Good morning! As promised, here are some further ruminations on the GDF. A quick side-note – or rather, a long side-note. Every year I interview Joep Bartels on the second day of the Forum. The event is his baby, having been dreamt up by him almost a decade ago; it’s held at his farm; and he is the Chair of the Program Committee. So I always think it’s a good idea to get his take on how things went. His comments this week left me a bit worried for the future. The GDF is a wonderful, unique coming-together of minds in a sport where historically, dialogue has been notable for its absence, rather than its presence. This is the only place where judges, trainers and international riders get together to discuss at least some of the issues, and where the rest of us are invited to not only watch, but also ask questions.
Joep always jokes that every year he thinks it will be the last, but then he gets inspiration and on it goes. This year the forum cost money to its hosts. A finger could easily be leveled at the global economy as the reason there weren’t more paying bums in seats. I also noticed fewer of the big names I’ve seen in past years. No Kyra, no Jean Bemelmans, no Stephen Clarke – to name three that I wished had been there. Everything goes in cycles, so I hope the numbers this year – and Joep’s apparent lack of inspiration for 2010 – are just a blip on the EKG, and not a terminal sign. If you went to the GDF this year, send Joep or Esther an email. Tell them you appreciate the months of dedication it takes for them to put on an event of this caliber and scope. I am absolutely positive that every person in the audience enjoyed something and learned something. If they didn’t, they are comatose.
(sound of me stepping off soapbox)
I’m going to predict right here and now that the new Queen Bee of the FEI dressage judges is emerging in the form of Katrina Wuest. She was everywhere this year: on the FEI dressage test Task Force, on the FEI Dressage Committee Task Force, in the booth at Windsor. And to my mind she delivered the best presentation of the GDF, at least where talking is concerned – I don’t think anyone can doubt that Steffen’s ride on the three year old daughter of Ravel is unbeatable when it came to mounted demos. When we returned from a coffee break, a piece of paper documenting how Katrina’s system would reward Steffen Peters’ freestyle difficulty in Aachen was sitting on every chair. It looked scary. I couldn’t make ANY sense of the thing. In less than 45 minutes though, Katrina had parted the clouds of confusion. I’m not exactly sure why she has chosen the term bonus-malus for her method of giving positive, neutral and negative points for difficult elements based on success of execution. I googled the term and it comes from financial theory – most commonly used to describe systems of vehicle insurance that reward people who don’t have accidents. But, whatever. Just as Katrina admits that her proposal is far from refined or perfect, so the name may also be a working title.
Implementing the system would certainly increase the objective analysis of one artistic element that has to now just been one more place for judges to reward a good performance, regardless of relevant content: difficulty. In order for the system to function, freestyle judging tasks would have to be split up. It’s too complicated otherwise. And here’s the glitch for riders: they would have to fill out a form ahead of time that would indicate which required elements are going to be performed with increased difficulty, so that the judges are marking from a sheet that says things like: tempis on a curve, double pirouette etc. Katrina assured an audience member that if a rider decided to change his or her choreography after handing in the sheet, he or she would not be penalized for doing so – but that’s one of many factors yet to be ironed out. Wow, look how I’ve gone on. Sorry but this topic is close to my heart and I just couldn’t help myself. A synopsis in ten words or less: Katrina’s idea for judging difficulty is a good one. Let’s use it. Oops, twelve words.
I fell in love at the GDF this year. It’s not the first time. Two years ago it was Wibi the wonder pianist who brought me to tears. This year the object of my affection is a cute little particle physicist named David Stickland who works at the world’s largest particle accelerator in Switzerland. You know, the one that was going to create a black hole that would destroy the world. Fortunately for us, the accelerator keeps breaking down, so David has had lots of time to study the wonderful world of dressage, which nearly got sucked into a black hole of its own last year. There were a few blank stares in the audience at the end of David’s whirlwind presentation, but I did my best to keep up. I wouldn’t say math was my favourite topic in university (and I will never know how I passed first year calculus with not more than a 10% grasp of the material), but when you use math to analyze something that really matters to you, it’s amazing what you can understand. I can’t possibly go into detail about David’s work, but I promise that if you read my articles in magazines, at least one gutsy publication will let me run wild with the topic.
Math whizziness aside, David charmed me in a more human way. He’s not a rider, and his wife and kids ride but not at the international level; so he has neither an axe to grind nor does he feel a need to tiptoe around the judges. Which meant that he made quite a few wonderful digs at various judges during his presentation. A man after my own heart! He pointed out how mean Eric Lette was to Imke Schellekens-Bartels in Windsor (she placed 7th, Lette had her 25th), he talked about aberrant marks due to judges having a ‘fly in their eye’, and he said unequivocally that bias in judging (having a predisposition for or against a particular rider before the test even begins) exists. He even used the term ‘deviant’ for judges that fell far out of line from their colleagues. Unsurprisingly, the feathers David ruffled were the judges’. I think Katrina waded into dangerous territory in her defense of the current system by saying “I don’t think we had one wrong championship winner in 20 years.” And shucks, Katrina. If the system is so good, why has the Task Force you are on come up with a 50 page document outlining recommended changes? Not all of them are judging related, but a lot of them are.
Katrina wasn’t the only judge to speak up with more than a touch of heat. If you haven’t guessed who the mystery visitor during David’s presentation was….yup, it was good old Mariette. As far as I can tell, she dropped in just for his talk then left shortly afterward – though I did see her and Katrina deep in conversation during the break. Eagle eye Richard Davison didn’t miss her face in the crowd, and dashed up the stairs to ask her for her two-bits’ worth. David had originally been brought on board to work his statistical magic when Mariette was Queen – but I suspect she now feels a bit like Frankenstein would have when the monster got a mind of its own. “Of course I don’t agree with everything,” she said, adding at the end of her speech that “David has to work a little harder.” As if he were a bright but errant child who needed to be put in his place.
Some of you have no doubt drifted off to sleep or left me to visit a less verbose account of the GDF. But as someone once pointed out, the weak link in the sport of dressage is, and will always be, the judging – for the reason that it will always rely on subjective assessment, no matter how many improvements are made to the judging system. Yes, it was inspiring to watch Steffen work with a group of horses and riders he had never met (and I daresay a few of the combinations put in front of him were far from ideal candidates, which made his work harder still), but watching trainers at work isn’t unique to the GDF. What is unique is the dialogue about the things that don’t get discussed often enough, and to my mind judging heads that list with a sizeable gap to the next topic down the rank.
I still have more to say. I didn’t even talk about some of the outfits I saw, or some of the friends from back home. To be continued.