By George Williams
Recently, I attended the IDTC/IDRC meeting in Lier, Belgium. It was hosted by the beautiful Axel Hof, which will be known very soon as Belgium’s most incredible competition venue for CSIs and CDIs.
“What is the IDTC/IDRC?” you may ask. It is the International Dressage Trainers and Riders Clubs which, last year, stepped up to fill a space left by the Global Dressage Forum. The Global Dressage Forum was hosted in its early years by Academy Bartels in Hooge Mierde, the Netherlands. This annual event was dedicated to the advancement of dressage, principally through the sharing of knowledge and introduction of new ideas.
The Forum I attended back in 2005 took place the same year that the first FEI World Cup Finals was held in Las Vegas. This was the World Cup where Debbie McDonald and Brentina famously wowed the dressage world with their harmonious freestyle to the tune to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” I remember the Forum discussion quite clearly. The harmony the American pair displayed was a lively point of discussion. It was pointed out that first, second and third place were close, and if it had been based entirely on harmony, Debbie and Bettina would have won. In my opinion, in many ways it was a milestone because ever since, harmony has been recognized and spoken about as a critical aspect in competitive dressage.
This year, “Enhancing Welfare and Performance Through Knowledge” was the title given to the meeting. When we talk about social license and welfare, the concept of harmonious performances in dressage is essential to the discussion and cannot be minimized.
Meetings like this are important, and I would like to have seen more people from the various stakeholder groups of the FEI in attendance. I was the only person from the United States there as an attendee. We are a global sport, and many of the topics covered are important to all involved. It was a mixed group of riders, trainers, officials and organizers attending, which led to some great discussion.
There were several takeaways from this meeting. Perhaps it’s not surprising that there are a number of innovative apps that have been or are being developed. We heard about three of them: HoofmApp, Sleip Gait Analysis and Walkbeat Horses. As you might suspect, HoofmApp by Mustad focuses on “no foot, no horse.” In their words, it provides “documentation of shoeing to improve understanding and maintain constancy.”
The Sleip app was presented by Elin Herlund, DVM PhD and analyzes video of a horse being presented as in a horse inspection at a CDI. It looks for abnormalities in the gait that may be associated with a lameness. It “seeks a better understanding of an individual’s gait, early detection of changes, improved monitoring of progress, definition and clarity of ‘fitness to compete.’”
The third was developed by the Swedish company Walkbeat Health and is called Walkbeat Horses. They have an app for humans as well. This is a comprehensive app designed to help in the “understanding of biodynamics of dressage movements.” It utilizes small sensors that are attached to each leg of the horse and analyzes the gaits and steps based on context and the data collected. Context refers to things such as footing, saddle, rider, temperature, etc. These are all tools that can be used to assist trainers, vets, farriers and others to ensure that the horses are in a good condition to train and compete by helping to find slight irregularities before they become serious issues. These are all exciting and positive developments and can directly impact the well-being of our horses.
Of course, Artificial Intelligence (AI) in dressage presented itself as perhaps the most fascinating topic discussed. There is no doubt that AI will inevitably come to dressage. The discussion of the blending of a centuries-old tradition of training horses with the science fiction-like future needs to begin now. In what ways can AI be used to assist in judging? Good question. A program was introduced to show some of what is possible. AI assistance in primarily objective criteria such as number of steps or distance traveled in a piaffe, number of changes, length and evenness of steps, accuracy of lines, even angles or articulation of joints is possible. That would leave things like harmony, use of aids, quality of contact and most of the more subjective criteria to the human judges.
Of course, this is a few years off. But we need to have these discussions today to determine how and if we might want to use the capabilities of AI in judging. You can imagine the concerns that were expressed. At the same time, it was pointed out by one of our top competitors that it has the possibility of increasing objectivity in judging. Where there was a definite consensus was that many of these applications could be even more valuable from a training point of view—from the perspective of training judges, but possibly more importantly for the training of riders and horses.
We took a look at tests that introduce riders to the Grand Prix, and considered how introductory tests can better allow horses to progress confidently in their training. The inside of the horse is just as important, if not more so, as the outside. The one topic that was cut short due to a lack of time was a presentation on microbiomes in the digestive tract. Bettering the lives of our horses should be the goal of all of us—competition or not.
We all know there are many facets to equine well-being. It’s exciting to think of the progress that has already been made and the possibilities for even more progress in the future. As I mentioned, meetings like this are important. Stakeholders do need to be involved and participate in the discussions. Thank you to the leadership of the IDRC and IDTC for putting this forum together and for playing a proactive role in the future of our horses and the future of our sport.
“Enhancing Welfare and Performance Through Knowledge” should always be our goal, and we must remember that ultimately, how and what we do at home is most important, for equine well-being truly starts there.
The recent International Dressage Trainers and Riders Clubs meeting, held in Belgium, discussed the future of dressage.
Photo by Ruby Tevis