Making Progress at the 2010 Global Dressage Forum

Thu, 10/28/2010 - 13:58
2010 Global Dressage Forum

The tenth edition of the Global Dressage Forum was different from other years. For the first time since its inception, spectators and participants left the forum with the feeling that progress has finally been made in the development of the dressage sport. The 2010 Global Dressage Forum was traditionally hosted at Tineke and Joep Bartels' Academy in Hooge Mierde, The Netherlands, and it took place on Monday and Tuesday 25-26 October 2010.

British Grand Prix rider Richard Davison firmly controlled all discussions as moderator of this unique two-day event and provided comic relief for overheated emotions by offering participants a glass of water (or a fire extinguisher). The eloquent Davison opened the forum on Monday afternoon with a word of welcome and then went to business straight away by announcing the first speakers -- FEI Dressage Director Trond Asmyr and FEI Dressage Committee chairman Frank Kemperman -- with the flattering statement, "you can't find any more influential figures in the dressage world than these two."

Status Update by Kemperman and Asmyr

Frank Kemperman is best known as the show director of the CHIO Aachen but since November 2009 he has been appointed chair of the FEI Dressage Committee, even though he has little personal affection or interest for dressage. However, to manage a committee and communicate with its stakeholders business and organizational skills are often more important. "People call me a dressage hater, but I am not. I look at it like an organizer; an outsider from inside," he said.

A few years ago Kemperman spoke at the Global Dressage Forum and stressed that dressage had to be made "more popular", it "needed a star." To this date he believes that we have to sell dressage to the public and need sponsors for that. "If you don't like for innovation, you are dead. You always have to look what we can make better."

Kemperman summarized the achievements of the Dressage Task Force and FEI Dressage Committee over the past two years and made a public call for more respect for the judges. "They sit in a box, watch 40 horses and don't fall asleep. All that for 100 euro a day," Frank explained. His strategic ambitions include working on the welfare of the horse, implementing the report of the Dressage Task Force, make dressage more attractive and improve the internal relation between the stakeholders.

Throughout the 2010 Global Dressage Forum a better communication between riders, trainers, stewards, et al. was advocated, but Kemperman made the inept statement of "don't do it through the press," overthrowing the FEI's pillar of transparency and debilitating the biggest platform for the promotion of the sport.

Norwegian FEI Dressage Director Trond Asmyr stepped to the podium to update the audience on the improvements to the judging system and the education of dressage judges world wide. "A number of countries have difficulties developing Grand Prix judges because there are not enough classes," Asmyr admitted. A solution is increasing the number of two-star CDI's for judges up to small tour level. "We also give structured FEI courses on their level."

Further steps forward for the judging program include a mandatory refresher course every three years for all 3,4 and 5-star level judges. "We had this in place, but now we have to make sure it's done," said Asmyr. The FEI also works on a logbook for each judge. "We need to keep track of where and when they are judging and at which position in the show ring."

The judges will get feedback on their job through several channels: the Judging Supervisory Panel (which has to be approved at the 2010 General Assembly), each foreign judge at a show should be a 5-star judge who makes an evaluation and assessment of the other judges, and David Stickland will keep track of the judging statistics to keep track of "the consistency of the judges."

The judging pilot projects held at Rotterdam and Aachen as well as at a few selected events resulted in several proposals on which need to be voted at the FEI General Assembly in Taipei next week. They include having seven judges at four major events: World Cup Finals, World Championships, continental championships and the Olympic Games. Seven judges instead of five will generate a more accurate result and their individual influence on the total score is reduced from 20% to 14%. There will be two judges at the short side at A as the pilots proved that five judges at the short side at C provide little improvement to score accuracy. Half marks will be used (they produce a tendency for scores to be higher in general) and the Judges Supervisory Panel (JSP) will be installed. The JSP will enable a constant assessment of the proficiency of the judges and they can propose to promote or relegate a judge. Asmyr was extremely positive about the beneficial effects of the JSP on the judging system. "We've had feedback from judges, trainers, riders and we're all sure it will bring the sport forward," he said.

