Does Charlotte Dujardin deserve her success?

Years ago as I was riding along a single track lane, a van driver left his vehicle to have a go at me for not reversing my horse fast enough. I was slightly befuddled, wondering what he thought he was going to do. Had I been on foot, such confrontation would have scared me, but with a horse underneath me there was no fear. As the driver approached, Derby lifted his front feet off the floor. I knew he was just having a bit of a giggle, Derby liked a laugh as much as the next person. But the driver, at the sight of a 17 hand rearing horse, went white and scooted back to the safety of his van.

Those big mouths who are saying that dressage is elitist, the preserve of the super rich who buy success and lack skill, might want to think about the animal with which they are dealing. Handling a living being that weighs hundreds of kilos and has a mind of its own takes skill, patience and an ability to read animals that is way beyond the capacity of most of us. When I hear the criticisms of Dujardin’s success I am aware of two things. An enormous amount of unreasoned class jealousy, and a rather nasty misogynism. Horses are great levellers. Dressage is a sport in which the women can beat the men. It is a reversal of power that many seem to find uncomfortable.

Let’s deal with the minutiae first before moving on to the class warfare. How did Dujardin score 90%, beating the Dutch rider Adelinde Cornelissen on 88%, a score that would have won almost any other international dressage competition? Was the score rigged to give home advantage? Were the Dutch robbed? Well first, anyone assessing if a score might be rigged tends to look for anything out of line with a contestant’s previous performance (see the row over 15 year old Chinese swimmers). Dujardin has ridden that test before and gained a similar score so 90%, whilst amazing, was not out of line with her previous form.

Next, consider the judges. There were seven, of different nationalities. According to Euro-Dressage the panel:

included Tornblad (DEN), Ernes (NED), Roudier (FRA), Clarke (GBR), Alonso (MEX), Eisenhardt (GER) and Rockwell (GER) [and they] scored the ride with a record mark of 90.089% which was quite excessive, yet well earned. Six out of seven judges had Dujardin first, Dutch judge Ernes had her second with 89.125%, only a fraction lower than his score for Cornelissen (89.625%)

But could they have rigged the scoring? Well they score independently and I’m not aware of them having a hive mind, so if they rigged it, they did an amazing job scoring Dujardin a whisker above Cornelissen but no higher.

Many of the scores are allotted during a test, with some given at the end. As an experiment, watch Charlotte’s test and as you watch, give her a mark out of 10 for each movement. So mark the 2x tempi changes; the 1x changes; the pirouettes (canter, trot and passage, don’t forget the marks for difficulty whilst you’re there); the extensions (walk, trot and canter); the collected paces (ditto); the half passes (trot, canter and passage) and piaffe. Remember that some movements count double. Now, whilst you’re marking, watching the test, trying to spot the next movement in a freestyle test you’ve never seen before and preparing your collective marks for harmony, rider’s position and seat and the quality of the horse’s paces, add it all up, calculate the average and make sure it’s a bit higher than the Dutch but not so much higher that anyone appeals. How was that for you?

And for those who saw Charlotte make a clanger of a mistake towards the end and saw no mistakes in the Dutch test, remember this. Those seven judges were placed at different parts of the arena for a reason: what looks like a good halt from one angle clearly shows a trailing hind leg from another. The marks will vary depending on what was seen from where. So unless you were there and were simultaneously viewing the performance from the markers B; E; C and M, just accept that your view will by definition be partial. Parzival was at times tense through his neck, shoulder and withers and in dressage, tension gets marked down.

As to whether or not dressage is elitist, well I’ve discussed that elsewhere. Just to reiterate, it is possible to get into horse riding from a very ordinary background. I learned to ride by mucking out at local stables in return for lessons. Lessons involved sitting on any horse, no matter how grouchy, badly trained, or difficult that horse was. And as a consequence I learned something that somebody who came up through the more conventional Pony Club route may have missed out on – I learned how to get a tune out of horses that nobody else wanted anything to do with. I learned how to give a chance to horses who had been pretty much abandoned by anybody else, and they have always rewarded me for it.

Yes, dressage is easier if you have lots of money and good connections. But Jesus wept we live within a capitalist system that we pretend is a meritocratic free market but is more about the rich strangling the rest of us with their old school ties. Everything is bloody easier with money and connections.

By accusing Dujardin of not deserving her victory, either through wealth, or connections or biased judging, we are denying success. We are doing that horribly British thing of needing to be bad at everything because anything else is just showing off. So if we must be successful at something, we seem to feel that it’s only allowed if it’s the good old underdog. It’s only OK if it’s someone from an impoverished background because god forbid that someone from a moderately comfortable middle class background should do anything other than wander around in sack cloth and ashes apologising for their very existence.

I just wish that people could stop carping and just sit and watch. Watch in awe. Drop the prejudice. Stop whinging that it looks silly. Sex looks silly, it never stopped anyone trying it. Watch every perfect hoof beat. Stop wittering that someone has more money than you (someone has more money than everyone, either get over it or try to earn more). Become aware that you have been unaware that horse and rider are separate. Know that the difference between a good pirouette and a wild uneducated leap lies in a twitch of your core muscles, the direction in which you choose to breath. All the top riders in the final had minutes to show us the culmination of decades of training and years of hard work. It takes enormous effort to show such effortless harmony. Sit back, enjoy and know that the Great Escape will never sound the same again.

Derby, this one is dedicated to you. No-one will know quite how much I miss you.