Is there an Australian dressage ‘re-evaluation’?

My friend, Kenneth Braddick is running a series of articles on his website www.dressage.news where he has invited Australian dressage riders to outline their views on the way selection should go in the future. (If you don’t know Kenneth’s website you should –¬†http://www.dressage-news.com)

First cab off the rank was the European based, Lyndal Oatley. Lyndal makes the very good point that she does ‘not wish to see my fellow riders from home and afar sacrifice so much, and travel so far, for simply a chance to represent our country and return home deflated to rebuild their businesses and families. This is not fair to ask of anyone, just as it’s not viable to ask overseas based riders to return home for the same reasons.’

Certainly the Australian based riders have been at a huge disadvantage since EA adopted a policy of European based selection trials back in 2008 in the run-up to the Beijing Games, and maintained the system for London and Rio. Lots has been said about the cost to the riders of traveling their horses to Europe, but that is just half the story. They arrive, usually at the last minute to save money, without any of the back up support they are used to – frantically trying to find a truck, someone to groom, a farrier, trying to find their way around a very different show scene, without the help of their usual trainer, or the emotional support of family and friends. It always struck me as bizarre that the richest riders, the ones who could afford to base themselves in Europe and ride very expensive horses, assisted by top coaches, got all the advantages, while the poor silly bastards who actually competed on the Australian dressage scene were given the rough end of the deal. Surely it should be the other way around? The riders who make the Australian dressage scene happen should be favored over riders who contribute nothing to our competition and the standard in Australia…

Strange that Lyndal considers it ‘not viable’ for the European based riders to travel to an Australian qualifier – yet it was perfectly ‘viable’ for Australian based riders to travel to Europe for the last three Games.

The other problem with the selection process is that it has not been very successful. The first time it was tried, for the Beijing Games, was far and away the best result. Two of the three team members made it to the Special – Hayley Beresford and Relampago on 65.583, were 18th in the Grand Prix, Kristy Oatley and Quando Quando were 19th on 65.75, while the third member of the team, Heath Ryan was 34th with 62.54.

At London, Lyndal and Sandro Boy were 37th, Kristy and Clive, 42nd, and Mary Hanna and Sancette, 43rd. None into the Special.

Rio was more of the same. Sandro Boy was 36th, Boogie Woogie, 39th, Du Soleil, 42nd and Remmington, 54th. One shudders to think how many thousand dollars a minute those seven tests cost.

So if the European selection trials are producing a pretty dismal result, while at the same time, the absence top riders in what should be a thrilling selection year, is killing our competitions at home – not to mention sending our Aussie riders broke – why are we doing it?

The second of Kenneth’s contributions comes from US based Kelly Layne. Her solution is a three sided competition – three selection events on three continents – Australia, Europe and the United States – with nine selection events to be selected by EA at CDI*** or higher. Competitors must compete in at least two of the three competitions, and if they compete in all three, the lowest score is dropped.

All tests scores in the selection process will have the high and low scores of the Ground Jury discarded. If a competitor’s final average score is within one percent of any other competitor after dropping the high and low scores, Equestrian Australia will defer to the Grand Prix Special score, again dropping the high and low scores to determine the final percentage and determine the highest placed riders. Nominated horses to be swabbed by EA after the GP at each event.

It must be noted that in the run up to Rio, the only American based rider to have a qualifying score was Kelly, and that so far this year, with the big dressage festival in full swing at Wellington, she is still the only rider with a qualifying score. So far in 2017, Kelly Layne and Udon P have started in two CDIs. At the first she scored 65% in the Grand Prix, and 68.6 in the Freestyle. At the second 68.454% in the GP, and 72.935% in the Freestyle; Kim Gentry and Leonardo started three times at two CDIs for Grand Prix scores of 61.06% and 60.4%, and a Special score of 62%. Nicholas Fyffe on Fiero scored 67% in a national Grand Prix.

It might seem strange then to run a selection trial in the USA for one contender. However Kelly’s three-way trial concept has real merit and if at the beginning of 2018 and a WEG selection year, three or four US based riders were producing qualifying scores, then we would have to revisit it.

I would also stipulate that the contenders start in all three tests with no exceptions. Two out of three gives a real chance of nursing a dodgy horse through the selection process.

I also worry about the effect America seems to have on Ground Juries. In both eventing dressage and dressage dressage they hand out wildly generous scores the minute they set foot on American soil. Not true I can hear my mate Kenneth saying, the year you were at Wellington, Steffen Peters got a 70+ score in Florida, and the same score a month later in Europe, so the scoring is the same. Well I didn’t see the test in Europe, but I did see the one in Wellington and it was a pig of a test. Apparently the horse had a foot abscess in the lead up, and in the Florida ‘warm up’, the rider was not able to prepare the horse properly – it certainly looked that way. I assume the horse was fit and well in Europe, and the test was a lot better. That Steffen got the same score at both shows, makes my point entirely.

With three shows on three continents, we are back on the unequal playing field – there is no doubt that show atmosphere can affect the judges’ scoring.

