Global Dressage Forum: Training the Happy Horse

Movers and shakers meet at the annual Global Dressage Forum to discuss the future of the sport and define the happy horse athlete.
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Movers and shakers meet at the annual Global Dressage Forum to discuss the future of the sport and define the happy horse athlete.

Judges, riders, scientists, trainers, breeders, sponsors and horse owners from over 20 countries have developed the October habit of assembling at The Academy in Hooge Mierde, the Netherlands, for the Global Dressage Forum. The sport of dressage honors tradition and history perhaps more than any other, but if changes do occur, they will begin at this gathering.

?Practical Horseman. All Rights Reserved.

?Practical Horseman. All Rights Reserved.

The fourth Global Dressage Forum, held October 25-26, 2004, focused its attention on developing the sport globally and training the "happy athlete" at all levels. Joep Bartels, director of The Academy, and his team organize this yearly gathering, and moderator Richard Davison, with his talk-show-host capabilities, keeps the dialogue lively and friendly.

The forum begins with David Hunt, president of the International Dressage Trainers Club (IDTC). "The forum is about all parts of the sport coming together and moving in the direction that we want to go," he says.

Mariette Withages, chair of the F?d?ration Equestre Internationale (FEI) Dressage Committee, says, "We want fairness, especially to the horse. We want 'transparency' so spectators and the media understand our sport. To that end, at major competitions we have made the judges' scores immediately available. Many shows have earphones and commentary, and the judges are present at press conferences. A handbook in CD form is in its eighth draft and will be available soon."

Since some think our competition attire is old-fashioned, Withages announces that "A fashion show is planned for the end of 2005 to consider a different uniform." A wild idea? That's what the Global Forum is all about--far-reaching ideas.

Day One: The FEI World Dressage Challenge to Develop the Sport
The FEI World Dressage Challenge started in 1997 in response to International Olympic Committee (IOC) concern for the globalization, universality and media interest in each Olympic sport. The FEI wants to be sure that our sport meets the IOC's requirements. So, the program begins with FEI Sports Director Michael Stone. He is on a mission to raise the standard in "non-European" countries, making dressage a truly global sport.

The FEI determined that throughout the world there were too many judges and officials and not enough competitions and well-trained horses. Therefore, the FEI set out to train horses and riders, develop more regional competitions and increase the number of National Federations (NFs). Today, there are nine FEI regions, and NFs have increased by 17 percent in the past five years. To help with worldwide standardizing, the FEI has also provided developing nations with clinics for horses and riders and accredited coaches for their competitions.

Developing Young Dressage Horses
Ullrich Kasselmann founded Performance Sales International (PSI) with Paul Schockemoehle 25 years ago. Since then, they have sold 1,100 horses for a total of 128 million euro (about $169 million). His company, Hof Kasselmann, owns 180 horses and employs 45 people. Kasselmann selects horses based on gaits, soundness and development of a hind leg that comes under and carries weight naturally.

Kasselmann's horses are kept busy building trust in people. First, the horses start as 3-year-olds on the single longe. Then, they work under saddle and in the double longe, learning to work from behind and search for the bit. Balance, he says, is the key to their success.

He shows us a 3-year-old and some 4-year-olds. They are supple, active and rhythmic. They are active without getting short in the neck. The riders demonstrate ?berstreichen by giving the reins often. Horses are asked to lengthen the stride without becoming fast, and then they stretch, doing many centerlines and halts. Finally, they stand quietly and are rewarded.

A 5-year-old who qualified for the German Championships and is winning L classes shows us shoulder-in, voltes and counter canter. He is forward, energetic and elastic in the back. He stretches in canter and shows correct flexion and clear bend with an inside open rein. The canter is balanced so they show flying changes, then some half steps with help from the ground. They praise him, and then he does a centerline and halts for the audience.

During discussions at the end of the day, a rider at the World Championship for Young Horses says that the judges want to see a high neck. Withages expresses concern. She says a 6-year-old can do Prix St. Georges, so a Prix St. Georges frame should be acceptable--but what about a Grand Prix frame? She says some of them were in a Grand Prix frame. The rider is quick. He asks, "Where did they place?" No one really knows the answer, and it's time for lunch. The question is never resolved, but Withages' point is well understood.

Day Two: "Happy Athlete"
Scientists, riders, trainers, breeders and judges seek to define the "happy athlete," which is the goal as stated in the FEI Rule Book.

