The 2013 Global Dressage Forum (GDF) at the Academy Bartels in Hooge Mierde, a village in the southeast of Holland, will be remembered, perhaps for the first time in its 13 years of existence, for an atmosphere of consensus and cooperation. Gone were the controversies and attacks on riders, judges and the media of past forums. As a gathering place for the dressage world’s most influential voices to freely share ideas, the GDF seems to have come of age.
Over the years, a few speakers have become GDF regulars, popular presenters who always engage the audience with topics in their areas of expertise. Such was the case in 2013, with presentations from German Olympic judge Katrina Wüst, dressage score analyst David Stickland and Dutch team trainer Wim Ernes, all three of whom have participated at recent editions of the GDF.
Offering new insights into the judging of freestyles, the analysis of scores in the Prix St. Georges test and the development of a horse from foal to Grand Prix, each of the three shared tools for perfecting different aspects of what is known as the equestrian world’s most perfectionist discipline.
Katrina Wüst: Conquering the Degree of Difficulty
At the 2009 GDF, Wüst presented an idea for improving the objectivity in assessing the degree of difficulty in the freestyle. The template she presented gave numerical values to elements of added difficulty. British Olympic judge Stephen Clarke had originally been on the GDF program to give his presentation, “The Perfect 10.” However, having witnessed the successful trial of Wüst’s new system, Clarke invited her to use the time allotted for him so that she could make a thorough presentation of the system.
Her ultimate goal, to improve the quality of judging of all the artistic elements in the freestyle, began with what she identified as the mark most easily objectified: the degree of difficulty. When she made her presentation in 2009, two things became clear: that Wüst had found an area of real weakness in the judging and that the system she had created was too complicated for judges, who are already overtaxed to assess all the technical, musical and choreographic elements in the freestyle.
Wüst spent the next four years working on her concept, and at the 2013 GDF she presented a newly developed system for assessing degree of difficulty. Wüst also introduced Daniel Göhlen, a computer expert and dressage rider who wrote the software that has transformed Wüst’s idea into a reality.
The system requires riders to submit their choreography ahead of time so that the computer program can determine where there are degrees of difficulty in the pattern. Numerical values are assigned to each area of difficulty—whether it’s a movement executed in a difficult place, such as one-tempi changes on a circle, or a difficult combination, such as trot half pass directly into passage half pass. The judges are not required to look for and identify the areas of difficulty; the program does that job for them.
All the judges have to do is assign marks for the movements as they would normally. The mark, when entered into the system, dictates whether the rider gets credit for the difficulty. If the scored movement receives a 7 or higher, the rider gets bonus points for difficulty. The rider gets no bonus if the movement receives 6 or 6.5, and loses points if the movement scores less than 6. Concerns from riders that submitting a ground plan ahead of time would make them unable to change the pattern when they rode their freestyles were reassured that deciding not to do a difficult movement would not result in a penalty.
“There is also the possibility to have what is called a ‘joker,’ for a second chance at the tempi changes, which gets a technical score and has no influence on the difficulty mark,” Wüst explained.
The new system for assessing degree of difficulty has already undergone a successful trial in Warendorf, Germany. It is likely the FEI will purchase the software and put it into use, first at the Grand Prix level. “This system, by far, brings us closer to objectivity than any other system I have seen,” said FEI Dressage Director Trond Asmyr at the end of Wüst’s presentation to the audience.
David Stickland: Finding Meaning in Your Prix St. Georges Scores
When he made his first appearance at the GDF in 2009, particle physicist David Stickland was immediately deemed a controversial figure, particularly by judges. His expertise in analyzing raw numbers and finding meaning in them, when applied to dressage judging, resulted in some unwelcome revelations. Stickland’s objective use of data made his findings difficult to ignore or refute.
Since launching Global Dressage Analytics, a company that offers riders, trainers and judges the tools to assess results in a useful way for their needs, Stickland has begun to focus on less-contentious projects, such as the one he presented at the 2013 GDF.
Having obtained the detailed scores from 4,000 Prix St. Georges rides at German national shows, Stickland says he wanted to help the rider “understand better what the scores mean so that you might get more than depression from that low-scoring judge.” With such a large pool of data, he was able to conduct detailed analysis with an eye to helping riders find useful information in their results so that they could improve in the future. His decision to use the Prix St. Georges test and not the much-studied Grand Prix, was to offer something of value to a larger number of riders. “Many horses can reach this level, but not so many go on to the Grand Prix,” he explained.