Kemperman returned to the microphone to discuss some of the innovations he helped push through. One of them was the new Olympic format for the 2012 Games. Teams will have 3 riders and 1 individual and two tests (Grand Prix and Special) will count for the medal in the team competition. This new system will allow 32 riders to make it to the Special instead of 25. The side-effect is that a new Grand Prix Special test will have to be designed which is shorter than the current version as the class will otherwise take too long and be less attractive for television. For the Western European World Cup League the FEI aims to reduce the amount of events to 8. "For 2011-2012 only the best events should be part of the series," said Kemperman. For 2012 Frank also wants to organize a summer series of CDIO events similar to the show jumping Nations' Cup League. To conclude he vouched that in the future the FEI Dressage Committee will be working on an e-handbook (code of points for judging) and new rules for the World Rankings List.

On Quality, Quantity and Media Exposure

After Kemperman and Asmyr finished their talk they faced a discussion panel which included IDRC president Kyra Kyrklund, O-judge Bernard Maurel and German journalist Birgit Popp.  Kyrklund provided some poignant criticism, rightfully remarking that the new Olympic format is detrimental to smaller dressage nations. The big nations will see more riders go through for the individual medal, while upcoming stars from small countries will have to fight harder to capture a spot in the top 32 that will be filled with riders from countries such as Germany, Holland, and Great Britain.  "I'm not happy with the new Olympic format. The entire format was sold to the riders with the guarantee for 36 riders," Kyrklund opposed. "More teams and more riders. Now we only get 32 and need a new Grand Prix Special test because we didn't get the time for a long GPS class."

Kemperman, who is a proponent of making a shorter competition which gets more media exposure, replied that this is demanded by the I.O.C. Kyrklund was not finished with expression her opinion and continued. "You keep the quality up, but you go down as it will hit hard on individual riders. Not all countries can come up with a team and those that can will have a weaker fourth team rider who will get a bigger chance." Kyra hit the nail on the head when she said, "if you want to keep the sport global, you'll have to allow individuals to come in first."

The judging system has been under fire the past two years since Princess Haya dissolved the FEI dressage committee and asked the Dressage Task Force to make the necessary changes to better the sport. Judge Maurel said "a lot of judges lost confidence. There are very few judges are here at the Forum since all the changes started two years ago." Many judges are also faced with the economical problem of not having the money to travel to the education sessions. Asmyr concurred, "judges have to take a holiday for that, they lose money. We have proposed to raise the daily fee." These arguments are highly valid and maybe the FEI should consider instating a corps of professional judges which is paid sufficiently for the hard work it does. Judges would be able to commit themselves full-time to their job and the education of a larger team.

The audience asked numerous questions on the JSP and why it initially was only able to reduce scores. "First we mainly focused on mistakes, errors and reducing marks but now it's also the other way round, so the proposal is now for the scores to go up and down," Asmyr replied.  A participant wondered why they didn't consider scratching the high and low score. Asmyr replied that they explored two options in this system: scratch the score of the highest and lowest judge and scratch the highest and lowest mark by movement. However, the judges themselves refuted the idea as each of them preferred to be counted. "Otherwise they start focusing at being in the middle," said Asmyr.

Disarming Jonny Hilberath Works on the Basics

German dressage team trainer Jonny Hilberath was invited to the 2010 Global Dressage Forum to disclose and demonstrate his training philosophy. The always tanned looking German has become a highly prominent trainer (Bernadette Pujals) and competitor (riding Sissy Max-Theurer's Amusant (by Alabaster)). Jonny descends from a non-horsey family and his equestrian career started like so many others with a riding club where he did dressage, show jumping, vaulting, etc. At age 20 he began working for legendary rider Rosemarie Springer and then moved to the dealing yard of Detlev Saul where he worked for 12 years. "This was the key experience for my career," Jonny confessed. "You do a lot wrong and it takes a long time to figure that out. I wasted much time like that."

