“But we’ve always done it this way” is the reason often trotted out to oppose change, even when it might just be change for the better. This is the inevitable reaction to news that a shorter dressage Grand Prix will be trialled at the London Olympia World Cup show on December 17th, together with other innovations aimed at pleasing the audience and improving horse welfare.
But while the promoters clearly state this is a pilot scheme (the next day’s freestyle will run the traditional way) the dressage community seems doom-laden about it already: if the shorter GP is a hit with the public, they feel, dumbing-down of all Grand Prix and every other test is inevitable.
The experimental GP has been reduced by 45 seconds to five minutes.
Horses will piaffe twice, not three times, although 12-15 steps each are still required. There is just one extended trot instead of three, compensated by a double coefficient. The trot half-passes are shorter. The canter zig-zag is cut, the canter half-passes now enveloping the two pirouettes. The rein-back also disappears.
The idea came from British rider/trainer/chef d’equipe Richard Davison, who is a great thinker outside of the box. He reasoned that GP jumpers do not tackle an Olympic standard track every week. So why should dressage horses make the ultimate effort every time they go to a “normal” show? He believes the pilot floorplan promotes mental and physical welfare by minimizing repetition and the duration a movement has to be sustained.
Social media reaction from serious fans mostly gives the thumbs down so far. Some are confused by the rationale, others opine Olympia might just as well have employed the Intermediaire II.
In her Horse & Hound column, London 2012 team gold medallist Laura Tomlinson says a Grand Prix horse should already be fit enough for the required level of intensity, and that the experimental test will not flow. She adds: “It seems to be as many tricks stuck in as few lines as possible, written with purely the clock in mind…key transitions are gone, such as passage to canter and passage to extended walk. These test the horses’ level of training and that their back is relaxed while switching from positive tension to total relaxation.”
As a spectator I’d be delighted if the arena exposure of not-very-good riders was minimised, but I would also feel cheated by the shorter test when the likes of Isabelle, Charlotte and Carl enter the ring.
It is not as if top horses compete week in and week out, after all. Arguably, contenders who routinely score in the low 60s should not be on show at a very high profile CDI in the first place. They should be weeded out through stricter qualifying if audience welfare rather than horse welfare is the real priority. There’s the rub, of course: there are just not enough 70% horses to service every single international show that is in a position to seat large audiences and attract TV.
Two years ago the International Dressage Riders Club addressed show content in a detailed survey of 3,254 fans (29% of respondents came from the US and Canada). Even if you accept that surveys are skewed because people with keen interest are the ones who complete them, there is still little to suggest that test length is a turn-off. Only 5.7% thought the spectator offer could benefit from a shorter Grand Prix. Respondents were more concerned by confusing judging criteria and training methods.
I would, though, certainly be disappointed if our British audiences are less enamoured of a whole night of traditional dressage than they used to bd. Despite always occupying a school night (and requiring a prompt exit for the last train home) the Olympia freestyle usually sells out long before tickets for the show’s main jumping performances. Dressage GP on the opening night also does well in the years Charlotte is known to be competing.
The jury is still out, too, on another Olympia innovation. The dressage riders will be interviewed in the arena as they finish the test. We are told this will not affect the horse’s “warm down.”
I would be surprised, though, if we’ll gain any huge insight from the breathless gasps of most riders. In racing, the TV finish line interview works because it focuses on a single jockey who already knows he has won. But a dressage rider who has blundered will surely struggle, especially when asked to share thoughts with the public before he has even spoken to his owner/trainer, or seen his marks?
I fear though, that added gimmickry is symptomatic of everyone’s shorter attention span nowadays. We edit the dull out of our virtual lives – I can’t be the only person who skips “boring” scenes when binge-watching repeats on Netflix! Inevitably, we expect to fast-forward through the tedious distractions of real life, too. Nonetheless, if someone is intrinsically bored by pastime X, why do we think showing them 80% of X will transform its appeal?
Horse sport is not the only entertainment form grappling with this. Two years ago San Francisco Opera staged an abridged Carmen, while in London Shakespeare’s Globe theatre enraged purists with its “reduced” touring production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You can find ample preview material in the arts media about what those innovations hoped to achieve; but where are the follow-up articles about whether sustainable new audiences were generated; and if so, was that at the price of disenchanting the aficionado?
Selling the idea of the reduced GP on horse welfare grounds also struck me as unwise. Horse people will understand what Olympia wishes to convey, but laymen may infer the set tests in some way cause harm.
In any event, dubious training techniques in certain stables will persist, however, long or short horses are required to strut their stuff on the field of play. There is certainly dismay that the latest batch of new FEI rules, effective from 2019, once again side-step rollkur.
By coincidence, also this past week a German TV station produced new footage from the arena where we really do see some truths – the dressage warm-up.
WDR is one of Germany’s oldest public service broadcasters, not an equestrian specialist. It was sent photos from other major dressage shows. Rather than wonder if these represented the norm or simply caught riders at a “wrong” moment, WDR sent a cameraman to Aachen, and then asked experts to interpret the horse’s body language for the eight-minute segment.
WDR says it saw no intervention of riders by any steward. Indeed, it was only the cameraman himself who was spoken to – in threatening terms, WDR claims.
You also don’t need to understand German to know what shit-storm means. Concern about rollkur is not going away any time soon, however much try to draw the eye elsewhere.