Our columnist highlights the year’s best and worst trends in dressage.
Looking back at 2017, we had the FEI World Cup Finals in Omaha, Nebraska, the European Championships (Sweden), the Dutta Corp. U.S. Festival of Champions (New Jersey); the Markel/USEF Young and Developing Horse Championships (Illinois) and the U.S. Dressage Finals (Kentucky). Most of the work took place behind the scenes in readying the upper echelon of horses and riders for the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina.
The Fédération Equestre Internationale and International Olympic Committee continued debating how to keep the judging current and the sport viable to a large audience in order to remain an Olympic sport. Within the United States we continue to see never-ending restructuring, rebuilding and rebranding of the U.S. Equestrian Federation and U.S. Dressage Federation’s programs and relationships. We’re always told the changes are in our best interests as amateurs, athletes, owners, judges, sponsors and otherwise. Some of us go along with the changes; others fight them. Whatever your beliefs, it’s always good to have a studied opinion since it’s usually the dialogue itself that leads to the greatest change for good.
I had the pleasure of having George Morris come by one of my clinics this fall. He said he reads what I write in the Chronicle and appreciates that I “never hold my punches.” Our encounter reignited a spark in my mind about holding true to a belief system, owning mistakes, showing up prepared for anything you do, and not only riding and sticking to basics, but also teaching them.
What follows is my summary of the biggest highs and lows from 2017. Hoping to make George proud, I will try not to hold any of my punches.
FEI: Thumbs Down
I was both pleased and perplexed by some of the national federations’ positions on the removal of the collective marks in FEI tests and in turn the FEI’s decision.
Removing these marks, thus incorporating the collective marks of paces, impulsion and submission within each and every individual movement, seems like it would require far more discussion.
The FEI did the math and showed us that the placings didn’t change significantly when the collective marks were removed. The problem here is all the FEI did was prove they can do simple addition and division, not that they understand the impact of this decision.
Removing the collective marks changes how the judges approach the commenting and marking of each individual movement. The judges already have a very hard job, and removing this tool just made their job harder. Agreed, fewer scores on a test sheet make it more transparent for an audience to follow, but if the goal is to make it easier for the audience to understand, to dumb down the judging for the common man, the FEI needs to smarten up and give the judges more tools.
A few months ago I read that Lilo Fore was dismayed at how quickly that decision came to pass, joking about “sleeping at the wheel.” She wasn’t alone in her opinion on the speed in which the vote was done. It never ceases to amaze me with the FEI: Some things can be done within moments, while other things take years of committee discussion with no result.
Meanwhile, the concept of changing the scoring structure to a codex of faults, starting with a 10 and working downward based on mistakes, sent the judging world into a near conniption.
I read a few articles attacking Wayne Channon, who is very outspoken in his belief that it would improve the judging. The argument against the change was that there would need to be far more training of the judges and an entire revamping of the system. There would be an incredible amount of work to implement such a change, retrain the judges, and turn the current judging system on its head, which discouraged many people. I know I’m in the minority, but I think the idea of a codex is much-needed in order to follow suit of other “biased” Olympic sports and remain current.
We all agree it’s not a change that could take place quickly. It would require much more discussion and debate on how to implement it, how to score and where to start. In that vein, instead of continued discussion, which I guess would have been way too much work for the individuals involved, the idea got tabled, saying it would never work.
For 2017, the dressage end of FEI gets a definitive thumbs down.
Changing Of The Guard: Thumbs Up
The changing of the guard always follows a top horse’s retirement. In 2017 room opened up for a new star, as British superstar Valegro was no longer competing. Valegro was so far above and beyond, in a class by himself, that it will be interesting to see where the scores go and how things evolve over 2018 leading up to the WEG.
Although I’m one of the world’s biggest Isabell Werth fans (a status that George Morris said he shared with me), I do not believe Weihegold OLD is any Valegro. I love the mare and enjoy watching her work; she just is far more limited in scope and power. Regardless, I know Isabell never disappoints. I’m all for her staying on top of the field and would love to see more medals adorn her.
I will look closely to the scoring, however, as I don’t believe it’s possible for the black mare to reach the literal heights in movement that Valegro did, and the scores should reflect that. That being said, I’m excited to see the next group of “super-equine” athletes and the trends they ignite—like Valegro working regularly in a snaffle bridle, showing that it is in fact possible to train a horse to Grand Prix, have them light and soft and use the training to create a more harmonious and balanced athlete. Kudos to that, and thumbs up for the incoming stars.
Tack Trends: Thumbs Down
Two bizarre tack-related trends are getting a huge thumbs down.
