High Tech Changes to Grow Audience for Dressage Supported by Riders, Spectators, Organizers, Judges

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Adrienne Lyle of the United States working with Marie Kersig of Black Horse on the degree of difficulty freestyle program being used at the Global Dressage Festival Nations Cup in Wellington, Florida. Adrienne had not previously used the program. © 2018 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

April 10, 2018


Increasing application of high technology is bringing changes to dressage to make the sport more engaging and easily understood by both devotees and occasional fans unfamiliar and uninterested in small details and generating almost none of the opposition triggered by some recent officially sanctioned proposals.

Some officials, not surprisingly, have been slow to adapt and also often missing is commentary to take full advantage of technology that has extended live streaming to the world but has not yet developed the excitement and edge-of-the-seat anticipation in similar sports, such as ice skating that like dressage is decided by,judges.

The current and developing changes that technology is enabling fan engagement have met with almost universal approval by riders, show organizers and spectators wherever they are, unlike the officially sanctioned tinkering such as the much disliked HiLo proposal to change the way scoring is calculated by dropping the highest and lowest score of every single movement by a panel of judges.

The high tech changes are coming from a partnership of the tiny Black Horse development company in Munich, Germany headed up by Daniel Göhlen and the German software giant SAP.

Both companies were separately developing spectator judging programs, with SAP launching its first application at the world’s highest profile horse show, at Aachen, Germany in 2014. It was an immediate hit with spectators.

Spectator judging in 2017 had expanded to more than 60 horse shows on four continents, including the Omaha World Cup Final and the World Young Horse Championships and this year will be at the Paris World Cup after being a requirement at the nine European qualifiers.

If adopted at the World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina in September that would be its biggest stage.

“The community as a whole is really behind the system,” said Daniel while visiting Wellington, Florida for the recently concluded Global Dressage Festival. “That’s great because, keeping all those discussions about other topics in mind, this is one of the few systems that actually has the support of all stakeholders, top riders, judges, organizers. For everybody there is a clear advantage in the system.”

Spectator judging will likely be enhanced, he said, by adding short videos so viewers of the app can view the rider and it can also be displayed on big screens at competitions ahead of a ride to provide spectators with a personal profile of the competitor.

At the same time as spectator judging was being implemented, German 5* judge Katrina Wüst began working with Daniel on developing a program that would enable competitors to format Grand Prix Freestyles applying degrees of difficulty for specified movements.

The plans would be submitted to judges in advance so they could award marks in a method that was transparent to everyone. Riders could make the movements more difficult–for example, a double pirouette instead of a single pirouette–for a greater degree of difficulty to earn higher marks depending on how well it was executed.

“Lots of riders put much more thought into the freestyle than they did before,” Daniel said. “It’s interesting to see the riders going back to their freestyles, revising a few things. After they practice it at home, they look for more things to come up with a perfect freestyle.

In addition to providing a level playing field and, if made available to spectators and the media, it creates transparency that does not otherwise exist.

The program provides the opportunity for commentators, especially on streaming video, to give a running explanation of the freestyle knowing in advance what is planned, in the same way as ice skating freestyle commentary has become high entertainment building excitement and tension. Viewers are gripped by commentary leading them to see how well skaters perform the Salchow, Lutz, and Axel jumps of increasing difficulty, the commentators knowing in advance when the movements will be performed so they can build expectation and thus fan engagement.

Sabine Schut-Kery flew from California with Sanceo to compete at the Global Dressage Festival Nations Cup in Wellington, Florida. Marie Kersig of Black Horse software development is helping with use of the Grand Prix Freestyle dgeree of difficulty program. © 2018 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Not all judges are yet on board with the dressage program, though.

At the recent Global Dressage Festival Nations Cup in Wellington, Florida a couple of judges on the panel of five did not participate in applying the degree of difficulty format for the freestyle.

Robert Dover, the United States team coach, intends to bring up the issue in Paris to insure all seven judges at the World Cup participate in the program so all combinations in the Final freestyle have an equal chance.

Despite some growing pains, the application is spreading and will be implemented for the first time in Australia next month at the Sydney CDI3*, the premier dressage competition Down Under.

The International Equestrian Federation (FEI), the sport’s governing body that initially ruled the degree-of-difficulty program would not be used at the World Equestrian Games gave in to pressure from riders and it will now be implemented at Tryon.

To come, is a paperless judging system developed by Black Horse and SAP that the partners hope will become an “entertainment hub” for dressage incorporating spectator judging and the freestyle system and other innovations.

“We have combined the knowledge, stability and security we gained through SAP into a solution where the judge can get an iPad and score the tests and it doesn’t matter if the connection is bad or anything is bad,” Daniel said. “The marks are secure, they will come to us, they can sign with a pen.”

Feedback from organizers of the European World Cup qualifiers and other events along with support from the European Equestrian Federation is being incorporated in the system. It will be tested this summer at Achleiten, Austria; Cappeln, Germany and Leudelange, Luxembourg over summer.

Key factors include overall presentation of the sport and how it works for judges.

However, the developers are open to ideas.

Juan Matute, Jr. at the Global Dressage Festival. © 2018 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Juan Matute, Jr. the 20-year-old rider, one of the world’s top youth riders who lives in Wellington but competes for Spain,  suggested that judges have the option of providing an audio report of up to 20 seconds instead of what has become cryptic written comments of riders’ tests.

“This is a great idea and easy to implement,” Daniel said. “I’m looking forward to trying that.”

Janet Foy, an American 5* judge, supported the idea as, she said, judges were under pressure to complete scoring as quickly as possible as spectators waited in the stands and often could not provide detailed written comments on the ride.

“All this feedback is great because it will improve the system continually by implementing those changes,” Daniel said.

“We’re working with SAP trying to find an entertainment hub for the spectators, where all the live information is gathered—spectator judging, the freestyle system, iPad jscoring system–where you can look up biographies with videos as well. We’re working on that. It will come.”