From the breeder:
Dirk Willem Rosie represents the Dutch breeders and begins by quoting Conrad Schumacher: "Two thirds of the Grand Prix horse comes from within." Rosie continues, "I think Schumacher is right. We must breed for temperament--not just movement and conformation." According to a survey done by his breed magazine, the qualities of perseverance and zealousness are strongly correlated with the best dressage horses. However, Rosie claims that horses experience "happiness" physically, so he asserts that horses built to do the job with the most ease will be the happiest. If that is the case, he claims that the happiest horses are those with:

  • Long legs,
  • An uphill build,
  • Femurs with more slope (because it places the hind leg under more),
  • A long humerus with at least a 90-degree angle that allows shoulder freedom,
  • A pelvis that is flat because it is more flexible and, therefore, helpful for piaffe and passage.

Rosie quotes scientists, including Dr. Hilary Clayton, adding that the better horses demonstrate two more characteristics: flexion of the elbow joint greater than 30 degrees and positive advanced diagonal placement--the diagonal pair does not strike the ground together, but the hind strikes first, which makes the hind leg become strong faster.

From the scientist:
Dr. Eric van Breda of the Netherlands specializes in comparative human and equine training and exercise physiology. With extraordinary humor, he describes the needs of dancers and athletes for suppleness, coordination, endurance, speed and strength.

We learn that it takes 10 years to excel in anything. Further, it takes eight to 12 years of athletic training for a talented athlete to excel. He backs his claim by describing the Law of Reduced Profit. That is, it takes a short time to improve by 10 percent, longer for the next 10 percent, even longer for the next and so on. A further limitation is the genetic ceiling by which all but the most talented are limited.

Addressing the "happy athlete" issue, he says that happiness in a horse is different from happiness in humans. He says that the measurement of the horse's "happiness" should be made at home in his stall without the stress of competition.

From the trainer:
Kyra Kyrklund points out that "happy" refers to the horse's mental comfort and "athlete" refers to his physical comfort. Putting it together, she outlines the horse's needs as:

  • Food, water, shelter,
  • Absence of pain,
  • Exercise,
  • Mental relaxation,
  • Performance at a competitive level without undue stress.

Kyrklund is the perfect trainer to give the "happy horse" presentation because by nature she has always sought to treat the horse as a horse, understand that he is not a machine and know that the ends do not justify the means. "The horse does not see the big picture," she reminds us. "He lives from day to day and doesn't plan for the future. So the happy horse needs to be happy day to day."

Kyrklund discusses the horse's mental zones during training: the comfort zone, the stretch zone and the panic zone. "We never learn if we always stay in the comfort zone, but the panic zone becomes counterproductive," she says. "All training is pressure and release." Her student, Jan Brink, talks about management of the top sport horse with these principles in mind and demonstrates forward movement with his superstar horse, Bjorsells Briar.

Kyrklund is refreshingly without ego as she demonstrates balance on a 9-year-old Grand Prix horse that she trained and then shows a video of her worst Grand Prix with Edinburg, telling us how much they improved in time for the Olympic Games.

One of the spectators asks about her emphasis on riding with the inside leg and the inside rein. "You mean it's the opposite of what I've been saying for years?" she says. She points out that when a horse becomes too straight, the rider needs more inside rein, but when the rider is using too much inside rein, he needs the outside rein. "Using the inside leg and inside rein as the primary aids is not wrong," she says. "Sometimes it is appropriate, and sometimes it is not."

Olympic Evaluation: Who was Happy?
The audience has been waiting for the evaluation of the top six horses at Athens: Anky van Grunsven's Salinero, Ulla Salzgeber's Rusty, Hubertus Schmidt's Wansuela Suerte, Robert Dover's Kennedy, Beatrix Ferrer-Salat's Beauvalais and Debbie McDonald's Brentina.

We watch their freestyles with new eyes. We're looking for happiness. The top two horses, Salinero and Rusty, are unanimously considered to be the happiest. Some think that Brentina was obedient but not so gymnastic and through. For that reason, she is not near the top of the list with this prestigious audience. Kennedy's enthusiasm is admired and perceived as happiness by many. Some think that Beauvalais was like an exotic dancer in his enthusiasm, but others share my belief that he was agitated throughout. However, the scientists decide that there is no proof that his tail swishing was indicative of unhappiness.

Eric Lette, former chair of the FEI Dressage Committee, remarks that Wansuela Suerte was in the comfort zone all the time at the Olympic Final. Jo Hinnemann thinks that Wansuela Suerte was the happiest, and many agree, but some also feel that she didn't produce the same degree of power as the two top horses.

The "search for happiness" exercise was, indeed, an interesting one. It is comforting to realize that Rudolf Zeilinger was right. Those horses that could most accurately be described as demonstrating the qualities of the training scale also were judged to be the happiest.

This article is excerpted from the longer article "2004 Global Dressage Forum: Training the Happy Athlete" in the February 2005 issue of Dressage Today magazine.