Aachen’s chief steward speaks out over “bad” dressage riding

CHIO Aachen Chief Steward Jacques Van Daele.
CHIO Aachen Chief Steward Jacques Van Daele. © CHIO Aachen

As the world’s best dressage riders converge on Germany for the CHIO Aachen, the event’s chief steward has spoken out about the evolution of the sport, and how he approaches “horse-unfriendly” riding.

Last year’s CHIO (Concours Hippique International Officiel) Aachen impressed spectators with fantastic sport and fair riding — almost without exception. But there was also criticism about scenes in the warm-up area that blew up on social media.

“Not everything was right last year, we reacted too late on one occasion and that was my fault,” said CHIO Aachen’s Chief Steward Jacques Van Daele, of Belgium.

“If somebody doesn’t ride fairly, we will discuss the matter. Not afterwards, but indeed immediately.”

This year, spectators can expect heightened visibility of stewards, and prompt action, Van Daele says.

“The most important thing will be to make it clear that we are actually doing something. [Last year] the spectators probably thought: ‘They are just sitting around.’ This year the stewards are going to be wearing bibs so that they are immediately recognisable.”

What are your tasks in your capacity as Chief Steward?
Accompanying the riders – being there, in the stables, on the warm-up areas and the routes in-between. Watching and supervising everything that happens there.

What form do these controls take on?
That is clearly stated in the regulations. It is laid down what is allowed and what isn’t. If everyone sticks to the rules it is simple.

And? And does everyone abide by the rules?
Today, the situation is clear, the dressage sport has developed further, it has changed. A too-low neck position is no longer accepted, not by the press and definitely not by the public. The equestrians simply don’t ride the same way they did 20 years ago. Most of the riders have long since understood this. But I must say: Unfortunately, not all of them. And we have to work on this together.

So you are saying, the riders are aware that the sport has changed?
Yes, of course! Sure! In most countries.

The warm-up arena in from of Aachen's Deutsche Bank Stadium has been transformed. 
The warm-up arena at Aachen’s Deutsche Bank Stadium, pictured before last year’s event. © Martin Stockberg

But that also means: Not everywhere yet?
There are still exceptions. A few people are not quite convinced yet – but that will come in time! I will continue to stay cool and talk to the few riders concerned. And if it really doesn’t work, then we have to take a different approach – which I don’t like to have to do at all.

That means …
… that I did in fact have a few difficulties with riders in the past. They didn’t understand why they had been shown a yellow card. In that case, I try to explain why. I take plenty of time to do so, an hour, an hour and a half. They don’t have to agree with what I say, but they at least have to listen to why I have said: “Excuse me …”. We are not enemies, but when things go too far, they go too far.

Can you describe your work in practice?
Talking, talking, talking. The people I work together with are the riders. We talk a lot and often. Not always on the practice areas, also in the stables and after or before the warm-up. And if I can spend a weekend without cautioning anyone or handing out any yellow cards, then we all find it much better.

Should the stewards perhaps reactive more offensively? In other words, intervene more strongly? Already showing the yellow card on the warm-up area? To also signal to the outside world that something is happening?
We do intervene, react and also let the riders know that. But yes, perhaps we haven’t demonstrated that clearly enough to the outside. I always say to my stewards: “Don’t shout! Go over and say what has to be said.” And if that doesn’t help – then I am there. I am always there.

Your creed is talking to each other?
Yes, that helps so much. There are riders, who I get on very well with, but there are also difficult riders. It is not always just easy – it can sometimes be hard.

Does your training as a criminal investigation detective help you deal with these difficult cases?
Yes, a great deal, indeed.

Because one lets the other person finish speaking …
And respects and listens to him! Instead of just preparing the answer, without really listening. Namely, that is when one starts arguing. If the people are worked up, I say: “Wait half an hour and then we will talk. That works in 90 per cent of the cases. For me integrity is the most important attribute – say what one does, and do what one says.

Are you looking forward to the CHIO?
Of course! Why not? You know, last year wasn’t my highlight, but it would be wrong to quit now. That is not my style. I can only do my work as well as I can and try to motivate everyone in the team to do the same. And if a rider says a simple “thank you” before heading home. Just “thank you” – then I am happy. Then, I always respond: “Don’t thank me. Thank my team!”

» The CHIO Aachen World Equestrian Festival runs from July 12 to July 21. Dressage starts on July 17.

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