Brett Parbery on the Aus Dressage Team Selection Process for Rio…

PrintInterview – Rebecca Ashton

“It was a tough one, this last Olympic campaign. Straight after Odense I was in a bit of a lull because I didn’t have the best show there and the way the selection policy is, if you have one bad show, you’re out. You’re finished. After that first selection event I was a bit down and disenchanted with the whole process. I don’t think the process is really right. It’s definitely fair and equitable for those who live in Europe, but not for those of us who come from Australia. We’ve got a lot of work to do to come up with a process that is fair and equitable for all participants.”

What is that then?

“Ours is a situation where it has to be so black and white, it has to almost be like a spreadsheet that it just selects itself and the numbers do all the talking. At the end of the day, and it happened this time, it was the last one standing.”

Would America act as a good template? They seem just so very tight as a team. They’re almost in lockdown together before the big events and Robert Dover is all about, “You’re not just turning up, you will exceed your best”… 

“They’ve taken a while to evolve to that. They’ve already been through all the Facebook posts and the infighting. There’s a couple of things that they’ve done that are very good. They have a very strong discipline. If someone rocks the boat, they are out. There are no questions asked. If you contradict what is seen as the team culture, or have behaviour that is in direct contrast to the team, you are finished. No questions. They did it with Caroline Roffman.”

“The other thing I find, which I think contributed to the bronze medal they won, is that they have three teams, they put an A, B and C team into that training venue in Belgium. They had their own nationality coaching, Debbie McDonald, and they may help each other as well. All the grooms, all the owners, they’re all in one place. Not one thing gets out on social media, not one bit of bad press, not one “poor me”. There are probably fights, but they are so damned disciplined, it is so strong, they all have one goal. That works. And the person on the B team isn’t trying to upset the chances of someone on the A team.”

“The Europeans are a bit different, they’re wired differently to us. We’re better off basing off the American model. Especially the way they’ve embraced their own countrymen as trainers, mentors and their chef d’equipe, and the way they have discipline, so that things don’t leak.”

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“We need, and we spoke about this in a meeting today, we need strong leadership like that. I know it drives Ton de Ridder crazy. Not that Ton wants to control it all, but there’s no discipline. We need to make tough decisions, and people have to cop it. We are where the Americans were 10 or 15 years ago, but we’ve got to grow up. We’ve got to be a bit more mature. We need to also rebuild it from Australia. I can fully understand interaction with Europe, and we need that, but I believe that needs to happen in the middle years, the years in between the Olympics and WEG. We need to have a training trip to Europe, go for 4-6 months with a few riders; train, compete, train, compete without their neck on the line so there’s no desperate behaviour.”

“The problem with sending riders in Olympic or WEG years, you put them there with strained finances and a dream they’re trying to fulfill, of course you’re inviting desperate behaviour. I found myself, being depressed and getting down, and never wanting to compete for Australia again, that’s how I felt and still feel, to some point. All sorts of behaviour comes out when you are placed in a very desperate situation.”

“The guys in Europe, we love them all, but they just don’t understand that sort of desperation we have, and they don’t understand how we have to survive in this business, and we need Australia to be thriving because that’s our profession and our source of income. I know it’s impractical to think that you can make the selection events in Australia all the time. I can use Rio as an example, because the horses had to fly from Europe, so in some way, the horses were going to end up in Europe. That doesn’t mean that at least part of the selection process couldn’t have been in Australia though. That means getting in and designing a way. For example, Kelly (Layne) is in America, the girls (Kristy and Lyndal Oatley, and to some degree Mary Hanna) are in Europe. That doesn’t mean the selectors can’t say, “Right. two scores are chosen. The first comes from one of three selection events in America or Australia or wherever you live. This score will make up 40% of your grand total; 40% to remove judging imperfections.”

“If we do have to travel to a big event from Europe, then those who feel they have a chance will go to the next selection event which is two head-to-heads. You must attend. None of this if you don’t go – you still get a score. You put your best score from those two events forward and that is 60% weighting of your grand total.”

