The Dressage Foundation (TDF) started its International Dream program in 2000 when Olympian and TDF board member Michael Poulin proposed that highly motivated, advanced Young Riders should be immersed in the culture of European dressage to keep their dreams alive. This year, from Aug. 10–17, four Young Riders journeyed to the Aachen Horse Show for the 2015 European Dressage Championships. They were Jennifer Foulon (Maryland), Rosie Julian Simoes (Illinois), Sarah Cohen (Alaska) and Sadie Lahey (Idaho). They were accompanied by two chaperones—Olympian and FEI judge Charlotte Bredahl-Baker and USDF Certified Instructor faculty member Annie Morris. They got a complete view of the European dressage world with insights from all aspects—from the dedication it takes to make it to the top to managing a team to the pressure of judging a competition of this caliber. Here is their report:
From the Judge’s Box
Australian FEI 5* judge Mary Seefried was a member of the Judges Supervisory Panel (JSP) and she spoke to us about the recently instituted system used in FEI dressage championship competitions. The JSP system acts as a safety net and keeps judging fair for competitors. This system is also used in other sports with semi-subjective judging, such as gymnastics and figure skating.
The panel consists of three people—two judges and one trainer. One watches the arena, one monitors individual scores and one reviews the video. The JSP members can change a judge’s score only for a technical reason, such as counting errors in the tempi changes or incorrect number of strides in the canter zigzag or too few piaffe steps. However, they are not able to change scores out of a concern for quality. They can adjust an individual judge’s mark up or down, but only to the highest or lowest of the other judges’ marks. Furthermore, if one judge’s final score for a combination is 6 percentage points higher or lower than the average of the other judges’ scores, the JSP can unanimously decide to change that judge’s final score to be equal to the closest final score of another judge. JSP members must finish this process before the next rider enters the ring. Out of more than 16,000 marks given during the 72 rides in the Grand Prix, only 55 individual marks were changed at the 2015 European Championships.
During the competition, we were able to gain insight into the intricacies of the Grand Prix Freestyle from German FEI 5* judge Katrina Wuest who was serving as president of the ground jury at Aachen. Wuest, has a passion for freestyles, and she gave us tips on what it takes to perform an extraordinary one. Good execution is the most important thing, she said. If you are a less experienced rider or have a green horse, keep the choreography simple and perfect it. It is the rider’s responsibility to know which sequences are relatively easy or difficult to perform. Tailor the choreography to the strengths and weaknesses of your horse. For example, if the horse does not have a strong walk, then show the walk on the long side, away from the judges.
A rider can increase the degree of difficulty by inserting unusual combinations of movements. These difficult sequences can be done at any level: For instance, freestyles at several levels could show an extended canter into a walk pirouette into an extended trot. Wuest told us not to be afraid to show movements multiple times in the freestyle, but to avoid using the same choreography as the standard tests.
For many competitors at the national level, freestyle is a great way to have fun. The music, she advised, must fit the rhythm of all of the horse’s paces. She recommended using catchy music whenever possible, as it excites both the judges and the audience. Music must tell a story and take the judges and spectators on an emotional journey. “Let them dream a little as they watch you ride,” she said.
American FEI 5* judge Anne Gribbons was on the judging panel. She spoke about the high quality of horses and riders in the competition and the high level of education the audience has, making this one of the toughest competitions in the world to judge. When the audience disagrees with scores at Aachen, they are not afraid to let their opinions be heard, she said.
It was clear that the judges at Aachen are under immense pressure to produce scores quickly and accurately. At the end of the day, someone will always be unhappy with the scores. Gribbons noted that judges are human, which is one of the reasons why the JSP has been implemented in dressage.
There have been multiple discussions about the variation in scores between judges. Gribbons explained that judges see different aspects of a movement depending on where they are sitting around the arena. For example, from a position in the front of a horse, the judge can see the straightness and height of the passage, while a judge on the side is able to see the regularity and rhythm of the steps. It is important as a competitor to remember this when looking at score sheets from multiple judges.
