Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024

A Wish List

Our columnist compiles a list of the changes—both big and small—she’d like to see in the sport.

The dressage issue of the Chronicle is a good place for some contemplation of where we are today and where we hope to be going. A look back in time confirms that we surely have made considerable progress since dressage first became a known concept in the United States. 
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Our columnist compiles a list of the changes—both big and small—she’d like to see in the sport.

The dressage issue of the Chronicle is a good place for some contemplation of where we are today and where we hope to be going. A look back in time confirms that we surely have made considerable progress since dressage first became a known concept in the United States. 

More and more U.S. riders are showing and doing well in Europe, but an important difference is that lately many of the horses have been trained here since they were started.

Nationally, our base is getting stronger all the time, and the United States Dressage Federation, now based in Kentucky, is the growing ground for our sport.

The educational value of all the programs developed and nurtured by the USDF is huge, since the organization provides the opportunity to learn and develop your skills at each level with a multitude programs.

The USEF has a full schedule of governing and also provides a division to promote High Performance, which is our window to the world.

So, what else could we wish for? Oh, all kinds of things, both large and small.

Where Are The Ponies?

Beginning with small, why don’t we have more ponies showing in the dressage division? We are definitely lacking a strong pony division to get the kids off to an early, fun and social start, in spite of being rich in fabulous ponies in our shows, all competing in the hunter/jumper divisions.

Few ponies take the step over the line to dressage. That’s sort of crazy and difficult to understand. Perhaps our trainers doubt that young children are capable of focusing on dressage, or is it the parents who think it’s too complicated?

Well, go visit Lendon Gray’s Youth Dressage Festival in New York and learn otherwise. Or check out the European pony scene, which culminates in a hotly contested championship every year. I’ve had a couple of experiences myself with 7- to 10-year-old children who were totally fascinated with the sport and capable of grasping the concept and performing up to par.

Where do we start to fix this? Lendon recently wrote on the subject to the other members of the USEF Dressage Committee, and one of her suggestions was an exhibition by pony riders at events such as our Olympic Trials and the USEF Pony Hunter Finals in Kentucky to promote little people on small horses. Let’s put kids on ponies on top of our wish list.

Half Marks And Full Competence

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Late last year one of the British dressage team members, Wayne Channon, wrote an interesting column on Eurodressage.com entitled “Is Judging Corrupt Or Just Inaccurate?” Although he does some grumbling about the former, I was happy to note that in the final analysis he blames the method we use, instead of accusing the judges of deliberately misjudging the rides.

Mr. Channon, who has a career in high-tech and Internet technology, examines our current system of judging and calls it anachronistic. He compares it to the scoring system in gymnastics and ice skating where the competitors regularly score near “excellent,” our equivalent of a 10.

He points out that most horses rarely get less than a 6 for gaits or higher than a 7, and that being the case, it moves up or down from there according to how each movement is performed.

This situation “locks” the combination in the 60 to 70 percentage range because the judge has to round up or round down to the whole score. And here comes the part I like: If the judges were allowed to give half marks, not only could they be more accurate and fair, but also the final scores could become considerably higher for the good performances.

After making several mathematical points, Mr. Channon concludes: “Half points would dramatically and considerably improve our sport. It would be more accurate, fairer to the rider, horse and trainer, make for a better sport, and will even allow the judges to appear more reasonable and demonstrate their competence.”

I’m not completely certain about the correctness of Mr. Channon’s math, and I think most judges already appear both competent and reasonable, but I love the idea of half points being allowed for the regular competitions, just as we now use them on the artistic side in the freestyles.

Every time I have to give a 7 that’s actually a 7.5, but not really an 8, I grit my teeth and wish I had the tools to judge it more accurately. There are definitely nuances between movements that deserve to be acknowledged, and we, as judges, cannot express the fact that we know and feel the difference.

I would like nothing better than for dressage to adopt the half-point system for all classes and relieve the judges from the handicap of being stuck with whole points. So, I will add that to my personal wish list.

A Bit Better

An interesting contradiction in training philosophy is the fact that we are always told that a horse must be
started on a snaffle bit and that, ideally, he should remain easy to ride on that bit through his career.
Why then, I am often asked, are you not allowed to compete using the snaffle in Fédération Equestre Internationale classes? I hear myself explaining to my students who ask this question about “refinement” and “tradition,” but I realize I’m not making much sense.

Why, in fact, are we not allowed to use the snaffle in, say, Grand Prix, and perhaps we should even get extra points if the ride is good?

I had several FEI horses who never really forgave me for bringing the double bridle into their lives. One of them would willingly grab for the snaffle, eager to get to work. As soon as the double came off the hook, he would clamp his teeth together and twist his head all over to avoid being bridled. In reality, he worked equally well in both bridles, but he was completely insulted about the extra hardware he felt was undeserved. 

Once you have tried all the ways you can fit a double bridle to avoid any discomfort, and the horse is still unhappy, but immediately brightens up in a snaffle, you have to think there should be an option not to use the double. We will add that one to our list. 

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And while we are on the subject of Grand Prix, which often proved to be the largest class in the show on the Florida circuit this year, would it be too much to ask for a special division for the green Grand Prix horses?

We now have separate divisions and championships for horses ages 4 through 9 in the Developing Horse
program, special Junior, Young Riders, and under age 28 Grand Prix Riders (Brentina Cup). However, the horse that is a complete beginner has to dive in with the veteran Grand Prix gang and that can sure be a cold shower. A special Grand Prix class may not be practical to offer at smaller shows, but in the larger productions, a “first year green” Grand Prix class would be a welcome addition.

A Sufficient Helmet Rule

At a recent show, we were judging a horse in the 4-year-old division of our Young Horse program. Suddenly the bay put on the brakes and levitated in the most studied and determined bucks, which made it clear his motives were not pure.

Eventually the rider had to bail out, but she held on to the reins and fell in a position close to the horse’s hind feet. One sidekick could have ended in disaster, and it suddenly dawned on me that she was wearing a silk top hat—very stylish and completely useless when a rider’s head is in the danger zone.
Once it was clear that this time the rider escaped with nothing but wounded pride, I turned to my co-judge, Jayne Ayers, and exclaimed: “We need a new rule!”

Jayne stared at me in disbelief, since I’m notorious for opposing any new rules and regularly become comatose during rule discussions in the Dressage Committee. But she agreed that with all our real and imagined safety concerns, it’s pretty stupid to allow a top hat in young horse classes.

It doesn’t matter how skilled and brave a rider may be, green horses do totally unpredictable and bizarre things, which cannot always be prevented. Therefore, I think a safety helmet rule for those classes is a good thing to put on a wish list.

Sometimes it takes a while, but every so often, wishes come true. One of them was to make a change in the wording that describes the number “5” in our dressage tests. The original translation was from French, in which “sufficant” does not have the positive ring that our English counterpart has.

The English version can be easily interpreted as an approval of a job well done. Well, we finally have voted to replace “sufficient” with “marginal” in our next printing of the dressage tests. This change will make it more clear to the competitors that a 5 does not mean you can breathe easy, but rather that you’d better watch out and get to work.

And, the time has come to once again make the dressage whip effective for the use intended. The era of the
flyswatter is over. By the next season, we will be given back another 10 centimeters on the whip allowed in our national competitions, and riders will be able to reach the horse’s hindquarters without tapping the saddle pad or pulling on his mouth.

Little wishes can come true if you help them along. While we are at it, let’s have a big one: Olympic gold, for example. As they say in the ads for the New York Lottery: “Hey, you never know…!” 

Anne Gribbons



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 co-vice chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

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