presented by Gaitpost Magazine

Friday, October 31, 2008

October 31st – No Spooks Here!

It’s Halloween, but none of the fifty zillion kids in the Exhibition and Trade Fair (think Royal and Spruce combined, then quadrupled – and all under one roof) is dressed up in anything weirder than French fashion.

When I am in a foreign country I try really hard to speak the language. I would say that my French is good enough to get by, but I’m no Nicho Meredith, that’s for sure. Now, French people have a special quality that so far I find unique in all the cultures where I have tried out my language skills. When I ask a question in French, before I get an answer, I often get a correction to my grammar. Last night is a perfect case in point. I felt like a burger. It was on the menu (a fancy one: Limousin beef, shaved parmeson, potato pancake for a bun, and arugula on the side). So I asked for it in my best French accent: un hamburger si-vous-plait. I got a puzzled response. “un ammboorguerre” I said again. “It’s not a hamburger,” was the reply. “It’s a burger.” Anyway, it was a good burger. And she was right, after all. There was no ham in it.

Into the Bellies of the Beasts

So after all my shoulder-checking at the GDF, it has been here in France that I’ve got up close and personal with the judges. It started on Wednesday evening as I was driven by horse show shuttle from the airport to the hotel. There was another passenger in the vehicle with me, and it was only after a few minutes of friendly chat in the dark that I realized I was talking to the Hungarian judge from Hong Kong, Barnabas Mandi. It was a few more minutes before the penny dropped for him. We were discussing the judging, and I happened to mention that I recalled he had given Salinero an eight for a rather croup-high set of ones on centre line in the Speciale. Dr. Mandi is a real gentleman, and first he thanked me for finding his ‘only mistake’. He then told me in a very polite, almost friendly, tone of voice that what I was doing – meaning the blog – was a perfect way to destroy the sport. I (also politely) disagreed of course. Mr. Mandi was in fact quite fascinating to talk to, and while I am reluctant to write too much of what he said here, since it was an off-the-record conversation and betraying trust is not one of my sins, here are a few items we touched on that I am pretty sure he’s ok with me sharing:

  1. He pointed out to me that he gave the only zero that Satchmo received for his piaffe-passage transition at G, saying that the only way the movement could have been less performed than it was, is if Satchmo had left the ring. Actually he wasn’t the only one. J. M. Roudier gave zero too.

  2. He also pointed out Stickland’s analysis (this guy is really popular with the judges, I must say), which revealed that the judges didn’t differ by more than 5% in Hong Kong. I guess Stickland meant the final marks, because there is a hell of a lot of difference between a zero and a six. Mr. Mandi didn’t much like the word ‘solidarity’, which I offered as a descriptor of how the judges were in Hong Kong, but he was ok with ‘on the same page’.

  3. I was interested to know what Dr. Mandi does besides judging these days, and he said he was just on his way from working with some top jumping horses (in Holland or Belgium I think) whose flat work he trains. “I don’t train international dressage horses, of course,” he said, the implication being that doing so is a conflict of interest for an international judge. Hm.

I was quite pleased to have spoken to one of the Hong Kong judges, because it gave me an opportunity to say that I wasn’t trying to destroy the sport. And it wasn’t scary at all! It also made that judge more human to me, and I will never again be afraid to ask Dr. Mandi a question about his judging directly.

I guess you could say I’m getting Christmas early this year, because yesterday after the Grand Prix, Mariette Withages and Ghislain Fouarge (dammit! I keep putting an ‘s’ on his name) approached me after the press conference. Mariette told me she had read on my blog that I had questions for her at the GDF, and I replied that I did indeed. We then had a conversation about all kinds of things. A man sitting nearby later said it sounded like we were arguing but if he thought that was an argument, I’d hate for him to witness what my husband and I call arguments. No, Mariette was very polite and open to my questions, and she was unhesitant in her replies, which she knew were getting written down in my book. When I asked her why more riders don’t come to the GDF, she advised me to ask the riders (I’m on it!). She then said that “some people are thinking that they can rule the world,” and that there is “no mutual respect any more.” She also added that the judges aren’t afraid to be criticized, and that they know that in a subjective sport like dressage, “we are the weakest link.” Hm.

