Every year the Federation Equestre Internationale, with the aid of sponsors, sends some of its dressage judges to almost every corner of the world. Their mission is to evaluate the proficiency of each of these so-called “exotic” locations and to share their knowledge with the riders and organizers in each country.
The FEI World Challenge Tour has been in existence under other names since 1982, and the number of countries involved has steadily increased. Performance Sales International is the current major sponsor, helping with the considerable cost of “shipping” as many as 18 judges, and supplying prizes and ribbons in each competition.
The judges travel in pairs and work with a group of four to five countries, which compete against each other. The program is the same in every country: The veterinary inspection normally takes place the day before the competition for all the horses entered. The competition is divided into four categories’a test equivalent to second level for novice riders, an “advanced” test comparable to our fourth level, test 1, the Prix St. Georges, and a special test for children at about first level standard.
Each country within the group has to select a team of four riders from any division to represent them before the competition starts, a declaration that cannot be altered, even if other individuals not picked for the team score better in the show.
Hanne Valentin from Denmark and I were the judges working in Group 1 in October, and our assigned countries were Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil and South Africa. The countries are carefully selected to assure a somewhat even standard throughout the group, and thus a fair competition. At the end of all the Challenges, the individual winners of the Prix St. Georges in each country are invited to Holland during the following summer to compete against each other on borrowed horses, a most coveted honor.
Argentina, I’m afraid, has changed a lot from the affluent, upbeat and safe environment I remember from the Pan Am Games seven years ago. Today it is a troubled nation, bankrupt and facing grave social problems connected with its financial difficulties.
In 1995 we marveled at the children of Buenos Aires playing in the streets at midnight, with no one worried about their safety. Today there are so called “express kidnappings,” in which anybody can be snatched away and returned in exchange for a pittance. We were told to hang on to our purses and avoid walking alone, especially when the suddenly poor people are systematically searching through the garbage at night. There is now reason to cry for Argentina.
The Challenge was held in Club Hipica, the venue that hosted the jumping during the Pan Am Games. At the vet check, when some of the horses appeared with their feet painted black, Hanne pointed out to the riders that this makes identification difficult for the veterinarian and is not allowed. One horse even sported a pinkish-red nail polish!
The quality of the competition varied in the different classes. There were several talented but somewhat green Prix St. Georges horses who may be able to mature into a team for the Pan Am Games, and the children were well-mounted on old campaigners.
On day 2 we split the best 16 riders into two groups and gave each rider instruction for about 30 minutes. In spite of low-flying aircraft, trains going by, and a jumper show with a loud and talkative announcer next door, it worked out quite well.
Because of all the noise, the instructors and some auditors stood in the middle of each ring, while Hanne and I ran in a circle around them, talking to the riders. It was better exercise than a Stairmaster.
Several riders had a tendency to lean back too far, keep their reins too long, and bring the horses behind the vertical, which made them ride from “front to back”‘all habits that are hard to break in a short session.
When the press asked us to evaluate dressage in Argentina, we told them about the wonderful horses they are producing, which shows that they have a solid breeding program, but pointed out that the proficiency of the riders needs some upgrading, since it takes two to tango.
Chile had the most impressive vet check. The majority of the riders were in the military, and they appeared in uniform, stood their horses up well, clicked their heels together, and announced their horse’s name, sire and dam. After inspection and identification, they trotted off with at least as much impulsion as the horses. Everything in Chile went off like clockwork, and the show grounds were incredibly gorgeous, situated way up in the foothills of the Andes, overlooking Santiago.
The winners’ riding was of surprisingly high standard, but then there was a bit of a drop to the rest of the field. The problems here were not the deep frames, but rather a stiffness over the topline and many horses that were above the aids. The children especially had a bit of a struggle keeping their horses on the bit, since most of them were school horses who knew everything about avoiding work and had made evasion into an art form.
But the kids were absolutely precious in their soft, large-brimmed hats (not exactly up to safety standards), and they were blissfully unaware of their dilemma, at least until they saw their scores.
Chile showed only slight signs of the economic crisis, one of them being clowns performing at nearly every traffic light, looking for a handout. Some of their acts were pretty advanced, and when the lights changed, they simply evaporated.
We flew back across the Andes’more beautiful than the Alps’and when we landed in Montevideo (Uruguay) and descended to the tarmac, our car was parked right at the foot of the stairs. Hanne and I were whisked away, our passports stamped without any customs official ever looking at us, our luggage collected, and we were off to new adventures.
All this was later explained by the fact that their federation’s new president is also the chief of the mounted police. Our slightest wish was his command, and between him and the official hostess, hospitality knew no boundaries.
The riders were again mostly military, but the quality somewhat on the weak side. In contrast to Argentina, the horse material was lacking’many were aged and tired looking, and some exhibited astounding imagination in the way of farrier work.
Nevertheless, the riders’ spirits were positive, and they made great students because of their hunger for knowledge and eagerness to listen and learn. Not many of them spoke English, but most of the time we had translators, or they would try to interpret my pigeon Spanish while trying to keep a straight face.
Although I love cities, Sao Paulo (Brazil) will never be on my list of memories. It is a sprawling, polluted and rather depressing scene, with a sharp division between the haves and the have-nots.
As I understand it, one does not walk around in this city at all, day or night, without being incredibly “vigilant.” The riding club, however, was a world apart, with wonderful stabling, plentiful arenas, a galloping track, a huge swimming pool, tennis courts, restaurants and even tiny monkeys in the blooming trees.
And the riding was certainly up to par! The children were fabulous, with well-deserved scores in the high 60s, and they obviously had good help and fine horses available. Although most of the horses were imported warmbloods, there were a few outstanding Andalusians bred in Brazil, which did very well both in the advanced and children’s divisions.
There is a clear difference between Brazil and Uruguay in their financial possibilities. In Uruguay, the riders complained about their lack of money and, therefore, slim chance to shine in the Challenge. I told them I understood, but that they didn’t need a fancy horse to work on their seats and position. But to go beyond that to a competitive stance, it is true that they will need better horses.
Our last stop was Capetown, South Africa, a place I probably would never have visited if it hadn’t been on the Challenge schedule. How grateful I am that it was! The city’s extraordinary beauty is in accordance with its graceful lifestyle, and the entire experience was one I’d readily repeat.
The show grounds were about one hour from Capetown, and the ride there gave us an opportunity to see some of the countryside, with majestic mountains flanked by valleys full of vineyards and bursting with spring colors. Not surprisingly, the standard of the riding, as well as the overall quality of the horses, was the highest in our group. Several scores went above 70 percent, and South Africa won every individual class in the competition.
But they lost out to Chile in the team contest, since they didn’t pick the highest-scoring riders for their team. I was happy to see that Chile was on top at the end. Those guys worked hard, and they earned every point.
One interesting feature in South Africa was that all the children were mounted on ponies, since juniors are not allowed to ride horses under their national rules. It made for a very pleasant and evenly “handicapped” class, and the sight of all those ponies would have warmed Lendon Gray’s heart.
When we took off from Capetown, the Lufthansa captain announced that he had permission from the tower to take us on a little sightseeing tour. So he stayed low and circled this gem of a city, nestled between two oceans and the mountains, to give us one last look at one of the most splendid places on earth.