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On the scene at the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final

Monday, September 1, 2014

Thanks, but I Think I'll Stick with Dressage

Adrienne Lyle of the USA rewards Wizard for his strong WEG Grand Prix team performance in a downpour. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

The first half of the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games has drawn to a close, and I've been surprised at how many of my journalist colleagues have said this WEG will be their last.

On further reflection, I'm not all that surprised. For one, attending is frightfully expensive, and a lot of us (including yours truly) are freelancers, meaning that we pay our own way.

But there's more to it than financial considerations. Equestrian journalists are, on the whole, horse people, and some are getting fed up with what they see in some of the disciplines.

One common sentiment: "I've had it with endurance." This sport has come under fire in recent years, with numerous allegations of doping, injuries, and shady equine-welfare practices, much of it focusing on Middle Eastern competitors. A widely circulated photo of an apparently emaciated endurance horse at a FEI-sanctioned 160-km event in May provoked outrage.

The mess is political, too, as so many messes seem to be: One of the competitors and horse owners who has undergone scrutiny, Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, is married to Princess Haya, president of the International Equestrian Federation (FEI). Haya herself convened a task force to come up with ways to clean up the sport -- now that's gotta be awkward. Necessary, but awkward.
Classy move: Eventing competitor Nicola Wilson of Great Britain reassures Annie Clover as ring crew reassembles the show-jumping fence she refused. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Now to eventing. I have an uneasy relationship with this discipline, at least at the top levels. On the one hand, as a former eventer myself, I have a fondness for the sport. A keen event horse loves his job and is a blast to ride, and event riders are the ne plus ultra of horsemen: They are down there in the muck with everybody else, they know every inch of their mounts, and their horse-management skills are superb.

On the other hand, eventing has always been a dangerous sport (ask me about the horses and riders who nearly drowned at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics). Sensibilities have changed in past decades, and the general public no longer tolerates reports of horse injuries or deaths; the advent of social media has a lot to do with that, of course.

Reacting to the outcry, the FEI has changed the makeup of top-level three-day events by removing the roads-and-tracks and the steeplechase portions of the cross-country phase. That's either a good thing or a terrible thing, depending on whose opinion you listen to. And xc fences are now constructed using frangible pins in an effort to reduce the number of catastrophic rotational falls. But course designers have to challenge competitors somehow, and so xc courses have become more and more technical -- almost like stadium-jumping courses set over natural terrain. The obstacles themselves are bearing less resemblance to traditional xc fences -- logs and gates and ditches and so forth -- and instead skew toward the weird, the wacky, and the super-skinny. (Check out Eventing Nation's 2014 WEG virtual course walk and you'll see what I mean.)

Some of these super-tricky courses seem not to have been designed with much tolerance for poor footing -- which we had in abundance at Haras du Pin at the WEG, so much so that wags dubbed the 2014 WEG xc "the Woodstock of eventing." When such veteran competitors as Olympic team gold medalist Phillip Dutton retire or are eliminated, is the course too difficult for the conditions, or are the horses insufficiently prepared, as some allege? I don't know the answer, but for some additional food for thought, read the award-winning British journalist Pippa Cuckson's column about Badminton 2014.

The other equestrian discipline featured during week 1 of the 2014 WEG was reining. I'd watched reining competition at the 2010 WEG in Kentucky, but before Normandy I'd never seen the warm-up. Let me preface this by stating that the top competitors I saw weren't engaging in questionable practices, but those of you who decry "rollkur" in dressage had better keep away from reining. Some horses' chins were on their chests. Post-sliding stop, some riders jerked the reins sideways -- why, I couldn't tell. One horse opened its mouth wide, in obvious pain, every time the rider touched the reins.

In the competition arena, one reining horse's front legs buckled so badly after it stopped that I (and other journalists) feared it might go down. And from the lesser competitors, the lack of a horse-rider connection was almost palpable: There was plenty of machismo and showboating for the audience, but not so much as a pat for the horse.

So although I dislike our sport's "dressage queens" and know that whenever an animal is involved the possibility of abuse exists, on the whole dressage and para-equestrian dressage are two disciplines that appear to be going in the right direction. The judging standard is increasing, meaning not only higher scores but a renewed emphasis on harmony between horse and rider. The brilliant, tense, explosive, non-halting tests of yesteryear no longer cut it.

I can't vouch for every single competitor at the WEG, but the top riders I talked to expressed concern for their horses' well-being and pride in their training. They're critical of themselves, happy with their mounts, and the scores and medals are secondary. OK, I know they weren't here for a fun outing, and these people have a mean competitive streak, but a sense of horsemanship comes through -- of not having lost sight of the reason they started riding in the first place.
WEG individual Grand Prix Special and Freestyle silver medalists Helen Langehanenberg and Damon Hill NRW of Germany. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

As Grand Prix Special and Freestyle individual silver medalist Helen Langehanenberg said of her mount, Damon Hill NRW: "He has the best character someone can have. He’s absolutely honest and he’s the best.”

Langehanenberg thinks her horse is the best in the world. I happen to think my horse is the best in the world. And that's the way it should be. For if we don't love them and do our best for them, all the medals in the world are just so many pieces of meaningless tin.

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