So here is my suggestion, it is not perfect, but I suspect that a perfect system does not exist. For the next WEG in Tryon, 50% of the team comes from selection trials in Australia – two or three contests, appearance at all contests mandatory no matter how wonderful the excuse. 50% of the team comes from selection trials in Europe (sorry Kelly but you’ll have to fly again if you want to take part).

And this is only a literal half way step. We have a well-developed routine for flying horses between Australia and Japan – for the Tokyo Games, 100% of the Australian team for the Tokyo Games to be selected out of selection trials in Australia. And if the Europeans riders consider it ‘ not viable’ to make the journey that Australian riders have made for the last three Games, tough. It would open up new places, and kick start an Australian dressage scene that seems to have stalled, and that might be the best thing that has happened to Australian dressage in 20 years.

Obviously, if such a policy were adopted then there would need to be an intensive upgrade of coaching in Australia. There are trainers who could help improve our standards – but with the stand out exception of Ton de Ridder who is more of a team manager than coach – they are not the ones EA has been using of late.

The problem is, is there really a ‘re-think’? Or does it just exist on the pages of Kenneth’s website? We saw how a ‘full investigation’ of the Rotterdam positive, turned into nothing of the sort, and I have yet to see that EA has recognized the need for a totally new management team, and an entirely different selection structure. My bet is that we will limp into the WEG in Tryon with all the problems of personnel and structure still unresolved – and the result will be more of the same.

– CH

7 thoughts on “Is there an Australian dressage ‘re-evaluation’?

  1. Aussie scores are 10% below where they need to be to be competitive on the world stage . Perhaps put our efforts and money into developing before Competing at that level.

  2. Why not keep it simple? Adopt a selection process where all team members are chosen from competitions in Australia held during the “selection year”. This would not prevent riders (rich and poor) from training overseas and experiencing competition there but they would need to return home for the selection year competitions. The merit of this system is that the best team could be chosen from the biggest pool of riders and horses. The challenge then for team hopefuls and the EFA, as now, would be to get to a competitive international standard. That would mean a consistent long-term focus to develop a training regime across Australia (in all states because of distance) to produce good rider / trainers and ultimately an internationally competitive squad. Australia can produce world class horses. It can produce world class horsemen and women. What is missing? The coaching / training foundation to produce competitive teams and a means of expanding the pool of potential talent. A home soil selection year would force a rethink. Better coaches would have to be attracted here for more than clinic sessions and better opportunities provided for solid (not quick fix) training of riders and horses. With dedication we might be able to rise out of the international competition score rut of 65-70 and have a realistic chance of success.

  3. I agree Ray – Keep it simple. Hope the powers (EA High Performance) that be will give these suggestions careful consideration and hopefully take them on board when developing the selection policy for WEG.

    I do think that Kelly Layne’s suggestion has merit – it will make it easier for all contenders for selection.

  4. I agree Ray although I am of the opinion all combinations wishing to compete for Australia should compete in a qualifying event in Australia in the 2 years prior to the selection process. If we cannot get overseas combinations to return to Australia and compete then Australian dressage does not benefit. We need to give those who reside and train in Australia a reasonable chance and a real focus. The investment needs to be for the many and the long term, not just the fortunate few.

  5. Selection trials need to be held in the Australia, we have made our GP riders travel to Europe for far too long. The majority of our GP combinations live, work and contribute to the Australian economy so we need look after those riders. Most of our equestrian sports choose their teams from Australia so why not dressage? If you want to live, marry and form you family overseas then why not try to represent your new country? I think the reason our permanently based European riders don’t take on new nationalities is purely because they would not make the new country’s team. I have lived and worked in Europe and certainly recommend it but if I had decided to stay permanently I would not have expected Australia to accommodate me by having selection events in Europe. I would love our Australian based riders to boycott a team if it wasn’t selected here but certainly understand why they would not, it is every riders dream to represent their country so lets take care of the majority for a change not the minority.

  6. Can’t we utilise technology?
    Organise strategically placed cameras around the arena at, as Kelly suggested 3 comps approved by the selectors, then have the same panel of judges judge all the tests one after the other?

  7. Mr Hector you must have quite the selection/file on “Australian Dressage Team Selection” by now?
    How many times have the EFA/EA even read, let alone taken notice of & incorporated any of your (and readers) suggestions?

    I applaud your passion, and what must be an extremely hard head – from banging it against the brick wall that is, was EFA now morphed into EA, seriously. I threw in my towel long ago.

    The same average but wealthy riders will be on the WEG team, then no doubt front up to the next Olympics, just riding different horses…

    I couldn’t imagine US riders putting up with what Australian based riders put up with, they would revolt! Crikey,
    Lest anyone think this is a ‘bash wealthy riders’ rant?
    umm no, because it’s not like the average aussie battler can even afford to be a part of this or any countries “Dressage Scene”, and it’s been that way in Australia since the 90’s – just check out the parking/stabling area at any dressage show to witness the millions of dollars parked there. (I’m not even counting the horses, or tack/gear. So lets not kid ourselves that Aussie Dressage Competitors are doing it tough.)

    Again, I admire your unrelenting passion, Mr Hector in trying to “level the playing field”.

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