The set up for Hilberath's session was him training three students of Bartels' Academy, which he saw in action for the first time on Sunday to get acquainted with the riders and horses. During his talk he often referred to what he had seen the day before but this was of little meaning to the audience who were unfamiliar with the combinations. The first pair was young rider Elise Kettner on a 5-year old chestnut KWPN gelding by Tolando. The elegant gelding struggled with the atmosphere and became stiff in his top line and gaits. "I make the atmosphere between me and my horse as quiet as possible, to calm the horse down and give him the right confidence," Jonny explained. "I try to be slow and quiet in my reactions."

Hilberath excelled in creating a serene atmosphere for rider and horse to work in. He praised the nervous rider for her efforts and told her, "if something is difficult, don't get excited about it, get easy about it." A self-confident rider is essential  for training young horses. "Self confidence is a very important part of the education of a young and shy horse." Jonny worked much on getting this youngster more responsive to the inside leg and outside rein by asking the rider to do leg yields. To create more balance and self-carriage Hilberath recommended her not to rush the horse too much in trot and make smoother transitions. "Don't make them to abrupt, otherwise he gets stuck behind," he said.

The second combination to enter the right was Marije Tromp on the chunky bay stallion Veni Vidi Vici (by Krack C x Amsterdam). The stallion has big movements but is a bit slow from behind and could be more closed and consistent in the frame. At the beginning of the session the horse was quite tense in the walk and got fixed in the top line, which made him lose the clarity of rhythm.

"Yesterday we had a problem with the connection from back to front and worked on the position of the rider," Jonny said. His recommendations included straightening the horse more to the outside rein and sit more in the rhythm of the trot to support the horse in his tempo. "Try to prevent the horse from being in a harmonium effect," Jonny recommended. The stallion regularly became short and long in the frame but as he became straighter in the body and the rider tried to control the tempo more, he was able to carry himself better and was more open in the throat latch. In the canter the horse got more supple and started to show off big uphill strides. "Keep his back going so he doesn't get behind the aids," Jonny said. "Horses that are behind the aids I ride in different positions, in different tempi so they get alert to the aids."

The third pair was 25-year old Belgian Grand Rider Julie de Deken with her small tour horse Lucky Dance, a Holsteiner stallion by Lucky Lionell. This impressive bay stallion was the best dressage horse that was featured in the 2010 Global Dressage Forum and Jonny praised the rider for the qualities of her horse. Of course there was some room for improvement and Hilberath focused on the horse's neck position and self-carriage in canter. "This horse has a big neck so I ask for longer reins to give his big neck more room," he said. Especially in trot Lucky Dance came behind the vertical. In canter he asked Julie to ride shoulder-in on the circle in preparation of the pirouette. "As soon as he gets stuck, that is a signal to give him more hand," Jonny advised. "The horse's head won't fall off if you are not holding him," he quipped.

Hilberath recommended the rider to be more confident and rely on the abilities of her horse. "You don't have to support him too much. He is able and willing and welcome to do it himself," he said. "The rhythm of his canter -- the 3-beat -- is his platform. If you get too quick you take away his balance and confidence." Especially with stallions Jonny suggested not to push them too much. "We guys don't need too much pressure. We don't like it." Lucky Dance showed world class flying changes and Hilberath had little to add to that. "You can't do those much better," he said

A good way of testing the quality of a trainer is to see how quickly he connects with a student and if he's able to communicate his knowledge to the rider in a comprehensible way. Does the rider understand what is being asked or is s/he fixed on his own training system? It was slightly unfortunate that a top level trainer like Hilberath had to work so much on the position and seat of some of these riders. They had a tendency to stick their lower legs forwards and have their feet almost on the shoulder of the horse (two of them rode with the same saddle, which didn't improve their leg position). Two riders regularly had to told to keep their hands down. With De Deken, Hilberath was actually able to do more productive work for a Global Dressage Forum. "My goal is to be a mirror and no longer to be an instructor," he stated.

