Dressage: The Sport That Eats Its Young

15 Aug




European Championships at Aachen are bringing out the best—and of course the worst—elements of horse sport. This is a huge stage, a stage that consistently and rightly wins best show of the year, so it is only fitting that some of the big questions go on the table here.
It remains amazing how the dressage cognoscenti—which includes everyone who has ever looked at a horse/seen a horse/thought about a horse/can spell the word ‘horse’ — know everything better than the judges, better than owners, better than riders, better than coaches and grooms.
I have read the comments, the tweets, the scathing oh so clever pieces dismantling the rides one by one, giving credit to the few acknowledged as Right and Good.
And frankly, it all makes me a little sick in the mouth.
Everyone tut-tuts that Carl Hester has ‘taken a piece of clay’ and made it into something special. Frankly: THIS IS DRESSAGE. It is about training, it is about partnership, it is about making each ride a bit better.
Carl, among his many achievements, has produced the current record holders of the sport; this partnership with Nip Tuck is yet another facet of dressage, probably the one that deserves the most applause—a trainer starting a horse, training a horse, showing a horse.
This is what Isabell Werth has been doing for decades; what Anky van Grunsven did for decades; what Edward Gal is starting to do –and has done brilliantly—with Undercover. Here is a horse that came with serious baggage , mostly from tension. And now, he has a horse that WALKS , that halts, that is beginning to truly trust the connection. This is a “robot” as some like to say? Obviously not riders.
Sure, the horse does not have the best canter. And sure, the horse is not Totilas (more on that later). But Ed is training everything, schooling everything, figuring out the best way to ask for everything—and is being rewarded by actual judges.

And many seems to believe that Charlotte Dujardin is herself like a robot, able to turn off nerves and feelings!!  This was obviously not the case in the Grand Prix  which had a few errors, and frankly was also not the case in the Grand Prix Special, where she and Valegro went to The Zone and pulled out a gorgeous test,on (her) world-record pace, but ending barely one percentage point below.
Totilas taught everyone a big lesson: that it is possible to have power and expression without negative tension. I can close my eyes and see him and Ed in one of those magical pi-pa tours, dropping into that cocky yet serene walk, ears catching for the oohs and ahhs as everyone appreciated what we were privileged to watch. A once-in-our-lifetime creature.
Now of course, everyone ‘knows’ that it is possible to have this power without tension: the breeders apparently breed for this; the riders aim for this; the judges reward all this.
And yet, Undercover is stamped a robot. A mechanical bunny manipulated by a rider.
I say total piffle.
As for Totilas, he still draws the crowds and the hordes of internet posts.

So here was Totilas II, post-Ed, post the Dutch team, and now The Comeback.

The buzz was amazing and grew from there.
At the vet check, the horse was not held but had to trot three times before the jury agreed to give the nod. This proved to be the omen for things to come.
The crowd grew as the black stallion and his current rider entered the arena and remained transfixed as the pair went through the movements.
When it was over, everyone could see that the horse had had some problems in engaging the hind end and had taken irregular steps.
And so the hounds of the internet were let loose and began baying.
The screams have only gotten louder: the horse should never have been allowed to pass vet check! Anyone can see total lameness!
Snark snark snark.
The reality is that tension and pressure on riders almost always makes for some poor timing and stutter steps. The reality is that several horses showed more irregularity than Totilas and yet were not rung out. The reality is that we have seen this magical creature probably for the last time and I for one am glad that the jury allowed us this privilege, marred as it was. I can only imagine the screams of protest if the horse had been spun at vet check and we were all left to conjecture as to what had happened.
Totilas—thank you for the great memories, they are indelibly written on my heart.


7 Responses to “Dressage: The Sport That Eats Its Young”

  1. Herbie Rijndorp August 16, 2015 at 9:45 am #

    Excellent article! Fully agree that we have been very privileged to watch and enjoy Totilas and Edward Gal performing. Certainly once-in-a-lifetime that a dressage partnership brought tears to my eyes of beauty and harmony. Thanks Toto, thanks Edward.

  2. Kelly Carter August 16, 2015 at 4:28 pm #

    I agree that we should all be not so quick to judge and scream how the judges are not judging correctly, horses are not correct etc…. This is a sport that requires its athletes to constant strive for better. I do disagree about Totalis. He did not display power without tension. In fact he has had tension problems throughout his career. The most obvious place to see it was in his extensions where he did not track up from behind, and his flying changes that did not cover ground. This is what has earned Gal the “robot” reputation because he does ride in an all controlling micromanaging manner. This also is the crux at the controversy in the sport and how judges reward. There is the classiclists (myself included) who think harmony is more important, and the other camp who looks for spetacular. Occationally as in the case of Charlotte Desjardin the two sides are seen in one pair and they are breathe taking to watch. The judging though is still working on what should be rewarded, what is more important, and like in Aachen there are often conflicting messages. Charlotte light, soft, harmonic scored only slightly better than Edward in the GP who looks stiff and robotic. Yes the two riders did an excellent job riding the test, but the two styles and training methods are very different. So which should be rewarded?

  3. Simon August 16, 2015 at 8:07 pm #

    Interesting article but why head it with a picture of riding without a hat tut tut tut…..

  4. Harmonious Horsemanship August 16, 2015 at 8:17 pm #

    I realise I must have misunderstood what you mean, but the way your article reads it suggests the following: in order that the audience can enjoy a final performance from this incredible horse, you are pleased the ground jury, rider, judges etc allowed him to compete, even though there was a query over his soundness which has, I believe, subsequently been confirmed as being pain related? I realise no horse lover would be pleased a horse exhibiting signs of pain has been asked to compete for the audiences gratification, so perhaps you can clarify? 🙂

  5. Jamie Nicolato August 16, 2015 at 10:25 pm #

    This article is as confussing as the dressage world……The problem is with adhearence to the regulations in the show arena and in the warm up areas….The poor and over use of the curb …the use of server over flextion…the over collecting and loss of relaxation one of the founding priniciplas of the training scale…So where dose that leave us????confussied and bewildered…..the rules say one thing ..the judges say another thing and you say it is all good…BULL!…Follow the rules…or call what your doing something esles or change the rules…How about allowing up to 4 ounces of blood per spur…10 mins. of rolkers….2 ounces of blood from the bit…and an award for no blood at all….Than a least everyone would be on the same page!

  6. horsesportnews August 17, 2015 at 12:33 am #

    Please note the following: This blog is NOT going to turn into the emotional free-for-all that Facebook has become. Within reason, I am approving comments that have no bearing in fact,experience, or anything except emotions.
    That is because I truly believe perception is reality: that what one believes as true is true. Much wiser people than I will have to work out how to change anyone else’s perceptions. For me, it is enough that I keep growing, learning and adapting/modifying what I think I know.
    For sure, people posting here truly believe in their own perceptions.
    I will be interested to see if they watch any of the show jumping/driving/vaulting coming up and choose to comment on those disciplines.

    Please just keep it civil and somewhat adult–just like working with horses, it is best if the human can stay in middle distance, neither undermined by emotion nor unsympathetic to the communication from the alien.

  7. Pauline August 17, 2015 at 5:03 am #

    This maybe the elite of techinal perfection, riding and super athelte horses but where does this no tension business come from? Has anyone ever tightened a curb around their own foot or calf and held as much as those riders do? I bet you won’t last 30 seconds.

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