Our columnist evaluates the difference between the classes for which riders need to qualify and those for which they do not.
After judging the Markel/USEF Young And Developing Horse Championships at Lamplight in Wayne, Ill., in August, I was happy to be able to point with pride at the progress we’ve made over the years.
Returning to the Olympic podium is a wonderful thing, but with nothing new to feed into the system, we will again fall into that hole at the bottom of the cycle when we run out of the old campaigners and are scrambling to regroup. And we never want to go there again!
Part of the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions, the youth division (ponies, juniors, young riders, medal finals and Brentina Cup) has joined the young horses, and together they give us a panorama of our youth, equine and human.
Starting at the beginning, the Dressage Medal Seat division (with divisions for riders 13 and under or 14-18) seeks to foster a strong foundation in basic seat and position. These kids qualify from all over the country, and they are welcome to bring their own horses, but local horses are also offered if they cannot ship in their own. They are judged as a group in a format familiar to us from the regular hunter seat equitation, but of course the emphasis is on creating an attractive and effective seat suited to dressage.
The excitement over this division has grown over the years, and there are some heavy duty judges looking these kids over at the championships. At the end of the qualifying rounds there are short individual tests, and when those start, the audience participation is intense. The kids also get to know each other in social gatherings, and I will bet there are some friendships starting there that hold for life.
The pony tests are next. So far, this has been our slowest U.S. Equestrian Federation enterprise to advance. I have lamented this fact enough times in these columns. I still cannot understand why—in spite of valiant efforts by the U.S. Equestrian Federation and capable instructors and mentors such as Lendon Gray—we cannot get this idea to fly.
Kids belong on ponies, and there are plenty of them around in the hunter/equitation world—lovely movers and well trained—but they simply do not seem to spill over to dressage. As usual, we had only a few ponies competing, and the fanfare around them is lacking.
Think of people like Sönke Rothenberger who rode on the German gold-medal team in the Olympics this summer. He came up from the pony ranks, like 90 percent of all European riders, and at age 21, he is an Olympic gold medalist. Of course, he comes from a family with a strong dressage tradition and has had the opportunity to ride and compete top ponies. But most “pony kids” have their parents involved in lessons and showing, and this fosters a support group and enthusiasm that carries the sport forward into the future.
I know we can develop a strong dressage pony culture in America, but without enthusiastic parents it’s a slow process. If we can find an inspired way to involve more parents of young children, it may be a gateway to build a stronger pony division.
The young horse classes were, as always, a delight to judge and to watch. Each year our top horses in each age group look better prepared, and the riding in general has taken a huge swing upwards. Most of the time, the judges were also complimentary in regards to the way the young horses were presented, and we’re seeing a returning group of competitors specializing as young horse riders who are both brave and sensitive to a young horse’s special needs in developing.
As the show goes on, and different teams of judges get to evaluate the same horses, it’s interesting to see how the best six or so horses separate themselves from the rest of the class. The cream steadily rises to the top, and although the combinations may switch positions, the best stay in the lead throughout the whole process. Each year’s crop varies in overall quality, and this year it seemed to me the 6-year-olds were a stronger group, which is unusual, since their test, which includes half-passes and flying changes, is challenging. Two of the top three horses had represented our country this year in the Longines/WBFSH FEI World Breeding Dressage Championships in the Netherlands. That kind of experience shows when they return to the home turf with an air of confidence!
Kudos To Kindergarten Grand Prix
In the FEI division, the Developing Prix St. Georges looked pretty good, featuring horses that may have made some mistakes but were in general ready for the task. The final champion and reserve champion stayed in place as the class moved forward to the next day, and the overall picture was one of competence and readiness.
As the scores show, the Developing Grand Prix is still a bit of a struggle for many of the horses, which has been the case ever since the division was added. It is very difficult for the horses to produce an even and polished Grand Prix test at the tender age of 10 or even 9.
Of the several horses I have brought to Grand Prix, I found with each one, the first two years of actually showing at that level are a whole new experience to even a seasoned show horse. It takes generally two years in the ring before the horse is physically and mentally able to go through the Grand Prix test without tension, laboring or losing his balance.
