Post-Olympic Thoughts and the War of Hyperflexion vs. Harmony

Have you recovered from the emotional rollercoaster of the Olympics? I think I nearly have.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know that my dressage experience is nugatory. It’s not something I did as a child and I certainly wasn’t interested in watching it beyond the first phase of the three-day event. Boring! But although our silver-medal eventers done good and the show-jumping team’s victory was a heart-stopper fresh out of Jilly Cooper, I knew that it would be the dressage that gripped me most in 2012. I’m caught up in the stories: I know at least a potted history of the main riders and horses – far more than I can say about showjumping. There’s the Totilas scandal, Rafalca Romney, judging controversies and that rum “special meeting with the judges” for top riders in Beijing. I love the PRE Fuego and fell deeply in love with the Portuguese Alter Real, Rubi, whose rider was trained by the master horseman, Nuno Oliveira.

Yes, the British trio of Dujardin, Hester and Bechtolsheimer were on top form and had been for years, but it wasn’t mere patriotism (although if the Olympics don’t make you go a bit jingoistic, what does?) giving me a warm glowy-feeling as I watched the gold medal ceremonies: it was victory in the War of Hyperflexion vs Harmony.

If you’ve been reading any dressage forums lately you’ll know that “war” is not really an exaggeration. Rollkur. What is is precisely, according to the FEI? Who does it and do they win medals? Can a horse that has been hyperflexed actually perform good classical dressage according to the FEI’s specifications? What is dressage meant to be about and who controls its soul? I knew next to nothing about the sport when I returned to horses in 2004 but now my eyes are glued to YouTube videos calculating the degree to which Horse X is behind the vertical, or counting the number of footfalls in Horse Y’s canter pirouette, or trying to understand, once and for all, what true collection looks like. I can hum and haw with the best of them on internet forums about Horse Z’s transitions and Rider B’s hands (too strong? like meat hooks? is that horse evading the bit?). I’m familiar with the debate that pitches modern sports dressage against classical noncompetitive haute école. I am, as they say in LA, “emotionally invested” in the points that are dished out by dressage judges. And this is the nub of it. Whether you want to boo or shout hurrah you’re engaged in what’s going on: that’s the hook that keeps  you glued to the screen and makes you yell outloud when the final score comes in.

After the team competition I pitched a comment piece on the Dressage Wars to a major British paper and began several days’ worth of back-and-forth emails with an editor. The papers and comment pages had been full of people denouncing dressage as “elitist” (it’s an Olympic discipline, what do they expect?) and “posh” (not really), and armchair know-alls weighing in to inform us that dressage was not actually a sport and the horse did all the work anyway. I also pitched a story about the grassroots riding clubs like Stepney Bank and Ebony Horse Club, and the difference they are making to the sport. As the hyperflexion scandal arrived in the warm-up ring at Greenwich, courtesy of Patrick Kittel, it looked like the paper might bite and ask for a comment piece explaining the significance of a win by a team that did not practice horse-throttling, but in the end, it wasn’t to be.

Horse and Hound’s dressage editor Alice Collins turned out a cracking piece on the new world order in dressage, a measured and cadenced blog post by a specialist, rather than a frothing-at-the-bit armchair fan like me. I’ll leave you with her words on the 2012 Olympic dressage:

To those (mostly Dutch) who think Adelinde Cornelissen’s test on Parzival was better than Charlotte’s I’d say: did Adelinde’s test look light and easy? No. It was mistake-free, but it seemed like Adelinde was using every inch of her pilates-enhanced core plus the rigid curb rein to hold Parzival together. It just wasn’t quite as beautiful as Charlotte’s; Parzival is resistant in the mouth, lacks self-carriage at times and doesn’t truly transfer the weight back to his hindquarters in piaffe.

As president of the ground jury Stephen Clarke explained afterwards, it was harmony that won out here.

The Netherlands’ Wim Ernes was the only judge to have Adelinde first and Charlotte second.

Published by Susanna Forrest

Writer Amazons of Paris, The Age of the Horse and If Wishes Were Horses.

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