Matthias Alexander Rath and the 11-year old KWPN licensed stallion Totilas (by Gribaldi x Glendale) have secured double gold in the Grand Prix Special and Kur to Music and received the national title at the 2011 German Dressage Championships in Balve, Germany, on 17 - 19 June 2011.
The German Totilas hype did not have a lay-over in Balve as on Friday -- the nicest day of the Championships weatherwise -- the seats remained empty and fewers groupies were noticed swaying near the arenas. The preferential treatment of the million-dollar horse, however, flourished as the stallion got a private, secluded and peaceful stable building in the Castle of Count Dieter Landsberg-Velen, whereas the "mortal" horses experienced "lesser" conditions by being allocated stalls in a shared brick building or in the typical tent stalls. However, nobody seemed to have raised concerns about this preferential treatment which creates unfair conditions as a horse could find more peace and quiet in a five-star stall instead of a tent and be better rested for the next show day.
Fortunately with the Toto hype toned down to a normal, enjoyable level, there was room for other stars to shine and the new big star of the 2011 German Championships was Isabell Werth's Rhinelander gelding El Santo NRW (by Ehrentusch) who scored almost 80% in the Grand Prix tests and over 80% in the Special and Kur. With two horses approximating 80% in the Grand Prix, Germany all of a sudden reconfirmed itself as team gold medal candidate for the 2011 European Championships this summer.
Grand Prix Day
The Championships kicked off with the Grand Prix on Friday, the only sunny day that weekend. Despite the absence of spectators one was able to witness several German elite riders producing outstanding tests. The class was won by Rath with 81,021%.
Twenty-six year old Matthias Alexander Rath learned a valuable lesson in Wiesbaden to have the stallion more in front of the leg in the test or else mistakes will be made. In Balve Totilas looked fresh and energetic but the ride was not faultfree. The piaffe and passage were very strong, the pirouettes small and well jumped. However in the one tempi's there was a mistake and Totilas lost his balance in the final piaffe at X moving sideways and losing forwardness. The trot extensions stiil need to improve considerably in their lengthening and ground cover. Four judges placed the pair first, one second.
"My feeling was much more positive compared to Wiesbaden," Rath commented after the Grand Prix. "I had Totilas more sensitive to my leg. Maybe I rode the one tempi's too optimistically. I should have collected him more at the beginning."
Isabell Werth and her 10-year old El Santo, aka "Ernie", made a strong statement by finishing second with 79.574 %. The piaffe looked not yes as confirmed as with Totilas, but the bay gelding excelled with his brilliant trot extensions (though slightly wide behind) and with his overall elasticity and looseness in the body. An unscripted flying change before a pirouette tampered with the 80% score.
"Riding almost 80% with the youngest horse is more than satisfying," Werth explained. "There were a few small things but overall he's gaining more strength and I can really start to ride him fully."
Christoph Koschel and the Finnish warmblood Donnperignon (by Donnerhall) slotted in third with 76,638%. The liver chestnut is a beautiful, elegant yet powerful mover with fantastic half passes and strong canter work but the small piaffe showed little improvement after almost two years of competing at Grand Prix.
"I warmed him up a bit too long," Koschel admitted. "Donnperignon could have been more with me."
Grand Prix Special Gold for Rath
Because great riding was showed in the Grand Prix, the All-German judges' panel consisting of Plewa, Ridder, Richenhagen, Ebert and Schüle, seemed in a mood for high scores. The panel was unanimous in placing Rath and Totilas first with 83.417%. The occupancy for the Special was much better but the stands were covered by umbrellas as rain poured down all day. Rath won Special gold with Totilas, his third national title after achieving two titles in 2008 and 2009 with Sterntaler.
The Kronberg based duo rode with much confidence. In the halt at entry, Totilas always goes behind the vertical and this is no different under Rath. What has improved tremendously in this new combination is that the black has more length in his neck and is more open in the throat latch. The stallion is no longer cramped short nor ridden with reins that are 20 centimeter short. The downside of this coveted openness is that he not always properly tracks up behind. The trot extensions in the Special were ridden moderately, positively reducing the extravagance in the front leg, but there still was not enough overtrack. The trot half passes were lovely, the passage outstanding. There was good stride in the extended walk. The piaffe and passage on the bend line was delightful with smooth transitions. In canter there was a short change after the right half pass but the two tempi's were super in ground cover. In the ones the stallion was not coming through from behind and did a few double beats. One change in the ones on the centerline was short as well, but the pirouettes were good. It was a beautiful ride and with the German judges eager to have a new hero in their own country to scores rose to impressive heights.
