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Judging and Being Judged copy

Over the past decade, on numerous occasions, both top dressage riders and international judges have come under heavy critical fire regarding the treatment and training of competitive dressage horses. The internet is alight with related controversy, and print articles have not been afraid to label judges around the world as “cowards and ignoramuses who are incapable of telling the difference between a horse that is correctly and humanely trained and one that has been forced to perform with dubious methods,” says FEI/USEF dressage judge and former US Dressage Team Technical Advisor Anne Gribbons in her book COLLECTIVE REMARKS.

“How are we supposed to react to this?” Gribbons, who is judging the European Championships this summer in Aachen, Germany, writes. “Ignoring the subject is not an option for anybody involved in the sport. Shrugging it off because we are not personally ‘guilty’ of any sort of deliberate cruelty to our horses is not going to make the problem go away. These kinds of allegations tend to put a dark cloud over the entire dressage community, whatever your position within it happens to be.

“Taking a step back to view dressage objectively is not so easy when you are submerged in the game up to your eyeballs. Still, with some effort, I can see all three sides of this argument, because I wear all the hats at different times.

“To be successful as an international competitor you have to be determined, brave, and incredibly focused on those few minutes in the arena that are the culmination of all your work. If you find and can develop a method that works for you and your horses and gets consistently rewarded by the judges, why should you give it up? In every sport, the pressure is tremendous at the top level, and winning is the object. Since our sport involves a silent partner, the horse, the situation is more complicated. Add to this that the kind of animal that takes the honors in today’s fierce competition is a very sophisticated and high-powered equine, both physically and mentally. Dealing with some of these equine Ferraris, it has been my experience as a trainer, competitor, and judge that anything that is forced or unfair in the training does not come out well in the show ring. It is difficult for me to imagine that training that is one long torture session for the horse could lead to something beautiful to watch in the arena.

“Nevertheless, I know there are some unavoidable conflicts on the road from green-broke to Grand Prix that need to be worked out. Anyone who thinks that a competitive Grand Prix horse offers every movement he has to learn without occasionally questioning the rider has never trained one. The journey from green horse to Grand Prix is a long, sometimes rocky, but mostly inspiring enterprise. It should be a trip horse and rider take together, and they ought to arrive at their destination both proud of their achievements and eager to strut their stuff. Not all horses are comfortable in the show ring—they may have stage fright, or they may not like being in unfamiliar surroundings—but some really enjoy showing off, and those horses are always fun to watch and to ride!

“Being an international judge is a great responsibility and, especially at major events, the pressure can be quite strong to ‘get it right’ according to the riders, the organizers, the audience, and your colleagues. You cannot please all of them all the time. The decision about each score has to be immediate, correct, and fair, and there are thousands to be made in a weekend. The job description of a judge is limited to what occurs in the arena in front of him or her, and it is impossible for him or her to assess what goes on in the warm-up ring. Naturally, most judges can tell if a horse is tense, unhappy, and appears uncomfortable, and there are ways to express your displeasure about that throughout the score sheet. Remember, however, that there is sometimes a fine line between ‘tension’ and ‘brilliance,’ and that a breathtaking performance almost always has to include a certain measure of electricity and tension to become exciting. On this issue, judges tend to disagree more than on the technical aspects, and often it is the amount of tension versus brilliance that makes the judges come out differently in the scoring. Diversity in scores is not usually appreciated by competitors, audiences, or organizers, who want to see all their ducks in a row—even the press will sometimes attack a judge who stands out. It is assumed that this judge is incorrect, while it is quite possible that this was the judge who, at that particular competition, was the only one who had a truly sharp eye and the confidence to honestly express what he or she saw.

“The observer/journalist is the watchdog of the sport, and although neither competitors nor judges cherish criticism, checks and balances are of importance. If the process of reaching the pinnacle of our sport appears to be harmful to our horses, we need to clean up our act. Unfortunately, ‘perception is truth’ to a great extent, and if our equine athletes appear ‘unhappy’ it does us no good to protest and proclaim how much we love and appreciate them. Instead of indignation and lawsuits, riders and judges have to invite both the press and the public to be part of discussion, dialogue, and participation.

“We need to show the world that we are not involved in dressage to make our equine partners miserable but to build strong and proud athletes, which, while they may not be ecstatic all the time, are reasonably pleased with their lot in life as healthy and performing stars.”

 

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For more insight into and history of the sport of dressage, check out COLLECTIVE REMARKS by Anne Gribbons, available now from the TSB online bookstore.

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Dressage judges see a lot of "faking it" when it comes to extended trot. Illustration by Karen Rohlf from COLLECTIVE REMARKS.

