What is it with those Swedes and Danes, anyway?

Earlier this week I wrote my column for issue #5 of Horse Sport International. As is frequently the case when I write articles that seek to dig out the kernel of a controversy, I was left with some musings that I was unable to include in the article, whose title, “The Search for a Roll Cure”, makes the subject pretty obvious. Following the Danish Dressage Champs in June, the dreaded roll kür (aka hyperflexion, ak-kind-of-a LDR), came back with the vengeance of a cold sore. After I finished writing the article, I had one or two nagging questions left unanswered: why is it that the hueing and crying seems to always come loudest from the Scandinavian countries? I actually think I have the answer, and it has little to do with the equestrian community in those fair haired northern lands.

If you look at any of the myriad ‘top ten countries’ lists, the Scandinavian countries – especially Sweden and Denmark – predominate. I just checked three, and those two countries were on all three lists, ranked at times as high as second (Sweden, for best countries in the world to live). Canada makes most of the lists too, but not all. And the US does slightly less well still. That’s how totally awesome those countries are, provided you like winter of course. Here’s a little correlation I’ve noticed in my travels around the  globe: the richer a country, the better cared for are its domestic animals.  See, when you have little poverty and a government with very strong social programs (dear Americans who think Obama is a socialist: you might want to visit Sweden before you make that kind of declaration), you have a population that is pretty well fed, healthy and well educated. They can afford to worry about whether or not a horse should be ridden with its chin on its chest.

Another question that posed itself to me was this: if the Swedes and Danes are so serious about cleaning up the animal injustice in horse sport, why do they pick on their own riders? Patrik Kittel, a Swede, still can’t escape the ‘blue tongue’ reputation he unwittingly obtained in 2009 when the Danish online network EponaTV started a massive outcry with the video they captured of him schooling Scandic at a show. (If you want to see the video, just google Patrik’s name. Sadly for him, the blue tongue video is the first thing that the search turns up)  The latest target of EponaTV and the social media-driven group I call the ‘anti-roll kür league’, is the current Danish Champion, Anna Kasprzak. Photos of her warming up Donnperignon at the Danish Champs provoked the Danish federation to publicly leap to her defense after receiving many complaints on its Facebook page. Here’s an interesting note, whose degree of significance you can decide for yourself: photos of other riders were also posted on Facebook – showing them in various positions of dragging and yawing at their horses – but the Danish statement defends only Anna, whose family owns ECCO – title sponsor of this year’s European Jumping and Dressage Championships in Denmark and a major patron of the sport.

Just to get side tracked still further: Here’s something I’ve wanted to say out loud for a very long time, and can refrain no longer. Did you ever play the game where someone has you hold your arm horizontally straight out in front of you, and then that person applies downward pressure against your arm while you try to push up against it? When the person pushing down lets go, your arm, of its own accord, will rise skyward. It has to do with the physiology of muscle fatigue. It’s a fun little exercise, but I can’t help thinking that it tells us something about how roll kür works. When Donnperignon was ridden by Christoph Koschel, he had a chronic problem in the show ring, particularly in the canter tour. The horse would curl behind the contact, dropping his poll and tucking his nose in toward his chest. Nowhere was the problem more evident than the last time Christoph showed the horse, at the 2011 Europeans. I remember even mentioning on my blog the rather unhappy reunion at the kiss-and-cry between Christoff and his über-trainer dad Jürgen after a Grand Prix test  that literally went south.

Since Anna K. began showing Donnperignon, the results are nothing short of spectacular. Gone are the problems that plagued Christoph: the horse now piaffes, and he does his canter tour in a very nice frame. It could be entirely due to what I at first thought when I saw the pair’s harmony in London last year: it’s just a better match between horse and rider that has yielded improved results. But I couldn’t help noticing that most of the condemning photos (scroll down to the bottom of the linked article) of Anna were taken in the  gait that is canter.

I’ve strayed far from my point. Back to my second question of the day. Why would the Scandinavians be so hard on their own? Well, to me it’s simple. First of all, they would expect their own to hold themselves to the same measuring stick. That’s what patriotic culture is all about, and every country in the world (except maybe Sudan) has some of that. Secondly, if groups like EponaTV want to draw public attention to perceived horse abuse in their own country, they will certainly reach their goal more quickly if they target someone from Denmark – or nearby Sweden.  Outrage is far likelier when it’s a local – someone whose name crops up periodically on the sports page – than if it’s just a foreigner, some rif-raff from outside the sacred land of Scania.

I will be watching the European Championships in a couple of weeks, even though it will mean setting my alarm for the hour of ‘ungodly’ in order to catch the live coverage on FEI TV. I will also be keeping a close eye on EponaTV and the social media throughout the Euros. I don’t doubt for a minute that there will be a squadron of partially or fully concealed video cameras trained on the warm up…