Richard Davison on Tokyo 2020: ‘Tiny margins decided the medals’


  • Richard Davison, four-time dressage Olympian and former British World Class performance manager, who has been at the forefront of international dressage for more than 30 years, analyses the riding in Tokyo and explains where the freestyle was won

    CHARLOTTE DUJARDIN’S brilliant individual bronze at the Tokyo Olympics has left me on an adrenaline high. The standard of riding at the top end of the freestyle was awe-inspiring.

    What struck me about almost all of the final group of big-hitters – Charlotte, Cathrine Dufour, Isabell Werth and Jessica von Bredow-Werndl – was their maintenance of unwavering focus while under extreme pressure.

    These riders’ technical skills, competitiveness and training ability are already proven and are arguably on an equal level. So what about the qualities of their horsepower?

    Each of those four riders rode faultlessly (that does not usually occur at an Olympics) and none of those horses made any significant mistakes (equally not usual).

    So on the night, as neither the riders nor their horses could go any better, did it come down to which horse had the fewest inherent, if minute, weaknesses?

    Of course, the freestyle provides the opportunity to camouflage weaknesses to some degree within the floorplan, while also capitalising on scoring points from the horse’s strengths. And that is exactly what each of these riders did.

    So I am going to say that since the riding standard was equal and exemplary across the top four combinations, on the night each of these riders could not have produced enough extra points from their horses to have changed the order.

    Of course, improving these small weaknesses is what riders will be working on over the next months and years and it will be exciting to observe the results of this training.

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    There were many other combinations who made their mark, including our own brilliant British riders. Some might say that Lottie Fry delivered beyond expectation at her first Olympics. But I never had any doubts she would ride in her usual consistent and highly effective style. Back in time, I was on the European silver medal-winning team with her late mother, Laura. We were good friends and her loss was a personal sadness.

    Lottie has inherited her mum’s combination of total commitment, work ethic and delightful personality. But as far as Lottie now being an Olympic medallist, this credit must go to Anne and Gertjan van Olst. Not only have they nurtured her talent in the Netherlands, but they have provided an armoury of serious horsepower and become her guardian angels alongside her father Simon.

    Yet again, Carl Hester gave an exhibition of outstanding horsemanship, especially in those moments when the sensitive and inexperienced En Vogue became nervous. He has refined this mastery to the point that it is almost imperceptible and has rightly earned global recognition for it.

    He has a genuine empathy with horses and I have lost count of how many horses he has now produced to championship standard.

    This leads me to what he and Charlotte have achieved with Gio in such a short period. At only 10 years old, and with limited previous competition experience, Gio’s performances were extraordinary. Even with Charlotte’s excellent riding skills, for a horse to deliver the level of attention and compliance as he consistently did, and especially in the freestyle, leaves you wondering how that is even possible.

    I distinctly recall Charlotte’s masterclass on him at Olympia in 2019, and declaring that in my opinion we had witnessed a gold medallist in the making. He’s already staked his place on the Olympic podium. Now let’s wait and see if my prediction becomes fact in Paris.
    Among my other standout combinations were the USA’s Sabine Schut-Kery and Denmark’s Carina Cassøe Krüth.

    Quality horses, sound training and good riding was in abundance and one observation was the imperceptibility of the aids and riding style of an increasing number of the podium-challenging riders.

    In the past, we have seen trends that celebrate very effective, yet highly visible riding styles – such as obvious and industrious use of the rider’s legs or exaggerated use of the rider’s upper body – but a greater number of our top riders appear to be refining their styles. The understated use of power and impulsion, lightness and subtleness of the aids was frequently demonstrated at the top end, with Jessica being the epitome of these qualities.

    I thought most of this year’s new innovations achieved the objectives, especially the team final being decided by the grand prix special, which became a nail-biting event. But absent in the special are two technically difficult movements – the canter zig-zag and the rein-back – and it seems disproportionate to use a higher technical test for the qualifiers rather than the medal decider. Perhaps a tweak is required?

    • This exclusive column is also available to read in Horse & Hound magazine, on sale Thursday 5 August

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