Scott Hassler, USA Young Horse Coach, Offers Course for Future of High Performance Dressage
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
As the United States looks to decide on the direction of its top level dressage, longtime young horse coach Scott Hassler believes future success will come from supporting the most promising partnerships, taking advantage of an American characteristic that recognizes the individual as key.
The U.S. Equestran Federation has a vital role to play to provide support and guidance, “but the major role is ourselves as individuals. The federation picks us up when we have something to show them–here’s a product, guide me, manage what I need to do, give me input for us to be on our team.
“But we have to get creative as individuals, to be attractive for our sport, to find the ways to make it work as individuals.
“All of us have a lot of ideas and we come at it from different angles
“The one thing that made our country, and it is no different today than it ever was, is that we are individuals striving to be the best we can be.
“That is who we are.”
What Scott believes is important for the U.S. where he has been the U.S. young horse coach for several years, is different than programs centered around clinics at which attendance is sometimes mandatory to receive instruction from the national coach.
The reality of high performance dressage in the powerhouse nations is that to varying degrees riders work with their own trainers who know and understand the combinations while the national federations provide financial help to compete in selected competitions, support for veterinary services and phsyical training for both horses and riders and other services. National coaches maintain an overall view of current and promising combinations and work with riders’ trainers to guide them to the top levels.
Dressage in the U.S. is at a crossroads following two straight Olympics at which the team failed to come close to winning a medal–disqualified in 2008 when an illegal substance was found on one of the three team horses and placing sixth in London this summer. Before this, the U.S. won bronze medals at four straight Olympics–Barcelona in 1992, Atlanta in 1996, Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004. (See accompanying report Selection of New USA Dressage Coach )
Following the London Games in August, Anne Gribbons, coach for the U.S. for the past three years resigned amidst recriminations and finger-pointing behind closed doors over the team’s performance.
Now, U.S. Equestrian Federation committees that operate in total secrecy in selecting the coaches, writing the rules, making many of the decisions that impact competitions, set up and conduct selection procedures for teams, issuing financial grants and decisions on other vital features for dressage will decide what course to set the sport on for the next few years.
Many believe the days of deep-pocketed sponsors buying accomplished horses for teams are diminishing if not over. Instead, many believe, there should be more emphasis on placing talented young prospects with some of the many riders capable of being competitive internationally.
Scott’s views come from basing himself in Germany with the late trainer Herbert Rhebein then moving back home almost three decades ago to ride some top stallions for Jane MacElree and then help Jane create Hilltop Farm in Colora, Maryland, as one of the nation’s major breeding and competition centers. He helped foster the young horse championships aimed at producing combinations for the highest levels of the sport.
An outstanding partnership was that of Elizabeth Ball of Carlsbad, California, and the U.S.-bred Selten HW that produced the history-making performance of four-, five- and six-year-old titles.
Selten was sold at a Dutch auction in October, going to Great Britain for €500,000 (US$650,000).
Another graduate of the program is Wakeup ridden by Emily Wagner of La Cygne, Kansas, a town not famous as a center of sport horse breeding. In 2010, the black stallion by Wagnis out of a Matcho mare and Emily went to the world championships at Verden, Germany.
Now, the 23-year-old college student and Wakeup–her mother bred the horse–is being prepared for the big tour. Encouragement and guidance came from Scott through the young horse program.
“Things are dramatically different now compared with former times,” Scott said in a recent interview with dressage-news.com. “In my eyes it is very very difficult to buy the quality of horses for sport at the highest levels. It is blatantly obvious you don’t need just a good horse, you need a spectacular horse that is ridden correctly.
“Therefore, the hope of fulfilling your dream without support and guidance gets harder and harder; it’s harder to get lucky and make a good horse. The breeding has gotten better, training has gotten better.
“To excel now is getting harder and harder. You should never give up your dream but you have to accept the other side–the reality.”
Given that the U.S. teams for all three Olympic discipline–dressage, eventing and jumping–collectively turned in the worst performance in decades with not a single medal of any color in Scott’s view “has certainly heightened attention to what are we doing wrong.”
Although some are putting the word “crisis” on the state of American horse sports, he said, “I don’t see dressage in crisis mode.”
“I see us as you are an individual athlete and trying to live a dream of going to the Olympics,” said Scott, the father of two daughters, who lives in Chesapeake City, Maryland.
“So how do you become attractive? Why should someone sponsor you? There are issues of ethics, quality of riding. What are you doing? You have to be attractive, you need to be inspiring to sponsors.”
A system can keep eyes on prospective combinations, provide suggestions on development and all-important management behind the horse, but: “So much of this is on ourselves as individuals. We cannot blame a federation for the problems.
“The federation has a role, but the major role is ourselves as individuals. The federation picks us up when we have something to show them, when we can say: ‘Here’s a product. Guide me. Manage me. Give me input that can be good for our team.
“But we have to get creative as individuals to be attractive for our sport and find ways and make it work as individuals.
“That is what our country has always been based on. I see ideas and information being thrown out as a quicky fix.
“I don’t think it’s that simple. The more attractive we are as a sport and as individuals, the whole program, how we come across, how we treat the horses. That’s what’s going to make our country go to the top.
“I believe we have a ot of talented riders in this country. We are lacking horse flesh to show how good we are.
“It’s my hope that we can look less critically at the London experience and look more creatively and come to some very simple solutions.
“We don’t need 30 more horses. We could use five more.
“We were caught in an unfortunate gap in time. We simply did not have the magic, we lacked a few supporting passionate people who didn’t have the horses at the moment to back us.”