The Rider’s and Trainer’s Perspective
British Olympic gold medalist Carl Hester is also the trainer of superstar Charlotte Dujardin (shown opposite), who took home double gold medals at the Europeans with 83.029 percent in the Grand Prix, 87.577 percent in the Grand Prix Special and 89.054 percent in the Freestyle. Hester rode Jane de la Mare’s Nip Tuck, and he spoke with us at length about preparing for competitions.
Hester said that one of the biggest traps that riders fall into is feeling that they have to show off in the warm-up. “Don’t win the warm-up,” he advised. “Save that for the ring.” Hester talked about Dujardin’s use of a sport psychologist in her preparation for competitions, saying that it relaxes her and puts her in a positive mental state. Having a relaxed, confident rider, he said, is just as important as having a relaxed, confident horse.
At Hester’s stable in England, the horses have a specific schedule that leads to success in the show ring: two days of work, one day of hacking followed by two more work days, another hack and then a day of rest. He gave us a few reasons for this program. First, because of the way a horse naturally learns, he always performs best on the second day of work, as you are able to work through any issues from the first day and then the understanding is there on the second day. As a reward for the good work on the second day, you hack the horse on roads and up and down hills on the third day. All horses, especially top Grand Prix horses, have to be incredibly fit, and hacking builds fitness. It also exposes horses to different environments and distractions, which teaches them to trust the rider when they get nervous.
German FEI 4* judge and trainer Christoph Hess was a commentator at Aachen. He noted that riders should make a good impression when they enter the competition arena. One mark of a good rider, he says, is that she rides with her calves and not her spurs. Hess also discussed the importance of looking to the horse’s body language in the ring to tell what type of training goes on at home. “The horse’s eye tells a story,” he said. “We just have to take the time to listen. In other words, the horse’s expression can reveal whether or not he enjoys his work. If he respects his rider and wants to perform for him, he will have a happy, confident expression.”
Oliver Oelrich, renowned German Young Rider coach and Young Horse coach, explained the importance of young horses getting the correct start under saddle. Horses coming up through his program are assured a high standard of training and a system that funnels the horses, as they get older, into the developing Prix St. Georges and Grand Prix ranks, with the hope of international competition. German team horses Don Johnson and Desperados are both products of the German system.
The youth riders are also being carefully monitored, beginning their careers by developing the seat, feel and accuracy on ponies. From there, they move into the higher divisions and then into the Prix St. Georges and the Grand Prix, much like the developing horses move through the system. Furthermore, they have begun working with breeders to match young riders who are under the supervision of trainers with young horses, allowing successful pairs to grow together and learn from each other. It is mutually beneficial for the young riders and breeders. Young riders who cannot afford to purchase horses get high quality rides while the breeders who may not be able to afford training will get their young horses trained and shown. The end result is that the horses will be sold, the breeders have higher priced horses and the young riders are able to gain more experience.
German Junior and Young Rider Team Trainer Hans-Heinrich Meyer zu Strohen noted the qualities of those who are rising to the top and becoming great riders. First, they have a “top-quality seat,” he said. The riders spend countless hours working on improving their seats—on the longe line and riding without stirrups. The seat is critical for having effective aids and having independent control over different parts of the body.
Second, they have “great feeling while riding.” The riders can feel what is happening with the horse, both mentally and physically. They take time to develop relationships with their horses both in the saddle and on the ground. Not only does a strong relationship between horse and rider make training enjoyable for both parties, but judges can see it and reward it in the show ring. Finally, he said, “the best riders say thank you to the horse by rewarding him.” Walk breaks, praising and hack days are ways to reward your horses.
Dreams Do Come True
The Young Rider International Dream Program, made possible by generous donations to TDF, has been the trip of a lifetime for the four of us. Not only is the education that we received more than we could ever imagine, but we have also made friendships and connections that will last a lifetime.
For more information about the International Dream Program’s 2015 journey, visit DressageToday.com