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From Novice to Grand Prix: Can one horse excel at all levels?

February 14, 2007


Article © 2007
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picture: Cindi Bell

Imagine the perfect young dressage horse: athletic, beautiful, with a wonderful trainable temperament. As this model of perfection works steadily through to grand prix, it should surely be totally successful at each and every level, yes? Surely the top horse should be a winning novice, a winning medium, winning advanced?

And yet I cannot ever remember seeing this happen, in any country. The horses winning at low level rarely go on to be successful in advanced; those who become top advanced horses rarely do well at low level. Even top horses at Prix St George level rarely make the transition to top Grand Prix.

Looking at the results at Aachen four years ago, the winner of the PSG (with the best test at that level I've ever seen), Karin Rehbein's Cherie, has not made an impact at GP; indeed, I'm only aware of two or three horses even making the step up. One exception: the horse who came 23rd out of 27 that year has been pretty good ... Anky's Salinero.

Closer to home, in 1999 there were three super PSG horses at the Sydney CDI: Rasputin, HRH, and Kudo; none of them made the transition to GP successfully.

So why is this? Is there something wrong with the assumption that this should be possible, or something wrong with the training, or with the judging? Or does it simply require a different kind of horse to compete well at GP?

One reason is the time taken for a horse to reach GP level, compared with the rather limited working life of the horse. It takes most horses several years to reach GP; once that is achieved, we are only half way there, as it takes as long to make the GP work its best as it does to get to GP.

A few years ago there was a trend to train to GP extraordinarily quickly - I knew horses performing piaffe, passage and one-time changes as five or even (in a couple of cases) four-year-olds; a six-year-old competed in the Los Angeles Olympics.

But now we treat these antics as an ego trip for the rider, to the long-term detriment of the horse. Let's say that it takes four years to touch GP level, and another four years for the work to become comfortable and powerful.

This suggests that the GP horse is reaching its peak at about 12 years old; it can then stay at this level for several years. This is what we see in Europe. I suggest that if the horse is to be GP in 4 years it does not have the time to be successful at each level throughout its training: to be ahead of its competitors at each level, the horse needs to spend long enough at that level to be quite comfortable, at ease with all the competition test requirements, and thoroughly stable.

This takes time, and this kind of stability contributes nothing to the long-term goal of success at GP: it not only delays getting to GP but can actually harm the training process, as this stability can result in the horse feeling "stuck in a rut" both physically and mentally, and so resent or struggle with the changes needed to get to GP. In order to be trained to advanced the horse needs a degree of instability; it needs to feel free to alter, to experiment with balance, energy and shape; this instability is not exactly what is required to be successful at lower levels.

And I don't think there is time to take to a level - stabilise at that level - compete successfully - destabilise to take to the next level - and so on.

What about the types of horses which are successful at the different levels?

It does seem that the type of horse often winning at lower levels has the kind of calm temperment and strong rhythm which can make the GP movements difficult: the great GP horse is often rather "hot" and sensitive, whereas the top lower level horse is usually calmer, more placid, often with the strong rhythm which makes piaffe difficult, and generally without the "fire" to attack the GP test.

Look at the movements in the tests at the different levels: the percentage of the movements asked for in the different gaits are as follows:

It is pretty obvious from this that to win a lower level test we should choose a horse with a magnificent trot, but for a GP horse we need a great canter and piaffe/passage. It is a rare beast which is equally strong in all paces, and so we should expect different results at different levels.

There are other reasons why successful lower level horses do not train on to be top GP horses: one is that this early success is often (and increasingly) due more to the innate talent of the horse rather than its training; a horse with a calm nature, strong rhythm, and good natural balance will usually beat a better trained but less talented one. But the higher the test level, the less likely it is that talent will compensate for incorrect training.

What influence do the judges have on this? Should they be marking up these perhaps erratic horses who are on a path to GP, or marking up the stable ones who will probably never get there? Are they "getting it wrong"? Before we can answer this, we need to do some investigating about the nature of judging. To judge, we have to compare what we see with an image in our minds of either a perfect test or of an acceptable test at that level, and then mark and comment accordingly. But who is or was responsible for planting that image in our minds?

Ultimately this comes back to representatives of the official body, the FEI, which is responsible for running the competition sport. For almost a century the FEI have been deciding on what is acceptable at the top end, Grand Prix: there are different routes to get to GP, but great agreement amongst the different schools of thought - the schools of Germany, Spain, Portugal, Sweden etc - about the finished article.

In order to have a sport at levels below GP we need to agree on one kind of way of training - can you imagine the mess we'd be in if every judge expected horses to be worked using completely different methods? - (it's bad enough now, even though we're supposed to be singing from the same song-sheet...) and it seems to be just a historical accident that the method chosen was that promoted by the influential schools of Germany and Vienna, called the Central European School (sometimes called the German School).

I think that dressage today would be very different if those early FEI members had been students of, say, the Portuguese school of riding.

So judges are, and have to be, trained along a particular school or type of training, a method which has proven to produce work that most of us enjoy - horses working calmly, confidently, athletically, and so on.

But there are other methods which, in the hands of skillful riders, may produce better GP horses, as Anky has proved, and these methods may not produce results which conform with what is conventionally acceptable at lower levels. (It seems to me that what terrifies the Germans about Anky is not the fact that she's winning - other non-Germans have won internationally without creating the angst that she does - but rather that she is putting serious dents in this hitherto accepted Central European method).

If a horse were to win at all levels, it would indicate that not only does it have great talent at all paces, is both "hot" and stable, but that it has been trained along exactly the lines that the judges at all levels are wanting to see - and all this is quite a tall order. Therefore I do not believe that judges have "got it wrong", but rather we should recognize two things: firstly, that they are judging one particular style of training; secondly, the assumption that success at all levels is not only possible, but highly desirable (a philosophy totally widespread when I started dressage) is really based on very shaky ground.

I am sure that one day a freaky horse and rider will come along who will win firstly all the young horse classes, then its national lower level championships, the international Prix St Georges and finally top Grand Prix.

But that hasn't happened yet.

However, we must be honest with our training of potential GP horses and not use the argument that to get to the top they need not win at all levels to excuse bad training: after all, horses can fail to win for all sorts of reasons, some trivial, some serious. And I'm quite sure that 100 different trainers will give 100 different versions of what constitutes a "serious" fault, and which are "trivial".

It's really quite fun to be in a sport riddled with such confusion and controversy ...



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