Double Dare

Tue, 04/12/2011 - 22:14

What follows next are considerations, nay ponderations, of an editor at work. What follows might appear a bit as a stream of consciousness.

I'm often asked why I don't tackle the big issues in the dressage sport more often on my website.

Sometimes I take this as a reproach because it seems as if we are not enough forward-thinking, pushing the boundaries of the sport as an equestrian news publication. We often put the finger on the sore spot in the dressage world (e.g. pony measurement, half marks, judging discrepancies, our super detailed show coverage in general, etc etc) but such things are quickly forgotten as soon as the dust has settled. On other occasions I think, "well easy for you to say but you don't have to stand in the firing line with a killing squad being commanded ready-aim-fire." The big issues in the sport are usually totally money-controlled and drained from all passion and love for horses. It often results in lawsuit-horny hound dogs barking up my tree while I cling to the crown canopy waving the white flag of truth (and peace). Don't shoot the messenger! Is it better not to shake the establishment or should we take up the challenge like Lady Godiva did?

So what are the big issues in the sport? There is a panoply of opinions on that. Let's divide the room into four corners. You have the corner of the natural horsemanship fans ("why shoe the horse if he's born barefoot", "claim the right to compete in a bitless bridle", "show horses also have the right to be turned out properly"). On the other side you have the breeders rallied together ("let's keep the tradition of hot branding", "let's dope our two-year old colts so they look like mature stallions at the licensing and can sell for more money." Big fish are never caught by the way. "Let's try to get horses with poor X-rays licensed, most German breed societies don't care about the gradual decline in quality anyway" or what about this catch 22, "you don't get accepted with poor X-rays by the KWPN society, but you do if your horse has proven to be a good competition horse!") Where is the sense in that?

In the other two corners we have the Dressur Pur population. One corner has the "Classical Dressage" riders (I rank all Anti-LDR/hyperflexion/rollkur/schmollkur-whatever-you-want-to-call-it followers in this category as well). To them the biggest and only issue in the sport in need of fixing - STRAIGHT AWAY - is riders, trainers and judges alike resorting back to the principals of classical dressage. The horse is trained in an unconstricted and free frame without forcing its anatomy into unnatural positions which automatically results in hollowed backs, overflexed necks in which the poll is never the highest point, trailing hindlegs and generally stressed out or overpushed horses. To them there are only a few things that can bring about change and that is, first of all, raising awareness to bad riding by keeping the topic alive and secondly re-educating the judges so that they give the right points to the right kinds of training. By the way, last week we posted a photo of a horse behind the vertical and it immediately prompted tons of reactions on Facebook. We can say that the Classical Dressage group is certainly still very much alive and kicking, even after the St.Georg scandal article in 2005 and the blue tongue debacle in 2009.

Finally in the fourth corner we have the group of dressage riders, owners, breeders, judges, fans who assimilate different views on training and owning horses and believe in those tactics that work best and leads them to success. To them the big issues in the sport can be doping control of rider and horse; some believe that show horses should be allowed to compete on controlled medication, others question Princess Haya's management of the FEI (e.g. The Carrot, who quit communicating on his website and now switched to Twitter as oracle). While climbing the ladder of power towards a seat in the FEI palace, committee members (IDTC, IDOC, IDRC) discuss, lobby, intervene and move pawns to promote the best frontman to defend their own interests. The person with the most power, status and connections to bring about change is put on the pedestal. However will this change be advantageous for all stakeholders or just to a small fraction? Are the big issues not being lost or forgotten in this bureaucratic struggle for dominance?

So I keep asking myself what are the big issues in the sport? Each person holds a different issue closer to his or her heart. A trainer would ask for more points from the judges for correctly executed movements which might lack some electricity and flash. A rider would want a vet to inspect a bloody mouth and get the opportunity to ride again instead of being eliminated from the test when a horse has bit its tongue. A breeder would want more fairness and equality in the selection of their colts compared to the big stallion station moguls. A judge would want more respect and fair treatment from the public for their assessments and occasional mistakes. A freestyle designer would want more knowledge from the panel of judges about musicality and synchronicity and a fairer point-system for the artistic part of the test.

Some dressage aficionados wear their heart on their sleeve. Notwithstanding the many changes to the judging system which became effective in 2011, I have several claimant mass-mailing our office with the statement "there hasn't been any development in the dressage sport in the past few years." The sport has stagnated and the fact that the final Western European League World Cup Qualifer in 's Hertogenbosch did not sell out is a sign that even the popularity of the freestyle could be waning. Maybe it wouldn't be such an insane idea to literally put an expiry date on the freestyle of the FEI top ranked riders, so the audience is not clubbed to death with mouldy freestyles. Recycling the same freestyle for 12 years for 5 different horses, or even ride the same freestyle at two Olympics, is so unprofessional and unacceptable in this competitive equestrian sport in which the bar is raised each year. New ideas for revolutionizing the sport are brought to the fore and immediately shot down. The creator of an educational tool for judges and trainers gets sued for 10,000 euro by an Olympic champion because she feels misrepresented in the 10 second video footage that is being used of her in a demo version. Has the dressage world gone topsy-turvey? And what about Katrina Wüst's much praised proposition three years ago to restructure the judging of the freestyle by applying her "Degree of Difficulty" plan? Every major change in the freestyle or dressage world is like a siren's call. Each idea is being led to head-on destruction.

Maybe I should go for the safe choice and stick to writing about Totilas? In their attempt to buy an Olympic gold medal, the Germans also imported a limitless hype and media frenzy when Totilas got turned over and its end is not yet in sight. Press conferences, staged as big and pompous as the booths at the annual automobile convention in Geneva, highlight the commercial aspect of the entire deal. The commercialisation of Totilas has even led to a fashion line produced in the poshest 90210 town of Germany, the peninsula Sylt. The cheapest shirt in the collection is 89,00 euro. The expensive uniformity is being preserved. The birth of each Totilas baby is as hot a topic as any news item with real significance. In Germany breeders literally start squabbling about who bred the first Totilas baby and who gets their face on television first. Totilas seems to throw the coveted long legs and beautiful types, but my God there are chestnuts amongst them and some of the babies have quite a long face.

"Shall I write more about Totilas," I keep asking myself? Another 'private' media gathering has been scheduled by Totilas' PR-manager (and Aachen show organizer) Michael Mronz to offer a select group of (German?) journalists access to a training session and a final interview with Matthias Rath before his first show in Hagen. Two times the anointed for this underground event have received an email that the meeting had to be postponed. First time because Matthias was ill with a viral infection, the second yesterday because Totilas has a hoof sore.. Wham bam !! Let the speculation begin! I'm sure you all noticed that Totilas has been wearing different shoes since he's in Germany?! According to Rath's PR manager, the sore is quite harmless and the show debut of the duo in Hagen has not been jeopardized. I'm certain much more will be written about Totilas. He's the elephant in the room.

-- Astrid Appels