Dressage judges see a lot of “faking it” when it comes to extended trot. Illustration by Karen Rohlf from COLLECTIVE REMARKS.

 

In COLLECTIVE REMARKS, the new book from former Technical Advisor to the US Dressage Team Anne Gribbons, readers are treated to all manner of perspectives, in and around the dressage world. As an FEI 5* judge, Gribbons has officiated at numerous CDIs worldwide and selection trials in the United States, as well as prestigious European shows (Stuttgart, Rotterdam, Aachen), two FEI World Cup Finals, and the 2009 European Championships.

Here Gribbons laments the variety of extended trots to which judges are commonly treated—and they are all “faking it” in one way or another.

 

From COLLECTIVE REMARKS by Anne Gribbons:

Seeing What’s Not There
To begin with, there are no distinct transitions. Sometimes the beginning and end of the extension is so subtle that it is impossible to discern, even when the judge is awake and focusing. In reality, absolutely nothing happens, and you feel like you are a part of the tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” pretending to see what isn’t there. That is the bottom of the heap.

The next variety is when the horse hurries through the corner, and instead of coming onto the diagonal in balance and with his haunches “loaded” for takeoff, he is running in front-wheel drive. Arriving out of the corner in that fashion makes the transition “mission impossible.” The honest horse makes a desperate effort to salvage the movement, and by the time he reaches X he is hopelessly lost in forward balance, often irregular, and struggling to reach the end of the diagonal. The less ambitious equine crawls behind the leg and does less and less to go forward, until the movement fades to a working trot before he reaches halfway.

Then we have the “mad run,” in which the horse develops a flat-footed scramble with a hollow back and the hindquarters trailing hopelessly. He reminds you of a bicycle flying by.

The really fascinating extension is the one when the horse’s frame gets shorter for each stride, his back lower, his front legs higher, and his neck tighter. That is almost as hard to accomplish all at once as it is to get an actual extension.

Naturally none of the workouts described just now have much to do with the directives for the movement. So, how would an extension for a “10” look?

 

The Ideal

Let’s start with the transitions: They should be prompt and smooth without the slightest resistance. The horse should proceed accurately from point to point and in a straight line. There will be a clear difference between the extended trot and the medium trot when there is one called for in the test.

Going on to the different aspects of the Training Scale, for a “10”:

  • The rhythm of the trot has to be absolutely regular in a clear two beats from beginning to end with a distinctive moment of suspension.
  • No stiffness or tension can be present for a perfect score for suppleness. The back must swing under the rider, and the completely unconstrained steps must show superb elasticity.
  • The contact has to be light and steady, with the nose more in front of the vertical than at a medium trot. In spite of the ultimate lengthening of the frame, the poll must remain the highest point.
  • To accomplish all this, the requirements of the impulsion are strict: The hind legs are expected to propel the horse forward with very energetic and active steps, while the hind feet touch the ground as much as possible in front of the footprints for the front feet. Front and hind feet reach equally forward, and the front feet touch the ground on the spot toward which they are pointing.
  • Naturally the horse’s straightness is unquestionable, while the very engaged hind legs give the impression of a horse in complete balance, exhibiting freedom of the shoulder and lightness of the forehand found via collection.
  • Under these circumstances the submissiveness is total, and there is no resistance whatsoever evident.

It is doubtful that many of us has experienced this state of bliss for an entire diagonal, but these are the directives if you strive for “excellent.” Naturally there is a range of talent and ability that plays into the score, and there are horses that are superb at collection but have no true ability to become “airborne,” never mind how they struggle. The springs for the suspension just were never installed.

Interesting to observe is that all the way to the top placings in the Olympics, there are horses that lack the ability to use their back in the extended work and who possess almost no elasticity in their gaits or ability to stretch over the topline. What they do have is a tremendous knack for articulation of their joints. They can twist and turn and bend their knees and hocks like performers in Riverdance, and in the “Three Ps” (piaffe, passage, and pirouette) this is a real asset.

Since we have shortened the Grand Prix the extended trot counts for very little. What should be one of our “crown jewels” has been put somewhat on the backburner. Anyone who trained with Colonel Bengt Ljungquist will agree that he would watch this development with a jaundiced eye. I will never forget the endless sessions he had me do on the 20-meter circle, practicing transitions in and out of trot lengthenings. Bengt would insist on the horse becoming “like a rubber band,” and he was relentless about all the features I mentioned above that can lead to a “10.”

 

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Find more dressage insight in COLLECTIVE REMARKS by Anne Gribbons, available now from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

 

CLICK HERE TO ORDER

 

 

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