On the Rail: A New Era in Dressage Judging?

U.S. Olympian Steffen Peters' sweep at Aachen may indicate a shift toward more objective outcomes in dressage competition.
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U.S. Olympian Steffen Peters' sweep at Aachen may indicate a shift toward more objective outcomes in dressage competition.

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'?quipe, 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.

So the judging was in step with what the spectators saw, which was refreshing and appropriate.

As Jessica put it when we discussed Steffen's Aachen performance, which got the credit it deserved, "All three days were an affirmation of what he believes in, how he rides and how the horse reacts to his aids."

WEG's Economic Forecast
Tickets go on sale September 25 for next year's Alltech/FEI World Equestrian Games, and if last year's ticket deposit program for US Equestrian Federation members is any indication of the enthusiasm level for attending the WEG, it may be a box office bonanza. But then, there's the recession...

"We were very encouraged at the initial level of interest in the tickets," said John Long, the USEF's CEO. He notes, however, that the impact of the troubled economy is being felt, and it cannot help but have an effect on the compilation of world championships at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

"The world has changed in the last 18 months and we'll see how well we are going to do towards the end of September," John predicted.

The WEG budget has four revenue components: Hospitality, tickets, the vendor fair and sponsorships. Already, about a third of the hospitality inventory has been committed.

"I think what we're seeing is companies that would have come in as sponsors in a better economic climate are looking at hospitality as a way of participating and entertaining clients," said John.

They'll be well treated. I was lucky enough to sample the offerings of the "test" VIP center at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event when a friend took me as her guest. It was pretty special: Great food, a comfortable viewing area and a big bar were the elements that should please anybody.

John noted that eight of the 10 corporate chalets already have been spoken for, so the WEG organizers aren't worried about the hospitality part of their equation.

Meanwhile, John said, "We're retooling the vendor fair. I think our original estimates were a little too bullish."

The big hurdle, however, is sponsorship. "It's difficult right now and has forced us to be very creative in ways we couldn't have imagined two years ago," John mentioned, noting that automobile and financial services category were "givens" then, but of course, the situation is different today.

While sponsors may not have cash, if they have products, inventory or services to offer for which the WEG otherwise would have had to pay, the organization can make a deal.

The WEG, which has a budget of approximately $75 million, is 75 percent of the way to its sponsorship goal. John thinks by the fall, it will be obvious what the rest of the year is going to look like.

"If we have to scale back to make it work, then we'll do that," said John, noting he is determined WEG must produce a surplus "even if it is $15."

He added, "We do have backup plans and we'll see what happens," but John insisted that the public won't notice any differences should things not quite match up to the original projections.

For instance, if not every seat is sold, the seating plan will be downsized so every seat is filled.

However, he maintained, "There is enough time and enough wiggle room in the last year (before the Games) to make the adjustments to make sure people who do come have come to the best WEG ever."

An Inspirational Autograph
Madison Billings, a 12-year-old pony and children's jumper rider from Westlake, Texas, became an ardent fan of Germany's Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum when she attended the FEI World Cup Finals in April with her mother, Traci.

"She really stood out to me," said Madison, a seventh-grader who already had one of Meredith's clinic CDs. Awed by the whole competition ("I've never seen anything like it," she exclaimed), Meredith's victory was the icing on the cake.

Madison desperately wanted Meredith's autograph.

"I looked for her everywhere, but I never could find her," Madison said wistfully.

Her doting Dad, Greg Billings, wrote to me after reading my World Cup stories on-line. He even more desperately wanted Meredith's autograph for his daughter--could I help?

How could I turn down a request like that? I contacted Merrick Haydon, the managing director of Revolution Sports Marketing Group in London, which works with Rolex. I had met Merrick at the World Cup and was very impressed by his can-do attitude. Because Meredith is one of Rolex's "ambassadors," I figured he'd have an inside track.

Merrick obviously is a very busy guy, but he made a big effort to get the signing. Then, somehow, the autographed photo got waylaid at Rolex offices in Geneva. Merrick to the rescue again--he undid the logjam and the photo was forwarded to a delighted Madison.

Meredith wrote, "To Madison, best wishes and good luck for the future." Needless to say, it's framed on Madison's bedroom wall.

Maybe someday Meredith will want Madison's autograph. This young girl is very serious about her sport. She started riding a neighbor's horse Western and that was it.

"I didn't want to stop riding," she recalled, and her parents soon signed her up for lessons. Now she has two horses: Queen Frostine, a medium pony who is a Welsh cross, and Jamestown, a warmblood-cross who is her jumper. Madison, who trains with Laura Hightower, enjoyed her biggest wins so far on Consider It Done, a small pony, and Queen Frostine, both victorious in the Zone 7 finals. She also won the Leading Hunter Rider title of the Antares Challenge Series.

Madison is hoping to compete in the Junior Hunter ranks soon. But her big ambition is someday to take a clinic with Meredith.

"That would be amazing," she said.