Totilas Is The Horse Of Our Lifetime

Nov 19, 2010 - 4:07 AM

While at the WEG, our columnist enjoyed watching a special horse, as well as taking the opportunity to learn from the program used by the Dutch gold medalists.

In the early 1970s, while living in New Hampshire, I remember my mother made what seemed at the time like a pilgrimage when she drove to Saratoga, N.Y., to see Secretariat. Upon her return home, she couldn’t stop talking about him—his special qualities, how he was a “once-in-a-lifetime horse” and how she was so glad she made the effort to see him.

I doubt she was alone in her declaration. No doubt thousands of others went out of their way to see him in person as well.

To Edward Gal, his partnership with Moorlands Totilas must feel, at some moments, like a lifetime ago and at other moments, just a teary-eyed blink. To the rest of us, it’s hard to believe it has already been more than a month since we watched the horse of our lifetime strut his stuff. I am glad I finally had the opportunity to see him in person.

True, he certainly wasn’t the only great horse at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. There were quite a number, including our own Ravel. Given how technically correct Laura Bechtolsheimer’s Grand Prix ride was, I actually would not have been surprised that day, had Mistral Hojris nudged Totilas out of first place in the team test. Judging by the enthusiastic standing ovation on Friday night, some of the audience would have liked to have seen Fuego XII and Juan Manuel Muñoz Diaz win the freestyle. But Totilas is clearly in a class by himself. He has qualities that go beyond dressage.

What makes Totilas so special is not that he won all three events, nor that he has broken records with his scores or even just the consistent rhythm of his extravagant trot work. No, what sets him apart is the little things—like his trot to halt to rein back in the team test. It was a square halt, out of a good trot, followed by a very good rein back. He looked so confident and sure of himself. In fact, even more so than when he deserved, and received, more 10s than I can count for his final passage-piaffe-passage tour in the Grand Prix Special.

Of course, who can forget the awards ceremony after his victory lap? Totilas walked out of the arena to thunderous applause on a long rein. In my mind, these are the moments when his true “specialness” came through for all to see.

I am not certain I can even articulate what makes a horse like Totilas so different from his peers. Every once in a while a horse comes along that appeals to equestrians of all disciplines and draws people to him. Just think, someday he, too, may have a Disney movie made about him.

Learning From The Dutch Programs

I’m also glad I had the opportunity to watch our team at the WEG. Their accomplishments were indeed significant. Among other things, this team, with three riders competing for their first time at an event of this magnitude, ensured us of a team slot at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. This accomplishment relieves a tremendous pressure on us going into the 2011 Pan American Games because we would have needed to place in the top two at the Pan Ams in order to get our Olympic team berth.

Only 11 teams of three riders will be invited to the Olympics. Since the Pan Ams are at the Prix St. Georges/Intermediaire I level, that requires a different group of talented, ready-to-go horses besides those we saw at the WEG. Luckily, under the skillful guidance of technical advisor Anne Gribbons, we dodged that bullet.

Steffen Peters and Ravel made us all proud. In the team test they showed tremendous grace under pressure. The crowning moment came at the end of the week when we felt such pride and happiness watching Steffen receive his historic bronze medals, ending the 78-year drought. (Hiram Tuttle was the last U.S. rider to win an individual medal in dressage at a World or Olympic Games back in 1932).

Taking advantage of the international gathering, some of us involved with the USEF Dressage High Performance and Technical Committees seized the opportunity to meet with Maarten van der Heijden of the Dutch federation. We wanted to get a better understanding of the Rabobank Talent Team program, which was started about 10 years ago and is geared toward 18- to 25-year-olds in the three Olympic disciplines. The curriculum incorporates a personal development program tailored for each of the 10 to 12 riders selected to be part of the Talent Team every year. At the end of the year, a favorite Team Talent rider is chosen by a vote of the public, press and coaches. The winner this year was a dressage rider who was invited to attend the WEG to observe the training, be backstage in the stables and a part of the action throughout.

This well thought out program includes a “Trainer of the Year” award, helping to ensure participation and buy in from their top professionals. Along with the program and their “Future Squad,” the Dutch are truly beginning to realize the fruits of their labor. I have written about our need for a talent search program several times and came out of this meeting even more determined that our country needs to formalize some sort of cohesive program to grow our sport and develop riders for the future.

Spirited Discussion

Another interesting meeting that hopefully set a precedent was that of the FEI Dressage Committee with the different stakeholder groups. These groups include the International Dressage Riders Club, the International Dressage Trainers Club, the International Dressage Officials Club and the International Association of Dressage Organizers.

There was quite the spirited discussion about the proposals regarding judging put forward to the FEI General Assembly. One is the idea of seven judges instead of five at the Grand Prix level for events such as the Olympics, continental championships, World Cup Finals and WEG. The two additional judges will be seated on the short side by A. The scores of all seven judges will count toward the final placing. Having seven judges will lower the influence of each individual judge from 20 percent to 14 percent.

Another new concept is that of the Judges’ Supervisory Panel, which will be utilized at the same competitions as the seven judges. These three individuals, consisting of two judges and one trainer or rider, will be there as observers and to correct “factual errors,” defined as “definite technical mistakes and counting errors.” They will also report back to the FEI with an assessment of judges and a “general overview of the judges’ world.”

According to information put out by the FEI Dressage Committee, “One purpose of the JSP is to have a kind of a ‘back-up’ for the judges in order to protect both judges and riders by preventing unfair marks.” I don’t know anyone who would be opposed to that goal.

The third change involves the use of half points in marks for all tests in FEI dressage competitions. This generated very little discussion as all seemed in favor of it.

The seven judges and the JSP, as well as half marks, were used this year at CDIO***** Rotterdam (the Netherlands), CDI*** Vidauban (France) and CDIO*****/CDI**** Aachen (Germany) as a trial run to see how each proposal would work in practice and to see how it could affect results and overall standings. It was quite interesting to listen to the riders share their experiences under these proposals at the two test events.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the proposals, it was exciting and a huge step forward that this kind of meeting was held at all. Kudos to those who pushed for the meeting to happen and are thereby bringing the FEI into the 21st century. I hope it’s the way of the future.

For dressage what will be the legacy of these Games? Will it be Totilas and his score in the freestyle or the fact that it was likely the last time we’ll ever see this wonderful pair together? Will it be the individual bronze in dressage for the United States? Maybe the birth of a talent search and development program for the United States? Or perhaps the way the FEI Dressage Committee and the stakeholder groups do business?

We can always hope. But we also must put our own effort forth and work hard to see that the momentum obtained from the WEG is sustained well into our future. Totilas is clearly in a class by himself. He has qualities that go beyond dressage.

George Williams is the president of the U.S. Dressage Federation and has served on and chaired numerous committees for the USDF and the U.S. Equestrian Federation. A rider, trainer and coach, training for Havensafe Farm in Middlefield, Ohio, and Wellington, Fla., Williams earned national and international fame with several Grand Prix mounts, including the Chronicle’s 2003 Dressage Horse of the Year, Rocher. He began writing Between Rounds columns in 2010.

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