A panel, made up by Leif Tornblad, Leunis van Lieren and Peter Storr, asked Hilberath a few questions about his training system and what he would have done differently had he trained them at home. "When you are here you correct step by step, otherwise you shock the riders too much," he said. "At home I would have started with a longer, deeper frame to get more motor on and use more transitions. But at home I would also have finished after the canter (referring to De Deken's ride) and no more extra. I make a plan before I ride. I don't ride always through all movements and all three ground gaits."

Tineke Bartels asked Jonny to comment on the statement "dressage is a mind sport." The German replied that, "as a rider you need the right tools to ride. Your mind needs to be free. I prefer to guide the rider instead of instruct him. With a spooky horse I try to give confidence first so they can give something back. There is not a single horse that fits the book. You compromise every day."

Van Daele Takes a Stand for the Stewards

The most exciting session of the day was Jacques Van Daele's presentation on "Stewarding in Practise." Since the "blue tongue video" hit the internet exactly one year ago, training techniques and stewarding have been under fire and forced the FEI to revise its rules and regulations. A stewarding work group was set up and more power has been given to the stewards to intervene when abusive riding takes place in the warm up ring. The dust that this whole drama has generated has not yet settled because people continue to make videos of what they think is  not allowed in the ring and post them on the internet. Belgian judge Van Daele is FEI head steward as well as FEI dressage mentor for judges.

With a professional background in police cavalry training, Van Daele adapted a defensive position from the start of his speech as if he were to expect an avalanche of criticism. His tone was firm and message clear. "Stewards are shouted on, whistled on. They are outlaws," he hollered. "The press, the trainers, the riders, nobody likes us. We are underdogs." However, stewarding is necessary. "We don't want to kill, we don't want to destroy your training method, we don't want to destroy you. BUT, we have a responsibility," he continued.

Van Daele stressed the fact that stewards have to work diplomatically when they see any of the rules broken. "We should not speak too much. We don't want to disturb them (the riders). We have to intervene immediately but in a discreet way. You have to deal with people in a human way," Van Daele opined. He revealed that many stewards have to regain their confidence since the crisis so one of the much appreciated changes in the stewarding manual is that young stewards will be supported by more experienced ones. For the big shows the chief steward will be appointed by the FEI and s/he will preferably be a foreign one. 

In a pre-emptive strike Van Daele touched upon the highly controversial "10-minute" rule which allows horses to be in an extreme head/neck position for a maximum of 10 minutes. "I am not a train conductor who has to make sure the train leaves on time. In serious cases we intervene immediately," he said. "I am strict on rules in an open way. Being strict has nothing to do with a stopwatch." Van Daele added that all kind of "pulling, pushing, resistance" is not allowed. "You have to feel it. When a horse is ridden in a wrong, resistant way: sweating, ears flat, an unhappy attitude. This is something we can't even stand for 5 seconds let alone 10 minutes," he stated.

Stretches are only permitted to be achieved by unforced and non-aggressive means. Rough or abrupt aids are not allowed, nor the application of constant unyielding pressure on the horse's mouth through a fixed arm and hand position. Van Daele, however, maintained a realistic perspective on the real-life situation and admitted that sometimes rambunctious stallions, for instance, have to be corrected. "Stewards have to admit to a slight correction, but in a short way, a well-behaved way," he said.

Three riders entered the ring for what would become a demonstration that missed its target. For a short moment they were asked to ride in extreme positions and show some pulling on the bit that would be reprimanded by a steward. The request in itself was absurd and besides some hyperflexed neck-positions these combinations were fortunately unable to demonstrate "abuse." It would have been a much better idea to show video footage of the warm up rings at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky, where many incidents took place away from the watchful eye of the stewards. That footage would generate controversy and discussion. Furthermore moderator Davison explicitly asked the  photographers not to take pictures of the "extreme positions" as the riders object it. Strange censorship for a forum that is open to all who pay the entry ticket?!

When asked about the use and sense of the three notorious diagrams (which do not illustrate the truth in the show ring but are pushed forward as guideline by the FEI) Van Daele replied, "you cannot teach from a picture or a drawing, we use videos. You have to see it in moving pictures, so we are going to change that."

