The Jumper Derby and Dressage Derby are a few hundred meters apart physically at Hamburg, and light years apart in requirements. But they both require mad skills.
At Hamburg, there were three different Derbies: the Under 25 riders, who did a test at Prix St George level; the Grand Prix riders, who did a shortened Grand Prix in the final; and the Pony riders, whose tests are the FEI equivalent of our USEF 2nd Level.
For each Dressage Derby at Hamburg, riders first compete in a qualifying class. The top three horse and rider combinations in each set then compete in a unique format: first the three riders complete a shortened version of their test on their own horse, then each rider switches horses to do the test twice more. This is a spectator-friendly class: there are only 9 rides, and the crowd gets to see exactly what is going on in both the warm up and the test itself. It’s a great test of professional riders, who have to be able to get the most out of a wide range of horses, which is why it was the format for the German Professional Riders Championship a few weeks ago at Hagen.
Just like the jumper derby, the horse that excels at this type of competition may not be the one that gets the glory on every other weekend: this competition requires fitness and stamina in order to do three tests in an hour and a half’s time, and it requires a somewhat sanguine attitude that will tolerate three different riders in that time frame.
On the riders’ part, it takes superior “catch riding” skills in order to assess and connect with a horse in the five minutes allotted between climbing aboard and riding up the center line. You can be sure that each rider has been keeping a careful eye on their competitors in the warm up all week to get a feel for what their approaches are. One wonders, though, if riders make decisions many weeks prior to this competition: do I bring my most accommodating horse? Or my most difficult one? If I bring the difficult one, what are the chances that I won’t be able to put in a good enough test to even qualify for the Derby final myself?
Sometimes it is very clear who the winning rider is: if they put in a good test on their own horse, and then score better as a guest rider than the original rider did on the other two horses. In the Under 25 class, for instance, the winner had rides of over 70% on all three horses. The original score of one horse was 69.7%, and our winner rode the horse to 70.5% in the third round, after the third place rider could only garner a 65%. In the Grand Prix Derby, Fabienne Luetkemeier rode her own horse to a 73%, and then bettered the score of both her competitors’ horses to scores well over 70% as well. Fabienne, by the way, is only 24, so keep your eyes out for her in the future!
So what do you do in those five minutes of warm up? It’s the equine equivalent of speed-dating, and just like speed-dating, you try to get as much pertinent information about your partner as possible. You ask as many questions as you can, without spending all the energy the horse has, especially before the last round. Honestly, I saw a lot of walking in the warm up ring – you can get a lot of information at the walk. You test the throttle: you test the brakes. You ask about bending. You ask, “what’s your favorite color?” …. just kidding! But perhaps you ask what the horse expects as the aids for the changes.
The horses were generally well adjusted to the whole thing, which speaks volumes of both the horses’ training and the riders’ prowess. There were no meltdowns or obvious disagreements. A few pirouettes might have been a bit large, and there were a couple of missed changes. The ponies, being a bit more transparent and opinionated than horses in general, perhaps scoffed a bit more at the process, As one pony rider jockeyed her mount past us in the arena, we could hear a lot of hard breathing from the saddle as one tough junior fought to get her third-round pony past a “you’re not the boss of me” moment.
Axel mentioned that he really enjoys judging Derbies — he is one of the few Americans to have judged this class — “it’s a broadening experience,” he says,”even after about a zillion years of judging!”