Christoph Hess – Dressage Tests – Do they test our training?

Christoph Hess – Dressage Tests – Do they test our training?

Frankfurt is one of my all-time favorite horse shows and one of the people who contributes to the amazing atmosphere is commentator extraordinaire, Christoph Hess. Christoph lights up the big indoor arena with his enthusiasm and his knowledge, deftly combining judging, training and communication skills in equal measure. It’s this enthusiasm combined with the knowledge that has made Christoph a compelling presence on both the dressage and eventing scenes around the world. Luckily I managed to get him to slow down long enough for this wide-ranging interview at Frankfurt …

The highlight of the Frankfurt Horse show is the Nürnberger Burg-Pokal, a wonderful bridging competition devised by the late Reiner Klimke to help young talented horses as they moved into FEI tests. The competition has produced a who’s who of winners over its 27 years history, what did Christoph think of this edition?

Sadly the 2021 Frankfurt Show will be closed to spectators and journalists again this year…

“I think we saw good riding, good horses, some horses with the qualities to represent Germany – or other countries – in the Championships. I don’t think we had a top top top special horse, like we’ve had in previous years, where horses have scored more than 80%, but we had good results in the mid and high 70s.”

“But we had some really good horses, you only have to look to the winner, Dorothee Schneider. First Romance is an amazing horse in the whole trot work, lovely hind leg, real charisma, very attractive the minute it comes into the arena – but I would say just a little bit tense in the canter tour, therefore he was not able to get higher scores.

Isabell Werth did a really good job with Descolari, good trot, amazing walk. I think she had problems in the qualification round on the first day, but she did a really good job. I saw a little bit in the pirouettes that it was a little bit weak, but she was amazing to collect the horse, to ride it straight and do these movements, from the rider’s point of view, it was great. She made the horse, and the longer the test went on, the more confidence the horse had, and the more supple the horse was, and the better the rideability was.”

“The third horse, Ingrid Klimke and Bluetooth, it’s not a fascinating horse – you see other horses that have more potential for swinging, moving and elasticity, but it is a very serious horse, very well trained, good halt – the first halt was nearly a nine, no mistakes. The only problem was, the walk was weak.  In the collected walk between the pirouettes, it is a special movement with a coefficient of two, and then you get it in the collected marks as well, therefore she lost a lot of good marks for the walk, and the walk in this level is very difficult. When you are at the Grand Prix level, then you have just a little bit of walk and no walk pirouettes. In this test, the walk and the pirouettes are very difficult and therefore it was correct that she didn’t come to a higher score.”

Do we care that the horse swished its tail?
“I saw it, it was mainly in the walk, and the canter, not in the trot, but it was worse in the collected walk than in the second part of the test, this is what I saw.”

We saw in the Nürnberger Burg-Pokal, how crucial the walk pirouette was in showing the quality of the horse and the training, and yet we have this push from the FEI to get rid of all the ‘boring bits’ like the walk pirouette,  is this the slippery slide to hell?

“I agree 100% but first of all I have to say that I would like that we have more than one Grand Prix test, but I think that it is very important that we have all these movements so the judges can see, is the horse trained in the right direction, yes or no? At the end of the day, if we just have movements on the straight, medium or extensions in walk, trot, canter, piaffe and passage, it is not a Grand Prix.”

“I think you are right, we need the pirouette in walk, maybe only one pirouette, we need rein back at least, or schaukel (see below) which is much better, which is much more of a challenge, and one movement that I know no-one likes, but flying change in medium canter, and one more thing, I like it very much if during the test, maybe on a circle line, you give the reins. I think we should see that suppleness is more important than three times piaffe, I think two times is enough, with transitions – I love it, we need it, but I think we need the basic things as well.”

“Another thing I like very much is in the extended trot and canter, is to give the reins, and re-take the reins, so you see that the self carriage is there, the good riders I am sure they have no problems, but it would bring the not-so-good riders into the right direction in their training.”

“At Aachen this year, for instance, we had problems in the warm up arena, people came and took pictures for the social media which created a bad picture, but I am sure that if we changed the test to have these movements then there will not be so many bad pictures because the riders will ride a little bit in another way, because the test they ride at the competition is what the riders have to train at home, and train in the practice arena.”

There are riders who scream ‘oh it was just an unlucky moment!’ – how is it that the good riders like Carl and Charlotte, Helen and Katrina and Hubertus, don’t ever have ‘unlucky’ moments, and the same riders have ‘unlucky’ moments at show after show after show – good riders don’t do ugly things…
“Exactly. I agree, and I think spectators have a very sensitive feeling of what is good, what is harmonious? Okay, horses make mistakes, riders make mistakes, mistakes will always happen, but what the spectators want to see is harmonious pictures and well-trained horses. I think someone who has no equestrian knowledge very quickly has the feeling, was the horse and rider trained in the right direction? Or is it a fight between the horse and the rider? Is it something with tension? You see it with the tail, you see it with the ears, the mouth is open, the horse looks unhappy – and everyone can see this, it is something we can explain very easily even to someone with no knowledge of horses.”

Today, I was standing out the back watching Kira Wulferding warm in one of her horses and I thought this was worth 30 hours travel just to see how beautiful a warmup can be with a wonderful rider and a beautifully trained horse… There could have been a thousand people videoing on their mobile phones and they wouldn’t have found one frame they could use on the social media to criticise the rider…


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