Back in the Trenches: My First Show in Seven Months at the 2021 CDI Sint-Truiden

Sat, 04/17/2021 - 18:54
2021 CDI Sint-Truiden
Happy faces all around as international competition resumes in Europe this spring. Paul Jöbstl and Bodyguard won the junior tests :: Photo © Astrid Appels

Finally, after seven months I was able to go to an international dressage competition again. Due to the prolonged corona lockdown and travel restrictions in Belgium and across the globe, and on top of that the EHV-1 outbreak, international competition went up in smoke this winter. No world cup circuit to warm your heart, no Global Dressage Festival to warm your body. It was a long wait.  

"Hunger is the best sauce" they say in Belgium and only the day before the kick off of the CDI Sint-Truiden on 16 April 2021 I realised I was famished. On Wednesday I got my camera gear ready, set my alarm for 7 AM Thursday morning, and off I went on a 50 minute drive to the south of Limburg province. Stal Gravenhof is located in the apple orchards of Haspengauw, the area where the biggest amount of apples and pears are grown, mainly for export (to Russia in fact). 

It was a chilly morning, so I put my outfit on for cold weather: woollen socks, UGGs, a recycled cashmere sweater from the clothes collection of Belgian Grand Prix rider Alexa Fairchild, gloves, scarf, earmuffs, and a mouth mask. I was ready to brave Siberia again for a day of shooting in early morning temperatures that felt like freezing. I mimicked an Eskimo instead of a typical glammed up social media dressage influencer with tattooed eye brows, a 1 centimeter cake of foundation, and lips stuffer with so much filler they look like a hotdog bun.  I went back into the trenches in my horse show survival outfit.

Apple as treat for Morgensterns Dakar
Standing on your legs for eight hours non-stop after having sat on my bum in my office chair for the past half year means a big change for my body. In 2020 I turned 40 and I'm finally coming to terms with the fact that I'm no longer "the youngest" journalist/photographer in the crowd. I did my first international show as press at the age of 17, back in 1998, and have heard "oh, but you are much younger than I expected" for at least a decade. This line, which always made me chuckle as they expected a 60 year old lady to run Eurodressage, is a distant echo now. 

Aside from a short rain shower during the lunch break before the junior riders' team test, the weather was lovely but cold. And gosh, did I enjoy being back at the horse show. The CDI Sint-Truiden has a small field of competitors this year with around 65 pairs competing from pony to Under 25 level. The morning started with a big pony delegation and so many newcomers I had never seen before. New riders, new ponies. I was a kid in a candy shop. 

Whisker beard on point!
The FEI steward I stood next to for the majority of the day hit the nail on the head when she said: "it looks like the horses are still plugged into the electricity." The lack of show routine for the horses and ring rust on the riders were more than apparent. A lot of horses were super fresh, spooked here and there, either for fun or looking like a deer in headlights. Interestingly there were no tears from riders coming out of the ring; well aware that the long break from CDI showing meant setting different goals for oneself.  I also noticed that fly caps are no longer checked. Strange. When I asked why that was, I was told that the FEI decided to no longer check them this year as there is too much risk for pulling off the bridle. Welcome back ear plugs.

I always have a lot of questions when it comes to FEI stewarding. I can say that I have been to many international shows and witnessed so many different standards of stewarding that it is mind boggling. Stewards are barely paid for their job and work the longest hours of any official at a CDI dressage competition. They can almost be considered volunteers and sometimes I get the feeling stewards are more trying to be a friend of the rider, than the safe-keeper of animal welfare and fair play. I witnessed  sneaky grooms wipe spurs and mouth before the steward even get to the horse at the World Young Horse Championships in Ermelo, or grooms feeding a load of sugar before the stewards arrives. Or horses misbehaving so badly when only a finger is approaching their overtightened noseband (go figure) that the stewards can't even check it.. And because the horse becomes outright dangerous, the whole noseband check is dropped to save lives. I think stewards have a very difficult job to do and need to be a strong of character and sharp eyed. The stewards in Sint-Truiden showed kindness to the youth riders, but consistently checked spur and whip length with a measure tape. I did see horse's whiskers trimmed so short, that I doubt it's within animal welfare standards. But let's say Rome was conquered in a day and the new FEI rule starts in July 2021.

Lots of fresh horses and ponies in Sint-Truiden
The day was finished round 17h30 so it was a short one. I drove home with my seat heating full blast so I arrived home defrosted. I was knackered! Gosh, I was so surprised how fatiguing one day was after such a long time off. I ate some hot tomato soup and sat down on the sofa for an hour, feeling like a train had run over me. I'm not used to it anymore. Luckily I kicked myself back into action, sat down behind the computer until 1 AM, just like in the old days, facing only a short night sleep to be ready again for day two. 

On Friday I went back to the show for the Young Riders and Under 25 class as my plan was to photograph every rider at least once. Young riders compete at Prix St. Georges level and that's a big step-up from Junior M-level. Their warm-up painted quite a different picture from the day before. There was much more pulling left-right and spur jabbing on those fresh horses than the day before. My general impression of the day was that mega quality horses were to be seen, but also a huge difference in the quality of riding. So many young riders, who are pursuing a professional career in riding, bring fantastic movers to the show, but find it challenging or lack the skill and knowledge to bolster all that energy. The best riding in the young rider class, to me, came from less spectacular pairs who showed a quiet hand, better straightness in their horses and an overall more sympathetic picture. Yet they did not rank at the top. Those with their fabulous horses and ridden with the hand-brake on ended up placing higher on the board.  I couldn't help but wonder: shouldn't judges reward good riding (= dressage) more than high scoring the quality of basic gaits on a not so elegantly presented horse...

The young team of runners and gate keepers are excited the show is on
I totally understand that if you arrive at a show and your horse is fresher and more distracted than expected, you're in a pickle and have to make the best of the cards that were dealt that day. However it is the way you handle such situations that shows true greatness and skill in dressage riding and training. 

My Friday closed with the Under 25 class which had just four pair, but was still interesting to watch. I happily drove home, not so frozen this time, and already eager for next week to arrive when the CDI Opglabbeek and CDI Hagen take place. Let the Games begin. 

-- Text and Photos © Astrid Appels - NO REPRODUCTION ALLOWED !!

Eurodressage took photos of all riders at the 2021 CDI Sint-Truiden. If you are interested in photos for social media or prints, send us an email and we'll mail you the small versions of the photos to pick and chose from. 

Related Links
Scores: 2021 CDI Sint-Truiden
Photo Report: Abbelen Gets an Under 25 First at 2019 CDI Sint-Truiden
Photo Report: Thomassen, Lang, Duen Show Pony Power at 2019 CDI Sint-Truiden
Photo Report: Barbançon and Bolero Waltz to Double Victory at 2019 CDI Sint-Truiden
Kimberly Pap and Victory Find Their Stride at 2018 CDI Sint-Truiden
Lang and Cyrill Blossom in Pony Team Test at 2017 CDI Sint-Truiden