Archive | January, 2014

To The Horse!

28 Jan


There is a lot of debate about classical/competitive,the differences, the similarities.

in the old days—one had a horse that one loved. he was quirky,difficult,but had that special Something. SO one trained, and swore, and tried to laugh, remembering humor and humility the twin cornerstones of the horseman’s foundation.

and then, one day, there it was: the sweat, the shared misery, the few moments of glory—you had produced an Olympic horse! In several cases—a medal winning partner.










These were ALL horses that someone might have looked at and passed over, for one reason or another. And yet, they defined our sport and were game-changers in the sport.


They thrived and grew and finally blossomed into Olympic partners and champions precisely because someone believed in them.


Then came Ed and Toto. serenity as well as power and expression went to a new level and this became the gold standard.

The blind men (the ones who surround the elephant to debate what kind of tree it is) can all talk about the  height of the legs. What was amazing with this pair was the partnership, the communication—the fantasy that anyone could find a little black horse , not so strong in the back , and develop  this kind of centaur relationship, these first glimpses of perfection, of 1s…

And there it was: the next wave—now necessary to breed something with fantastic mind as well as unbelievable gaits, because one had to show harmony  and suppleness on top of obedience/power/expression/balance and rhythm.


and then came 2011 Europeans and the gold medal team –two horses no one looked at much and a third, admittedly  known for  brilliance—but perhaps the epitome of difficult. A horse that had done 3 Grand Prixs, a horse that had great pi-pa but could leave the arena, and another small black Dutch  stallion that  had done enough to qualify for the team.

Valegro.  Mistral Hojris.  Uthopia.

It took ‘three that can reach 80’ to stand on the top podium—another game-changer. Three horses that produced rides of great harmony, power and expression –all on the same day. Incredible athleticism wedded to great partnership which displayed the trust between two athletes, only one a human being.


Dr. Klimke used to say—I  open the barn door and see if anyone is home for me.

These days, people talk about the hind leg they are looking for—fast, powerful, swinging under, carrying.


In the end—it is the same fantasy—that one has found the vehicle with which to express a dream.


The sad part is how many vehicles are out there mis-used, under-used, never mind abused.

So here is a toast to The Horse—the only alien species that we ask to become a partner in the very intimate sense that is horse sport.


On the shoulders of giants

20 Jan


Before Mary Wanless, there was Sally Swift—but hardly any competition riders acknowledged this wonderful resource. There was no talk of the importance of biomechanics. Just the vague ‘rider’s position’ which was learned, usually painfully, on the lunge  or for the very talented, it was the natural position their bodies found quickly.


It was Wanless who pointed out that ‘The top 10% teach the top 10%’—that the naturally talented continued the tradition—so that no one needed to really think about HOW to learn to sit.

It was Wanless who championed the other 90%, painstakingly studied various subjects in order to codify and incorporate movement, physiology,horsemanship,etc.,into what is now breezily referred to everywhere as ‘biomechanics.’

Now of course, it is Big Business: the perfect technological tools to help the rider develop The Seat: physios, computerized robot horses; themography-rigged saddle seats; books after DVD after course after video after lecture.

It is a rare horse that goes through its career without the saddles being fitted,replaced, upgraded, re-flocked, and upgraded again. Even unto the girth and the pads and the massage rugs and the diet and horse communicators/whisperers.

Before Sjef  Janssen, there was Paul Plinzner and Nicole Uphoff. But hardly any competition riders know who Plinzner was (SRS rider and Steinbrecht student who taught horses to go deep ); for all the talk about Nicole Uphoff, few riders today really know what it was like to stand next to the arena and see this oh-so-rare combination change the sport,working her horse uber-deep in warm-up , then turning to the show arena, producing gorgeous piaffe-passage transitions  lighter than a souffle and just like a metronome.


And as for  Janssen—the Great Satan of dressage—his name will be remembered along with  Fillis, de Gueriniere, the Duke of Newcastle, maybe even Phil Jackson.

(Because there is something to being a great coach as well as a great trainer.)

Before Janssen, riders lengthened their reins maybe at the end of the session, seeing if the horse followed the reins down, proof of a solid connection. But the idea that a rider needed to think of BOTH horse and self as athletes; that both needed to be flexible and understand hyperflexion as used by most human athletes/dancers; that one could manipulate the connection in order to gain more response to the ‘engine’ that is the hind legs–no matter all the blather, it was nowhere to be found.

It used to be that riders performed movements and through the movements themselves, gymnasticized the horse. Janssen realized that human athletes first supple and then sharpen reflexes/ responses–and use that to create better balance and rhythm.

Or, as top sport trainer Wolfram Wittig says,

“We do not train exercises so much. We ride muscles and ligaments and try to build athletes. If you just ride the exercises, you lose the gaits—and you can see that everywhere.”

Hats off to both innovators –and Happy Birthday to Sjef Janssen.

