What’s new at the national dressage championships?

  • As dressage ed at Horse & Hound for five years now, returning to Stoneleigh every September for the nationals feels like coming home. The familiarity of the creaky white plastic gate into the arena that falls off its hinges every time you open it makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. There’s still too many horses in the warm-up, and I still get told off by the officials for standing in there to interview riders. It’s all part of the fun.

    The event is a week earlier this year — moved so as not to clash with the Pope’s visit. The Pope is now not visiting. Fickle these church leaders. But he’s done dressage fans a favour, since this way we at least get to see some of our WEG riders at their national championship, be it in competition or demonstrations. I’ll drop the fact that I wish it was earlier still and they were all contesting the grand prix on their team horses.

    So what else is new at Stoneleigh? There appears to be more trade stands — my favourite is selling covetable Argentine belts, pony/yak handbags and purses made of gerbil/hamster. And there’s a nice farmers’ market type food stall. I’ll leave H&H columnist Pammy Hutton to mark these out of 10. Plus, we have a new pavilion…

    The class landscape is really laid out around these two 20x60m arenas. You’ve got high society in their individual marquees, clinking champagne flutes and guffawing loudly, attracting the attention of the proletariat through the drizzel from their uncovered grandstand. This year, we have a new bourgeois area called The National Pavilion. Here, for an additional £20, you can enjoy two glasses of vino and complimentary tea in slightly closer proximity to the champagne coiffeurs, under cover. Which is nice. Seriously. I’m not knocking it. I haven’t tried it, mind. The press are only allowed in there three at a time. I assumed this was to deter journos from gathering en masse, getting tipsy and anarchic, but evidently it’s so that they don’t smother the riders. This seems unfeasible seeing as there aren’t three journalists here who actually do interviews.

    But no matter. H&H news writer and racing aficionado Amy Mathieson dropped by today. She pointed out how lucky we are to be able to access the riders at all — unlike in racing where it’s impossible to sidle up to a jockey, never mind getting two words out of him when you get there. And she’s right. What is awesome about these championships is their inherent accessibility, whatever attempts the management make at segregation. How many other sports host national championships where decent amateurs can ride alongside Olympians? Warming up in the same arena, stabling next door and even enjoying coffee and bacon sarnies from the same van?

    There’s been long standing debate as to how to make this situation fair. ”We want to compete against Carl Hester, but we also want a chance of winning”, cry the working riders. In a members’ meeting on Thursday night (stay with me) British Dressage officials Linda Whetstone and Sara Green discussed at length (and again, stay with me here) how the restricted versus open — amateur versus professional — divide could be made fairer for those who don’t ride 10 horses a day and don’t have ”dressage-bred” wunderhorses. But I’d say in the novice today there was proof they’ve got it about right…

    Top eventer and judge Christian Landolt won the novice open on his continental purchase Don Jovi, while young events organiser Rachel Taylor topped the restricted on native Welsh Tirelyn Sportsman. Don Jovi is 16.1hh of fire-breathing, mega-moving, power house. Tirelyn Sportsman is 15.1hh of docile, charming, flamboyance. Don Jovi is so hot and edgy — as so many geniuses are — that he couldn’t attend the prize giving for bolting and Christian had to reverse him back to the stables. The horse needs this sharpness, he’s being aimed at Rio Olympics. ”Sporty”, on the other hand, stood like a lamb for his prize giving, and gave his amateur rider the thrill of her year. ”I never expected to win here and beat these types of horses,” Rachel said.

    But beat them she did. Natives — une points. Amateurs — une points. So that’s two riders, both at the top of their game, both on very different mounts, both national champions, both on the same pitch and yet still on level playing fields. Fantastic. And how brilliant that the judges are marking what’s in front of them, rather than going by the form or the status quo. That’s what is new at the national championships. And it’s really great to see — wherever you are sitting.

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