HEAD TO HEAD
BILL NOBLE assesses the contenders for New Zealand’s sole dressage berth at the upcoming Olympics, and reflects on our best season yet for Grand Prix riders
So, another season winds down. As far as Grand Prix is concerned, it’s been the best season we’ve ever had, with several horses hovering around the 70% mark, with Julie Brougham’s Vom Feinsten breaking his own Australasian freestyle record at HOY and securing a place for New Zealand at the Rio Olympics…. all pretty heady stuff!
It’s not just the GP scores at HOY that were impressive: more important was the fact that all the horses looked reasonably confident at that level; the competition was a clear highlight of the week.
For Julie to have secured an Olympic spot for NZ is impressive not just because of the scores she’s been achieving, but also because of the effort she’s made, with trips back and forth to compete in the Australian internationals. For this effort, commitment, and quality of work, she deserves our heartiest congratulations.
If the Olympic spot had to be filled today, our selectors would have a difficult task to chose between our two contenders. Julie, having secured this spot, would have the slight advantage: she won the Grand Prix at HOY, and breached the 70% barrier in so doing, but the other possibility, John Thompson, won both the National Championship title and the HOY title with Antonello, thus showing more consistency.
Both horses are very close to the projected cut-off point for advancing to the second round at the Olympics, the GP Special. From what I’ve seen from the scores around the world, I would guess that a combination would need to be upwards of 71% to feel safe for round two; neither of ours is quite there yet, but they are both very close. John has further opportunities in Australia, whilst Julie is off to Europe to train and compete. We wish them well.
The question of whether we should send a horse, and, if so, which one, will create huge debate around the country over the next few months. But before euphoria takes hold, let’s be real and look at another couple of questions.
Our Olympic spot came as a result of a great deal of personal effort and expense from Julie. But what would have happened if we had had a brilliant rider on a brilliant horse who simply could not have afforded to compete in Australia? After all, it’s not cheap flying horses back and forth... not to mention the time involved. And we would need our rider to compete in Australia: we simply do not have the number of internationals here for anyone to gain the points needed for such an Olympic spot.
We are stuck in a classic Catch-22 situation: we cannot get High Performance funding until we are successful at world elite level, yet we may not be able to compete successfully at that level without the HP funding. We need to think about how we can support brilliance if and when it appears.
More abstract, and fascinating, is the concept of where we go from here. Yes, it will be great to have another Olympian. But let’s be realistic. Our rider may well not make the second round, and almost certainly not the third − the medal round; the freestyle.
How many New Zealand dressage folk
How many New Zealand dressage folk really, genuinely, believe that we can get into medal contention in the next few years? I do, for one.”
really, genuinely, believe that we can get into medal contention in the next few years? I do, for one.
Over the last few years, many riders have lost the fear of training to GP; this is great. So the next major step will be for good riders on great horses to go to mid- to high- 70%. Possible? Of course!
All advanced riders need to take a hard, critical look at their work, and compare it with that of the world’s best. All will have their own view of the di erences: I’ll bet that the ‘talent of the horse’ becomes the number-one reason.
ey may be right; I don’t think many horses have the ability to be scoring 8s and upwards throughout a GP test. But certainly we do have some extraordinarily gifted horses, who are not yet producing extraordinary work.
Why? Again, everyone will have their own reasons. e other day I watched one of my pin-up horses, Germany’s Desperados, winning in Dortmund with 80%. Why was he 80%, and our best ‘only’ 70? I know that it is di cult, and dangerous, to compare work seen on video with that seen in real life, but I had the strong feeling that Desperados did nothing that our top horses could not do: ours could perform the tricks with equal effciency, but there was a class that he showed which our horses lack: he worked with a comfort level, a peacefulness, an ease, which ours do not. All ours have an edge of tension which Desperados did not show.
Again, we could discuss why that was the case: “ours are not so established”, “they don’t have the same opportunities to compete”, “Desperados has more talent”, “she [rider Kristina Sprehe] has more help than our riders have”, and so on. ese reasons may all be valid, but I think miss the point.
At HOY, watching the working-in of the Advanced horses at levels below GP was quite fascinating. Despite the fact that there were some stunning horses, it seemed to me that not many riders really, really believed that it was possible to train with efficiency (regarding the tricks), power, and relaxation. is is an odd mixture, one which is di cult, for sure, but possible.
Power and relaxation can combine. In my experience, riders who fail to recognise and correct quality problems – tension, restrictions, tightnesses, etc – on the way to GP will almost certainly be unable to correct them once there.
I saw a classic example of this many years ago at an Olympics: one brilliant horse which I’d seen competing several times, and always performed very short and tight in the neck, was being ridden by that country’s national coach before the Games started. e work under this trainer impressed me greatly: it was free, unrestricted, and spectacular – except that in this state the horse had no idea how to piaffe. For several years it had only done so with chin on throat: the poor thing had no perception of how to do this freely.
I genuinely believe that we could get to world level here, but to do so we need to have our top lower-level horses arriving at the doorstep of GP with work which, although probably lacking GP power, shows no serious quality defects.
I’m o en reminded of Reiner Klimke’s great horse Ahlerich: the rst time I saw him in GP he worked with great freedom, comfort and beauty, but with a balance only suitable for, say, a Medium-level horse; he was only mid- eld, but set a platform for future gold.
FROM RIGHT There’s very little between Julie Brougham and John Thompson for NZ’S sole dressage spot at Rio