Read award-winning journalist Nancy Jaffer's latest report on the world of equestrian sport. Brought to you by Practical Horseman magazine. Visit Nancy's archive for past columns.
July 24, 2009 -- As I told Steffen Peters, I never thought I'd live to see the day when an American dressage rider won the Grand Prix, the Special and the Freestyle at CHIO Aachen. While I'm not that old, considering the dominance of the Germans in the discipline over the last half-century, I figured I'd need an unreasonably long life expectancy to witness an American sweep at Germany's most important show.
Of course, it's been obvious for nearly two decades that American dressage has improved exponentially since the days when the U.S. was an also-ran from the wrong side of the Atlantic Ocean, but being good hasn't always been enough if the judging was quirky.
The case in point is the 2008 Olympics, when Isabell Werth had a major disobedience in both the Special and the Freestyle with Satchmo and still managed to get the silver medal. Steffen's brilliant Hong Kong performance had a wrinkle in the two-tempis, as he is quick to point out, though his horse never bucked, balked, or backed up, all of which Satchmo did. Steffen finished fourth, just out of the medals, but Isabell's medal prompted a re-think (I'm putting that politely) on the international judging front and the furor it created was one of the key factors triggering the disbanding of the International Equestrian Federation's (FEI's) dressage committee.
So although we certainly can revel in Ravel and his brilliant performances earlier this month, the fact that they registered the way they did with the judges is even more important, because it seems to mark a new era in this subjective sport.
I asked Steffen for his assessment of the judging and he told me, "It's always easy to say when you're first place that the judges did a good job, but when you take a look through all the placings, there really wasn't much discrepancy."
He pointed out that at Aachen, we didn't run into the type of "national" judging or shall we say, patriotically influenced judging, we've seen so often in the past, where a judge from Country X marks a rider from Country X higher than he or she deserves to be.
Steffen noted the only American judge, Anne Gribbons, even "had me a little bit lower on the first day," and he saw other foreign judges following suit with their countrymen and women, rather than giving them an edge. It must be part of a trend, because there was straight-down-the-middle judging at the World Cup finals in Las Vegas, as well, where Steffen also won.
The pressure that came as a result of the Olympics has changed what the judges do, Steffen believes.
"There's no doubt. Hong Kong, I think, was a milestone where there was a little too much discrepancy. The good thing is, there was a lot of discussion afterward and the bottom line is things are definitely better," he noted.
However, he added, "We still have to see the results of the European Championships.it will be interesting to see at a major championship how the team scoring will work out."
At the same time, Steffen insists, "I'm confident that this excellent job of judging will continue. I have a very good feeling about it."
Jessica Ransehousen, the U.S. interim chef d'équipe, observed, "There's a lot of pressure on the judges now. Thank God, it's about time."
Steffen and I chatted about how better judging makes things nicer for the spectators, because they know what is being evaluated, and they can really follow and understand the action when the prizes are awarded in a logical fashion. And what's better for the spectators is better for the sport.
Steffen was a clear winner in Germany. In the Special, for instance, Dutch Olympic gold medalist Anky van Grunsven's IPS Salinero didn't halt properly at the end of his test (something he's done before), and most of the judges took that into account. It made the difference that elevated Steffen to the top spot.
In the Freestyle, Steffen got a kick out of the German commentator who was narrating the clip you probably watched on YouTube. You may have missed his observation, because it was in German, so let Steffen translate.
"It was really funny how he mentioned his last comment, because he literally said, 'You know what, ladies and gentlemen, I honestly don't give a (blank) what the judges think. I think Ravel was better than Salinero today.' He said it obviously with a sense of humor, but it was neat because the crowd in Germany was behind Ravel," Steffen said.