The next generation of dressage is staking its claim on the sport.
Some call it little London, others little Paris. Gothenburg, Sweden, which hosted the Longines FEI European Championships this year, has a great harbor and a fabulous archipelago that makes it a sailor’s heaven. But the center of town is reminiscent of Paris through its broad, mile-long avenue that reaches from the heart of the city to the harbor. Like the Champs Élysées, it invites you to stroll, window shop and linger in the many cafes lining the sidewalks.
Although the skies looked threatening at times, not a drop of rain fell during the show, and having grown up in Gothenburg, I considered that a small miracle. It sure helped the driving horses that had to traverse the alleyway between the row of trees from one end of town to the other to get from the stables to Slottsskogen, the park where the marathon driving took place. These magnificent four-in-hands kept going by for hours to the delight of city dwellers and tourists. It gave you goose bumps to see, smell and hear them in all their glory and a certain feel of nostalgia for a time gone by when this was a constant part of the city.
The Grand Prix dressage went over two days with 65 horses competing, 62 finishing with a score. Like always in the Europeans the overall quality was high, and this year, as in Windsor (England) in 2009, the main contenders were all on top of their game to the very last step! When that happens, judging is very exciting. We had a super team of seven judges, which made it fun to work together.
From the start, the 10 strongest competitors rose to the top of the class, and with only a few variations they remained there to the end. One exception was the bay stallion of Helen Langehanenberg who finished fourth in the Grand Prix with a most convincing test. However, in the first piaffe of the Special, Damsey FRH ignored Helen’s aids to commence the movement, and when she gave him a strong reminder, the stallion displayed more bravado than necessary, sunfishing through the next couple of requirements. They paid dearly for that escapade by losing their spot in the freestyle.
Other than the usual suspects, one of the “horses of interest” was Dante Weltino, ridden by Therese Nilshagen from Sweden. I was talking to Klaus Balkenhol at Aachen, and he told me he is working with this combination. The bay stallion is only 10, and although he and Therese had a credible showing at Aachen they came into their own in Gothenburg, where they improved with each class. By the freestyle, they really clicked, and that is a combination to watch!
Another pair that catches your eye is Arlando with Anna Zibrandtsen in the saddle. This horse was capably ridden by a Dutch rider before, but he always seemed a bit on his toes until he started performing with the young Danish girl on board. The 12-year-old gelding now seems perfectly content to do his whole drill with no stress.
A horse that takes everybody’s breath away is Cosmo, piloted by another youth, Sönke Rothenberger. This combination has been knocking at the door to international stardom for a while, although the horse is only 10 and the rider 23. It’s a rare event for a dressage judge to give a “10” for an extended trot and feel stingy, but this horse takes you there!
The horses mentioned above are ridden by riders between the ages of 22 and 30, which is a whole new concept in our sport. Today, dressage is all the rage amongst the young, and how great is that!
A Healthy Development
We’ve experienced this change of generation also on the U.S. team lately, and it’s a very healthy development. The longwinded education that is unavoidable in dressage is much more easily available today than it was in the past. After losing my (and many others’) loyal support when Col. Ljungquist died, I made three trips to Germany to get help and to show, but mostly for the education. Now there is plenty of competent experience and expertise available domestically, and the overseas travel can be reserved for showing.
First of the last three to go in the freestyle was a rider from Denmark who has brought her horse up the ladder from the young riders division. The thoroughly engaged and yet relaxed performance by Atterupgaards Cassidy, ridden by 25-year-old Cathrine Dufour, scored an impressive 84.56 percent, and the electricity in the air was palpable. Anything could happen now!
Cosmo and Rothenberger’s freestyle left us all breathless, and when Isabell Werth entered the arena, we were all on the edge of our seats wondering if anything could be better than Cosmo’s ride, which was leading with over 90 percent.
Watching Isabell go around the arena, it was clear that she knew exactly what she would need to do to stay on top. There was no margin for a single mistake, and the interpretation of the music had to be spot on. At the press conference after the Special, the journalists kept emphasizing the tender ages of the two riders flanking the winner. Kiddingly, Isabell interrupted them with a “yeah, yeah,” but you knew she was ready to fight for her championship.