That’s just a taste of what we talked about, and rest assured it was not one sided. I said that my intent is not to just attack the judges, but that if no journalists were going be critical of them, that left the riders to do it, and they sure aren’t in a position to do that publicly without fear of retribution. I think the conversation ended on a civil note, at least outwardly it did.

Now Mr. Fouarge (no ‘s’!) stayed behind to have a word with me too. He too was incredibly polite, but now I know it’s really true. All the Olympic judges read my blog. Mr. Fouarge took issue with my calling him something that judges aren’t normally called, but there was some confusion because he had believed I was quoting Steffen Peters when I used the name. Out of newly gained respect for Mr. Fouarge and a desire that he will speak frankly to me again some time, I will not write that name again – but if you are really curious, go to my GPS judging analysis in the HOG blog. Now I need to email Steffen and explain that I did not quote him in reference to Fouarge in any way.

Setting the Record Straight

This is what I learned from Mr. Fouarge that I wish I knew in Hong Kong. The reason he rang the bell in Carex’s ear was because of a new policy adopted by the jury to give each rider exactly 60 seconds from the time he or she entered the stadium until the bell rang. Carex just happened to be in front of C at that moment, and while he says he waited a bit in hopes that he wouldn’t startle the horse, Mr. Fouarge was compelled not to treat one rider differently – he had to ring that bell at 60 seconds. What also happened to make matters worse is that something from the electronics under his table fell and made a small crashing sound. Why that wasn’t explained to the media during the press conference after Ken Braddick asked about the Swedish protest is beyond me. It would have made SUCH a difference. The other clarification: Mr. Fouarge never said that Debbie should be ashamed of herself for showing Brentina. He did make a critical comment on her test sheet, but not THAT critical. These Chinese Whisper games can get way out of hand.

To Mr. Fouarge I would like to say: I’m sorry I assumed you were an evil judge-monster in Hong Kong. You were extremely civilized in talking with me yesterday, and I am looking forward to future conversations that will prevent such a misinterpretation of events from happening again. No, people, I’m not sucking up. I know you would all stop reading the blog if you thought I was caving. But he really was open, listened to me with respect, and I will never hesitate from asking him questions in the future – even if they are hard ones. And my opinions are always open for revision. Always. That includes changing them back to what they were before if there is evidence that I was right in the first place. Hm.

Painted Brown

No big surprise – Anky won the Grand Prix yesterday, but not by much over Nathalie the Danish rider with the awful-to-spell last name. Anky apparently doesn’t ride Painted Black in prize givings ever since he so ungraciously bucked her off at a show last year. Instead, she did her victory lap and wave on the horse of the other Dutch rider in the dressage here – a very cute bay that reminds me a little of my own little Dutch dressage partner at home, my beloved Theo.

Today’s blog was really dedicated to the judges, but tomorrow I’ll share more about the delights of Equita-Lyon. And no more blogging about food, I promise.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

New Places, Same Faces – From GDF to La France

Well, here I am in Lyon for the next leg of my adventure: the CSI 5* and CDI 5*, followed by the WBFSH AGM. Well, I’m not really in Lyon and so far I don’t feel the France spirit (though my room service dinner was awfully good last night) unless I think about how a group of people sat in the row immediately in front of me in an almost empty stadium this morning. I’ve been put in Novotel, way out on the outer fringes (but necessarily near the competition). Those of you familiar with Novotel know that it does its very best to replicate the generic blandness of most North American hotel chains. But I’m not whining, honest. The bed is comfy and the hosts of this competition have picked up my hotel tab – which is pretty darned fine of them. Hell, the Royal won’t even give its media visitors parking passes.