“If there is no need to go to Europe, say for example the Tokyo Olympics, there would be a completely Australian process. The thing is, these poor Australian show organisers, who put their heart and souls into these events, are battling to get people to come and watch. Let’s give the spectators a reason to come. It would be a selection event. Have two of them so you can afford to muck one up, you can take a risk.”

“For the Tokyo Games, which you can get to from Australia, then everyone has to come home (it’s called Australia) for the final selection events. I know there’s going to be problems, and I know there’s going to be whingeing, but we’re prepared to fly there, so those guys have to be prepared to fly here. And if they don’t want to, then don’t be part of it.”

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Where do you see the money coming from for training trips? That’s one of the big reasons riders don’t do them. 

“I believe there are a lot of very good people out there. The “Go Fund Me” for Sue Hearn and those people who contributed to the Travel Fund, is a great example of how much people want to back their own riders. I believe that if people have confidence in the system, they’ll contribute. Heath and Rozzie (Ryan) raised a hell of a lot of money through their ball. The Americans are all privately funded, and those backers put out some very big cheques, but people need to have confidence in a structure, because at the end of the day, they want to see the fruits of their generosity.”

“Let’s say we sent four young riders to Europe next year on talented horses, I’ll guarantee they come home better. If they’re better, they push everyone else, so you start to raise the standard. I mean we want to go to Europe and we need to go to Europe, but let’s do it in a different time in the cycle. So the Americans use Aachen in an Olympic year for a reason, but rewind the clock, in 2008/2009, they used it as a training trip, which is where I think we are – we’re in that phase. You go to the good shows in the training years.”

“In the big years, for example with Tokyo, all the riders have to come here. Then you get Kristy and Lyndal Oatley, Hayley Beresford or whoever, all competing in Australia. I guarantee you, in ten years, you have a different sport. For those people who disagree with it, come up with a better way and look at the way the current system is killing our sport. If they want to support the current system, then they should accept full responsibility for the bad state the sport is in.”

“Sue, Maree (Tomkinson), I, we just didn’t want to be part of it. I guarantee Sue will come back totally burnt out. I’m burnt out, I have no enthusiasm for this current system. I would have more enthusiasm for a better process. Maree’s the same. She doesn’t even want to ride. The bad set ups really burn you out… If you want to ride for Australia, this is what you have to do: Go to Europe, go to two shows and by the way if you muck one up, you’re out… and put your life on the line for it. It’s so inequitable. My poor owners, it’s cost them $100,000 at least. Ok, we had issues with the horse ,and my owners accept that, they’re horse people, but you get an idea of the costs.”

“Ton is a great guy. What he’s done for us is nothing short of outstanding and I can’t rate him highly enough. He’s the perfect person for the role he’s in. The question is, if we go in the direction that I suggest, we will need his input and influence in Europe, but if we’re trying to make it stronger in Australia, I think we’ve got to try to get it through the state training structures like the state squads. They’re the ones that meet frequently. The state squads are the ones that need to hum along and they need to produce the culture of, “You’re here, it doesn’t finish now that you’ve made the squad, you’re just starting. We expect you to stick to the structure, you need to be disciplined,” so when you get to National events, the riders are schooled, they’re ready for it.”

“There’s one good thing about hitting rock bottom… the only way is up. And it really makes people dig deep and think about what’s going on. You don’t want to undermine anyone’s efforts in the past, because people really tried their best for it, but I think we have to look after Australia, number one. I think that’s the biggest thing to come out of all of it. We need to take ownership of it nationally.”

“There’s no other country really that has to do this over two hemispheres. We are faced with more challenges than any other country in the world. When you go to the shows and you explain your selection process to the guys in other countries; to the Americans, the British, they can’t believe we do what we do. I had a good dinner with Richard Davidson, he said, “You guys have got to get more pride. You need to look after your own sport back in Australia. Get Australia strong. You’re good enough. You just have to believe in yourselves.” I agree with him. We will get much more respect internationally when we stop being the guys who just turn up out of the blue, when we start being the ones who control it ourselves.”

