The Hong Kong Conundrum - One American High Performance Rider Speaks Out

In light of the recent uproar surrounding the withdrawal of the Swiss Dressage Team from the Olympic Games in Hong Kong, it would behoove all nations, including our own (USA), to reexamine their selection and preparation plans.

Hong Kong will be a unique location for the Games and no more trying as a travel destination for most of the world’s dressage competitors than Los Angeles, Seoul or Sydney. Getting to the Games has always been an integral part of the Olympic challenge for athletes.

A bit of a sinophile myself, I spent six weeks in China and Hong Kong in 1986. I had an epiphany about my life with horses while riding a jumper in Inner Mongolia during that trip, and was therefore delighted when Beijing won the bid for the 2008 Games. I would be proud to have a chance at representing my nation in Hong Kong. It would feel like a destiny gone full circle.

My problem is not with Hong Kong. I live in Europe, so like all the other riders based here, a few issues with fitness, vaccines and quarantine have to be addressed. Both the Germans and Dutch have already chosen A Teams of six horses each. They have already begun fitness training and testing on all the possible candidates.

My problem is with the US Selection Procedures for dressage. Our Selection Trials will not be held until the last two weekends in June in San Juan Capistrano, CA. The plan after selecting the team is to fly to Europe in the first week of July, quarantine at Aachen, then fly by the end of July to Hong Kong, quarantine 10 days before the Olympics, win a medal, and then fly home by the end of August. I think we are shooting ourselves in the foot here.

Technically, our team should be chosen and already training in Europe by the beginning of June at the latest. We might then have a chance to reach top fitness and hone our skills before making the journey to Hong Kong seven or eight weeks later.

For instance, I flew to Las Vegas with Maximus last April for the World Cup. The trip took twelve days to complete, with two days of competition. We made it back to Germany in great shape but it took Maximus (and most of the other equine competitors) until the end of July to return to full power. That was almost 14 weeks of recovery time.

Any horse that competes in a two week selection trial in California at the end of June, travels on to Europe in July and then on to Hong Kong in August, will not be fit to give 100% in the extreme conditions of the Hong Kong Olympics.

The current 2008 Selection Criteria offer a Bye option for horse and rider combinations that have contributed to a team medal in the last four years. Thus, Robert Dover with Kennedy, Debbie McDonald with Brentina, Steffan Peters with Floriano, and Guenter Seidel with Aragon could avoid competing in California in order to save their horses for the travel to Hong Kong. Hmmm. This Bye option appears to be redundant.

On the current US Grand Prix ranking list, three of our top six contenders are based in Europe and a fourth on the east coast of the US—a situation that should bring a flood of relief to any Selectors watching the list. At least we have three or four horses that live and train closer to Hong Kong. Unfortunately, no Bye option is written for these horses. While other nations (eg, Canada) are trying to draw their top competitors to Europe to try out and prepare for the Games, the US is requesting that they all travel to California before turning around and flying back to Europe.

The ranking list may change over the next few months when scores start coming in from the winter circuits in Florida and California, but I don’t think the US dressage team is in a position to cut out any of its contenders at this point in time. This is exactly what the current Selection Procedures do.

In effect, they eliminate any American based in Europe from competing in Hong Kong and put undue strain on east coast based horses. Everyone has a fair shot at making the team, but combinations that travel long distances to California have no chance to be fit for the Games in August.

Remembering the 14 weeks it took Maximus to return to full power after Las Vegas, I asked my vet if it is possible to do the following in the 12 weeks between June 1 and August 30: Fly to California. Recover. Train. Compete in back-to-back shows at the Selection Trials. Fly to Europe. Recover. Train and quarantine at Aachen. Fly to Hong Kong. Recover. Train and quarantine at Hong Kong. Compete in the Olympics. Fly back to Europe. Recover?

He laughed and said that he would not do that to the family dog, let alone an equine athlete.

Not being one who gladly takes “no” for an answer, I have calculated and re-calculated, consulted veterinarians and talked to riders who have traveled all over the world with their horses. I have turned this problem over in my head dozens of times. I’ve thought outside the box, crushed the box, re-built the box and…it is still a box.

Is there a solution? I want to make a bid for these Games. So I thought about moving to California in April and fully acclimatizing. Then I calculated the costs of leaving my business from April 15-August 30 and traveling all the way around the world with one horse. The dollar amount resulted in an epiphany about the half halt. And it didn’t change the fact that the Trials are still too late in the year.

No matter where the horses are based, any horse that competes from 19-29 June in California will have difficulty attaining top fitness for the Olympics in Hong Kong in August. Travel interrupts fitness training. Fitness is required to withstand stress, jet lag and harsh temperatures. A box is a box.

