Archive | July, 2013

A plan for horse sport in the U.S.

29 Jul

1986 World Dressage Championships, Dr. Reiner Klimke  reportedly dragged the rest of the German team with him to watch the cutting horse exhibitions, telling them, “Now THAT’S the kind of riding we need—horses really light and responsive, riders who let the horses work!”

Dutch team rider Bert Rutten also competed at these Championships ( after being part of the Dutch team at the 1984 Olympics and coach some years later) and he noted that ‘cowboys—at least the good ones—are a great resource of Americans. The horses are light, they have real work ethic, they sit down behind. It’s a good place to start—because no one from any other country is going to  give you the knowledge. You are always better developing it at home.”  Bert was very proud that he was invited to have a go on a cutting horse ,”and I only lost my first cow! After that, it was great.”

Yes, sure, cowboys can only take horse sport so far—it is a different connection, a different ultimate goal. But after watching so much misguided, half-baked ‘training’ going on, at least they provide a process that in the best hands (Ray Hunt, Tom Dorrance,  Reata and Buck Brannaman) creates a foundation for a horse that understands the non-negotiables:  work ethic; go/whoa; of all the directions you could go, ‘forward’ is by far the best choice.

In the United States, with all the big distances to cover and lack of a unified training process, I cannot help but wonder why more use is not made of United States Pony Club, when clubs exist in every part of this huge country..

Our Olympians—as well as SO many all around good horsemen—used to come from the ranks of Pony Club. Moving up the levels meant being able to care for a horse, help another  rider, accept responsibility, be able to explain decisions, and in general be someone to whom a horse might be entrusted, whether for an hour, a day, a year.


Olympic bronze medalist Hilda Gurney used to teach a local Pony Club and  in turn, ask other high-level riders and trainers to guest-teach, to seek out talent. This produced, among the many horsemen, the current president of the U.S. Eventing Association as well as several well-known dressage trainers.

It should not be that  difficult to reproduce this kind of ‘pay it forward’  program.

Maybe this is the infrastructure we need to get all the other horse sport  programs going.

To find the next generation full of passion and ambition as well as talent.

uspc kids


Maybe it comes down to…being a horseman

22 Jul


There are two kinds of people in the world: those who own horses —  and horsemen.

It takes both kinds to support a sport, but only one kind can make magic.

Everyone loves the story of an underdog reaching championships and triumph ; cue Olympic music, as the famous words of Baron de Coubertin are intoned:

<< “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”>>

In the horse world, the struggle and the triumph is truly different from any other sport, Olympic or otherwise.

It requires  two athletes, one an alien somewhat modified by breeding and training. In each discipline, the partnership and its communication are judged, whether over fences, across land or in the sandbox arena. In the case of driving, there are as many as four aliens.

In all horse sport, success comes down to trust and faith even more than luck. To making ‘the struggle’  look effortless, desired equally by both partners.

Everything else is tainted by the human need for more: more sponsorships; more tickets; more media coverage; more money invested and spent. By the desire to have the thrill of breaking the boundary–but not at the cost of any visible suffering.

As Dr. Reiner Klimke said, “We ride them because they let us.”

Here’s to The Horse.

child and pony(jenn tirrell)

European Championships next month

15 Jul

So GBR team rider  Nick Skelton and Big Star will sit out the Show Jumping and concentrate instead on Rio  and maybe Normandy (2016 Olympics and WEG next year).

No one in dressage seems to be ‘sitting out’ unless Dutch super-star  Parzival is simply not fit enough in a month and must hope to maintain condition through WEG.

Far from sitting out, the British have re-united their golden Olympic team members: Carl/Uthopia; Laura/Mistral Hojris; Charlotte/Valegro; and added Michael/Delphi.

But no matter what new drama takes place between now and next month, one rider will be sorely missed.


Anky Sal Bonfire


It  feels weird to see her on the ground instead of flying on the back of one of her stars.

She is known the world over by one name–Anky–like a rock star.  Her record speaks for itself and traces the evolution of the sport in so many ways.

For sure, she will be at Europeans, probably coaching, but in any case– both feet on the ground.




What does dressage want???

8 Jul


Dressage-ponyDylan Philipps on Rusty




Every week–really, every day– there are observations, comments and criticisms of dressage as a sport or non-sport.

And the themes, by now, are fairly well set in cement.


One. The judges play favorites; play it safe; are not objective enough; got it wrong.

Two. The sport is ruined because a horse whose nose was behind vertical won; the sport is ruined because a horse  nicked its tongue and the rider needs to be disbarred from competition; the sport is ruined because the playing field is so unlevel and all it takes is a lot of money in order to win a medal.