"Including my last test in Wiesbaden, this is my third consecutive ride that went well," Rath commented. When asked on which points he hopes to improve he replied, "I probably need to ride the one tempi's without mistakes and ride the extensions from marker to marker."
Isabell Werth and El Santo rode on their wave of success and grabbed the silver medal in the Special with an 81,375% earning test. The bay gelding is a powerful, dynamic mover who can show beautiful transitions between collected and extended trot and passage. The horse earned 9s for his extended canter and passage and there were no major mistakes in the test.
"We're back in a strong position with Germany with four to five top pairs," said Werth at the press conference. "Internationally there are a few horses who can get more than 80%. Competition is business now." Werth had to ride in a torrential downpour but that didn't dampen her spirit. "I was wearing my fourth pair of breeches and in between pairs the others were drying," said Werth. "The heating in my lorry is worth gold now."
Anabel Balkenhol and her Hanoverian gelding Dablino (by De Niro) moved from a fourth place in the Grand Prix to bronze medal position in the Special. The chestnut gelding has phenomenal trot extensions, super regular passage and though the piaffe still slightly travels forward the rhythm is right. For the extended canter and the trot half passes the pair earned 9s. In general there should be more "oomph" in their ride: more energy and guts in the presentation. They scored a total of 79%.
"The piaffe becomes more confirmed but we are taking our time," Balkenhol explained. "We don't want to force Dablino."
Underwhelming Freestyle Brings Rath Second Gold
Eleven riders qualified for the Kur to Music via the Special and the two male riders in the lady-dominated division were at the top. The umbrella bearing crowds saw Matthias Rath earn his second gold, while Christoph Koschel got silver and Isabell Werth landed bronze.
The judging panel for the freestyle included Ridder, Ebert, Schu?le, Richenhagen, and Holler and they were on cloud nine in their appraisal of Rath's weakest ride of the weekend. They scored his mistake-fraught freestyle with an unintelligible 85,65%, whereas Koschel's ride was far superior but "only" earned him 82.450%.
There were quite a few inaccuracies in Rath's freetyle, starting with a poor second piaffe in which the horse lost balance, rhythm and impulsion. There was no overtrack in the trot extensions, even though the horse was nice in the contact and with good length in the neck. The trot half passes were beautiful. There was no stretch in the horse's neck in the extended walk. The canter extensions were lovely. The double pirouette right was slightly big but still wonderfully executed as the horse takes the weight on the hindquarters. There were mistakes in the two tempi's which Rath redid at the end of the test to crank up his score. There were just eleven one tempi's which started out short behind. The test ended with a nice final passage on the centerline.
On a musical level the production was underwhelming. Last week the Totilas PR-machine announced the new freestyle by German DJ Paul van Dyk. One could already hear a preview of the fantastic, dramatic introduction on Rath's website and hopes were raised high for an extraordinary piece which appeared impregnated with percussion. The intro of Rath's new Kur is the highlight of the test and everything that follows after the first piaffe and passage is just a rapid slide downhill. The professionally arranged, filmic ambiance music is never synchronized to the footfall of the horse and contributes nothing in highlighting Totilas' qualities. Whether the stallion is trotting, cantering, piaffing or passaging, the music hardly changes and on top of that in the pirouettes there's no music at all. The music would make a fantastic soundtrack for a motion picture, but does not work for a dressage freestyle.
To add insult to injury the choreography is a mirror image of Edward Gal's kur, which was already far from being an elaborate masterpiece (as Peeters music also failed dramatically in its synchronization with the horse's gaits). While Gal's floorplan was designed for a baby Grand Prix horse with ZERO technical difficulty (which was still rewarded by judges with 90% scores!!), Rath only made one change to it: he rides a canter zig zag, whereas Gal just did the canter half passes on the diagonals. Rath even leaves out the final piaffe on the centerline in his version. The only real "difficulty" in Totilas' freestyle are the mere 10 meters of passage half passes (which Gal rode as well) before the trot extension on the centerline.