The first is the knee-to-sand Climatex under bandages that people are putting underneath polo wraps. These go up over the knee, all the way down over the bulbs of the heel and then drag in the dirt like oversized bell bottom pants. Why you need bandages that cover the horse’s knee is beyond my comprehension, but that’s not the part that bothers me the most. If you understand how a polo wrap works and the torque that gets applied as you spiral the bandage up and down the leg, you understand that pulling on one end of that bandage excessively pulls the entire bandage more taut around the horse’s tendons and pulls it unevenly at that. And imagine if your horse actually does step on that piece of fabric hanging below the fetlock: You will instantly strain the deep flexor tendon by pulling that polo wrap around the horse’s leg.
I get it, the “style” looks cool, as did bell bottoms in their day. You have more white wrap poking out above and below the wrap, accentuating your horse’s movement, so your horse now stands out from a mile away and looks even more fancy. But let’s be real, it’s exactly that—a show. It has nothing to do with protection or common sense horsemanship and everything to do with looking flashy. If your horse needs protection below the pastern, be smart and use bell boots.
I’m going to add that if you do in fact need the bell boots beyond just liking how they look, use soft ones instead of the hard plastic ones that click and clack with every step. Only you find that noise and annoyance to be pleasing.
The other big tack trend that drove me crazy this year is the new comfort nosebands. Alleviating poll and nerve pressure wouldn’t need to be a trend if the nosebands didn’t need to be so tight. Correct use of a noseband relies on a mild form of poll pressure much like a curb bit does. Changing that creates a situation where the noseband loses effect and perpetuates a more vicious cycle of additional tack inventions to revolutionize the world yet again. I’ve seen many tack changes over the years that have been for the better, so not all that is old is good, but in this case I’m left scratching my head.
Why do the horses look like they are going into battle with huge wraps and nosebands padded to the hilt? These weren’t totally new trends in 2017, but we did see a huge upswing in their uses, and to that I say thumbs down.
Omaha: Thumbs Up
The 2017 FEI World Cup Final made its way to what is a fairly obscure, dressage barren land, but it was a good event for dressage and the jumping. You have to give it to Nebraska, they welcomed the world well.
I’m a huge fan of the World Cup Final in Las Vegas for many reasons. Where better to have a freestyle championship than in the city of neon lights and sin? It’s fun, it’s festive, there are things to do outside of the show, and Vegas defines showmanship at its most professional.
There’s something very special about bringing an event that has almost always been European to the United States. That includes the 2010 WEG in Lexington, Kentucky, and the upcoming WEG in Tryon. It’s exciting for us to host such a high caliber of horses and riders, making it accessible for the normal person to see horses at that level in the flesh, often for the first and perhaps only time in their lives. Not many people can get to a foreign country for an Olympics, World Cup or WEG, but many can take an hour flight to an Omaha, Las Vegas, Tryon or Lexington. Making this elitist, high-end sport accessible for the average person is something to which I give a huge thumbs up. Way to go Omaha!
Greed: Thumbs Down
In 2017 we saw yet another lawsuit resulting from a rider-trainer taking an unreasonable commission. Although not one of the first to be in the news, it was one of the more public, and it was a high performance American rider. Many similar suits have taken place in the dressage world over the years, with top U.S. riders as well as international riders, and they’ve been quickly swept under the rug by sponsors or supporters in order to keep the riders’ noses clean.
A few I know about have had very specific gag orders attached, so the people and charges are never spoken of. The jumping world has gone through the same challenge over the years, and this resulted in dialogue about whether a database is needed to log purchase and sale prices along with USEF registrations. The system would be much like the one that exists in real estate, where a new buyer could see the previous purchase prices, and the old seller could see the new purchase prices. The idea was met with much resistance, but one has to think the database is an interesting idea.
I’m all for it, but I also respect the reasons behind not having it, as I don’t necessarily want the world to know how much I paid for a horse. I can argue all day it’s none of your business, but in the same vein it would be interesting to see who and what sells for how much and to whom in a transparent nature, which would create an environment where pocketing huge sums of money from an unknowing seller would be impossible.
The answer isn’t simple, but the fact that the horse world continues to swindle buyer and seller alike is disgusting. A 10 percent commission as is industry standard should be enough. If not, 15 percent is not unheard of, nor is 20 percent, but beyond that your greed is overriding your common sense and decency. If you cannot disclose to the seller what you’re making on their horse, you are taking too much, plain and simple. To more lawsuits and shady horse deals, thumbs down.
Amateur Eq: Thumbs Up
Usually I’m the first to say we don’t need more reasons to give ribbons and acclaim, but I love the USDF’s new adult amateur program and championships.
The amateurs are always the last to get the kudos they deserve, and they are the mainstay of our industry. Without our amateur riders we wouldn’t need professionals, a fact that we often forget since our high performance riders always take center stage.
