With the 2012 U.S. dressage team now selected, our columnist is already thinking of ways to make the next team even stronger.
Of all sports, I think dressage most resembles life. The seasons are long; defeat is familiar. Repetition eventually, but sometimes painfully slowly, makes you and your horse perform better. It’s not necessarily fun or safe all the time. And just as things start to jell, the preparation feels right, and the goal is in sight, the horse comes up lame.
Life as a professional can be a rollercoaster ride, since we’re dependent on the health and progress of our ever-changing equines. And still, as frustrating as it can be, it’s all worth it when that flying change that was so difficult is suddenly easy and clean, the piaffe truly feels like a trot in place, and the connection is reliable.
After accompanying our elite riders around the country and the world in my role as U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Technical Advisor, observing, training, criticizing and praising them, I have a good grasp of the state of our dressage union. This country is blessed with lots of talent, has a sizable population of people passionate about dressage and a fair amount of gifted horses. But when Americans look for international success, there are some definite obstacles that hinder us from competing against the Europeans on a level playing field.
To start with, there is the “lack of proximity,” because of the size of our country, which greatly complicates our ability to work and learn together. With the notable exception of the intense four-month Florida season, we don’t have sufficient numbers of shows available over the year, or country wide, for the riders to get in the ring often enough. As a result, they don’t get enough practice and can think of every show as a huge event. In Europe, the strongest competitive countries are so close to each other that it’s never more than a day trip to reach a competition, and there are plenty of choices as to where to show.
Americans are horse poor and ring rusty compared to our European counterparts. By that I mean that each accomplished rider here usually is limited to one FEI competition horse. Although we aren’t to blame for our huge distances, this situation is at least partially our own fault.
We have a number of viable professionals and past U.S. team riders who didn’t try out for the Olympics this year and are not even competing at the FEI levels. These riders aren’t retired from competition; they’re busy training and teaching. So busy, in fact, that for years they appear to have had no time or interest in producing new horses coming up the ranks. It looks like some successful riders are simply waiting for a sponsor to insert a ready made Grand Prix horse under their seats, while they are too occupied or unmotivated to school their own.
Riders have learned from the past that they can get on our team on prefab horses, mostly imported from Europe. Sometimes they could even get a medal. But that was yesterday, and a new age is dawning, where to play at the very top you need a close, ongoing relationship with your horse. What made the magic disappear for quite a while when Totilas was sold? The stallion looked, moved and performed all his exercises basically the same as before, but the chemistry that existed between horse and rider when he was piloted by Edward Gal had evaporated. And why weren’t we surprised? Wasn’t the reason we became involved with dressage, which means training, the fact that there is training involved?
Admittedly it takes time, money, tears, disappointments and lots of sacrifice in other areas to produce just one Grand Prix horse from “scratch.” I know the drill since I’m on my 16th green Grand Prix horse. For sure, all my past horses were not stars, but one, Metallic, was on two U.S. medal teams. Although in the end, you may not have a Uthopia or a Totilas, you could be out there competing on the international circuit, gaining experience and giving us much needed visibility overseas.
On the 2011 Pan American gold-medal team, we had four U.S.-trained horses, and two of them were U.S.-bred. Paragon was born under the watchful eye of his rider-owner Heather Blitz, and there is no mistaking that they have a very close relationship. Hopefully it will also serve our present Olympic team well that all our riders have been long-time partners with their mounts.
Keep The Pipelines Flowing
We desperately need many more horse/rider combinations like that to create depth, but immediately the question of who or what will finance this program comes to mind. It’s easy to point to Isabell Werth and praise her proficiency in bringing horses along when she has a fabulous backer like Madeleine Winter-Schulze! It’s not all about solid sponsorship, however. Some capable and educated riders who have financial backing haven’t necessarily produced new horses, while people who had to tough it out themselves have.
Any rider who is serious about staying in the game has to be busy creating a pipeline of horses to keep her/him in the ring and available for Games to come. The best way is to attempt to acquire affordable young horses, since there are very few even partially trained horses out there worth the enormous prices they command. And there is always the option of bartering training for the ride on a great prospect, which benefits all parties. We have many accomplished and experienced riders without a horse who would welcome a partnership with an owner or breeder! Now, when we have an educational system of national coaches in place, we need to have the horses to train and the riders willing to do the work.