While everyone knows that dressage is not well developed in France, it seems there might be some hope for the future. This weekend the French National Dressage Championships were held in Saint Lo, rather than Saumur, which made it easier for us to attend. One indication of change was the number of non-French bred horses participating at Grand Prix. In the Pro-Elite Grand Prix class on Saturday, out of 15 horses only 3 were bred in France, indicating the realization of French riders that quality of gaits is important in today’s competition.. The remaining 13 horses were either German or Dutch bred. Since the the French concentrate their breeding program on producing superior jumping ability, the quality of gaits is not generally considered, though there are a few breeders who have begun to breed specifically for dressage, using for the most part, German-bred horses.
What was interesting watching most of the top dressage riders and horses in France at the Pro-Elite Grand Prix level (in France the Pro-Elite are separate from the Amateur-Elite) were differences in technique and expectations. For example, overall the horses were longer in the neck, more elevated in the withers and softer in the contact than you typically see at international competitions. However, I think there was in general, less engagement and expression, as a result of the softer connection. The horses overall responded quite well to the aids and seemed supple in their work, and relatively calm. There was not a dramatic difference in the quality of horses competed, but the overall influence of the training and riding is where the final result differed. While it is always difficult to marry the softer contact with the power and expression that wins, it is possible. The dressage community became, in my opinion, too much about high quality gaits, expression, even if mechanical, and audience appeal, I believe there is a trend back toward athletic horses working in more self-carriage, resulting in a lighter contact, and a more fluid expression of the gaits and movements. Here I think the French have the knowledge and desire to present horses in this manner. What for me is missing, is the power and expression which comes from a better connection, out of which develops the lightness of self-carriage.
However, the DIFFERENCE that was most noticeable was the judging. At Grand Prix and not a CDI, there were five judges. At the lower levels there were three judges. At even most local shows, there is a minimum of three judges, so much less chance of politics getting in the way. The scores were anything but inflated, with the best rides scoring in the high 60’s. The high profile riders were NOT given a “boost” based on momentum or past performances. I believe they were judged on a level playing field, and a bad ride got a bad score. Also, while most of the horses were of good quality, there were of course differences in athleticism and gaits, but overall I believe the judges scored the training (use of and response to the aids) and movements (correctly ridden and with good transitions) rather than the WOW factor of the horse. For me, this was refreshing to see.
Overall, it was an interesting afternoon, encouraging about the direction of dressage in France, and satisfying to realize the we are not the only ones searching for a ride that shows training which results in a straight, balanced, supple and elevated horse who goes forward without being forced.
For anyone interested in watching the winning ride, you can view it at this link:http://youtu.be/1shfS28JO8Q. This horse won I believe on the quality of his training, the presentation of the rider and not spectacular gaits.