Eventing dressage improving but not having more clout *H&H Plus*

  • EquiRatings figures show that dressage scores reached a record this year in international eventing. H&H spoke to riders and number-crunchers to find out what this means...

    DRESSAGE scores in eventing are improving, but extra time to focus on flatwork during lockdown did not cause an outsize drop in 2020.

    Data analytics company EquiRatings reports the average international eventing dressage score has fallen from 38.6 in 2008 to 34.6 – a new record – in 2020. But the decrease for 2020 is “on trend” with previous years, according to EquiRatings co-founder Diarmuid Byrne.

    Scores are falling at all levels and across the range of ability. This means competitors are still split by a similar spread of penalties, so the dressage has not become more influential in individual events.

    But EquiRatings co-founder and world team silver medallist Sam Watson told H&H the figures raise questions about eventing’s direction, particularly when coupled with fewer horses making the time across country at five-star level.

    “There is great benefit available by improving your dressage, but you can’t do better than go clear inside the time in the other phases,” explained Sam, pondering whether the ratio of influence of the phases is correct.

    “Progression and evolution of skills is natural – we’ve seen that in many sports. The question is how we achieve it in showjumping and cross-country.”

    Sam believes faster cross-country speeds at lower levels might help ensure horses who will excel at five-star are also rewarded through the grades.

    “If only the dressage improves, there are unintended consequences,” he said. “For example, horse types have changed and the modern event horse struggles with undulating, testing courses such as Burghley. We could end up dulling down eventing’s unique selling point.”

    Chinese Olympic rider Alex Hua Tian (pictured) questioned whether riders’ abilities in the showjumping and cross-country have also improved while courses have gradually increased in technicality.

    “I think the current balance of phases is right for the type of horse that we are currently producing – the best judge is the quality of sport and the recent five-stars have been incredible,” he told H&H.

    Alex believes faster cross-country at the lower levels should be explored, but with caution: “Sam is right that we should be producing horses that can excel at the higher levels in terms of endurance, but at lower levels the sport has to cater for juniors and one-horse amateurs – do we want to encourage riders who may be riding one cross-country round a month to go faster?”

    Five-star eventing dressage judge Sue Baxter said the benefits of having extra time to work on correct basics in 2020 should be seen in 2021.

    “Developing topline strength, increased flexibility and balance should improve agility in all phases, making for safer cross-country rounds,” she told H&H. “The four-penalty dressage improvement from 2008 to 2020 only equates to one showjumping rail.

    “When the dressage leader jumps double clear it doesn’t make it a dressage competition, they deserve to win.

    “At the higher levels, more mistakes in the jumping phases create more changes to the leaderboard. At lower levels, increasing the cross-country speed for immature horses and amateur riders who are learning doesn’t make sense on safety or welfare grounds.”

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