What I do feel, however, is that either I’m following these people around…or I can be paranoid and self-obsessed and imagine that they are following me. The ground jury looks a lot like Hong Kong, and includes our old friend Herr Riexinger, as well as Ghislain Fouarges and Barnabas Mandi - with whom I had a lovely chat, and I do mean LOVELY, in the car on the way to the hotel last night (but more on that later). And of course, Mme. Withages was smilingly sitting at C for the Grand Prix this morning. And I don’t know how she did it, but Laura Bechtolsheimer, one of the few international riders to hang out at the GDF this year, managed to get from there on Tuesday to here and ride a lovely test this morning on a horse called Andretti H. I have lots of stuff about today, but I know you want to first hear about the rest of the GDF.

My Tolerance Cup Runneth Over

Ok, I have really had to give my head a firm shake. All this fear factor about the judges running after me with weapons had me almost cowed into not writing what I really think. Gary, I’m sorry I didn’t go up and re-introduce myself to you. I know you don’t like me very much, but I never wrote a nasty word about you in reference to the Brentina story. I didn’t see the test and I only blog about things I saw. FYI, there are only two things in my blog besides the odd photo: facts (objective) and my opinions (subjective). It’s not journalism, although I suspect the blog may be more widely read than any one of my magazine articles. So I’m just going to keep writing what I think and let the consequences be what they may.

The GDF this year indeed took a step back in the dialogue, but I’m afraid it can’t just be blamed on the judges. Joep Bartels told me at the end of last year’s GDF that the one group that was under-represented in the audience was the riders – and this year it was even worse. I’m not sure why they are so reluctant, but there is little doubt that part if it is due to not wanting to see themselves on enormous screens being minutely scrutinized – of course they are all on youtube, but that’s not the same. Yes, it’s a tough and possibly bitter pill, but without the most important participants that have the power of speech, it’s a bit like skipping rope with only one person holding one end of the rope.

But there sure were a LOT of judges around this year. I think most of them went to the presentation by the gymnastics guy, but they ALL seemed to be at the “How to Become an Olympic Judge” speech by Dieter Schule that probably discouraged more people than it encouraged. So here is how the judge-o-mania second morning went.

The gymnastics guy raised a pile of interesting points; they didn’t all say bad stuff about dressage, either. It was clear that some of the problems in figure skating and gymnastics have already been addressed in dressage – yes I really mean it. It was also clear that although the sports share many of the same issues, it’s still kind of apples and oranges. Yes, we can take a page from their book, but dressage is unique and just copying the judging system of those sports is not the answer. My question to the speaker was to ask him what motivated the changes to the other sports, and where the athletes fit into the picture. His answer came as no great surprise to me but I was glad he said it in front of so many people: he replied that those sports have technical committees to oversee and review and that they have balanced representation – including athletes and trainers, not just judges.

101 Reasons Not to Try Becoming an Olympic Judge

As I said, Mariette had an FEI date to keep and couldn’t stay for the second day (but she and I have already had a chat here in Lyon, which I will talk about later when it’s all sunk in) so Dieter Schule was therefore completely free to show us how little he is interested in change. Apart from a short but interesting bit from Wim Ernes about the Dutch dressage judging qualification system (yes, it’s progressive), Dr. Schule was the main event. And even though we had JUST learned a bunch of ideas from the gymnastics guy (he has a name but you won’t recognize it and it’s hard to spell), Dr. Schule could not bring himself to agree that many things needed to change in the system. In fact, every time he did mention proposals for change in that context, he immediately refuted them by saying why he thought that particular change is a bad idea. And when Jean Michel Roudier (one of the Olympic judges who never drew my attention with his marks) and Bernard Maurel (interesting, both French judges) made suggestions, Schule was steadfastly against them. Here are just two of the things that came up:

