Dressage, Then And Now

Aug 1, 2016 - 8:37 AM

Our columnist looks back on how the last few decades have treated her sport.

Looking back about 40 years to the dawning of dressage in America, it’s amazing to me how many things that we take for granted today have completely changed. It’s not just horse husbandry and veterinary science but also how we look at our partner the horse and his needs. Things have altered significantly over a relatively short time.

I recently had one of my horses fitted for a new saddle. While I was impressed by the exact science of measuring and fitting the equipment to the horse as well as the rider, I remember well the days when I would ride a dozen horses in the same saddle every day, and nobody raised an eyebrow. A horse with a bowed tendon was treated with a mercury blister, which would basically eat his skin off, causing the blood to rush to heal the area but also inflicting a lot of pain. The true benefit was likely that the horse would always get a long period of rest to recover. Today we have injections of various miracle drugs as well as stem cell treatments, which are much less torturous and lead to quicker recovery.

A colic surgery 40 years ago was a major event, often with an uncertain outcome, while nowadays it’s almost a routine operation, and many horses are back working in short order. Chiropractic and homeopathic medicine as well as acupuncture are mainstream today, while these methods would have been foreign to most stables in past decades. Horses were often tied in standing stalls back then, something which is rarely seen anymore. Indoor arenas were few and far between, and I recall how bold my husband and I felt when we committed to building an indoor at our farm in the late ’70s, since there was only one existing on Long Island, and that was at an established farm close to New York City.

An Exotic Event

Dressage was a mystery word, even among horsemen, with the exception of a few pockets of informed practitioners strewn mainly in the Northeast and California. The U.S. Equestrian Team, of course, had fielded a dressage team for many years, but the interest and knowledge in general was very low in America in the early ’70s.

I remember calling the American Horse Shows Association (now the U.S. Equestrian Federation) for information about dressage shows. I was told they could only find one recognized show on the East Coast. That was the Meadow Mouse show in Princeton, N.J., and it was run by Maj. Dezso Szilagyi, who also owned the farm and commonly served as secretary and judge at the same show.

At the time I found this exotic event amongst the hunter/jumper haven of American horse shows, we still rode our tests on grass. A sand ring was a rare luxury, and I remember putting studs in my horses’ shoes to prepare for shows when rain was expected, like I used to do when I rode in events. In extremely muddy conditions, the rings could be moved during lunch, in particular if such a request was voiced by one of the rare FEI exhibitors who were the stars of every show even before they entered the test. The chain fences that adorned most arenas were easy to install and pull up, but they could also snag a leg on a frisky horse and frighten him badly. We dressage enthusiasts were so thrilled to have any shows at all that we didn’t worry much about many things that today would cause competitors major heartburns.


It was obvious that the AHSA didn’t have much interest in dressage, so when the U.S. Dressage Federation was formed in 1973, it brought an enormous energy to the dressage enthusiasts who felt they now had a platform to spread their gospel about dressage. In addition to getting a voice in the national federation, we also had many issues to iron out, and the early meetings were lively, to say the least.

I chaired the USDF Competitors Council for many years, and at one early meeting we had several active competitors partaking who were looking to compete for the United States. The USET, at that time, was a mysterious tower of power to many of the riders, and they had a lot of opinions and questions about the way selection trials and training sessions were run. They let it all out in one of our meetings, which became so lengthy we got thrown out of our room and continued in the corridors.

Directly after I got home, I received a call from Jack Fritz, USET vice-president, to inform me he had heard of the criticism voiced in our meeting, and he told me we were not allowed to talk about USET matters in the future. I almost choked, reminded him this is a free country, and offered him the opportunity to send a USET representative to the next meeting. He did. He sent Helen Steinkraus, who was never lacking for words and also had the insight to inform about the inner workings of the USET. Shortly after that meeting, I heard from Jack again. This time he said he had been thinking that perhaps the USET should have its own rider representation! That was the formation of the Active Athletes Committee, which is still in existence today.