This spring and summer there were incidents at the warm up ring as some riders were asked to change the head/neck position, even though they were riding in a normal frame. Van Daele replied that, "there is a panel of directors who give courses all over the world. Some are a bit more strict. It's a learning process."

Van Daele proposed longer training in the main ring. "It should be allowed in the presence of a chief steward or appointed experienced steward." Some riders at the forum concurred and suggested to be allowed in the main ring for a longer period of time. "We would like to have an open area for more training a day," said a rider representative. "One team gets one hour, but the team trainer can't train all four riders in that one hour."

A spectator asked if the same stewarding guidelines are applied in the other FEI disciplines because at the World Equestrian Games some unacceptable riding was seen especially in the reining arena. "Just one year ago we were forced to take this and fix this major crisis after Odense. We worked very fast for dressage. The other disciplines didn't have the same pressure," said Asmyr.

At that point in the discussion IDTC president David Hunt made a strange statement which enflamed several journalists. "This is a dressage problem, not a steward's problem," the Brit said. "We have to take control of this and own it. We have a wonderful sport and this shouldn't have happened anyway." Makes sense, but then Hunt went on to lay the blame on the press for causing this crisis when everything was just fine in our sport. There should be "social control from riders, trainers and stewards," he said. Hunt attacked the journalists and photographers who deliberately take badly-timed photos as illustration. While there are magazines out there with a mission to attack a certain style of riding, it is highly offensive of Hunt to lump all press together. German photographer Barbara Schnell replied that "my goal is to take beautiful photos and you can go to my website and only see pretty photos. But when abusive riding happens in front of me for forty minutes my buttons get pushed and I push the button."

Fortunately an international Grand Prix rider spoke in support of the journalists. Jeannette Haazen took the microphone and immediately swept Hunt's ridiculous statement that "everything was just fine in the dressage world" off the table by announcing the following: "I saw colleague riders and thought, 'I can't look at it anymore' but I never had the guts to say 'come on'. And this is not just one time. I'm getting old now and have been everywhere and I saw it a lot of times." Kyrklund concurred: "I have also seen bad riding going on for a long time."

The solution to this seems very simple. Asmyr said that one can "avoid big discussions and negative publicity by intervening earlier." O-judge Leif Tornblad rightfully tackled another issue in the discipline. "All this deep and round and open mouth distracts from the real problem. What about tight nosebands? It's like nothing has ever been written about that," said the Dane. Kyra replied on the two-finger rule, making the joke of day: "two fingers, but whose fingers, and where?” Nevertheless this problem remains to be a critical one in dressage and maybe stewards should be a bit more gutsy to check the tightness of the noseband more rigorously before and after the test.

Show and Champagne For All

The day came to a close with show and champagne for all. From the session "Review World Champion Dressage" most expected a discussion on the results of the World Equestrian Games but the organizers surprised everyone with a glass of champagne to celebrate the Games. Trainer Jan Bemelmans and his star pupil Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz were attending the Forum on the first day and everybody toasted to the Spaniard's memorable freestyle performances at WEG.

Afterwards French animal artist Jean Francois Pignon staged a wonderful performance with his camargue ponies. He first showed a video of working them in freedom on the beach and afterwards he gave a short demonstration in the Bartels' arena. For the first time in public, spectators were able to ask questions on how he trained his ponies. Pignon referred to controlling the hierarchy of a herd and that he had to the dominant male in order to get obedience from his ponies. He did not offer them treats as in freedom as a dominant horse does not share food with the rest. His entire training strategy is based on positive and negative reinforcement. Some of the ponies did not have a happy expression on their face during the live demonstration, which could have been stressing for them. On the video footage the expression on the ponies' faces was more relaxed and at ease. Unfortunately Pignon lost much credibility when he stated that 50% of his training he had learnt from the Bible. Nevertheless, Pignon's show was a nice conclusion of the day and a good way to celebrate the showmanship witnessed over the past 10 years at the Global Dressage Forum.

Text and Photos © Astrid Appels / Barbara Schnell - No Reproduction Allowed without written permission

Report 2010 Global Dressage Forum - DAY TWO - The Judging System in the Firing Line