Our focus becomes supporting the high performance athletes to achieve the dream that you’re now too old and settled to attain. You live vicariously by giving money to the latest “it” girl or guy who needs your support to do what you could not. If the USEF and U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation could be more realistic about what giving money to them means, more people—including myself—would jump on the bandwagon. It’s amazing what honesty will get you. Changing the motto to “Live Vicariously Through the Athlete You Couldn’t Be” or “Give Money to the Already Well Off” would sell me a lot more on giving money than things like “Supporting Athletes,” “Promoting Excellence,” “Building for the Future” or “Discover the Joy of Horse Sports.” Let’s be realistic, what they are selling you on is giving money for someone to do something you couldn’t.
To those who ride at 7 or 8 at night or 5 or 6 in the morning before or after a long day at the office, stressing to make ends meet and get in your full day of responsibilities, you get my praise. You deserve honesty about what you do and how that affects the industry, as well as honesty in who you are and how you ride. So I support a class where you can compare your quality of riding and seat within your own peer group.
Often I find myself taking away the stirrups of a rider over 50, saying, “You are close and almost have it! Hang in there; you can do it.” Our seat and our positions are what make us as riders, and to reward an adult amateur who works hard on position and independent seat is exactly what the sport needs.
High praise to USDF for adding such a class, and thumbs up to anyone who doesn’t ride professionally, who has an average horse, and who crosses their stirrups and stresses the importance of their own seat and position.
Incorrect Position: Thumbs Down
Speaking of position, a continuing trend is the Edward Gal-style chair seat. You can pick up almost any older text on riding and see images of your three most common seat positions, referred to as a chair seat, a fork seat and a balanced seat, and compare for yourself where most of the current top riders fall.
In all English disciplines you can see the commonality between balanced positions and seats. You can pick up George Morris’s book “Hunter Seat Equitation” and see illustrations of correct jumping position, and dressage books talk of dressage position in the saddle. All of them note the chair-seated riding style as being old and antiquated, hard on a horse’s back, and conducive to heaviness, which is the antithesis of dressage.
Hunt seat or dressage, we all know a classical position when we see it. Don’t turn a blind eye with statements like “he/she is so effective even though they are not a pretty rider,” or “he/she looks busy and active, but look how sensitive and compassionate he/she is to the horse’s needs.” Let’s not forget an effective rider is one who can sit still and quiet, with invisible aids, not a rider who can just get the job done. An effective rider is not one who wiggles and moves, flops and pulls, then pats the horse often, with the bystanders being told he/she is so loose and sympathetic to the horse. Using that as an excuse for a lack of basic seat or structure is not correct.
Many texts and trainers explain the straight line that should run through the ear, shoulder, hip and heel in a good riding posture, as well as the one from the elbow and wrist to the horse’s mouth. These create effective aids and a correct seat, but they are seemingly ignored in emulating heroes. To the chair seats I say thumbs down, and let’s return to balance, amateur and professional alike.
Festival Of Champions: Thumbs Up
I’m excited that 2018 will see the first combination of every national title and championship of USEF dressage. From junior to high performance, from 4-year-old to Grand Prix, all champions will be crowned and named at one venue, during the same competition, in the Festival of Championships.
When working for the USEF I pushed for kids to be included in the national championship show. I always felt it was important that the kids, the trainers of the kids and the parents be exposed to the quality and demands of their more advanced counterparts. It’s important for parents and trainers to see the quality of work that will be expected of their riders over the next few years. In addition, seeing the Grand Prix riders in person makes them more approachable. I was pleased to see that not only were the kids brought back on board with the national championships, but also the young and developing horse divisions. This makes the trainers’ and riders’ jobs easier as it means less travel, less time away from home and less stress overall if you’re competing or coaching at both events. This idea gets another big thumbs up. Good work and good luck with such a huge endeavor.
Overall, I think the relationships we have with our horses and community will always outweigh the bad seeds and bad trends. The joy we experience every day in getting to ride and be with our horses will always prevail over the negatives, and we have far more for which to be grateful. It’s been said, “If you’re lucky enough to have a pony, you’re lucky enough.”
As 2018 unfolds, read and follow the discourse, follow the exchange, and don’t hold your punches. In the dressage world very few people speak their minds. They fear what someone will think or do because they’re worried about the results of the next show. More of us should resolve to speak more openly, without fear. The masses move us, and we as a community are massive. Stand behind what you believe as we embark on another year-long adventure.
Jeremy Steinberg was the U.S. Equestrian Federation Youth Coach from 2010-2014. He’s a well-known rider, trainer and competitor based out of Del Mar, California. He’s also a selector for the Developing Horse Program and one of five clinicians who works with the U.S. Dressage Federation in its Platinum Performance/USDF junior and young rider clinic series. He worked with long-time friend and mentor Dietrich von Hopffgarten extensively until his passing in 2004. Jeremy has trained and shown through the Grand Prix level. He now runs a small “boutique”-type training business and travels the country giving clinics. More information can be found at steinbergdressage.com.