The results of Stickland’s multiple analyses were interesting and surprising. He determined, from the German pool of tests, that the average score in the Prix St. Georges test is 64 percent, with two-thirds falling between 62 and 67 percent. The trot work accounts for 30 percent of the total score, the walk 17 percent and the canter work 35 percent. The collective marks are worth another 17 percent, with most of the last 1 percent going to the halts.
Not surprisingly, the two movements that have the greatest impact on the score are those with a coefficient of 2: the trot half passes and the canter half pirouettes. “They are each worth 11 percent, by far the most,” said Stickland, who also looked at what movements have the most influence on a rider’s ranking in relation to the competition. What he discovered was that the percentage that a movement counted in the overall score didn’t necessarily correspond to that movement’s influence on the final ranking.
“The collected and extended walk are worth only 5 percent in the score, but they have an 8 point influence on the ranking,” he said. “The trot half pass is worth 11 percent on the score, but it influences the ranking only by 6. The tempi changes are worth only 2.6 on the score, but they have a 6 percent influence on the ranking.”
Another surprising discovery Stickland made was that movements’ contributions to ranking varied according to whether the test was scoring in the low 60s or the high 60s. “In higher-scoring tests, the extended walk is the most important movement of all, at 11 percent.” He also learned that in those higher-scoring tests the four tempis had a greater influence than the three tempis, which suggests that the four tempis are more prone to having mistakes than the threes with higher scoring horse–rider combinations.
Stickland concluded his presentation by explaining how riders can use the analysis of their results, both over time and compared to their competitors. “There are three main features: the slope—whether you are getting better or worse at a movement and overall; where it ends—what you can expect to achieve today; and fluctuation—what the range of your marks is.” The analysis can show riders what they need to work on first: those movements that have the greatest influence on the ranking for each horse–rider combination. “We like to compete, to measure ourselves against history and against our competitors,” said Stickland. “You still have to ride and train, but this knowledge can help focus where you improve.”
Dutch Success Story: Wim Ernes
Before he accepted the role of Dutch team trainer in 2012, Wim Ernes was a widely respected Olympic-level judge. For his presentation on the Dutch vision for nurturing equine talent from birth to the Olympic Games, he brought along a trio of Holland’s most renowned breeding experts: Tim Coomans, who discovered and trained Ravel before he was purchased for Steffen Peters; Nico Witte, who discovered the stallion Jazz as a foal; and Joop van Uytert, the breeder who owned both Gribaldi and Painted Black.
Ernes and his panel of experts brought flesh and blood to their presentation, beginning with a pair of athletic weanlings that cavorted in the academy arena before the audience. As the experts proceeded through the stages of identifying talent and then developing it, the horses on display got older and were shown under saddle. Ernes explained the Dutch philosophy for producing top horses and identified the key success factors: pedigree, conformation, temperament, training, horse care and competition management.
“It’s not only conformation but the function, too,” Witte added. “For example, a hind leg can have too little or too much angle, but it can be a very functional hind leg.”
When Ernes was asked why Valegro, the reigning Olympic champion, did not make the KWPN stallion grading as a young horse, he answered that the horse’s pedigree was not strong enough. “There was not a lot of sport in Valegro’s bloodlines. Also, his conformation was old-fashioned. The selection of a stallion is different than the selection of a sport horse.” But as Ernes also acknowledged, function can trump pedigree and conformation, as is proven by Valegro’s success.
A Full and Varied Program
Belgian sport psychologist Jan Dierens touched on the concept of the ideal performance state, in which an athlete’s focus is on the goal while the body is allowed, rather than consciously directed, to achieve that goal. “Imagery is stronger than willpower,” said Dierens during his audience-participation demonstration.
In past years, the GDF program committee has imported a presentation from beyond dressage’s borders. Presenters like Monty Roberts, liberty trainer Jean François Pignon and natural horsemanship trainer Tristan Tucker brought new perspectives to the more traditional thinking that pervades dressage. In 2013, however, there was no outside-the-box presentation. The only speaker who came from beyond the discipline was equine disease specialist Dr. Marianne Sloet, who gave a lecture on emerging equine diseases.
Dr. Sloet focused on three of the most serious diseases that are on the rise globally: African horse sickness, equine infectious anemia (also known as swamp fever) and West Nile virus. Her sobering message for the audience was that better biosecurity measures need to be implemented worldwide and at all levels, right down to private stables, if these devastating diseases are to be kept under control.
The GDF will take place for the first time outside of Holland this year. The Blue Hors stud, in Randbøl, Denmark, will host the 14th GDF October 20–21. The date was chosen to coincide with the CDI Odense in Denmark so that people traveling to the GDF can also take in the prestigious World Cup qualifier. The GDF is expected to return to the Academy Bartels in Holland in 2015 and to alternate between its original home and a new location every second year thereafter.