11 August 2015

For the BBC

In one Olympic event, competitors wear not Spandex, but 19th Century business suits. They then perform obscure, slow movements on horseback. A niche sport, Competitive Dressage hangs on to its Olympic status tenuously. To pump up excitement, some competitors began exaggerating their horses' movements. Using Rollkur (hyperflexion), they added flash, but they also started a war. Those favoring the time-honored patient training required by dressage as art (Classical Dressage) say Rollkur hurts horses, perverts history, and harbors those driven by ignorance, greed, or glory.  

This summary admittedly favors Classical Dressage. We feel Competitive Dressage endangers the health and welfare of the ridden horse. To explain our position, it's necessary to explain a bit about the history of dressage and the politics and power struggles involved in recent events.

The origins of Classical Dressage trace to the ancient Greek text The Art of Horsemanship where  Xenophon says forcing a horse to perform is like using "whip and spur" on a dancer. Yet force, now blatant in training and the warm-up ring, pervades Competitive Dressage. Over the last couple of decades and especially after 2003, the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI), the controlling organization for equine sports, has allowed force through abuse of bit and spur, sometimes ignoring or violating its own rules.

Force is a perversion of Classical Dressage, which seeks not to exploit the most talented horse but to maximize the capabilities of any horse through careful and systematic training. Two 20th Century masters epitomized Classical Dressage. As a young cavalry officer, Alois Podhajsky, director of the Spanish Riding School (SRS) from 1939-1965,  won a Bronze medal in the 1936 Olympics on a cavalry-reject Thoroughbred. Like Podhajsky, German Olympian Reiner Klimke devoted his life to kind and careful training. Riding a series of better horses using Classical dressage methods, he won six Olympic Gold and two Bronze medals. This video explains both Klimke's method and the importance of the warm-up:  Aachen 95 Klimke.mpg

Abuse, already present at the time of Klimke's death in 1999, quickly escalated. Warm-up rings abounded with Rollkur contortions. The harsh use of bits and spurs drove German trainer/veterinarian Gerd Heuschman to expose the resulting injuries in his 2007 book Tug of War. Finally, the viral Blue Tongue video inspired outraged petitions from around the world, forcing the FEI to pass a formal ban of Rollkur on show grounds in 2010. However,  instead of rigorously enforcing the ban, the FEI blocked the viewing of warm-up arenas, banned cameras, and sanctioned the use of Long, Low, and Round (LDR), a sort of Rollkur-Lite. Undercover photos showing full Rollkur confirmed the FEI failed to follow its own ban.   

We also point to the FEI's failure to apply longstanding dressage rules during actual competition. Without changing the rules, the FEI simply allowed movements consistent with Rollkur-trained horses to win. Horses with overbent necks, faces behind the vertical (BTV), extravagant front leg action with hollow backs and lagging hindquarters, wringing tails, and excessive drooling now outnumber the "happy athlete" described by FEI rules. 

Many feel the violations stem from prominent FEI officials with strong ties to Rollkur and other dubious methods. Prominent trainer and coach Sjef Janssen helped shape the FEI's policy on dressage, and his wife Anky Van Grunsven brought Rollkur to prominence in dressage. Although multiple Olympic winner Van Grunsven has distanced herself from Rollkur after the ban, she once openly claimed it and was its most successful practitioner. She also taught Edward Gal, rider of Totilas, whose goose-stepping trot violated specific FEI dressage rules yet earned record-breaking scores. Another FEI heavyweight is Joep Bartels. Although recently acquitted, Joep Bartels had to defend himself in a civil case regarding purportedly Rollkur-associated injuries suffered by a horse entrusted to Bartels Academy.

Dressage judges also play a role in these scandals. Anyone with a copy of the rule book for dressage can see high-scoring horses violated rules of correct movement. Is it possible that the FEI would penalize judges who favor the less eye-catching Classical riding by not assigning them work? Would they reward with work judges willing to give high marks to horses not meeting the requirements spelled out in the FEI rulebook?

Now, the abusive practices rampant in Competitive Dressage have reached Vienna's historic SRS, a bastion of Classical horsemanship for close to 450 years. On November 29, 2014, Anky Van Grunsven hosted a visit to Amsterdam by the SRS. There, her husband offered up his already well known opinion that Classical training methods are grossly deficient. Some former SRS riders already bemoan the "improvements" the influence of modern, Competitive Dressage training methods has brought to the halls of the SRS.

Those of us who love Classical Dressage, who love the horse-human partnership it shows, and who simply love horses, ask the BBC to investigate the corruption and abuse Competitive Dressage has brought  to the dressage world.


  1. ummm, I disagree with this letter on several accounts 1) I don't think TV&radio licence owners should pay for an "investigation" on any matter, 2) it is a matter for the FEI and 3) these kind of letters just serve to take equestrian sports off the television, therefore condemning them even more into the box marked "weird, non-mainstream and controversial sport"

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    3. (Not censoring myself, just deleted a version with typos. Re-entering here.)
      Quite frankly, I won't be all that unhappy if dressage were to retreat to being a "weird, non-mainstream sport." That way it could return to those who actually love horses and realize that
      Classical Dressage requires a trained eye and a disciplined mind, not simply the ability to clap when seeing horses tortured.

    4. Agree, Houyhnhnm! Dressage was never meant as an end, but a preparation for other pursuits. Pursuing it beyond that was considered an "art" - and competition ruins art! I would be just as happy to take it back from the "masses" who thrilled at such sad displays as Matinee and Totilas.

  2. That's rather a strange attitude, as the BBC has always been at the forefront of investigative journalism and the voice of the underdog or horse in this case. Why wouldn't the BBC find a worthy subject matter for better informing the public about this type of animal mismanagement & resultant cruelty?

  3. Agree, TheJaynefrances. I just hope the BBC takes on this topic and can see through the superficial charm and rationalizations of some of the top horse abusers. I know how persuasive they can be, especially for those who aren't devout horsemen.

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  5. History gave birth to the truth, and the time it can compete, leaving the smell of the old things preserved down. It is past signs warning contemporary, later lesson.
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