Carl Hester: New grand prix, foreign test riders and a cross-pole for Valegro

  • With a new grand prix test coming for this year, I was thinking it was about time we changed the test more often.

    We’ve had the last one since 2009. Barring major problems in training or soundness, when horses get to grand prix aged 9 or 10, they should have at least 8 years of competitive career still ahead of them.

    Horses that reach this level are intelligent and active-minded, and if the test changed it would keep things a little more interesting.

    Has the grand prix got easier over the past 24 years? I remember my first championship grand prix at the World Equestrian Games, Stockholm, in 1990 included an extra “zag” in the zigzag, a schaukel [double rein-back], walk pirouettes and a medium canter with flying change in the middle.

    I agree that grand prix is hard at the level it’s at, but still can’t help thinking it’s easier nowadays. I’d like to see 3 grand prix tests in FEI use; certainly one for qualifying at normal CDIs and another at championships.

    Hang on to your hats

    Having discussed in my previous column how we could attract more crowds and inject more fun into the sport, my recent visit to Herning in Denmark as test rider for the young horse championship gave me a totally different view of what the “x factor” can be in the dressage world.

    First, Herning is one of the biggest equestrian events ever — bigger than Equitana and Your Horse Live. It is an indoor horseworld with a maze of halls for shopping, competitions, gradings, you name it. Whoever staged the evening gala show with pop stars, racing pigs, jumping mixed with dressage — I take my hat off to them. You got a feeling of crowd participation at its height and it was incredible!

    Foreign test riders for UK

    My daunting job as a test rider was to ride 33 horses while delivering a running commentary. I had nothing but a chinstrap and a neckstrap between what felt like a “life or death experience”, as these horses were all rising 4 or rising 5.

    I was completely unaware of the marks given for the first part of the competition — the test with their own riders a couple of days prior. The interesting factor was whether my marks would affect the original order or the outcome. This made it exciting for the crowd, who voiced their approval at having a “non-political” situation with an outsider as test rider.

    My job was to find out whether it was the horse or the rider with the talent. I was looking for completely natural paces and for self-carriage. The fun part of this was to feel which riders made their horses look a million dollars — but when the horses were left to their own devices then, well, they didn’t.

    I awarded three 10s for rideability, but there were also some low marks for horses not carrying themselves. It is worth bearing in mind if you are going to contest young horse classes that not winning at this level does not mean your horse won’t reach grand prix. It just may not be mature enough for the requirements of its age group.

    Once again, as I have been saying for years, I feel our own national championships in September need a foreign rider to test ride so we get an impartial decision. Wouldn’t it be much more exciting to fly in a top foreign rider to give it a sense of occasion and, of course, start from a blank sheet?

    Valegro to showjump?

    Jane Clark has become a great friend over the years. She supports Katherine Bateson who trains with me and, for Team GBR, Ben Maher was lucky enough to secure the ride on her lovely showjumping mare Cella.

    At the recent grand prix show in Wellington, Florida, I gave Jane a nudge and said how lucky are we that you own the world’s number 1 showjumper and I own the world’s number 1 dressage horse.

    It doesn’t sound worlds apart until you look at the FEI records on prize-money. I started adding it up until I realised that Cella, over a couple of weeks in Florida last winter, earned 4 times what Valegro earned in the whole of 2013!

    On that note I’m nipping off to pop up a cross-pole for Valegro…

    Carl’s column was first published in Horse & Hound (20 March, 2014)