Unfortunate Paul van Dyk, who is an internationally highly acclaimed DJ and now got his feet wet in the freestyle world for the first time, was probably asked to look at Gal's music for inspiration. In three months time he concocted a bland copy, which caused a scandal in the dressage world within two days of the Championships. Plagiarism of a choreography is nothing new as the floorplan of Anky van Grunsven's Esprit Chanson has been copied numerous times as well and Isabell Werth's 1990s "extended canter followed by the double pirouette" movements has become a boring fixture in any freestyle. German chef d'equipe Holger Schmezer attempted to brush aside this plagiarism by saying "it's not forbidden. There was no time to practise something else," but this a poor excuse because plenty of creative freetyles with original music have been made in a 3-month time period.
After receiving his gold, Rath commented at the press conference that "there were too many mistakes. It was our seventh test in two and a half weeks. I'm proud of Totilas that he continued to be on my side."
The winner of the freestyle at the 2011 German Championships should have been Christoph Koschel on Donnperignon but they finished second with 82.450%. The pair rode to well arranged Sting music and showed off fantastic trot extensions, trot and passage half passes and solid double pirouettes. The horse lengthens his frame properly in the canter extensions and shows great ability to take the weight on the hind quarters. Even the piaffe, which is "Pepe's" weakside, was more expressive in the freestyle than on the other days. The horse executed all movements with confidence and made no mistakes. Even the canter pirouette which flows into a piaffe pirouette was well done.
"Donnperignon really stayed with me and has become more willing to perform," Koschel commented.
Isabell Werth dug up an old Satchmo kur for El Santo as her composers are still working on a new version tailor-made for Ernie, which should ready for Aachen. The level of difficulty was impressive and maybe even a bit too much for her young El Santo. Two tempi's which continued into one tempi's on the bend line followed by double pirouettes are exercises for Olympic champions. El Santo struggled with them though showed great willingness and co-operation with his rider. The extensions in trot and canter were superb as well as the passage but the piaffe did not come to full expression. They were third with 82,350%.
"Last time I rode a freestyle with El Santo was in Frankfurt in December," Werth admitted. "On a few ocassions El Santo was a bit insecure."
Overall Werth was extremely pleased with her rides and in Balve she and El Santo emerged as fifth 80% scoring combination in the world! "He is just unbelievable in the test," said an ecstatic Werth. "So much expression and energy. There are still some fine-tuning mistakes here and there but that's not an issue. At 10 years old Ernie was the youngest horse of the championship. He really deserved the reserve title in the Special and I am sure that there is much more potential in him."
Safekeeping the Sport and the Integrity of the Freestyle!
The judges are the safe keepers of the sport and need to be very conscientious in what they are rewarding and what trends they are setting by giving high scores to imperfect rides. Infatuated with the Totilas phenomenon they already bit off more than they could chew when they started throwing exaggerated scores at Gal and took away their peer pressured leniency to go lower (Totilas is surely one of the best dressage horses in the show ring but the points given to him in 2009/2010 and the difference between the number one and two in the world were unreal and unfair).
Furthermore neither a low degree of technical difficulty nor ill-fitting music are downgraded on the score sheets. Music that one has heard for 13 years in a row or music that is just background, tingeling copy-paste muzak gets the same amount of points as originally composed freestyles synchronized to the horse's gaits. In addition baby Grand Prix tests with simple diagonal lines and no challenges for rider and horse get the same amount of points whereas riders who are creative and daring in their choreography are not rewarded for their guts and originality!
A thorough system needs to be put in place in order to properly and correctly score the artistic part of a freestyle test. No more educated guesses or scores based on rough estimates. A clear code of points for artisticity could guarantee the integrity of freestyle judging, especially at the top level competitions and global championships which are the touchstones for the sport.
Text by Astrid Appels - Photos © Barbara Schnell - NO REPRODUCTION ALLOWED