A strong riding Dutch team took the spoils and claimed their third ever European team gold medal (2007, 2009, 2015) in a scandalous, historic, thrilling, and jaw-dropping Grand Prix team competition at the 2015 European Dressage Championships on Thursday 13 August 2015.
Seven judges are officiating in Aachen this week and for the Grand Prix they were positioned as following: K: Susanne Baarup, E: Katrina Wüst, H: Annette Fransén-Iacobaeus, C: Eduard de Wolff van Westerrode, M: Jean-Michel Roudier, B: Anne Gribbons and at F: Andrew Ralph Gardner.
It is difficult to say whether the judging in Aachen has been really good and ground breaking, or appalling and erratic. Most top combinations made atypical mistakes and were unable to bring their absolute A-game to the arena, so scores slightly lower than expected flashed on the board. For a few pairs the marks were irrational.
The emotions after the conclusion of the Grand Prix class late Thursday evening ranged between states of euphoria, disbelief, schizophrenia, disappointment, anger and justice .
The day of reckoning had come for one pair but then immediately following another was so highly scored that it left this reporter flabbergasted. What do they want to see? The judging has made giant leaps of improvement the past three to four years but there is still no unity amongst judges. They are the absolute and only trendsetters in the sport; they are the barometers and decision makers on what high performance dressage supposed to look like. So far at the 2015 European Dressage Championships they are only giving mixed messages, leaving huge amounts of spectators clueless on the direction of the sport.
The Netherlands surprisingly won the team competition with three very solid rides from Edward Gal (82.229%), Hans Peter Minderhoud (77.586%) and Diederik van Silfhout (75.814). The world’s number 1 ranked rider Charlotte Dujardin could not save the biscuit for Great Britain with her winning round on Valegro (83.029), as Carl Hester got stuck on 75.400%. Fiona Bigwood fulfilled the expectations with her 75.800%. Germany received the biggest beating as they came to Aachen as the undisputed favourites for gold but ended with a disappointing bronze. The country’s number one Kristina Bröring-Sprehe was unable to save the day after Isabell Werth lost valuable points due to a mistake in the single tempi changes (74.900%, their scratch score) but Jessica von Bredow got lucky with her 75.300%. All German hope rested on their injury prone wild card Totilas who was not fit and got the scores he deserved: 75.971%. Some even say the bell should have rung for this pair as the horse was unlevel in several movements, but in all fairness, then the bell should have rung for a couple more lower ranked horses too.
So what happened? And was the scandal only about Totilas? Not really. Never before were the judges so unable to separate apples from oranges. The two top ranked combinations in the Grand Prix are worlds apart from each other and still earn comparable marks. How can this be? What do the judges want to see? Do they want harmony, softness, lightness and natural swing or total control of each stride with mechnically moving horses? It requires genius riding to achieve such a total domination of a horse’s movement mechanism, for sure, but how can these two worlds apart score the same marks. What is dressage? Gymnastics or mechanics?
Dujardin Stuggles with Aachen Pressure
Charlotte Dujardin and Aachen seem to have a love-hate affair. In 2014 the British Olympic, World and European champion rode her first trainwreck Grand Prix in Aachen, probably succumbing to the pressure of Totilas’ presence at the time. Also in yesterday’s Grand Prix the rider could not keep her focus and stay faultfree.
Dujardin and the 13-year old Dutch warmblood gelding Valegro (by Negro x Gerschwin) began their ride with a super nice halt at entry and stunning trot extensions. The half passes were fluent and the first piaffe-passage velvety soft. The rhythm in the first piaffe was not entirely secure. In the extended walk the horse does not produce the biggest overtrack but has good relaxation. The canter work was very strong with super two tempi changes, a big extended canter and flying change but then Dujardin miscounted in the zigzag and failed in one change in the single tempi changes. The pirouettes were lovely and small. The final piaffe-passage centerline was beautiful but the horse dropped in the bridle and got deep. Also for the first time Valegro appeared with a tremoring lower lip in some movements. Overall it was a beautiful test in which the graceful and soft execution of the movements were a highlight. The horse’s contentment and happiness show when he left the arena on long reins, strolling out completely chilled out while gazing at the crowds.
Dujardin scored 83.029% with 80.400 as low score (Wust - GER) and 85.000% as high score (Gardner -GBR)
The Other End of the Continuum: Edward Gal and Undercover
Whereas Valegro is all about natural strength, power, suppleness and beauty, Edward Gal’s Undercover is all about electricity, precision, and step-by-step control. They are two total opposites – apples and oranges – and surprisingly the judges score them almost identically. Everything in life is about taste. The Romans used to say “De Gustibus et coloribus non disputandum est” (you can’t discuss taste and colours), but with the panel ranking them almost equal, they wipe any sense of standard off the table and show complete disagreement in what the essence of dressage entails.
