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Dressage training in New Zealand - the way forward

July 20, 2007

Article © 2007
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picture: Cindi Bell

Some 20 years ago in Britain the dressage scene was fairly septic: unhappy riders, insecure, jealous trainers manically trying to maintain their flocks of pupils, everyone gleeful to see others in trouble, no shared joy in the success of others ... remind you of anywhere? But then something remarkable happened.

Several times I've mentioned that the weak link in NZ dressage is the lack of first-hand experience of the trainers; this was exactly the same situation that bedevilled British dressage for many years; in some ways the situation was even worse there, since the trainers could - and were encouraged by senior trainers to so do - mask this lack by buying (or more usually having bought for them ...) advanced horses. (Over the last decade this has changed, with a few trainers bucking this trend and shooting ahead by producing their own advanced horses, with great success.)

I was not alone in this view, and one amazing person did more than merely bleat about it, she had the drive and the finance to do something positive. She was the late Lady Elizabeth Joicey, for many years a leading figure in British dressage, and herself a world championship rider. The remarkable thing that she did was to establish, fund and manage a scheme to give the top trainers the opportunity to improve. The Joicey Scheme funded 12 top trainers to travel around Europe as a group 3 or 4 times a year to visit leading trainers, or go to the top competitions; we would spend a few days watching, talking, discussing ... this went on for several years.

The principle behind the scheme was very simple: she recognized that the trainers needed input for ongoing development, not just technical input but that professional business input would also be invaluable.

It is very difficult for me to assess the degree to which these aims were met. The scheme came at a time when most of us were developing our methods and skills, and so technically it was bound to have some impact: it came when we were at a very receptive stage. But talking to the others over what we'd seen on any particular day was quite a revelation; on some occasions I thought we were on different planets; I think that trainers (I'm not sure whether this applies only to trainers) are very selective about what we see - we see often only what we want to see. (Is this why trainers make fairly poor judges??).

From a business standpoint it gave us the opportunity to see how this huge European dressage industry operated, and the trainers' role in this; the difference in scale, funding, resources, opportunities etc between Britain and say Germany are about as great as the differences beween NZ and Britain. We could also see the downside of the continental system: the incredible wealth of the top competitors and professionals made it a difficult world to live in; there were great ethical question marks over the work in many, many places: abuse and wastage of both horses and riders was commonplace.

But if the technical benefits of the Joicey Scheme were a little uncertain, it did have one huge unforseen benefit: in thrusting us together as a group, living together, wining and dining together, we got to know each other, began to respect and trust each other as people, even began to help each other with our horses. This had a knock-on effect throughout the British dressage scene: as the trainers shared more time, and more laughs, with each other, so did their pupils; so many of the self-imposed barriers melted away, leaving a sport more as it should be: people enjoying the shared struggle to produce good work, and enjoying each other's company.

Related to all this was realisation that success is not finite or limited - in other words, the realisation that if A was successful, that did not have to mean that B could not be ... that if the country as a whole improved, then each trainer's portion of the cake could improve also.

I was reminded of all this recently when discussing the scene with a leading Australian rider, who said that in his part of Australia at least (NSW), the atmosphere had improved hugely.

Riders and trainers were much more comfortable with one another ... it sounded like a replica of the UK scene. What had produced this change? He wasn't quite certain, but the impact of Ulla Salzgeber as national coach certainly has played an important part. Just imagine the impact of having an Olympic medallist coming regularly to the country! In addition to the expected technical developments, there would be the unifying effects of having someone with such huge mana around whom the elite riders can focus, someone who has the personality and proven track record and can thus apply a training system which would be willingly adopted by the riders ...

Could we do anything similar in NZ? The first question would be: could we get a trainer of sufficient calibre to be acceptable to all riders and coaches here? My guess is, fairly certainly, no: I have no idea what Ulla is being paid, but I would guess a hell of a lot, far more than we could afford; and then we add to that the dilemma that such a trainer would probably not be able to afford the time to come here, and the prospects look gloomy.

To have a second-rate trainer would be of no unifying value; remember the Graucho Marx philosophy? "I do not wish to belong to any club which would accept me as a member".

The sort of trainer we would want would be precisely the trainer who would not want to or be able to come.

So, if we cannot get a top trainer here, is there any other way we could unify the sport? I believe there is. Suppose that we did not even try to get the kind of technical help the Joicey Scheme provided, but went instead straight to some sort of social/motivational/bridge-building association for our trainers.

Would this be possible? Would this be beneficial? Here I'm on shaky ground, for I have no first-hand knowledge of how these practices work in modern businesses, or whether they could be applied to dressage trainers. I have certainly heard about these kinds of activities amongst top-level employees, and my guess is that they would work for us. I am very confident that if we could get the trainers working with one another, the impact on dressage here would be fantastic. So surely we should try?

What would it need to set up such a scheme? The first thing would be to show the trainers that there is some reason to have it, some need, some tangible benefit to be had from it. Horse folk, like most in the world, are fairly conservative - we still compete in advanced in 19th century garb (top hat and tail coats ...) using a crude relic of bygone eras as a bridle (double bridle ...) (I proposed in public many years ago in the UK that more flamboyant, modern clothing should be permitted, and also that the double be banished to the dustbin of history ... well, the old guard were apopleptic with rage, anyone would have thought that I'd suggested killing off all boys under two, or invading Poland ...)

Of the trainers I've discussed this scheme with, most immediately can see the possible long-term benefits, but some cannot see beyond the lack of immediate short-term gain. In order for the scheme to work, most if not all of the leading trainers need to be aboard, and so some inducement to encourage these innately conservative souls needs to be developed.

One idea that I'm interested in pursuing further is for dressage to partially employ the top trainers - this stipend could be in exchange for regional courses, for instance; this would give HQ some leverage over the trainers - a gentle piece of blackmail. If management is smart this stipend could actually make money for dressage, if these regional courses are run on a user-pay basis ... and it gives dressage a chance to plan them in a rational, logical, progressive way.

The next thing the scheme would need would be someone to be the central figure, someone of undeniable mana, perhaps a top sporting icon or a leading political or business leader. To run a scheme "in house", without a figurehead, would seem to me to be a recipe for disaster. To persuade a leading figure to take us under his or her wing would be an interesting challenge ...

And, of course, to run a scheme such as this would require ... money.

Oh dear, back to the drawing board ...


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