  1. Roudier brought up the issue with how riders get their FEI certificate of capability – the 64% from a single O judge on a panel. As he pointed out, putting all the eggs in a single judge’s basket goes very much against the gymnastic’s guy’s point about equalizing the judging by not letting one judge’s marks count for too much. In this case the O judge counts exclusively. Roudier’s proposal is that they take the panel average, as long as it includes an O judge. Dr. Schule basically betrayed that he doesn’t have faith in some of the I judges, by replying that a panel average may include scores from not-very-good judges, or candidate judges, or a judge from the rider’s own country. Dr. Schule’s answer? No change. Or maybe, if there are 2 or 3 O judges on the panel then use an average from them. That could mean an awfully hectic schedule for the world’s 25 or so O judges. And Schule himself said that judges shouldn’t just fly around from gig to gig, but that they need to stay involved in the sport on other levels, like as trainers (Which as Roudier also pointed out, raises another problem of conflict of interest, but enough already).

  2. Maurel raised the potential accusation of age discrimination with the current age limit of judges not being over 70 (I think that is the limit but not positive). Schule said that without an age limit there would be “no rotation, no new judges coming up.” Well, after the qualification process he had just outlined, a judge coming from the retired rider ranks (isn’t that where we want them coming from?) would be nearing that age by the time he or she qualified to be an O judge. The process is a very long one, and Dr. Schule didn’t sound like he wanted to see that changed, either.

One thing Dr. Schule said rather a lot that morning was how correct the judging was in Hong Kong. He also mentioned several times the name David Stickland. I had never heard of Mr. Stickland, but Claartje van Andel from Dressage Direct got up and explained to those of us in the dark that he is the husband of an American dressage rider, and that he (being some kind of astro-physicist or other amazing breed of mathematical genius) has developed a statistical model to analyze judging results. What he discovered was that of the past three Olympics, the judges at these Games were the closest to one another they’ve ever been. And according to Dr. Schule, and others, that equals good judging. He did point out, though, that statistics alone do not indicate good judging – using the full range of marks and making useful comments are not measured by Stickland’s stats, and should be taken into consideration. Agreed! So now I want to meet Mr. Stickland, who is apparently here in Lyon.

Yes We Love You Hubertus

The judging sessions left me a bit dry in the mouth, not because I was open mouthed with awe at the ground-breaking going on, but because I became slack jawed from the lack of stimulation. And I just knew there wouldn’t be a big blow out caused by Hubertus’ session, the grand finale of this year’s GDF. I’ll say it again: I love watching that man train a horse. And his Finnish working student (now there is a working student position to be truly envious of) rode her five year old horse with the same softness and harmony as her mentor. But all this desire to get the riders back to the table perhaps caused the praise to go a bit over the top. I think Hubertus was told he was fantastic so many times the word may have lost meaning for him. You know how if you say a word over and over and over it starts to sound like it’s not a word any more?

At the end there was just one thing that lingered in my mind that didn’t sit quite right. Hubertus rode a great big dark Grand Prix horse I’ve never seen called Franziskus. Everything was peachy to me….except the horse’s walk. I saw a lateral walk. But apparently I was the only one; and the journos have been painted so black at recent forums for being awful to riders who come and bare themselves to the world, that there was no way I was going to ask about it. Someone else did, but in a very, very careful way. It was Bernard Maurel (I think I might be getting to like him in spite of how grumpy he seemed in Blainville), and he said that being a judge he felt he always needed to find something….so why didn’t Hubertus work on the walk more in his demo? Hubertus answered that he couldn’t work on everything in such a short time (very true), and that the horse had a very big walk, adding that his collected walk is even better. Maybe I don’t know how to find the magic ‘V’ or to see a truly regular four beat walk. Yeah, it must be me.

Ok, so that’s it for today. Now I need a strong drink and to pull my thoughts together for tomorrow’s blog, which will be entirely dedicated to three judges who not only didn’t kill me today, but who actually told me some interesting, enlightening and relevant things. Things that make you go hm.

