on being USEF’s dressage coach

9 Oct

First, there were  the cavalry teams–

1932, Hiram Tuttle won individual bronze and the U.S. won team bronze (Tuttle, Kitts, Moore).

1948,another cavalry team won team silver (Borg,Thomson, Henry)

then…a long dry spell,until

1976, civilians –women to boot — won team bronze (Gurney, Masters, Morkis).   Col. Bengt Ljungquist was team coach. At this time, Bert de Nemethy was team coach for show jumping and Jack Le Goff coach for eventing.(I just like remembering that the U.S. had 3 great coaches,all at the same time).

1992- 2000, the US racked up a series of team bronzes.Riders mainly had personal coaches/trainers/eyes on the ground.

1992 (Lavell, Poulin, Bredahl, Dover)

Chef d’equipe: Jessica Ransehousen

1996 (Peters, Seidel, Dover,Gibson)

Chef d’equipe: Jessica Ransehousen

2000 (Dover, Seidel, Traurig, Blinks)

(Chef d’equipe: Jessica Ransehousen)

2004 (McDonald, Seidel, Dover, Wilcox)

(Coach: Klaus Balkenhol)

Klaus Balkenhol became USEF coach in 2001.Balkenhol was the dressage team trainer  for the German team that won the Team Gold  at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.He coached Nadine  Capellmann at the 2002 WEG, where she won Individual Gold .

In 2001, Balkenhol became coach for the U.S. The U.S. again won Olympic  bronze as well as team silver at WEG in Jerez, Spain ,team bronze at WEG in Aachen, and Debbie McDonald won World Cup Final.
But by 2008, everyone was unhappy and Balkenhol resigned.

He returned to Germany and has again  produced winner after winner, most notably Helen Langenhanenberg/Damon Hill and his daughter Anabel/Dablino for the  silver team medal winning Germans at London. Not to mention individual bronze medalists/team gold  Laura Bechtosheimer/Mistral Hojris.

When he announced his resignation in 2008, I wrote:

<<Klaus Balkenhol took a floundering program and gave the riders process, camaraderie, a sense of team, medals, and helped design a program that could be really successful if USET/USEF would ever spend the money on such a program– more on the up and coming riders, more on sets of eyes figuring out where the talents of horse/rider might be.

Working for USET/High Performance has to be a fairly thankless job as time goes on, because for sure there are ALWAYS going to be a lot of sponsors disappointed when their proteges do not make teams. After all– only 4 get a spot…It takes a special person to coach top sport riders, let alone top sport dressage riders.

Good international dressage team coaches are a fairly rare commodity, so it will be interesting to see if/when there is any successor.>>

So many bronze medals do not seem to add up to a ‘floundering program’–but beneath the 4 team spots, the U.S. really had no nurturing of any talent, whether already arrived or up-and-coming. Balkenhol introduced the ideas that were part of the successful German program, where children start in Pony ,then Junior, then Young Rider, then Under-25, and finally, with enough money, talent, ambition, luck and so on, Senior Team, whether A, B, or C list.

Anne Gribbons lasted 3 years.  There was a massive ‘talent search’,ending with Gribbons accepting the job and starting work in 2009.

And then everything changed.

Dressage in that time stood on its head–Totilas changed the bar, in fact changed the game. To gain a medal, it used to take at least 2 scores hovering around 70  plus one star able to score high 70’s,  but one black stallion and his Dutch rider, Edward Gal, proceeded to set all 3 records: GP, GPS, and Freestyle. His scores were in the 80’s and then 90 suddenly loomed–unheard of!

Power,expression AND harmony: Suddenly, it took  everything.

The meteoric rise of the British team–the total surprise gold at European Championships in 2011 followed by the Team Gold at London this year proved that not only did it take everything from a horse/rider, it required EVERYTHING:3 superstar horses and 3 star riders, all peaking at the same time.  This has left everyone–including the British–in consternation as to how to follow up or get to such an exalted position..

It is a thankless position, being a team coach.

In addition to Gribbons’ resignation, highly respected trainer Jean Bemelmans parted company with Spain after 15 years filled with success.

Germany found itself looking wildly for a successor to its own legendary coach, Harry Boldt. First  Holger Schmezer accepted the job, then as the demands grew,  added Jonny Hilberath and also  Juergen Koschel, trying to find the perfect formula. Schmezer died of a sudden heart attack while at the World Cup Finals in April of this year, shocking everyone in top sport.  Hilberath  recently  announced he would not continue as German coach and Monica Theodorescu has stepped in–the first woman in the history of German dressage to hold such a position.

It will be interesting to see how the U.S. handles this latest vacuum at the top.

I left out of the above list of coaches  the reality that Dutch coach Sjef Janssen has also resigned ,because Sjef is not leaving in consternation or frustration or by mutual agreement with his NF.

No–Sjef Janssen is without doubt one of the few current trainers in the sport who will go down in dressage history,along side de Guerniere, Baucher, etc, as having actually made lasting changes and influences to the sport.
Not to mention his track record in international competition.

Sjef is leaving because the position of being head coach for a National Federation is now outmoded and the newer model– Super Coach– is probably going to take more hold.
After all, dressage is basically an ego-driven,singular sport– one horse,one rider go up centerline and are scored– except for the occasional team experience at Olympics and world championships.



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