Edward Gal rides his horses so differently from the more classically oriented dressage riders that go for harmony and natural swing. His aids are invisible (except for the tempi changes in which he’s swinging in the saddle and his hands move towards his knee, shortening Undercover’s neck to an extreme) and he is so refined in his communication with his horse, but to him it is all about tempo control and the result is a horse that moves mechanically, like a perfectly tuned robot. Again, it’s all about taste it appears!
Edward entered in an extremely collected canter and the halt was not balanced, with the horse resting behind. The first trot extension had no overtrack (scores 6.5 – 8.0), the trot half passes were the highlight of the test as they were so lightfooted. The second trot extension was better and the first passage was very elegant with a super transition into piaffe. The right hind leg made a few backward steps in piaffe though (8.0 – 10). The extended walk had only one hoof overstep (7.0 – 8.0). The second piaffe-passage was amazingly well regulated and rhythmical. In the canter work the two tempi changes were crooked to the right, tight in the neck and far below the vertical (6.5 – 8.0). The zig zag was very well ridden but could cover more ground. In the one tempi changes on the diagonal, Gal collected his horse so much for the first fifteen meters that Undercover almost cantered in place before he started his 15 changes, which hardly covered ground and again with the horse tight in the neck and deep (7.5 – 8.0). The extended canter was powerful and uphill. The left pirouette was the superior one of the two, the last trot extensions had a hoof overstep and the final centerline was very nice with Gal smiling on his horse. The end halt was not square (8.0 – 9.0!). Edward scored 82.229% with 78.600 as low score (Wust) and 84.200 (Baarup) as high score.
Gal’s life partner Hans Peter Minderhoud assisted in Holland grabbing team gold as he rode the fourth highest scoring test of the day with 77.586%. Aboard the Austrian owned Johnson (by Jazz x Flemmingh), Minderhoud brought a lot of energy to the ring with good trot extensions and half passes and a powerful canter extension and well ridden zig zag. The passage was regular but the horse could track up more behind. The piaffe is not the biggest but quite rhythmical even though the horse gets very narrow at the base behind. The weakpoint was the extended walk with no lengthening in the strides. The stallion started to show the tongue on the right side of the mouth after the walk section. There was a mistake in the two tempi changes, but the extended canter was powerful. The zig zag was good but the horse dropped behind the vertical. The pirouettes were small. The final centerline had a good rhythm but Johnson got crooked to the left in the piaffe.
Minderhoud scored 77.586% in total with 75.100 (Fransen) as low score and 79.900 (Wust) as high score. Combined with Diederik van Silfhout’s 75.814% the Dutch team scored 235.629 overall for team gold.
Sprehe Can’t Save the Day for Germany
Germany had its two powerhouse combinations, Matthias Rath on Totilas and Kristina Bröring-Sprehe on Desperados saved for Thursday. Totilas was scheduled as Germany’s third rider and was the first expected to crack the 80%. It was not meant to be.
The running score board, which had worked for all riders up to till then, suddenly did not run during Rath so it worked as an advantage as he would not have to hear the ohs and ahs from the crowd which can disturb a rider’s concentration.
Rath and the very muscled black stallion began with a first trot extension that had one hoof overtrack but looked tender behind. A few people in the stands began to whistle. The half passes were beautiful and sweeping but the one to the right was not super regular. In the second trot extension the horse was expressive in front and achieved some overtrack at the clear cost of regularlity behind. Some whistled again. In the first passage the horse had much air time and lift in the legs but Totilas showed more engagement from behind with his right hind leg. In the first piaffe a few steps lost the forward tendency. The extended walk was good, but in the second piaffe-passage the horse got deep and also lost that forward motion. The contact with the bit was not strong, but Rath rode with a horizontal curb, relying more on the curb rein than snaffle and his hands were not very quiet. The two tempi changes were big but not straight in the body, the extended canter was great with a big flying change. In the zig zag Rath asked for a lot of ground cover but the horse was deep and tight. In the one tempi changes Totilas’ left hind leg failed again and did not jump through in a few changes. The left pirouette was small but there was a loss of balance, the final trot extension was irregular again. The final centerline had a good passage but in the piaffe at X the horse hollowed the back. In the end halt, the horse rested on the left hind leg.
