The Future of International Dressage Sport

The future of dressage sport is at a crossroads. Is it entertainment for the audience, or is it about examining classical training for horses? Or can it be both? Christoph Hess discusses in this article.

Today’s dressage sport horses have exceptional potential for the future that has never been seen before. One minute, they present movements in the highest possible collection and, in the next, they relax and show the optimal walk. They must show a willingness to do movements like piaffe and passage with lots of expression while demonstrating a natural suppleness that enables them to cover ground with an inner silence, to stand still at the halt and to be relaxed physically and mentally. It is not in their nature to do these things, but horse breeders are adapting as they become aware of the great demands dressage riders place on their horses today.

Edward Gal and Totilas (Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst)

One horse that is near to the ideal is the European champion Totilas with his rider Edward Gal. Totilas is remarkable because he has a great elasticity in his body, a great freedom of the shoulder and potential to swing. He has a wonderful temperament—sensitive and yet calm.

Attributes of Special Horses

Any dressage rider, who wants to be a player in today’s ensemble of the best, looks for a horse that moves with the greatest possible charisma, has maximum willingness and the ability for collection. He moves “electric” out of the shoulder with the ability to step high and forward. Horses that can win important events must also have a bit of genius and madness about them, otherwise they are missing the ultimate expression and drive dressage horses need nowadays to achieve the highest standard at Grand Prix. These special horses also need to have the willingness to be trained to meet the requirements of the level. For example, at halt, when the rider gives the horse the aid to piaffe only with leg pressure, a spectacular piaffe must be shown straight away. (For me, this is a problematic development, as horses are normally not made for such riding demands.) But dressage riders who become aware of a horse with these characteristics will spare no effort to try it out, even if it means traveling to the other end of the world. Because these special horses are not easy to ride and handle, they need riders with exceptional qualities.

Attributes of a Top Rider

To ride horses that are special, it is necessary to have ridden and trained many different types of horses for a number of years under supervision. The rider has to learn, on different levels, to refine his sensitivity. Someone who has never learned this–and not gone through the hard process of learning proper basic training–will never be able to ride horses at the highest level. Riders who want special horses and who are able to raise them to the highest level of performance must have the following attributes:

  • An exceptionally balanced seat, independent from the hand.
  • The ability to be supple, relaxed and to blend into the horse’s movement.
  • The willingness to work hard like a beaver and to train the horses every day over a long period of time.
  • To be intensively involved with the horse and its character. Amongst the daily training, special horses need a lot of attention–additional time in the field, regular feeding times, etc.
  • The ability to ride Grand Prix movements (and those at all other levels) with instinctive sureness, reacting to mistakes before they happen.
  • A great deal of patience, especially when horses do not learn some of the movements straight away and without difficulties, which might result in weaker performances in competitions than were expected due to experiences in the home training.
  • A high frustration-tolerance level. Riders need to be able to deal with setbacks, which these horses have.
  • The ability to supple a horse properly. Some riders are able “to cultivate” tension with the goal of demonstrating spectacular movements. This is not the goal of classical dressage. It should not be the goal for the trainers and never ever a goal for the judges. In this situation, judges have to give low marks.
  • Consideration of the warm-up area. The more sensibly riders prepare their horses in the warm-up arena, the better for every horse in Europe and for the sport in total. The preparation arena at events has a more important significance now than in former days when it was the place for riders to prepare their horses without spectators. Sometimes there are even more people around it than in the competition arena.

The Role of the Trainer

The trainer plays an important role in this context: The rider who wants to produce top performances can get so focused on achieving a top place that he or she quite often forgets—in training and in the immediate preparation for an event–the responsibility he has toward the horse and the sport. If the classical training principles are not paid attention to (as described in the FEI rules and national regulations), the horses are often ridden too narrow and low in their necks by riders who try to subjugate them and improve their obedience. Use of this method is often explained to the public as “gymnastic” for the horse or the “modern” way of training. But, quite often the intention of the rider is to dominate the horse and break his will to demonstrate who is in charge.

Here, it is the responsibility of the trainer to step in and try to get the rider back to the basics. After a short period of getting short in the neck, the horse’s posture needs to be extended again. This change between shortening and extending the neck is vital for the physical wellness of a horse and for grooming the nerves to reduce tensions. Also, the trainer needs to underline to the rider his job as a role model, which the rider needs to be always aware of as a top athlete. The trainer must point out the continued importance of the basics at every level and that it is not “the spectacular” which needs to be in the foreground but the honest and straightforward harmonic riding. This is what the judges should support with high marks.

The Judge’s Role

Judges have a special responsibility as the guardians of classical training, because the rider will always show what the judge wants to see in the arena. Judges must be able to decide what is correct riding and where wrong riding starts. When a rider expects too much from his horse and the movements and basic paces/rhythm does not develop out of the correct connection, it needs to be punished with a reduction in the marks.

When judges let themselves become dazzled by movement that only looks spectacular and, if they do not analyze whether or not the Training Scale with its six elements is being fulfilled, then, yes, it is the judges who are responsible when a wrong tendency in training is encouraged. That leads riders in the wrong direction, and it harms the horse and the whole sport.

