Nicole Lever’s excellent Commentary “Entertainment Must Be Part Of The Job Description” (April 11, p. 4),which described the enthusiastic audience response to all the riders at the FEI World Cup Final in Sweden, made me think about what we, as riders, organizers and horse owners, could do to advance our sport in the United States.
Our response to date has always been “dressage is a young sport here, without the help of generations of riding traditions.” This is true, but by now we’re surely past the baby stage and well on our way after the triumphs at both the World Equestrian Games and the World Cup. So we must be doing something that prevents dressage from becoming a national sporting event. Or, looking at it from the other side, we must not be doing something that needs to be done to bring our horses “into the living room.”
One problem I can see for sure is that we don’t have any qualifying system that guarantees a certain level of performance at shows, except for championships hosted by the U.S. Equestrian Team, California Dressage Society, U.S. Dressage Federation, and the National Freestyle Championships.
Perhaps the time has arrived for us to look into the progress of each horse and rider from one level to the next. Perhaps we should, to some extent, copy the European system of requiring each horse-rider combination to earn its way to the next level by showing proficiency at the previous step, which would make the performances more interesting to watch at every stage of the game.
Another move toward increasing spectator appeal would be to address the problem we have with scratches. When I showed in Germany, Holland and Sweden, we competitors were told when a particular class would start and our order of go in the class. We didn’t have an exact riding time. So you had to keep track of who was in the ring and gauge your warm-up according to how many horses were ahead of you.
This scheduling means there are no dead spots in the programs at European dressage competitions, and it helps to hold the spectators’ attention.
Without causing undue stress for the riders, I think we could make some minor changes in our ride schedules that would at least minimize the empty slots when nothing at all is going on in the arena. The break in activity is destructive to the audience’s concentration (some will wander off, never to return). And it interferes with the flow of the judging in a most disruptive way, since part of the judge’s job is to compare all the rides to each other to determine the placings.
We need a dialogue bet-ween management and competitors to try to solve the problem of “dead time” between scratches without interfering with the horses’ proper warm-up. I truly believe that these holes are a great deterrent to creating an audience base.
To promote the sport, dressage riders ought to be more active in public-relations performances. We have to make ourselves available for demonstration rides and exhibitions to a greater degree, in spite of our busy training and show schedules. Over the years, I’ve performed at Florida’s Gulfstream Park racetrack, at large hunter/jumper shows, at 4-H and local garden shows, and at a Mozart Festival to a live quartet. I’ve even led the post parade at the Belmont Stakes, after making a most interesting trek through a crowd of thousands, surrounded by six of New York’s police officers. Most of the time it was a blast, well worth the risks and the bother be-cause of the enthusiasm it sparked for our sport.
In my opinion, dressage is actually an exhibition art, which we’ve somehow turned into a sport. But the artistic aspect of our game is still what brings people pleasure, and the freestyle has become our crown jewel.
But we have another wonderful opportunity that we aren’t using nearly enough’the quadrille, which, when performed at the highest level, really excites both spectators and riders. This is the only time you can truly call dressage a “team” enterprise.
Sometime in the late ’70s, Linda Zang arranged to have six Grand Prix horses perform during an evening intermission at the Washington International Horse Show (D.C.). The riders, in addition to Linda and me, were Alexsandra Howard, Linda Oliver, Wendy Carlson and Kay Meredith. Col. Bengt Ljungquist helped us with the training sessions, some of which made him tear his hair out.
For the first performance, the hunter/ jumper crowd didn’t know what to expect, and many went for a hot dog. But by the second day the word was out. The spectators stayed around and were very encouraging and enthusiastic. And ever since that show, the Washington International has had a dressage performance as part of the program. It’s now a cherished tradition for many of us competitors.
Dreaming on along those lines, I have long envisioned a “national dressage quadrille” of four to six horses whose riders would go on the road to perform like the Budweiser Hitch. Instead of performing at horse shows, I’d like to see the quadrille perform at country fairs, amusement parks, car shows, and why not on the White House lawn at inaugurals?
We could have 20 or so Grand Prix riders “on call” with their retired Grand Prix mounts or with a horse who needs mileage for a yearly schedule of events. In the beginning, our new federation’s dressage division would probably have to subsidize the program, but I’m confident that before long it would become sufficiently sought-after to be self-supporting.
I believe that such a program could become both an honor for the riders who participate and a tremendous promotion for dressage in places we’d otherwise never reach.
The media is the factor that makes or breaks us, especially television. To keep dressage on the screen, FEI officials have made some serious adjustments to dressage competitions in Europe, where they actually have coverage of horse events at prime time! One concession is the shorter Grand Prix, where several time-consuming movements have been removed. Another is the decision made by the people in charge of the dressage World Cup that the Grand Prix only determines the order of go in the freestyle, but has no other influence on the final results.
In the wings is a new system of judging, which is being tested and tweaked at some of the larger shows in Europe, to make the sport more transparent for the spectators and easier to digest and enjoy. It’s still too early to make any judgments on the feasibility of this new system, but the goal is to simplify and bring the public “into the arena,” without sacrificing the basic character of our game.
These are times of change and experiment for dressage, but also a struggle for survival and recognition among the large offering of sports that wish to secure their survival in the Olympic Games.