Three.  The Great Age of dressage has been and gone, and will never come again.

Four. On the CDN level, all it takes is The Fancy Warmblood and training goes out the window (Note: See No. One above)

Five.  Magic. Horses win because their tack is special: because the girth is special, because the boots are special;because the new bit/noseband/browband changed history forever.


So let me be a cheerleader for a moment.

The judging is the best the sport has EVER had. There are few great judges in the same way that there are few great teachers and few great neurosurgeons: it is a specialty that requires a specific set of abilities and only a few can achieve the top of the bell curve. If people want to try to make the judges redundant and superfluous, so be it. I do not see this as useful for a sport whose very foundation is the fantasy of partnership/communication between two species.

The sport is being ruined by its own fans,who want to see the glass half-empty whenever their own favorite fails to gain the highest marks. The reality is, there has been popular demand from every side (fans, riders, organizers, sponsors,etc) to have the discipline become more like an athletic event and less like an art form.

The emphasis on obedience of course is still there–the horse and rider must go from point to point, with no mistakes in the described movement. BUT, on top of obedience are now harmony, power, expression, suppleness, connection/contact and all the rest of the parameters that make up risk, or degree of difficulty. All spelled out in the Judges Handbook.

Most people believe the bar was high at the London Olympics. Certainly, spectator passion was high, which means the performances moved people.

The European Championships are next month. I expect the bar to be nudged again.






The week (or two) that was….

1 Jul

Rotterdam and Aachen provided lovers of horse sport with so much drama, so much quality performance. It is almost difficult to realize that the bar will probably be raised again in August , at European Championships.

At Rotterdam, the German team won show jumping Nations Cup. At Aachen, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, the Dutch team produced a 2nd round of sheer brilliance and athleticism and determination and won  show jumping  Nations Cup. Dutch showjumper Gerco Schroeder and his partner London’s  performance (double clear) rivaled anything in the dressage arena for harmony and partnership.

Gerco  London

(London is by Nabab de Reve x Ta Belle van Sombeke s. Chin-Chin)


And what is there to say about Nick Skelton and Big Star (Quick Star x Jolanda s. Nimmerdor). This pair won the Rolex Grand Prix at Aachen, giving Skelton his FOURTH victory in this class, sharing this feat only with the legendary Piero d’Inzeo.

Skelton of course broke his neck in a fall  13 years ago, retired–and then promptly decided to start competing again, matching his international successes and perhaps even exceeding them. He is considered one of the ‘real-life’ role models for  Jilly Cooper’s tell-all, bare-all extravaganza, “Riders” and  gives no indication of slowing down.

Nick Big Star  Sportfot                                                               Nick and Big Star     (Sportfot)


Dressage at both Aachen and Rotterdam had all the drama and performance values of true championships.

Not so long ago, top dressage performances were based on obedience and clean tests, in the same way that gymnasts and figure skaters performed compulsory movements and  double or triple anything was thought to be unachievable.

Now, of course,  the sky is the limit for outrageous performance values, sheer athleticism, and risk. Thank you, freestyle originators (Joep Bartels, this means you. And of course Dr. Reiner Klimke, and Wolfgang Niggli) who decided to create World Cup despite all the nay-sayers and discouragement from those who said freestyle would be the death of the sport.

Once in a very great while, something so perfect for its time comes along–Rembrandt/Nicole Uphoff, Bonfire/Anky van Grunsven, and more recently Totilas/Edward Gal — that it seems the ceiling has been hit.

Valegro/Charlotte Dujardin have, of course, set new world records in both the Grand Prix and Grand Prix  Special, leaving  only the kur record, at least on paper. Their top performances have come closest to ticking all the boxes.

Everyone has made a run , but no one can match the complete artistry, the partnership, the serenity and power, the level of expression, the harmony and brilliance that was Ed-and-Toto. Not even Ed and his new partner, Frits , aka Undercover (Ferro x Mimosavrouwe   s.Donnerhall). Not even Charlotte/Valegro  (Negro x Maifleur s. Gershwin), and so far, not even Helen Langenhanenberg/Damon Hill (Donnerhall x Romanze s. Rubinstein).

These star combinations and others will meet in August at European Championships.

Far from worrying about one another, they have loads of rivals on the horizon: for sure,the unbelievably brilliant Akeem Foldager, now ridden by Danish team member Andreas Helgstrand.  Everyone knows that if the rider can find the key to the horse’s serenity, their performances could raise the bar.

For now, the bar is still here:

Ed and Toto the end at WEG