Statistics only get you so far, says dressage Olympian Carl Hester
I don’t think anyone would disagree that the most difficult stepping stone in dressage is from small tour to grand prix. It is accepted that piaffe and passage, at the pinnacle of collection, are the movements that make this such a major step.
It is the reason some horses go all the way and others, however talented and trainable, are better suited to staying at small tour and perhaps being brilliant horses for young riders.
But at the top level, the doubling of the piaffe coefficient to two (hugely increasing its influence on the final score) in the new FEI tests is a worrying development.
David Stickland of Global Dressage Analytics believes the coefficient will have “a significant effect on the qualities that riders will need to bring out in their horses”.
I think there is more to it than that. David is a statistician — his calculations show that if the coefficient had been in place at the Europeans, Holland would have won gold over Germany. We would still have taken bronze.
It was the tightest imaginable margin anyway. But if the new piaffe coefficient had been in place and had reversed the result, it would have been a huge shame and not a forward step for the sport. What we achieved at the London Olympics was not only medals but also bringing harmony to the fore — and the German girls as a team did the same in Herning.
It was a huge pleasure to have Debbie MacDonald, developing dressage coach for the US Equestrian Federation — and famous for her partnership with the great Brentina — staying with us for a week.
Debbie and I had extensive discussions and ended up concerned and questioning whether this is truly what we want to see in dressage.
Why? It’s about conformation. The modern warmbloods we see at the top of the sport are not built to “sit” like Andalusians or Lusitanos.
The danger of such an emphasis on the piaffe is that it could produce winners with great trots, brilliant piaffe and passage, but less exemplary canters and walks.
The danger is that people will spend less time building the harmony, the relaxation and the paces to bring all these together to one cohesive overall picture, but will focus more on the ultra collection and piaffe.
In the past, we’ve seen horses without a good piaffe at the top. Monica Theodorescu, now German team trainer, would be the first to admit that the movement was her super-expressive Ganimedes’ weakness.
Look at Adelinde Cornelissen’s Parzival, for example, then take Rubi, ridden by Portugal’s Gonçalo Carvalho in London. It’s not about analysing what’s good or what isn’t, but looking at the differences in each horse’s make-up. To me, they have different strengths, but one (Parzival) is an all-round championship horse.
My big worry is that this new piaffe coefficient may mean we see piaffe/passage merchants that can’t walk or canter coming to the top. If you encapsulate that into the phrase “way of going”, which influences training all through the levels, this emphasis on piaffe poses a game-changing risk.
I’m by no means alone. And the game is not just about the top sport, it is about how it filters down, and how people use examples and follow them.
All this talk of the “what when why how” got me wondering how many people — including competitors — know much about dressage’s history?
The scales of training maybe, but hands up anyone who knows about de La Guérinière? Steinbrecht? Fillis?
I’m not saying I do, but having been brought up with Podhajsky (thanks Dr B — and I know I never read it then, but I have now!) my New Year’s resolution is to delve into the history of dressage.
There is so much more to this sport than just being a competitor. Of course, not all of it is good — rumour has it that that the Duke of Newcastle used to set fire to horses’ tails to create more impulsion — but wouldn’t it be great for someone to put all these fragments together?
There are BHS Fellowships and all manner of specialist training patterns at high level now. Anyone up for a PhD in dressage history?