Olympic Evolution

In the mid-’70s, our U.S. team coach was Col. Bengt Ljungquist, and hopeful prospective team members flocked to him from all over the country even before he became coach. He first started working out of the Potomac Horse Center in Maryland, which is where I found him, but he later made his headquarters at Linda Zang’s Idlewilde Farm near Annapolis. Linda’s hospitality was always second to none, and she found room for everyone who pilgrimaged to Bengt for his help and advice. The riders from California, Hilda Gurney and Sandy Howard amongst them, almost routinely spent a week or so just getting across this huge country. Flying horses wasn’t an option anyone considered at the time.

Our mounts were a mixture of breeds, and at the 1976 Olympic trials there were three American Thoroughbreds among the horses invited. One of them, of course, was Keen, by far one of the most magnificent animals I have ever seen.

At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the equestrian events took place in Bromont, Quebec, and a group of us managed to park our RV right outside the entrance to the dressage venue. We went in daily to watch the schooling with just a simple day pass. There was hardly any security to speak of, and horses and riders were completely accessible to anyone who sat or stood around the schooling ring, with no barriers or protection. We were treated to Christine Stückelberger on Granat in all his powerful glory and Harry Boldt with the model seat, as well as the joy of observing an American bronze medal team, consisting of Hilda Gurney on Keen, Edith Master on Dahlwitz and Dorothy Morkis on Monaco, up close and personal. Yet dressage was still something for the “inner circle” in North America, and the overall audience appeal was modest.

Suddenly Big News

Twenty years later at the Atlanta Olympics there was definitely more wind in the American dressage sails, and although the audience was sparse for the Grand Prix and Special, the freestyle had arrived to move the sport to a different level of spectator appeal. The horses were more homogenous in warmblood breeding, and several of our team horses were owned or leased by sponsors instead of their riders. The Conyers venue was very well constructed, and the horses had every possible commodity available in the barn and the schooling areas.

The surrounding area, however, lacked charm, and the hill leading up to the venue was strewn with stands selling cheap knick-knacks underscored by annoying music delivered by scratchy loudspeakers. Although the competition and venue were of high quality, somehow the Atlanta setting around it did not live up to “Olympic standards.”

Fast forward to London 2012 with its magnificent location, sold-out stands and perfect organization, but tight security, which efficiently kept every “normal” fan out of the loop and away from the horses and riders. Of course terrorism is largely to blame, but it’s also a sign of how the sport has evolved to attract spectators and how valuable our dressage horses have become. Media has become involved in a completely new way, and television coverage is available of almost every sport worldwide. Dressage was suddenly big news.

Historically we Americans have approached every Olympics with very limited numbers of truly competitive horses available for team selection, and leading up to the London Olympics our number of viable horses was particularly scarce. In spite of this, our riders have always fought fiercely to obtain medals and creditable placings, but there was always the lurking terror for us of losing one precious animal or rider and being left with a lesser team. This year, for the first time, there is a whole new luxury available! We had not only four to six potential candidates, but eight strong contenders who have proven their worth through qualifiers and consistent results over the last year.

Those top horses made their last bid for the team spots by showing in Europe, and the team that was picked

(Steffen Peters on Legolas 92, Laura Graves on Verdades, Kasey Perry-Glass on Goerklintgaards Dublet and Allison Brock on Rosevelt) looks very strong, with several additional combinations ready and able to step in if needed.

Interestingly, the average age of the riders has taken a big drop with three team competitors in their 20s and early 30s. The best news is that the well does not run dry behind those competing in Europe. There are new horses with ambitious riders lining up behind them at home, and it’s great to see that we finally have some steady growth in young, energetic people who are both willing and capable of producing their own American-made horses from start to finish!

With the assistance our USEF pipeline for developing riders and horses, which has now been in existence since 2010, and a vastly improved economy over the last three years with more sponsorship available, more competitors are entering the FEI division.

We have a huge upswing to FEI competitions, thanks to the winter circuit in Florida. For four intense months, the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington provides the opportunity for our riders to compete in FEI shows and hone their skills amongst riders of high quality from around the world.

Support for our riders who go to Europe to compete now includes a continuous presence of USEF staff with developing coaches at all levels and personal trainers. The prospects for our team this year look better than they have for a long time, if not ever.

Unless Brazil drops the ball because of their many problems with finances, disease and crime, which I believe they will overcome even if in the 11th hour, our U.S. dressage team should sail into Rio with an unprecedented air of confidence and an excellent chance of once again being in the medals.

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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