23 thoughts on “Brett Parbery on the Aus Dressage Team Selection Process for Rio…

  1. Excellent article. So agree with all Brett says.. We need to stand up and be proud Australians, stop pussyfooting behind Europe… To represent Australia you have to ride and compete in Australia and build on the talent in our home country…. The inequity and financial hardship of the selection system used for Rio made us all cringe and pity our Australian based riders.. With the current system no Australian based rider, in their right mind, would ever want to ride Dressage for Australia!! Let’s get it right for our next generation of proud and talented young riders coming through the ranks!!

  2. You are so so correct Brett!!!!
    Distance is our barrier BUT
    The desire to achieve is there…,
    England was quite an under achiever in the International competition world until Carl Hester and Charlotte came onto the scene..
    They took the world by storm!!!
    I look at our riders of : you Brett , Tor, and Deon .
    You three have the talent.
    I just wish we could grow a plan to develop you THREE and any other rider who can match your talent .

  3. I hadI havI I have expressed concerns about the fairness of the system for 6 years now and nothing has changed, Members’ money that has been wasted on projects that have had nothing to do with the riders and developing equestrian sport … and more about keeping the “administation monster” fed!\The average horse enthusiast sees the system as unfair. Australians are known for their fondness for a “fair go and have reacted to the lack of transparency and any appearance that their support is valued – empty seats are proof that things need to change.

  4. Such a good article. My heart bled for you Brett when one disappointing show was the indicator of no selection. This process needs to be much fairer and attainable without bleeding those dry who just want to represent their country and deserve to do so on ore than one event. Build Australian events to be better.

  5. Totally agree Brett! It has to start at home. If we can make dressage strong in Australia and put on good shows we will have something to offer large corporate sponsors so it’s a win win! Use Europe to our gain not detriment.

  6. The more transparent the process, the more everyday people and small town families want to be a part of the dream… which will only keep the sport growing as it has done. Enthusiasm & effort should win medals, not wealth.

  7. I wonder whether rather than sending young riders overseas to train we should send our instructors and judges overseas to train? If we really want to create depth in Australian dressage we need more quality instructors who can actually train horses and riders to GP level, at the moment we only have a handful in each state. I think EA would get a lot better return on our investment sponsoring instructors to train overseas for a number of years in exchange for committing to teach in Australia.

  8. Couldn’t agree more Brett! Very good ideas. I hope they listen. ‘Burn out’ is happening in all aspects of our sport. We desperately need an injection of positivity. I LOVE the idea of selection events here. How can we make this happen?

  9. Brett – there is no doubt part of the selection process must be completed in Australia to help strengthen the sport as a whole. I would suggest 1 domestic performance for a combination within the 2 years prior to selection as a minimum requirement. However, I think just as important is to have a minimum “A-qualifier” standard which must be met before any combination can be considered. Such an approach is used in athletics, swimming and many other disciplines. I know there would be a lot of screaming but could I suggest only including combinations who have achieved a CDI-GP score of 75% for consideration. This would give all Rider’s and owners a target and allow us to construct a team with a competitive chance. We are clearly not competitive at the moment. Yes, we might not have team for a period of time but think what could be done with the funds raised. Precious resources should not be spent on poorly financed teams with scores that are not up to a set standard. Spend the money on development until we can realistically move into the big league. As for where the money might come from, the supporters of the sport and the Rider’s need to work to develop private and corporate philanthropy at every opportunity. We have to support our own both psychologically and financially.

  10. Such a common sense article. Well Done Brett for daring to voice what the grass roots supporters feel about how you big guns should be treated. How much cheaper would it be to bring the judges and trainers here than to send horses and riders on wild show chasing around Europe. We really missed seeing Maree at Equitana and hope her enthusiasm for competing returns. Australia does need to get some pride in home grown capabilities and nurture and select here. Given Tokyo is in our neck of the woods, the timing is perfect to enact and build on your suggestions. I’m sure the idea of a B and C team as well, will really motivate riders in those categories to up skill instead of feeling it’s all a bit pointless and out of reach.

  11. Well said Brett.
    I also think Kate’s suggestion above is excellent. It’s hard for most people to find good teachers without travelling great distances. Support Aus based coaches to grow competitive squads of the future. As many coaches are also riders it would improve those individual’s performance as well.

