It’s January again, and as always we try to look to the future with hope, confidence and positive energy. I guess that’s why people like to make New Year’s resolutions.
In the dressage “micro” world, we tend to think that we’re protected from the events in the “real” world. So when you attend a show or a seminar, you sense a kind of cocoon enveloping the people who are intensely occupied with suppleness, engagement, and the right kind of frame for the horse. But there is a world out there, and it is in trouble.
Our sport, which is in some ways archaic, is a refuge for some of us from an increasingly threatening and frightening global atmosphere, an atmosphere that may well curtail our sports activities altogether. Impending war no longer means we just send soldiers to take care of it while we conduct our lives as usual. This time we may well experience what an attack is like on the home front, and who knows if we’ll be around to ride horses for much longer?
But if we remain, the beauty of this sport is that it is in many ways ageless. Never mind what cool new methods evolve, a horse is still a horse. And going back to a 1,000-year-old source is always a comfort zone.
The realities of dressage as we perform it today were thoroughly examined at an early January symposium put on by the North American Trainers Club, hosted by the Dressage Center in De Leon Springs, Fla. For two fully packed days, three of the “major players” in the world of dressage shared their expertise with more than 100 people, who came from all parts of the country to learn.
The symposium’s purpose was to create a dialogue between trainers, judges and riders, as well as to gather information about the latest developments in the dressage arena worldwide.
Mariette Withages, chairman of the FEI Dressage Committee and also the organizer of the popular show at Schoten (Belgium), informed us about the efforts to “sell our sport” to the International Olympic Committee, their audience and sponsors.
Some of the promotional efforts are already in effect. These include making public the scores given by each judge for each movement and emphasizing the freestyle. For instance, in the last FEI World Cup Finals, the scores earned in the Grand Prix didn’t count toward the final placings, but were used only to determine the starting order in the freestyle. That’s a long way from the not-so-distant days when the mere thought of adding the freestyle to the Olympics made the purists tear their hair out.
Now freestyle reigns supreme as the showcase for dressage, and some are even suggesting that we change our traditional show attire to something more perky and attractive.
Admittedly, it would be nice not to have to crawl into the sweat box of a dark coat in 90-degree weather, but I have a definite lack of imagination when it comes to creating a new outfit to complement both the tradition of dressage and the exuberance of dancing horses. This could be a dream job for a designer with a vision!
Nevertheless, we received a rundown on the latest FEI edicts, including a “judges-cannot-teach” clause that’s likely to cause some hardships for us on this continent. In Europe, where there is a rich abundance of trainers, riders and judges, it’s easy to divide the groups into separate entities and set strict conditions for their interaction.
But we haven’t yet achieved that, and if we stop using all FEI-licensed judges, foreign and domestic, as instructors, we’ll lose a pool of knowledge that we cannot afford to be without.
This vast country relies largely on clinics to educate our riders, and the new ruling would prevent any FEI-licensed judge from giving a clinic to any rider who may show up where he or she is judging within six months. If the clinic is more than three days long, an entire year is the time limit.
For our regular students, we’ve always had regulations about conflicts such as this. Our national rules address the issue without shutting the door to education or trapping innocent judges and students in unforeseen situations that may cause nothing but harm. In our rules, clinic participants are viewed differently than our regular students, as they should be.
I completely understand the “perception” problem, but there is also another side of that coin. It’s a matter of self-discipline and respect for their position, as well as pride in being fair judges, something that I find the majority of our American judges possess.
Mariette also informed us that the word “cadence” is no longer to be used in regard to the canter. It can only refer to diagonal movements (trot, passage and piaffe). Otherwise, we should use “rhythm.”
For the 2003 season, we’ve been blessed by FEI officials with two Grand Prix tests instead of one, an “A” and “B” test intended to be of equal difficulty, although most riders consider the “A” variety more demanding.
With hardly any advance notice, this makes the Florida and California circuits twice as interesting, since the prize lists were printed before we were informed about the dual tests and do not specify which one is offered.
Perhaps we can eventually do something creative with these tests, like using the less demanding test “B” for the greener horses and test “A” for the more advanced. But, right now, competitors are just trying to figure out which one will prevail at what show.
Dr. Volker Moritz, an O-rated judge from Germany for 20 years, covered the training scale, which we cannot revisit too often, and the latest of the ever-evolving changes in the FEI freestyle rules. He also gave guidelines for judging the freestyle, which cleared up the relationship between the artistic and the technical aspects of the score sheets.
Jean Bemelmans, one of the most successful riders and trainers in Germany, conducted the practical training. Last year he coached the Spanish team to their medals at the World Equestrian Games.
Delightfully enthusiastic and positive, he tirelessly worked with the riders. His main target was improved self-carriage and collection in each horse, and his work in-hand was particularly interesting.
Working with a regular-length dressage whip, and holding one rein while the rider sat fairly passively, he touched the horse in various places to find where each horse reacted the best. Then he became a tad more intense once he found the “trigger point” on each horse. Even horses who were not particularly aware of their hind legs became surprisingly inspired and showed some hidden talents in piaffe without appearing stressed.
Some words of wisdom that I particularly appreciated were when Jean said about young horses, “Go slowly in the beginning, to build confidence, and later you can speed up the pace without damage to the horse’s mind. Give the horse freedom to go out of the barn every day, in turn-out, on trail rides and on a walker. Don’t lock them up!”
And then, another very true statement: “If you were to write a book about training a horse to Grand Prix, you would have to write a new book for each new horse since none of them are the same!”