But we do have options. The Selection Trials could be moved to Gladstone. This seems logical. And they could be pushed forward by a month or more. This seems necessary.

Bye options could be written into the procedures for contenders in Europe. Why are we adding the stress of flying to the States to qualify when the trip to Hong Kong itself will require colossal efforts from our horses? Why not fly the Selectors to Europe to watch one or two designated competitions for those combinations already based there?

Or, another option is to hold the Trials in California at an earlier date, stay there to train and eventually fly the westerly route to Hong Kong. Jet lag studies have shown that when animals (rats) are flown repeatedly to the west, their life spans increase. When flown repeatedly to the east, their life spans decrease. When flown repeatedly in opposing directions, they die young. That worries me.

I did not get into this sport to break my horses. No accolade is worth that.

All riders who compete at this level put their horses’ welfare at the forefront of their concerns. Now it is time for our Federation to step up to the plate and do the same. Let’s develop a plan that will field the best, strongest, fittest dressage team we can produce for the Hong Kong Olympics in August. Let’s give all our contenders the chance to do this without jeopardizing the health and happiness of their horses. C’mon. We are Americans. We are the most innovative people on this earth. Let’s find a way.

Supporting or opposing viewpoints are welcome by qualified riders and officials affected by the US criterea.

HorsesDaily On the Scene at the 2008 Equestrian Olympic Games - Hong Kong

Letters to the editor:

01-29 Dear Equestrian Colleagues,
I read with interest the article by Catherine Haddad published in the Chronicle of the Horse, and wish to add my support for the views expressed therein. Having the team already qualified after Aachen is a wonderful position to be in, if we go with the best team possible, a Nations medal in Dressage is within reach although by no means trivial, to beat the Germans and Dutch is almost impossible, and there are 3-4 nations in close contention for the Bronze.

The travel schedule currently envisaged essentially excludes our three European based contenders for a place on the team. Even if they make the travel and get selected, the chances are that they will not be on form for Hong Kong. We surely need to pick objectively the 3+1 competitors who have the best chances of bringing off the team medal, without any bias from somewhat old results. It is what the couples can do this August that counts. It is a wonderful thing that the four riders with byes have bought honor to themselves and to the USA with their previous team performances, and if they are judged by the selectors to be the ones to go forward then that would also be excellent. But our team needs to be the best team we can send now. Do we send sprinters based on their performances of almost two years ago, or do we require them to compete with the best we have today and make our selection based on their current performance?

Please find a way to allow our three European based competitors (three of the top six in the current ranking - and one must add that they are getting their qualifying points in the considerably more competitive European environment) to compete on a level playing field in the selection process AND, as importantly, find a way to bring the selection process forward for all candidates so that whoever is selected stands a chance of being on top form in Hong Kong.
Dr. David Stickland
Princeton University, NJ 08544

01-29 - I agree with the article that Catherine Haddad wrote about the unfair rules for the United States dressage team. I have been a profesional groom and I know how hard it is for the horses to stay in top shape while they are being shipped long distances. I believe that the selection judges are just setting our team up for failure if they do not do something to change this process.
Andrea Chamberlain

01-29 - I respect and agree with Catherine Haddad 1000%!!! Her article on Dressage Daily was well put, collaborative, and just made down right good common sense!!! I hope they "hear" her! I thank her for having the guts to be outspoken!!
Patrice Doyle

Dear Fellow Equestrians
In response to Catherine Haddad's article about the Olympic selection process, I would like to voice my opinion and request the US Olympic Selection Committee seriously consider the European-based riders' concerns. Obviously we want to send the best we have to Hong Kong, and obviously no one wants any horses harmed in the selection process. I don't believe riders striving to be the best in Europe should be penalized for their desire to learn from the best in Dressage, and of course these trainers are primarily European.
Thank you for your consideration
April Austin (Kansas City Dressage Society)
USDF Gold Medalist
PhD Candidate

01-29 - Selection trials have led to contentious debates over the years and here it is again. How many times have west coast riders been told they must transport their horses across country to the east coast to compete in the selection trials? California horses have suffered collic, jet lag, heat stroke and humid weather. Before the transition of the USET there was no solution to this problem.

Now the selection trials are alternated between the coasts. There has to be a solution out there that doesn't punish west coast or east coast riders. The west coast deserves a chance at selection trials as it promotes dressage in the state. Riders and horses enjoy a home court advantage and membership in dressage associations grows. I don't know what the solution to the problem of selection trials should be, but I'm not certain that forcing west coast riders to always compete on the east coast is a fair solution.

Moving up the time table may be the solution and leaving from California rather than going to Europe to compete is an idea. For our riders in Europe there should be competitions in Europe that could count as a selection trial. Maybe we could find a competition that shares the same judges as those that will be at our selection trials here in the US.
Just a thought,
Carole Calderwood