Rath’s total score was 75.971% with Roudier’s 71.600 % and Wust’s 72.900% hitting the nail on the head. Fransen-Iacobaeus was at 74.600%; De Wolff at 73.200%, Gribbons at an inexplicable 79.300% and Baarup and Gardner’s shared the unbelievable high score of 81.100%. Rath, who has been trained by Sjef Janssen the past three years, did not ride a bad test, but it’s normal that irregular or ill executed movements are down scored (and that goes for all riders; no matter how famous their name!). De Wolff had Totilas’ first trot extension at 8.0 , Roudier at 4.0! Same with the second trot extension. The uneven first passage scored from 6.5 (Wust) to 9.0 (Gribbons). Gribbons gave a 9.0 for crooked flying changes. The last trot extension scored from 4.0 to 7.5. The final, unbalanced halt got 5.0 (Fransen) to 8.0 (Gardner, Wust, Gribbons, Baarup).
It is unbelievable how emotional the crowd got when Totilas was in the ring: schizophrenic reactions erupted. Whistles were heard because of the irregularity of the horse and whistles were heard for the low scores of the judges. Totilas was very tender behind despite the fact that Rath rode quite a nice test. Matthias achieves more scope and ground cover in all the canter work than Edward Gal ever did on the horse. The stallion now has more length in the neck but at the cost of being unsteady in the head-neck position. However, any highly visible and persistent irregularity is unacceptable. The judges might have not had the guts to ring the bell (which would have been unfair as others required elimination then as well) but Roudier and Wust should be applauded for their brave work and willingness to face the ire of the German federation for the credibility and future of the sport.
As last rider to go in the Grand Prix, Germany’s final team ranking depended on fully Sprehe’s effort. Sprehe and her 14-year old Hanoverian stallion Desperados (by De Niro x Wolkenstein II) began with a good halt at entry,big half passes and strong trot extensions . The passage was very bouncy but there was some hesitation in the rhythm of the first piaffe. The extended walk had good overstep but the horse could have been a bit more relaxed. In the second piaffe Desperados should have produced more diagonal bounce and the steps appeared laboured. The second passage was big but not entirely even in stridelength. . The two tempi changes were good, the extended canter powerful but in the zig zag Sprehe miscounted herself and only did five strides instead of six to one side. The one tempi changes were secure, the pirouettes superb and the final centerline was lovely.
The judges scored the test 79.743% which placed her third in the Grand Prix and put team Germany in bronze medal position with a combined score of 230.914 points.
Great Britain landed silver. Had Dujardin stayed faultfree, the gold was theirs as they were only 1.4% short of gold with their 234.229 team total. Fiona Bigwood produced Britain’s second best ride with a 75.800% score (8th place). Carl Hester finished 9th on the 11-year old Dutch bred Nip Tuck (by Don Ruto).
Jane de la Mare's Nip Tuck was beautifully presented: up in the bridle, soft and steady in the contact and obedient to the aids. Nip Tuck’s left hind leg struggled a bit to step under and cross in the trot half pass right and in passage the horse does not really engage from behind with both hind legs moving towards the point of gravity, but Nip Tuck generates good suspension and airtime in passage and has a lovely on the spot piaffe even though the transitions to and from piaffe are stop and go. The tempi changes are straight as a candle but there was an issue with the flying change in the extended canter. The left pirouette needed more collection, the right one was better. Nip Tuck lost the tempo in the final trot extension and the end halt was not immobile (6.5 – 8.0). Hester scored 75.400% with his marks ranging from 71.300% (De Wolff) and 76.800 (Wust).
The Side Dish: Olympic Qualification for Spain, Sweden, and France
A bit further away from the spotlight but certainly not less exciting for those involved were the team ranking of the fourth, fifth and sixth nations at the 2015 European Dressage Championships as those countries would obtain team qualification for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. It was a missing accomplished for Spain, Sweden, and France. The Rio ticket brought tons of relief and major jubilation for all those involved.
Spain was extremely strong with Beatriz Ferrer-Salat finally making her team debut aboard her gifted 15-year old Westfalian gelding Delgado (by De Niro x Weltmeyer). The half passes floated, there was much suspension in passage and the tempi changes were exciting. The horse was soft and steady in the contact throughout and bar the break into canter in the last trot extension, the horse stayed faultfree. They scored 77.186% to finish fifth. Judge Baarup even had her at 81.200%.
Morgan Barbançon Mestre and the 18-year old KWPN stallion Painted Black (by Gribaldi x Ferro) were super solid and Barbançon presented the black stallion in the best frame she’s ever shown: the nose slightly in front of the vertical and open in the throat latch. The half passes were gigantic and that meddled with the evenness a bit. The trot half passes could also have been purer but they were huge in scope and ground cover. The passage was regular, the piaffe rhythmical, the extended canter a bit too conservative and in the zig zag the horse lost the balance by being slightly overasked. They scored 73.957% with marks going from 71.100 (Gribbons) to 77.700 (Roudier).
The Grand Prix Special is on Saturday with a new set of individual medals to be won.
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