Euro Update: "Curbed" Discussions at the 2006 Global Dressage Forum

The 2006 edition of the Global Dressage Forum at Bartels’ Academy in Hooge Mierde, The Netherlands (October 30-31, 2006) was one with very inspiring demonstrations, refreshing sessions on equine behaviour and two heated discussions on the judging and training of top level dressage horses. These two discussions – Withages’ review of the World Equestrian Games and Sjef Janssen’s and Anky van Grunsven’s demonstration of the rollkur, had all the potential to become genuine debates that could shape the future of dressage, but they were ‘curbed’ either by a restricted time schedule, which forced one talk to end abruptly, and by a lack of interaction between the presenters and defenders of the anti-rollkur ‘campaign’. Nevertheless, the 2006 Global Dressage Forum was much more interesting than the one in the 2005 and it will be a stepping stone for an even better and improved forum in 2007.

There were four highlight sessions to the 2006 Global Dressage Forum. The first one was Hubertus Schmidt talking about classical dressage and explaining his training methods. In the wake of the still raging debate on classical dressage versus the Sjef Janssen/Dutch training system based on the rollkur, Schmidt came to Holland to demonstrate classical dressage. Having trained over 30 Grand Prix horses in his career, Schmidt is the most prolific dressage rider and trainer in the world. At the Forum, Schmidt showed his techniques aboard a world class dressage horse, the 7-year old Rhinelander gelding Furst Fabio (by Fidermark x Worldchamp), who is owned by Colombian rider Dr. Cesar Parra. Hubertus stressed the importance of a correct warm up in which looseness and suppleness have to be obtained with the achievement of “schwung” as goal. Schmidt’s pointed out that the horse has to get a light contact with the bit and stretch into it at all times.

Understanding the Horse with Dr. Andrew McLean

Very interesting was the session with Dr. Andrew McLean. Australian neuroscientist McLean kicked off day two at the Global Dressage Forum with a speech on equine behavioural psychology. His session consisted of two sections, a scientific lecture on behavioural conditioning and a practical demonstration of handling a horse with behavioural problems. McLean ’s goal was to provide a clear-cut theory on equine psychology to optimize the training of the dressage horse. By applying the wrong training methodologies that are not commensurate with the horse’s psychology, optimal learning will be diminished.

FEI Dressage Committee chairman Mariette Withages reviewed the 2006 World Equestrian Games. She allowed the audience to judge the Grand Prix Special test of Mexican Bernadette Pujals, Danish Andreas Helgstrand and German Isabell Werth. Each movement and its score were publicly discussed and the audience finally got the opportunity to voice their opinion on why they did not agree with the judges’ marks.

Hyperflexion Discussed by Anky van Grunsven, Sjef Janssen and Rene van Weeren

The final session of the Forum was on coaching and hyperflexion. Dr. Rene van Weeren discussed his observations on his scientific research studying the low-deep and round (LDR) head position of the horse. So far he has come to the conclusion that from a biomechanical viewpoint there is no reason to contest this method (LDR/Rollkur/Hyperflexion). Sjef Janssen spoke about how he motivated and trained Anky van Grunsven. His lacklustre speech was followed by a training demonstration in which Van Grunsven rode Painted Black in the rollkur position.

After her short demo, van Grunsven and Janssen stepped up to the podium to take questions from the audience. Anky stated that “I am 90% sure I wouldn’t have been this good without this system. The horses are easy, soft on the aids and elastic. It makes the last couple of percentages that makes me the best.”

Dr McLean cooled everyone down by saying that he didn’t see anything problematic but that it LDR can not be used as a smokescreen for other problems in the horse sport.

Lifting the Smokescreen

The smokescreen is clearly that, to this date, tense horses are still being rewarded by the judges in the competition ring. It does not matter via which system they are trained. Horses that show unevenness in the movements (not particularly lameness, but an uneven rhythm of short and long steps) should not receive scores from 7 to 10. The absence of the top German dressage riders and trainers at the 2006 Global Dressage Forum was very striking and a great pity because the Janssen/AVG session had the potential to become a really interesting debate on top level dressage training. The Dutch rider and trainer were prepared to publicly put their neck on the line by showing their training methods at the forum and, regrettably, the detractors were not there to defend their opinion.

The 2006 Global Dressage Forum was a big improvement to the 2005 version and it gave much food for thought. Hopefully, next year, the smokescreen can be lifted by reviewing current judging into more detail in a diplomatic and democratic way of debate and discussion.

An extensive report on the Global Dressage Forum can be read at

Related Links
Global Dressage Forum Oct 30-31 2006
Collection and The Seat, Central Themes at the 2003 Global Dressage Forum
The 2002 Global Dressage Forum