A demain!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

GDF DAY ONE: If It Ain’t Dutch, It Ain’t Much

Well, I was right – it was a bit bland on day one, but it wasn’t boring. Actually I was pleasantly surprised by the opener called Dutch Dressage. It was a great presentation, and just reconfirmed for me the belief that a country which allows voluntary euthanasia and the smoking of the cat-nip-like bud of a certain leafy green plant can do anything it sets its collective mind to, including breed fabulous horses and then ride them at world class standards. Someone has to give the Germans a run for their medals!

Actually the real opener of the event was a ‘hello here I am’ from the new FEI Director of Sport David Holmes, who reassured us all that things are going to shake up just a wee bit on his watch. Among other little gems, he told us that when you have only one ‘tenderer’ for the major championships (he means the FEI itself I think) “there is something wrong with your product.” You’re right David. This isn’t NASCAR and it sure isn’t Soccer. It’s a hard sell no matter how you slice it.

The Judges ‘Explain’

I knew I was in for disappointment as soon as I saw that what used to be called ‘analysis’ of the judging was called an ‘explanation’ this year. My good friend Gary said a lot of ‘we gave’ this and ‘we gave’ that – but we weren’t given judge by judge mark print-outs and the two judges from Hong Kong who helped Mariette ‘explain’ (Gary and Jean Michel Roudier) never bothered to say what THEY gave compared to the others. And of course we didn’t see video of Salinero or Satchmo; instead we watched Ravel and Balagur – two horses that probably no one would dispute did a crack up job in the GPS in Hong Kong. I have since learned that this is not to be blamed on the judges. Turns out the riders have started getting pretty uppity about all this video analysis at the last couple of GDFs. No one looks perfect on a giant screen, and Joep Bartels told me he has decided that in order not to alienate the riders – surely the most important participants in the sport – he made a conscious decision to back off a little on the judging autopsies. So, yes, I’m disappointed, but I can certainly see his point.

What WAS cool in the judging thingy was that Heike Kemmer was here and gave a blow by blow of her Grand Prix Speciale – she hadn’t been warned that she was going to be asked to do so, which made her honest and humorous sharing of the ride so much more special. Thanks Heike! You rock!

What Happens When you do Haute Ecole on a full stomach?

I knew the evening entertainment would be delayed when I noticed that 10 minutes before dinner was supposed to end the men in the pill box hats were just getting their food. Then I wondered, my goodness! What happens if you do airs above the ground right after eating? Turns out I needn’t have worried since they only worked the horses in hand anyway.

And Speaking of Dinner

Ok, here is one reason I love this line of work. I needed to catch up on some emails, so while everyone else filled their dressagey little tummies with tucker, I grabbed a glass of wine (of course), and went back into the arena to work at my little journalist seat. While I worked, Hubertus Schmidt and his working student came in with their horses and schooled them in preparation for his Day Two presentation. La la la, I’m so cool. I get free entertainment from a dressage icon - nah nah nah nah nah nah.

I Didn’t Cry!

I did yawn a couple of times though. I realize now it was unreasonable to expect the entire Cadre Noir to pack up their horses and hats to do a full-on performance for a few hundred people, but I have to also admit I was a bit let down. The program said ‘clinic and performance’ and that magic word ‘performance’ had me dreaming of a big gang of French men and horses – instead of the three bay geldings and their uniformed rider-handlers. Don’t get me wrong; it WAS interesting, especially when the cute little munchkin (chosen in part I’m sure because of his excellent English – he said he’s half-Canadian) gave a nicely condensed history of the Cadre Noir and French riding history. And it WAS impressive when the three men and their well-fed horses demonstrated the Croupade, Courbette and Cabriole in hand. It just wasn’t Cavalia, you know? A couple of funny things about the Cadre’s video presentation: I don’t know who thought classic rock music would go well with centuries old classical horsemanship. How about a little Ravel or Bizet? There was some rather silly video footage of a rider on a ‘simulator’ horse, jumping pretend jumps on a video screen. It was like they took Wi and crossed it with the mechanical horse I used to ride for a quarter in the hardware store.

