of any kind, the bell rings, and out you go, all in the interest of saving time and making our sport less boring, easier to understand, and more Olympic friendly.

What could really make a huge difference in that respect would be some alterations in the freestyles. As the regulations have become tighter over the years in regard to what you can and cannot do in a freestyle, there’s hardly any “free” left in it. Nowadays it is a Grand Prix program ride to music. No surprises or ingenuity allowed, so none occur. Just imagine a free-for-all performance in any costume you wish to wear, displaying whatever your horse is good at and avoiding the rest. After all, we already did all that other stuff to qualify!

Cute additions such as bowing at the halt or a tad of Spanish walk; wouldn’t that be lovely? Embrace whatever music you like, including vocals, rap and bag pipes in a happy mix. And of course your horse can be dressed for the occasion with or without a bit or bridle, lots of bling and with sponsor logos from head to tail.

Time to get beyond tradition and bring dressage into our brave new world of competing with all the other sports in the Olympics. We will not only stay in the Games but forge on until some folks would rather watch the dressage than the synchronized swimming!

And of course we should get rid of the Collective Remarks at the end of the tests, as suggested by the International Dressage Riders Club. Those marks and comments always tend to hold up the parade, slow down the work of the computers, and are of no interest whatsoever to the competitors or the audience alike. Who cares why a judge gives a mark as long as they are immediate and high?

Education for the rider through reading test comments is an outdated and cumbersome system. With the new paperless secretary system and the pressure to display results on the big monitor basically at the salute, there is no time for final remarks anyway. Another streamlining success!

Next item on the drawing board is to move beyond our repetitious tests to more interesting quadrille riding, which is appealingly “teamlike,” since the riders are performing together. This certainly will be more in the Olympic spirit but may present a problem for the coaches who will be faced with the near impossible task of having four dressage riders go in the same direction.

With a consolidated effort in thinking outside the box we will be able to rise above the obstacles of tradition, erase history, and make dressage unrecognizable in short order. An ultimate solution would be to take the horse out of the picture altogether. Animal protection groups worldwide would applaud such a move because they don’t want us to ride horses to begin with. They, in unison with the Olympic organizers, would embrace the logical development of horseless dressage.

By removing the horses and doing the tests on foot we can be less of an administrative bother for the IOC, and since our necks are commonly too short anyway, there is little danger of us ever being behind the vertical.


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 named 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 was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2013. Anne started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995, and a collection of those columns is now available in the book Collective Remarks.

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