Oct3009collage.jpgGreetings and apologies to all of you who have been waiting so patiently for my GDF report. I am at last in America-land where the internet is free and fast. I had intended to start posting detailed coverage on Wednesday, after a refreshing night’s sleep to recover from two intense days that left me feeling like a goose having its liver fattened for a foie gras harvest (only it was my brain, not my gullet – and it was dressage, not corn). I grabbed my very awesome little wireless internet stick that connects me to the web anywhere there is a cell signal, and discovered that my service provider – I’m not naming names, but if you are Canadian and you plan to travel, don’t get a Rocket Stick with Rogers – had decided that they should disable my account ‘due to higher than normal useage’. Apparently most of their customers don’t get out much. Next time I leave the country I guess I’ll have to phone and warn them I’ll be roaming. Yesterday was spent hauling my derriere through airports and time zones to land in my somewhat unlikely next destination – somewhere between Detroit and Flint. So finally, here I am, not exactly reporting at the speed of light, but nevertheless giving you my impressions of the ninth annual Global Dressage Forum.

I did say the other day that things got off to a fairly slow start this year, but that has been the case generally with this event, which tends to build to a climax. And better that than starting with a bang and ending with a whimper. Even though I imagine the organizers would wish for a more symphonic rhythm to the event – a big start, some ups and downs  in the middle, and a crashing climax at the end – Esther Tacken (Joep and Tinneke Bartels’ daughter-in-law and shepherdess of the GDF) said to me that it’s impossible to predict how each presenter will perform, not to mention what issues and dialogues would arise. And that’s the way it should be: an outcome that surprises everyone – organizers included – and not some pre-orchestrated fake show about how perfect the dressage world is. Because we know that would be a lie.

The GDF this year was actually book-ended by the only two sparks that that could have turned into a five alarm fire and hours of heated argument. FEI Sport Director David Holmes, the first speaker after all the welcome words,  wasted no time getting to the FEI’s position on the Patrick Kittel video, which generated some pointed, if not always well-informed, questions and comments. If there was a clear winner of this year’s rebel-without-a-relevant-cause prize, it had to be Jenny Loriston-Clarke. Here is what she jumped in with regarding the Kittel video: “I haven’t seen the video but I think it’s most unfortunate that it should be shown on TV or whatever. The whole of dressage world-wide has got to pull its act together and make sure there aren’t these scenes.” Oh Jenny, where to start? First of all if you haven’t seen the video, you have automatically disqualified yourself from the discourse. Second of all, you need to be much clearer about your message – do you mean the dressage world should do a better job of concealing its dirty laundry from the public, or are you against hyperflexion? That was not clarified in the least by your tirade. Jenny had a second bilious outburst in the doping session, thus driving home a wider message that if she has something to get off her chest she damned well isn’t going to wait around for an appropriate time to do so. During the doping session she went on (and on, AND ON) about how wrong a turn eventing has taken when it comes to horse welfare – horses competing too often, modern courses too twisty and turny, etc etc. Uh, Jenny. This is the Global DRESSAGE Forum.

Ok, I’m giving my head a shake and returning to the topic at hand. I don’t want to be guilty of being the pot calling the kettle black. So, at the end of a pretty warm and fuzzy couple of days, Richard Davison couldn’t resist getting things a bit stirred up before we all headed off home again. Unfortunately for Arthur Kottas, the seat warmer got turned on under his chair. The issue? A certain cover photograph from a certain high profile magazine, showing Totilas in a less-than-perfectly-through-and-over-the-back moment at Windsor. In fact, Kottas’ comment to Richard about the photo (and I strongly suspect he had no idea Richard was going to put him on the spot and speak pubicly about it) was that he couldn’t identify from the photo what gait the horse was in. Totilas’ one front leg is doing an ultimate Sieg Heil, but the hind legs are far from looking like they are participating in an extended trot. I have watched a lot of video of Totilas and I have seen a lot of pretty awesome looking extended trots, with an overtrack that leaves no doubt as to what is going on in the engine room. The neck is short, sure. But I already talked about that in my Windsor blog.