One thing that nauseated me slightly was the unanimous apparent admiration by the crowd, who clapped like kiddies at the marionette show every time a horse jumped up. I’m not cynical about the French school and its unique tradition. What I am is a teeny weeny bit skeptical that in this room full of 300+ dressage experts there weren’t any eyes rolling. Clappity clappity clap. The day sure ended on a polite note.

Exit Stage Left

So Mariette had to clear off to some appointment with the FEI tomorrow, which means she will miss the gymnastics guy talking about how to improve our judging system – she will also not be the presenter for “How to become an Olympic judge”, leaving Dieter Schule alone at the helm of a room full of ambitious judges and a few curious journalists. I’m not sure if it was a good thing or a bad thing that she wasn’t here…let’s see how tomorrow rolls out first.

Monday, October 27, 2008

It’s GDF Time!

Hi-di-ho from Holland, the land of three-kiss greetings, the colour orange and a language that sounds like scrambled English with a lot of throat clearing. If you are reading this, you probably know what GDF stands for – but just to make sure you know what you are getting into before reading on, I am writing from the eighth annual Global Dressage Forum, to which I have the great honour once again of having been invited as a journalist. My joy is slightly tempered by fear and trembling – I’ve been warned that I’m not the most popular writer on the block with some of the judges here. By this time tomorrow I should know if the target has been painted on my front or my back...

The program at first blush looks a little bland compared to the previous two forums: last year we had the Coby-tron and in 2006 there was the Sjef and Anky show, which ended on a rather stormy note. This year the forum will wrap up with a presentation from Hubertus Schmidt, a man whose horsemanship I can watch all day (so no complaints that he’s back again), but who is unlikely to provoke controversy – unless someone objected to his face paint in Hong Kong. However, we have plenty of judges on the menu this year, and after Hong Kong’s adventures in dressage judging, that is hardly surprising.
A few curiosities about the presentations on judging for your consideration:

1. Olympic judging – at the past two forums there were ‘analyses’ of the judging at WEG and the European Championships. This time, Mariette will lead us in an ‘explanation’ of the Olympics. That’s an interesting and meaningful change of vocab, don’t you think? An explanation tends to preclude discussion, and discussion was what made these sessions so awesome in the past. Also awesome of course was that last year’s judging analysis had Stephen Clarke at the podium and he is very good at making people feel that they can be honest when they both ask questions and answer them. Sadly for me and folks at the forum, (but happily for some of my friends back home) Stephen was busy giving a judging clinic in BC last week.

2. How to Solve Judging problems – now this is going to be good! A judging expert from gymnastics is going to share with us the changes that were made following a very controversial result in Athens in the gymnastics. I have SO MANY QUESTIONS. It’s a bit unfortunate that the format this year includes some work shopping, which means I have to choose this one over Hilary Clayton’s presentation on core fitness for horses. I would happily listen to Dr. Clayton on any topic for hours – but I just can’t miss that judging session!

3. How to Become An Olympic Judge - presented by Mme. Withages and Dieter Schule – huh? What’s this now? It sneaked onto the program with nary an announcement or preview in press releases just a few days ago, although I guess the title is pretty self-explanatory. Needless to say, I won’t be missing that session either. I can hardly wait to hear what hot tips will be shared at this most practical of sessions. Questions? Yes, I have many. If I’m not dead yet.

I hope I’ve got all you poor sods who stayed home all worked up now. Tune in tomorrow to find out how the ‘explanation’ of the Olympics went, as well as find out if I cry two years in a row – this time because of the Cadre Noir’s evening performance tonight.

And one little P.S. for those of you who are still annoyed that I never sent a final HOG blog. It’s Kyra who chews gum.