November 2016 - Pushing The Edge

World Breeding Dressage Championships are an enlightening & encouraging experience.

by Ayden Uhlir

My favorite competition venue has always been Gladstone, NJ, home of the United States Equestrian Team. It doesn’t have the most vendors or the international flare of other locales like the Global Dressage Festival in Florida, but there is something in the peaceful green, the time-worn old bricks and the smell that embraces you like a hug coming from inside.

Endel Otsy

Everything seems lighter and full of hope and potential. Dreams become reality there in its warm embrace. In Native American culture, we believe that land is a living thing and it absorbs into itself the energy of the people and activities upon it. We all feel this when we miss “home.” Gladstone has the feeling of absorbing decades of wishes.

I have never felt that air anywhere else until I went to Ermelo, the Netherlands, in late July to watch the Longines FEI World Breeding Dressage Championships for Young Horses (WBFSH). It had that same comforting embrace and feeling of connection.  Yet it was also different.

The difference wasn’t what we usually hear in America about European competitions. It wasn’t that they had so many more competitors or more horses. It wasn’t that they have such a longer “tradition” of dressage. I had realized those things last year in Hagan, Germany, at the Future Champions Nations Cup, but not here.

What struck me in Ermelo was their perspective.  I don’t know how to describe it other than “quirky.”  For example, the boot vendors had boots you wouldn’t even think of designing here – white ostrich leather with crystals (check out the photo). The coffee shop was actually a converted VW and they served the coffee out of the back of the car!

Everywhere I looked, I saw something new.  It was as if they were trying to be unique and different by riding the edge. They weren’t “old” and “traditional” as we often perceive them. They weren’t stuffy and doing things the way they always have for centuries. They were pushing the edge.

I see that as an amazing thing for the USA dressage industry as a whole because it means we can grow and compete with them. To me it meant we don’t have to play “catch-up” following their path. That could only happen over centuries. Maybe we need our own cutting edge, our own new ways.

That’s what I learned in Ermelo. 

Horses To Drool Over

David Wightman, a groom, Christine Traurig, Chase Hicock and Endel.

Another thing I have to say is, I spent my five days there salivating over the truly amazing horses. I was actually drooling at times. Seriously! These are the best young dressage horses from around the world sent here to compete. But, it’s not like a normal competition in several ways. First, the horses are allowed directly into the ring before their ride. This is obviously done because, as young horses, they don’t have the same confidence and experience of older, more trained horses. Thus, we want to decrease their tension and stress. The horses are judged on their basic walk, trot, canter, submission and perspective.

According to Mariette Sanders Van Gansewinkel, a 5-star FEI judge, at this competition she looks to see that the horse shows three fantastic gaits and is trained in accordance with the “skaleder ausbuilding” training scale. She also looks to be sure the horse is happy and willing to work.

Another difference in this competition is that the judge’s panel does not judge separately based on their location. They judge as a collective team so that requires that they come to a consensus.  Mariette said, “The team aspect is something she was looking forward to and thought added value to the competition.”

For me, the most exciting thing was the foal sale! I admit I wanted them all. I hope next year to save to bid on one. There is nothing like seeing a Totilas baby and dreaming! Andreas Helgstrand said that what he enjoys about the WBFSH is “getting an overall picture of what is happening in the breeding industry as a whole.” I really get what he meant. Seeing the overall development of young horses, from the foal sale to the 7-year- olds, throughout Europe and the USA, shows the direction of preferences and breeding choices.

I had a chance to talk to David Wightman, one of the USA representatives sent to the WBDC, what he thought about having a horse in the competition here in Ermelo. The WBDC was actually our second European trip together. He was coaching my teammate Catherine Chamberlain at the Hagen Future Champions Nations Cup where she and I were lucky enough to be the first U.S. team sent! He said, “It is an honor for a breeder beyond compare because it gives real validity to their breeding program…it can really put a breeder on the map internationally.”

He also noted that the U.S. needs to send more horses in all the divisions to the WBDC because, “there is strength in numbers. We can’t be afraid of going to Europe and competing.” David said he was really encouraged to see more acceptance in the dressage world to different bloodlines. For example, he stated that when he, “bought Breanna at the Hanoverian auction in 2004, Weltmeyer was a bloodline in one third of the horses in that catalogue.

