This Was The Year Of Totilas

Feb 4, 2010 - 10:00 PM

This past year was certainly one of change, progress and surprise. And some turbulence dressage didn’t need. The Fédération Equestre Internationale Dressage Task Force replaced the FEI Dressage Committee, which was dismissed the prior year, and went to work.

The Task Force consisted of six members representing the so-called “stakeholders,” such as riders, organizers, trainers, judges and owners. With seven in-person meetings and conference calls every two weeks, the committee was heavy at work for more than six months creating a new master plan for the future of dressage. The Task Force’s mission was to review, research and produce recommendations for a format for championships and Olympic Games, selection and education of judges and the method of judging.

In early September a judging system trial was organized in Aachen, Germany, where a multitude of ideas and suggestions for judging were tried. Robert Dover was our American representative on the committee. Throughout the process, he and Katrina Wuest, the judge’s representative, were extremely generous about sharing the information regarding the trials and the overall work of the Task Force.

After a number of methods were tried and discarded, the Task Force introduced two new features into the way we judge: they recommended the use of half-points in the regular tests, and they agreed that splitting the judges for the freestyle test into artistic and technical duty may be good for the sport. Since I’ve long believed both of these measures will refine the judging and give the competitor more attention and credit where due, I’m all for these innovations.

In the final report, a number of proposals have been made to improve the educational system for international judges, which involve regular training, exams and a system for upgrading and tracking the results of each judge’s work in the field. I attended a couple of the meetings of the Educational Committee, and the plans appear most ambitious, in particular since we’ve not had much opportunity for judges to be educated by the FEI in recent years.

Four major tools were introduced, starting with a Judges Supervisory Panel to oversee the judges at major shows and championships. This panel will also monitor the performances of all international judges and put forward suggestions for judges who will be appointed to championships in the future.

The JSP (or, as the 5* judges named it, the “GPS” of judging) is intended to be a panel of three people, and it will certainly wield a lot of power! I predict we might have some trouble populating this panel because it will not be a very popular job, and it will carry a lot of responsibility. The Foreign Judge at each regular CDI shall be responsible to check results and will have to call the jury to a “debriefing” if scores differ more than 5 percent in a class at any CDI.

A system of statistics attempts to track the performance of judges as compared to their colleagues. This concept does nothing for me, since it will never be able to relay what truly went on, and we all know how you can lie with statistics and prove whatever you want, if you manipulate the numbers.

The last judge-check consists of the observations of riders, trainers, officials and other stakeholders to extract information from judges’ evaluations. For years Europeans have chastised the United States for having “professional” judges who judge almost every weekend and actually get paid more than a token fee for their services. Well, with the extreme demands on perfection in performance it looks like dressage judging may become a full-time occupation in the future. I can see us ending up with professional judges similar to other sports.

The task of implementing everything mentioned above will fall to the new FEI Dressage Committee, which was formed last November at the General Assembly in Copenhagen. I’m one of the six people on the committee. Wish us luck.

On A Mission

So, the ugly hyperflexion issue entered the dressage scene once again and built to almost hysterical proportions with the help of the Internet and ambitious animal-rights people. Yes, Patrick Kittel overflexed his horse too deep and for too long and the tongue was out for 22 seconds. Not 22 minutes as it appeared in slow motion.

The rider had miniscule spurs on and carried no whip. Kittel was wrong to keep the horse in this overflexed state for as long as he did, but did any official warn him or even comment?

Kittel was made the poster boy for an issue that’s now the focus of FEI officials as they attempt to get a clear definition of what exactly is hyperflexion, how long it can or cannot go on, and how to control the behavior in the warm-up area. This focus isn’t only for dressage, but also for all disciplines, since this practice isn’t unique to dressage.

It’s the riders who ultimately have to come up with the definition of the technique and police themselves, or one day we’ll have no horses in sport. The welfare of the horse is No. 1 on the agenda of every equestrian organization, and we need to live up to our mission statements.

At home, the Dressage Eligible Athletes chose a chef d’equipe/coach/technical advisor, and after a lengthy process conducted by a Search Committee and later voted on by the athletes, I was given the job. In due time we will find out if the concept of having a “team manager/technical advisor” will work for us. That’s the program I outlined and presented to the athletes and the one they voted for.

We’ve had a number of excellent foreign coaches for many years, and, of course, we’ll still invite expert trainers from Europe. As we’ve experienced in the past, it’s been difficult for our non-domestic coaches to get involved with the entire picture of dressage in America, because they did not live here. The one person who did live in the United States was Col. Bengt Ljungquist, and it worked pretty well for him!

Our National Federation system operates almost entirely through committees, and it can be difficult to understand if you’re not used to it. Follow-up is sometimes slow, and keeping in touch from abroad becomes more complicated. Former dressage team coach Klaus Balkenhol shared his frustration with our system with me when we talked in Windsor, England, and he told me that although he enjoyed his tenure here, he was not going to miss the committee meetings.

A New Star Shines

The name of the horse that’s on top of every leaderboard and on everybody’s lips is Totilas, the fairytale black stallion ridden by Edward Gal. I saw Totilas competing in the small tour at Flyinge (Sweden) in the fall of 2008. He was awesome, won big-time and, as usual, the doomsday dressage experts told me he probably wouldn’t do well in Grand Prix.

Six months later in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, I judged him in his second Grand Prix. Totilas made judging him difficult because I didn’t want to talk and break the spell. It was like a dressage religious experience, and the scribe who insisted on scores was truly irritating.

Fast-forward to Windsor for the European Championships when Totilas racked in the 10s faster than the judges could spit them out. But he showed a tad bit of tension in the Special, which cost him the victory to his teammate Parzival, another formidable horse. So, the great Totilas wasn’t completely unbeatable!

That notion lasted until the next evening when he set a world record by breaking the 90 percent barrier in the freestyle and then showing his superior, sauntering walk in the awards ceremony, promenading around winking to the audience and basking in the ovations.

At Stuttgart, Germany, in November, Totilas warmed up like a happy hunter under saddle and then turned in two lovely, relaxed and yet engaged tests to captivate the German audience. In London in December, he broke his own freestyle record with more than 92 percent and made it look easy.

As always, there are complaints, and nobody gets more nasty criticism than a winner. Does Totilas have holes in his performance? Sure, and his weakest features are still “fairly good” and usually receive a 7. Offset by the many “excellent” movements, his performance ends up with scores we’ve never seen before and a feeling of euphoria that stays with us long after Totilas and Gal have left the arena.

Let us enjoy him. Let us be glad we’re around to experience this great boost for dressage and such a miraculous horse right in our midst. This horse has put dressage into the spotlight and made it exciting in a way it’s never been before. The real great ones are few and far between, and they’re as fragile as hummingbirds. We ought to be thrilled for Totilas and his accomplishments while we can.


Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained more than a dozen horses to Grand Prix. She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and earned a team silver medal at the 1995 Pan American Games. An O-rated dressage judge based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as a longstanding member of the USEF High Performance Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “This Was The Year Of Totilasran in the February 5, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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