  12. Super article Brett, your experiences with the Rio selection would have been very heartfelt.
    Thank you for sharing with us and here’s hoping some sorely needed changes start to evolve. Australia have some amazing horses and riders.

  13. Peter and Jane Bartram anology spot on. Excellent article from Brett which hopefully will help restructure the process for us here in Australia .

  14. Good article. Well said Brett. We have to change the current process. I think we are ready to do our qualifications here in Australia. The CDIs get the good judges so shouldn’t be a problem. W need to support our Australian CDIs. Those in Europe will just have to come here if they want to be selected.

  15. We would do well to have a look at the business model – for want of a better word – that GB put in place when they realised that they were not and were never going to be competitive unless they changed the way they did things – and they did – and the rest of course is history.
    There are articles on other sites that refer to that plan and I have a feeling that David Richardson gets a mention on more than one occasion. Certainly worth the read for our people sitting in Administration roles.

  16. After any success, administrators are quick to claim credit, after less than wonderful performances they are hard to find. I know that the Brits receive massive lottery funding and have an army of administrators, expert assistance etc, I’m just not so sure how much effect that has had. When I asked Carl Hester about the funding, he said it was nice to have some financial help when they went away to shows, but given that they go to so few shows, this is not a huge factor. I think Carl and Charlotte would have had the same level of success with or without their high performance program, ditto for William Fox-Pitt and for that matter, Nick Skelton, all genius riders following the beat of their own drum. But what about the younger riders that these programs support? Good question – name one. Britain still relies on the same old stagers. I suspect that the British model is just a larger and more sophisticated version of what happens here, where Sports funding bodies hand out money to organizations like EA, to pay for little bureaucrats to write reports to the funding body as to how the program is going. Certainly when we have a higher level of funding than ever before, the riders receive LESS financial support than ever before!? Can I float one idea, as we move to an Australia only selection round to determine the team for the Tokyo Games, would it be an idea to ease into this brave new world, with one selection series in Europe for two places to the WEG team, and one series in Australia, to fill the other two places?? – Chris Hector

  17. Absolutely spot on. Now can EA take their heads out of the sand, accept that the current system is poor and doesn’t lead to a better future and try something new?

  18. Absolutely spot on Brett. This is such an insightful look into the Australian selection process and development of our sport IN Australia for the future. We have the perfect opportunity to trial such a system leading into Tokyo and it’s one that we should take eagerly and with both hands! Our current system doesn’t work, it hasn’t worked for some time and it doesn’t lead to a better future. We can hold events here, we can support our riders, we can put the funding into our sport in a much more useful way – now we just need to do it! Try something new and take a long term approach. Nothing against the riders that have performed in our current system, they’re still great riders, but on the world stage it’s just not enough. We need to do things differently. If you want a different result you need to try something new.

  19. I am dismayed that our CDI’s and Championships attract fewer and fewer spectators. As a result, sponsors are dropping off – a negative spiral.
    If we had all selection events here, well promoted, people would attend to watch the best we have fight it out. That would be attractive to sponsors as well. For untold years our aspiring team members had to cope with the financial, emotional and physical hardship to attend selection events in Europe. It’s time for those who make their home over there to come here if they are truly determined to ride in our colours.
    As Brett has rightly said, we are probably in a similar development stage as were the Americans a few years ago. It appears they have a working system and they have developed some excellent coaches. And I know the Americans are very willing to help. I was super impressed with the willingness of Lilo Fore to share her knowledge.
    We need a national coach who can be here at least four times a year. Ton de Ridder ( who is an excellent coach ) is here far too seldom to do much good. I am sure he would come more frequently but EA seem to have a preference for more administrators instead.
    Our coach would of course work with the various squads but also with local coaches and also give paid lessons to anyone willing to pay. That way there is at least some income to help offset the expenses.

  20. Very interesting ! The logistics and where we are global located is a huge factor , we know as we have done the trip to Europe.
    Whats the answer ? well where do i start

  21. Well said Brett, I think we need to encourage and assist in the development of more high level events in Australia, the orange cdi being an example, what a wonderful event that was, however it seemed to rest on a few and organisers tend to burn out if not backed up with helpers etc. Hopefully your suggestions don’t fall on deaf ears.

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