Today you can buy an Oldenburg or Westphalian at the Hannoverian auction. Today there are many different bloodlines in different combinations than 10 years ago. That doesn’t mean that the horses today don’t go back to the foundation bloodlines. There are just many more combinations today. At the WDBC today were lines from Donnerhall, Rubinstein, Weltmeyer, Ulft, Jazz, Brentano, Sandro Hit, Gribaldi, Florestain and I am sure a few more!” 

Something To Aspire To


Endel Ots

I asked David if there were fads or trends in breeding and he agreed that breeders may follow a “star” but that his advice was to “breed for correct conformation, temperament and movement.” In closing, I asked what David’s favorite part of the competition in Ermelo was. “The level of competition and the atmosphere are amazing. It is good to be a part of a show with so many excellent horses and riders.” He then said a little wistfully, “I hope someday the WBDC can be held in the USA, wouldn’t that be great!”

This year was the inaugural year for the 7 year olds. Traditionally there is a 4-year -old stallion class, a 5-year-old and 6-year-old class. Everyone competes in the first round of their age group and then they are divided into the regular and small final. This year, in the historic 7-year-old class, Suzuan made history by winning a three-peat gold. Watching that horse gave me goose bumps. I am sure Suzuan will be hard to beat in 2018 and 2020. I also enjoyed seeing Vitalis, whom I had seen at the U.S. Nationals, looking so full of himself and performing so well.

Getting press credentials was especially exciting for me. I had access everywhere. This allowed me to approach people and to ask questions, although if you know me, you know it didn’t take too much of a push.

Another lesson I “relearned” on this trip was to be nice to everyone and open to new opportunities. Every day my mom dropped me off at the entrance and the workers at the gate were nice enough to let her park there in the afternoon to wait when we met up. On the second day, I brought them some chocolate to say thanks and we talked some more. By the last two days I had made friends with Lester (his name means the youngest in Dutch, which is funny for a fifth child) and I stayed after the foal sale the last day and got to have a great tour of the facility.

I learned that KWPN hadn’t been at the facility with the Dutch National Federation long and that the Dutch Federation has the young developing horses (not just those at the show) in a program to have clinics at the competition venues around Holland in order to practice. That way the second time they compete it helps them to be less stressed. I thought this was interesting. Then we all hung out in the tent afterward and the competitor’s party leaked over into ours. I think this had something to do with all the singing. One of the guys started crooning Frank Sinatra and I piped in, it was like a little concert.

Time of Positive Change for U.S. Dressage

After all of the competitions were over I got a chance to talk to my good friend Endel Ots. I got to know Endel, first through his generous donations to Dressage4Kids, Inc. and the Robert Dover Horsemastership week; and then our friendship was solidified after a cross-country road trip hauling horses from Wellington to Houston! I found out some really interesting things about him then, like his penchant for horror movies. This was Endel’s second trip to the WBDC and, like David, he can attest to the great benefits of the experience. The more often we attend, the more combinations we send, the more we learn and grow as an industry. I rode in the USDF FEI Trainer’s Conference with Endel and Lucky Strike and I can’t wait to see where that potential goes.

Endel Ots

For myself, I would say to Endel and David that this competition isn’t just a validation for breeders and their programs but for the training programs of those young horses. The greatest potential in horses and humans can be lost, squandered or destroyed by the wrong teachers! Being in Ermelo, reinforced to me how very lucky I have been to have the opportunities to train with so many great people and most importantly to have found my mentor and friend Christine Traurig.

Finally, my experiences in Europe in the past, as well as my current job training in Voerde, Germany with Johann Hinnemann, have taught me that the American dressage industry is in an amazing time of positive change. These last five years have seen exponential jumps in the interest, participation and support of riders at all levels. I am so excited for the future.

Author Ayden Uhlir is a top young dressage rider, mostly based out of 2000 Olympic bronze medalist and USEF Dressage Young Horse Coach Christine Traurig’s program in Rancho Santa Fe. With Christine’s help, Ayden landed a riding spot with Johann Hinnemann in Voerde, Germany, where she plans to spend as much time as possible over the next few years.