Determination was written all over her face as she entered the arena for the final ride, and her mare Weihegold looked equally focused. And what a ride they pulled off! I don’t think any of us in the Ullevi Arena, including the judges, knew who would end up on top until the score was posted. While five of the seven judges had Isabell first, we all agreed it could have gone either way. For me, the maturity and engagement of the piaffe and passage and the precision of Weihegold’s flawless transitions kept Isabell ahead this time, but the superior movement of Cosmo and the bold presentation will tip the scale when he catches up in that department. In any case, the drama was fabulous, and the riding unbelievably good.
The Reason Behind The Scores
On the day between the Grand Prix and the Special, there was an informal meeting called by Olivier Smeets, secretary of the International Dressage Officials Club, to discuss the proposal of the high-low drop rule made by the FEI Dressage Judging Working Group. Since there was an FEI judges seminar taking place, we had a good turnout of judges and a fruitful discussion, led by the president of the club, Hans-Christian Matthiesen.
One thing that was clear is that judges are not against developing new ideas that may improve judging, but they are not in favor of “change for the sake of change.” The idea of dropping the high and low score of each judge is not new, and both old and recent evaluation of such a system shows that it would change very little in the overall picture. What it would tend to do is move the results towards the middle and eliminate some 9s and 10s, as well as the 1s and 2s from the scores. It is a fact that those deviating scores could well be the only correct ones with the low given by a judge who could clearly see a problem nobody else observed or the high because he or she truly and correctly appreciated excellence in a specific movement.
Why the competitors, especially the ones on top of the game, would wish for this watering down of the scores, I cannot really understand. It seems to me that only the riders who are not too secure about their performance would appreciate losing their lowest scores, while the strong competitors would hate to give up their 10s and succumb to a system that would tend to award mediocracy. But then again, I am no math genius, and perhaps I am missing some very important statistical point here. There is one thing that all the exhaustive articles, letters and commentaries about judging dressage never mention: the REASON for the score given. Every score from every judge is instantly out there with a press of a button to be seen and re-judged by any interested party. But no comments are available.
As judges we are taught to state a reason on every score of 6 and below, and we all strive to comment on every score. Why are all these comments never mentioned as a way to make the sport more “transparent”? Judges are asked for their opinion, and that is what we give. With a score and a comment. In the Grand Prix alone in Gothenburg we gave more than 17,000 scores, accompanied with masses of comments. It appears nobody—competitors, trainers or audiences—is interested in why the score was given. Is there not a disconnect there?
More To Come
During the championship Saab, a company that has moved beyond producing cars to working on developing general technology and research, announced a major and exciting sponsorship for dressage. The Stockholm Horse Show is replacing its World Cup-qualifying dressage division with what they call the “Saab Top 10.” The plan is to invite the 10 top ranking riders in the world according to the FEI list to an event run at the Stockholm International Horse Show in December each year. The prize money promised by 2018 is 250,000 euros, which should make the trip worthwhile for most riders.
The format is the Grand Prix plus the freestyle, and the concept was created by Patrik Kittel in conjunction with Saab. Patrik was talking enthusiastically about this plan and pointed out that this is one attempt to bring dressage closer in line with jumping, which has always been way ahead of us in offering prize money. I asked the show manager, Mats Eriksson, if transportation costs for overseas riders would be offered, and he seemed willing to consider “solving” that issue, as he put it.
Rothenberger started riding jumpers, and although the whole family is dressage oriented and his father a past Olympic rider, he said he never used to get the same excitement out of riding dressage. Until he tried it on Cosmo. On this horse, he proclaimed, he gets a feeling second to none, and the euphoria he experiences when Cosmo is giving his all in a movement is every bit as exhilarating as flying over a fence. Judging from the explosive applause at the end of the freestyle, it seemed the audience in Gothenburg was on board on this flight! And looking forward to the next one.
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.