In the third year, if you are lucky enough to be sound and still together, the magic of completeness can occur. Most horses are then about 12, and from there on you can hope for, sometimes even expect, that the horse helps you out a little if you are not quite “on” with your aids. He will know his job, be eager to show off, and whatever tension you detect is of the good kind that keeps him up and alert to your requests. At that point, it feels like your horse is proud of what he knows, rather than worrying about and trying to sort out what is required.
In the Developing Grand Prix, this kind of mature horse is a rare animal, and that is why we offer the kindergarten Grand Prix so our green horses can compete on a level playing field.
Our young rider division looks pretty strong right now, with several impressive and correct rides in the front and only a few lost souls in evidence, and even the juniors are finally looking more comprehensive. It appears the USEF coaches and the individual trainers are working well to produce a higher level of performance in these classes.
In the Grand Prix, 16-25, it is evident that we have only recently introduced this feature, and it’s a mixed blessing so far. This appears to be our weakest link at the moment and one that needs more attention. Although the winner was in a class by herself, it was obvious she is an exception to the present rule. This group does not, at the moment, have their own USEF coach, and this is a serious issue that needs to be addressed by our committees.
National Divisions: Not Up To Snuff
Generally, all was well in the front rings where the championship classes take place. But on the back stretch in the national division, where I also spent some time judging, I found we are still not quite up to snuff.
In some instances, the riding took me back 40 years or more, and I wonder why this is. I’m not talking about mistakes, since flawless tests are few and far between, or silly horses jumping around. There were some classes where 80 percent of the horses were never on the bit, had no impulsion or self-carriage, and the riders appeared clueless about this.
Several of the horses were of very good quality, which has changed since the old days, but they struggled to understand the rider’s aids, and they looked resigned. At times, my scores were depressingly low, and my poor secretary had to ice her hand after our sessions. As we went up the levels, and things did not improve much, I started to wonder where the problem truly lies with this lost group. Almost all the riding in the front rings was pleasant to watch, and whatever problems occurred looked solvable. And guess what: Almost all the horses and riders in those rings had had to qualify through some kind of process to be there. Aha!
Many years ago, the USEF Dressage Committee tried to introduce a general qualifying system, modeled after Europe, to move our riders from one level to the next. Our requirements were incredibly modest to start, but we were aiming for a baseline of uniform quality at each level throughout the country. As soon as our competitors got wind of this consideration, all hell broke loose. The committee was stormed with accusations of unfairness, elitism and invasion of individual rights. The chair of the subcommittee received threats, and it got ugly enough that the committee gave up and tabled the proposal.
So, here we are, many years later with more instances of exactly the same problems we saw then—at a high profile show with good management, great footing, and all other improvements we have created over the years, which makes the contrast even more glaring.
What were the committee’s motives in proposing a qualifying system? Very simple: to help riders understand exactly what it takes to “ride dressage.”
The word dressage means “training,” and in many instances it refers also to the rider who has to understand the process of going from one step to another. That way we would no longer see third and fourth level horses that are never through and completely confused about the requirements. They would not make it there until things improved. And when they do, the riding immediately becomes more fun!
In addition to giving the riders a goal to strive for, the intent was to assist and simultaneously check on instructors, particularly those of the amateur riders. Sitting in the judges’ box, I could not help thinking, again and again, “What instructor would allow this person to show at this level? Are they incompetent and unaware, or intimidated by their financial dependence on the customers? When the student comes out with a very low score and a novel written on the test, do they even look at it, or just tell the rider all is fine and the judge is useless?”
A qualifying system could be a great support for our serious teachers, since they could truthfully tell their strong-minded but not-yet-ready students: “Sorry, Mary, you are not qualified to move up yet, so let’s go to work on that.”
Our U.S. team members who just won an Olympic bronze medal down to our young kids competing in the Medal division all had to qualify to compete. That is how they improved and reached their potential. Why our riders all over the nation would not want the same opportunity to measure their progress as competitors and challenge themselves, as well as their instructors, I cannot see. Perhaps next time, the initiative can come from instructors and competitors to set up a qualifying system for an overall and consistent improvement on our national show scene. If so, I am sure the Dressage Committee would be interested in working with them.
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.