How many unfortunate photos are there of otherwise correct and harmonious performance? Well let me tell you – for every good picture there is a hay stack of losers. But did people ever go to town on this Totilas photo when Richard brought it up. Perhaps there hadn’t been enough discourse during the previous two days and people were hungry for a scrap – or perhaps there are always individuals who see a red cape when something controversial is thrown in the ring. After Arthur made a comment to the effect that if you control the hind quarters you control the whole horse, Ton de Ritter – who had been the last presenter of this GDF and who is known for rather strongly voiced opinions, and who just happens to be Dutch – said (in reference to Edward and Totilas, as well as Adelinde and Parcival): “these special pairs will bring the spectators back to the stadium, and we should be grateful to them. I don’t think we should be discussing them in this way here.”

Poor Arthur peeped it hadn’t been his idea to bring it up, and I believe he really meant that. He has been at the GDF for the past four years I’ve attended, and has never had anything but constructive things to say. Launching a debate over a single photograph hardly seems like something to get too worked up about – unless your name is Birgit Popp. The journalist jumped right in by condemning the entire forum for not talking about things like the incriminating photo. “I think we are doing a very dishonest thing. We have to discuss everything, not just what is nice. Totilas looks like that in every picture and it is not extended trot.” As various members of the audience quietly booed her, Laurens van Lieren said, “not even Totilas is perfect”, reinforcing the oft-forgotten fact that a score of ten means ‘excellent’, not ‘perfect’. I guess Richard felt compelled to try and swing the boat around to a smoother tack by asking Birgit what gait she would have chosen to illustrate for a cover shot of Totilas: piaffe was her answer. Well Birgit, your glass may perpetually be half empty, but I think I represent the majority of dressage fans when I say I would consider cutting off a limb to ride an extended trot on Totilas. And I want to know more about how Edward has trained him. On the GDF questionnaire we were asked to write down three trainers’ names we’d like to see next year. Edward was one of mine.

This year’s sessions could be loosely grouped according to meaningfulness. Most meaningful in my book were Katrina Wuest’s presentation on the method she has devised for objectifying the difficulty in a freestyle, David Stickland’s presentation on his statistical analysis of judging, and Steffen’s demonstrations of training advanced horses and young horses – especially the young horse session where the man really proved his mettle (I will refrain from saying he really showed balls, because Steffen is a very polite man and I don’t want to offend him or his legions of fans) by riding a three-year-old mare by Ravel that he had seen for the first time that morning. I missed the farrier session with Rob Renirie, and I really regret it because some of the people who attended said it was the highlight of the forum for them. I still don’t like the workshop format that the forum introduced last year which makes us choose one or another of two presentations. I attended the session on doping. As it turned out, I chose wrong.

Least meaningful was the doping session (I don’t know how that’s possible but there it is) because it was presented by the EX-FEI head vet –not only did he not have his finger on the pulse since he is no longer in the employ of the FEI, he skillfully avoided bringing up the raison d’être of his presence at the GDF – Isabell Werth. I tried. I asked him a question about fluphenazine, then reworded it in the context of Isabell Werth and re-asked it when he had given me pablum, but no dice. The man was clearly not there to get enmired in the actual issues. Also of minimal value was Rachel Murray’s presentation on diagnosing lameness in dressage horses – not because she had nothing fascinating to say, but, in spite of delivering her speech at the speed of a vet on cocaine, she didn’t get past the basics that the average person in the room would have had at least a working knowledge of. It was a good thing Heike Kemmer was there to assist Eckart Meyners in his presentation on improving the seat – but even with her charm and good English, it was never made clear exactly how he was affecting riders with his tickling touch. What he does is without a doubt very cool, but I was left a bit too mystified and wishing there was a book about it so I could go and learn more. What I would love to see next year is a training masterclass with Heike – actually riding and teaching. Now that would be cool.

I have a whole lot more to share with you, so I promise to get up really early tomorrow and post further before my ‘working day’ begins. A few teasers: there was a surprise visitor who turned up just for David Stickland’s judging session, and I’ll divulge her identity in my next post. There, now you at least know the sex of the individual, who appeared resplendently grenouille-esque in a green outfit. I’ll also tell you why I like the new HQ dressage director dude, Trond Asmyr, even though he steadfastly refused to give me an opinion on whether the FEI’s zero tolerance medication and doping rule is the best way to keep the sport clean, or merely promotes penalties on innocent people. 

To tide you over until tomorrow, here is a link to my photos from Bruges – not a horse in them, mind you, but if you fancy a little history and architecture, enjoy!