2004 Global Dressage Forum  


the Horse as a "Happy Athlete" 
The 2004 Global Dressage Forum, organised and hosted by the Academy (Hooge Mierde, Netherlands) and the International Dressage Trainers Club, was for the first time joined by the FEI as official patron.

Central to two days of demonstrations and debates was the rewording of the FEI rule 401.1 to describe the aim of producing the dressage horse as a "happy athlete". Introducing proceedings, FEI Dressage Committee Chairman Mariette Withages emphasised the importance for the sport of developing within the Olympic framework, and espousing goals of fairness, transparency.

The first day's events centred on the development of the sport. FEI Sport Director Michael Stone's presentation enlightened on the scope of the FEI's remit as one of the largest - after soccer and tennis - international sport federations. He stressed the importance of dressage as the fundamental equestrian discipline and of the development programmes that stimulate interest in smaller countries and therefore create a larger audience for the top sport. The development of an internationally recognised structure for coaching, and the value the World Dressage and Jumping challenges - a flagship development project - were among the programmes explained.

The next two presentations illustrated the spectrum from small beginnings to sustained success. Carlos Lopes, leading a team from the Portuguese Equestrian Federation, took delegates on a journey back to his country's deepest roots in the history of relationship between man and horse, and forward to a future ambition to participate in dressage sport with the Lusitano. From displays of traditionally trained Lusitanos, German trainer Martina Hannover then gave a practical demonstration with Lusitano horses she had been coaching since she started advising the Portugese Federation two and a half years ago.

To follow, John Long, CEO of the United States Equestrian Federation, explained the structure, success, challenges and goals of the governing body of the fastest growing sport in the US, which was also the most successful equestrian nation of the Athens Olympic Games.

Concluding the first day, Ulli Kasselmann and the PSI team presented their training methods with a selection of horses guaranteed to induce the 'wow factor'.

From Dirk Willem Rosie, of the KWPN Studbook, and physiologist Dr Eric van Breda came a thought provoking scientifically based examination of how the horse can be a "happy athlete", and how that can be achieved. Dirk Willem Rosie emphasised the role of correct physical conformation and temperament and stated: " It is the task of studbooks to realise these requirements and provide dressage riders with good horses " so that the horse is never over-demanded."

Backing up the results of Rosie's survey of 700 small tour riders who noted zealousness, sensitivity and perseverance as necessary attributes for a horse to be success in dressage, reigning Olympic champion Anky van Grunsven added that in her experience of Bonfire and Salinero, the most sensitive horses are also the most spooky and nervous. She reinforced the importance of dealing with a potential negative side by building the horse's trust in a calm rider.
Dr Eric van Breda emphasised that 'happines' cannot be measured in equine athletes in the same way as in human athletes. A horse has no concept of training for a goal, and does not fill out questionnaires! As basic level, it can be described as the absence of stress, but "from a scientific point of view, measuring 'happiness' needs a lot more research, including out of competition testing and measurement."

International rider and trainer Kyra Kyrklund partnered with her top pupil, European silver medallist Jan Brink, to present their training philosophy. At the core is mutual respect and understanding of the horse's basic nature - "the horse has a right to be a horse" we must take not to humanise him" in care, management and training, and the responsibility of the rider to acquire a 'toolbox' of skills and knowledge. Bjorsells Briar, both in Brink's video of home life and 'in person', certainly demonstrated that here was a 'happy athlete'.

A session using videos of part of each of the six top tests in Athens, where not only duos representing trainers, judges and scientists but other members of the audience were asked to evaluate what they saw as 'the happy athlete', threw up areas of agreement and also areas of concern which may need to be addressed in getting the 'happy athlete' message across in the most constructive way.

German trainer Rudolph Zeilinger concluded the Forum with a demonstration of his training philosophy based on the six-point German system. "The old masters recognised the importance of a happy horse, and they also were exact in their system", he said. "The main point about a happy horse is that he needs a happy rider  confident, relaxed and balanced. The rider must always ensure that the horse understands what he wants."

It may not (yet?) be quantifiable but the term 'happy athlete' was certainly explored in depth during the forum, as a marker and an aim for the dressage sport. Attended by some 300 people, from international riders, trainers, judges and officials to national enthusiasts, it was a gathering of the dressage world. As Mariette Withages said in her opening address: " We should stick together, and not bend in the wind. Compared with the progress we can make together, the small discussions are peanuts."


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