Considering the classical Training Scale, judges have to draw their attention to the fact that dressage is a gymnastic process and not pure trick training. The natural movements of the horse are supposed to be improved through dressage training. That means that the lightness, the harmony and the natural paces have to come first when marks are given. Negative and harmful practices have to be given low marks. This applies to horses ridden with too much use of the double bridle’s curb bit or the spurs. Hyperflexion horses that swish their tails a lot and those with open mouths also need to be given low marks. Trainers who advise riders to present their horses ever more spectacularly should not be rewarded with high marks by the judges if the necessary suppleness is lost as a result.

It is good that in FEI Young Horse classes the judges sit together and give five total marks (for the three gaits, submissiveness and general impression) and not mark each movement separately. With this system, judges can point out whether the horse is trained in a correct way or not, and it is easier to practice than our traditional judging system. So, I am happy that we have this special system for 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds. All FEI judges should judge these classes as often as possible to get a true feeling for the whole picture of the horse.

Sometimes we see horses (auction horses, for instance, that are trained in a spectacular way) that have stiff backs, hind legs that don’t swing under the center of gravity and front legs that swing too much in an uphill direction. If a judge sees such a horse in an arena, he or she has to give low marks. In this case, there is no true coordination between hind and front legs, and the back does not function as a swinging bridge.

Every horse has a low and high pace limit. When it moves at the lower end of the scale, the rider will not receive good scores. If the line of the higher limit is crossed, this also needs to be marked negatively. It cannot be the aim of a judge to see which horse can throw its legs highest in the air and to try to give a mark of 10 for it.

The first priority has to be to find out if the horse moves through its back and whole body. It helps to look at the rider’s face and body language. Is the rider relaxed, fully concentrated (which should go without saying)? This is demonstrated by a relaxed face and body language throughout the whole dressage test. The good rider sits with a relaxed posture throughout the extended trot without sitting against the movement.

It is also important for judges to be attentive to the horse’s body language. The horse should be positive with a relaxed face, have silent ear play and a relaxed, swaying tail. The horse should show a good silhouette from the side, which is underlined by an extended posture in the extended movements and optical growing in the collected parts, depending on the different collection degrees. The calm and frothing mouth has the function of a mirror, which shows the inner mental situation of the horse.

The horse should be in front of the rider’s driving aids, not too slow and not running away. If a rider is able to ride a trot in this way, he will not see a spectacular circus move. I wish the whole picture of a horse–its behavior and appearance, basically its personality–could be put more in the foreground of dressage tests. In the existing judging system, there is the danger that the main focus is on the individual marks and too few on the overall impression. When a judge keeps this in mind, he will be protected from being blinded too much by spectacular moves. I know myself how difficult it is to draw a line here between correct riding and over-presenting the horse. I do not know a single rider who does not love and honor his horse(s). I am convinced that all riders in the top of our sport have a special relationship with their sporting partners. If this were not the case, they would not be able to produce outstanding performances together over a long period of time.

As a judge, I have noticed that spectators, quite often, have a sensitive feel for what is harmonic and aesthetic and what has been shown correctly. The spectators show their approval about what they have seen with applause.

But, judges have to set clear standards. They have to make sure our sport develops, meaning they should give the highest scores to the more-than-average gifted horses. But, they also have to be careful that the sport does not develop into an entertainment act where the show aspect pushes itself into the foreground. If this starts to be the case, the sport runs the danger of developing in the wrong direction to the detriment of the horse, and health and soundness problems will result.

A Challenge for Change

With all this in mind, I would like to ask everyone with responsibility in our sport to cut down a bit and not exaggerate. By that I mean to not expect and demand too much of the horses. Even the expensive, well-bred horse remains a horse, and we, the humans, have to respect his needs. We have to let the horse be a horse, irrespective of our demands for his performance. We have to think our way into the horse’s nature and not try to press him into our human one.

I plead for dressage tests to include movements through which the judge is able to see if the horse is on its correct training path, such as “give and retake the reins,” “allow the reins completely” and “hold the reins in one hand.” Furthermore, walk pirouettes and flying changes of leg in the medium canter should only be found in the demanding profile of the Grand Prix.

Prize-giving ceremonies should be carried out without loud music, special light effects and other spectacular forms of entertainment for the audience. In other words, the horses should not be driven mad by the ceremony. It is the aim of our sport to please people but, if the horse is reduced to the level of a marionette only to amuse us, then the sport is going in the wrong direction.

Good riding is the greatest enjoyment on this earth for me and for many others. Riding as a harmonic pair means total joy. The level is not crucial. A good basic dressage test fills me with the same enthusiasm as a top rider’s test at the highest level. I completely disagree with trying to cover up a lack of training with spectacular performances. If we present the horse through correct, long-term classical training, the sport of dressage is on the right path, and every test can become entertainment for an audience. If we keep this high goal foremost in our minds, I see international dressage sport in a positive light with the welfare of the horse given the highest priority.

Christoph Hess is an FEI “I” dressage and eventing judge and teacher of event riders and professional riding instructors. He has worked for the German Equestrian Federation (FN) in Warendorf since 1978 and now heads the FN’s Departments of Education, Training and Personal Members. He directs judges’ and instructors’ courses in Germany and abroad, is an examiner of judges and trainers on the highest level in Germany and is the author of technical literature on equestrian sport. He lives in Warendorf with his wife, and they have three grown children.






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