Yet again–be careful what you wish for

13 Jan


The US Figure Skating Championships have just ended and one consequence has been selection of the athletes for the Winter Olympics.

As everyone knows, figure skating was rocked by scandal and out of that, put in place a new scoring system. More objective, Emphasis on the athleticism involved, the movements themselves. Kazillion judges watch for the slightest mis-step—an inside blade take-off or landing when it simply must be the other way around; a fingernail touching the ice after a jump; etc etc

In the women’s division, the 4th place went to Ashley  Wagner; once again, her nerves had gotten the better of her. she fell twice—and hard—during her free skate performance.Mortified, she went to a private place to cry over an Olympics missed, despite the US repeat championships, the high world ranking and competition placings.

But someone found her and told her to dry her eyes–she had been awarded the 3rd and final spot for the U.S. Team in one of the most subjective –and of course, controversial– decisions made by the selection committee.

Because the US Championship’s bronze medalist had been decisively snubbed. This skater had, apparently, found her elusive top form at this competition after taking time off for injury — but it was not enough. Instead, the committee decided to use the broader spectrum of the past year or so and chose a skater who was consistent–but also seems to succumb to pressure at the big-time meets outside the U.S.

So much for the great new scoring system. In the end, subjective and emotional won out. First place: 211.69  2nd place:193.63  3rd place:190.74   4th place: 182.74

This is the sport that over and over, we are told has ‘improved’ judging and scoring by making it –and the results–objective.

             wagner fall

California leads the way in U.S. dressage

6 Jan




Glenda McElroy can easily be considered the face of American dressage. Like so many others in the US, she did not start out loving dressage. It was part of the ‘job description’ when she was invited  to use her combined management/business talents  at Los Angeles Equestrian Center, overseeing the shows that horse business impresario Larry Langer did not want to deal with, keeping for himself the plum hunter and jumper shows.

But in  1984, the Olympics came to Southern California (Los Angeles), and being involved in the equestrian part  brought a huge wave of new admirers for dressage as well as the always popular jumpers. Even McElroy was impressed by the cream of the world’s dressage riders out on the track and infield of Santa Anita, showing off their horses’ obedience and brilliant power.

So she created Cornerstone Event Management, and basically invented top sport dressage shows in this part of the U.S.

In 2005, she helped win the rights to the first double World Cup Final (showjumping and dressage) for the West Coast. The event, held in Las Vegas, was an enormous success, exceeding almost everyone’s expectations.  Las Vegas won the rights for 2007 and 2009, Glenda and her team overseeing the dressage portion each time. In 2004 and 2008, the U.S Olympic Dressage Selection Trials were held on the West Coast and Glenda’s tream again provided superb organization.

World Cup Finals, again a double, returns to Las Vegas in 2015 and once again, Glenda’s  Cornerstone team will organize the dressage.

In addition, her website calendar now shows several new CDI’s, courtesy of a partnership with W Farms, a highly successful  show/sales/training barn in Southern California.


So when Glenda says no, she is not ‘cautiously optimistic’ about dressage—she is really optimistic—it is time to sit up and cheer.

“The very nicest horses are here in California,” she says emphatically. “I go everywhere, including Europe, and the horseflesh here is amazing. The quality of training is also much better- the only problem is when trainers project their own ambitions on to their clients—they need to be sympathetic and understand why their riders are riding.”

Glenda’s background in hunter/jumper makes her dream of a dressage amateur division. “The amateur division developed because hunter/jumper trainers wanted to take their clients to shows and needed a separate division” (so there would be level playing field). Glenda believes amateurs need to speak up and tell USEF, USDF —and their own trainers—what they want. “I wish there was a set of  amateur-friendly tests, tests for amateur equitation. I know dressage trainers have not really thought about it in this way, but maybe it is time.”

She points out the introduction of Opportunity Classes, which allow ANY rider to enter a recognized show at lower levels and show in this division without the expense of membership fees. “ This is financially so much better, “ says Glenda. “ It is a way for trainers to get more of their riders to shows, with all the atmosphere of recognized competition but without the extra stress and overhead.”

(Shout Out to riders and trainers: if you have been looking for a way to enter dressage competition, look for Opportunity Classes in the show premiums.)

California, thanks to the generous sponsorship of Markel Insurance, has its own Young Horse Talent Search, a program for 4-5-6 year old horses. Using USEF tests but rewarding brilliance and excusing small mistakes, judges and competitors alike have been very enthusiastic. “This is a way to attract attention for breeding programs, for  riders, for trainers and of course for the horses themselves .”

Markel (which already supports and sponsors the National Young Horse program) has put prize money into this new program and hopes to start with competition for 3 year- olds in 2015.

This, believes Glenda, is one of the strengths in Europe—that young horses are exposed to show atmosphere early on and learn to make it routine.

 Raising interest in top-sport, the next big event for Cornerstone will be a symposium in March,2014, featuring world-records holder Charlotte Dujardin together with Charlotte’s first employer-mentor, Grand Prix trainer Judy Harvey.