WEG Dressage Medalists on Ensuring Good Equine Welfare

Valegro is either turned out or goes out to graze daily—even on competition day itself.

Photo: Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Top dressage horses stay in the stall all day except when they’re working and are fed three times each day. Right?

Wrong. According to the world’s top three dressage riders, fresh off the freestyle dressage podium at the Alltech Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) World Equestrian Games (WEG), offering their horses a happy lifestyle is key to success.

“I’m always monitoring how he feels, to make sure he’s in a good mood and feeling happy,” said German rider Helen Langehanenberg, silver medalist in the WEG freestyle dressage and Grand Prix Special competitions and gold medalist in the team dressage competition, of her horse Damon Hill NRW. “When you know him, you can easily tell what mood he’s in. It’s easy to know!”

Langehanenberg said she knows her horse well because she spends so much ground time with him and has developed a real connection with him, which is critical for good performance results. “He needs lots of love and attention—and carrots!” she told The Horse.

The 14-year-old Westfalian gelding goes out loose in a grass field every day unless it’s rainy, which makes for slippery terrain in their area. But Damon Hill has his personal preferences about outings: grass only, Langehanenberg said. “If there’s only sand then he’s just absolutely wild!” she said with a laugh.

Double gold medalist and team silver medalist Charlotte Dujardin of Great Britain said it’s important to recognize the kind of wear and tear that can happen to dressage horses. She works closely with her veterinarians to be sure she’s training her mount Valegro on a physical program that respects his health and welfare and gives him some variety.

“He only trains four days a week,” she said. “He’s in the water treadmill a few times a week, and otherwise he goes out hacking.” The 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding usually gets daily paddock time, except just before competitions “because of the risk of injury,” Dujardin said. But even if he’s not in a paddock, he still goes out to graze—even on competition day itself.

Dutch rider Adelinde Cornelissen, bronze medalist in the freestyle and in the team event, said daily paddock time near other horses is a vital part of the formula for her horse Jerich Parzival N.O.P. The 17-year-old Dutch Warmblood “rides like he’s seven,” and part of that could be because of the care he receives. “It’s simple,” Cornelissen said. “I ride him in the morning, and in the afternoon he’s in the field. Every day.”

Cornelissen said she’s also careful about his feeding, wanting to respect the natural equine eating rhythm as much as possible. “I feed them (Jerich Parzival and the other horses on her farm) myself,” she said. “He gets his breakfast and works, and then at 10:30 he gets food, and at 12 he gets, and at 2 he gets, and at 4 he gets, and 6 he gets … it’s pretty much all day. That keeps him happy!”

Is the sorrel gelding a “happy athlete”? “Yes he is,” Cornelissen said with confidence.

That rider confidence could come from knowing she’s taking care of her horses well, which can also contribute to a better horse/rider team, one leading equitation scientist said.

“From a sports psychology point of view, maintaining horse's welfare is paramount,” said Inga Wolframm, PhD, MSc, based in The Netherlands. “Studies in horse sports, by myself and other researchers, have shown that how riders perceive their horses, including their ability to perform and character traits, positively influences rider confidence.

“We know from research into other sports as well as into equestrianism that confidence is an important moderator of performance,” she said. “And I think there can be no doubt that equine management and training methods greatly influences behavior. So if riders look after their horses and manage them appropriately, this will impact how they perceive their horses' ability to perform and, as a knock-on effect, improve rider confidence and, ultimately, rider performance.”

About the Author

Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Christa Lesté-Lasserre is a freelance writer based in France. A native of Dallas, Texas, Lesté-Lasserre grew up riding Quarter Horses, Appaloosas, and Shetland Ponies. She holds a master’s degree in English, specializing in creative writing, from the University of Mississippi in Oxford and earned a bachelor's in journalism and creative writing with a minor in sciences from Baylor University in Waco, Texas. She currently keeps her two Trakehners at a competition stable east of Paris. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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