Well, here I am on the eve of the Global Dressage Forum (the real one, not that ersatz imitator in FL), and I’m as excited as I’ve ever been to be attending once again. If you are not cut of DQ cloth, you might wonder what the big deal is with this annual meeting of DQ minds. And perhaps you will just have to settle for not understanding, because you just about have to be a DQ to ‘get’ it. Over many years of puzzling about what makes DQs unique in the equestrian world, I have concluded one thing: many, if not most, of them are closet philosophers. The conundrum with that is most DQs operate in something akin to a vacuum – training in the cloistered solitude of an indoor arena with a small group of others who are likely to abide by the same attitudes, particularly if everyone at the barn trains with the same person. They venture out occasionally to shows, where heaven forbid they should exchange ideas or (gasp!) secrets of their methods with their rivals in Fourth Level Test 3. There is certainly no rubbing of intellectual shoulders with the judges, either. That’s not the judges’ fault, but a mere symptom of the culture that surrounds dressage shows, the driest horse events around. I recently attended a cow show in France that was more exciting than the average dressage show.
So when, once a year, a bunch of trainers, judges, media and (yes, even) riders gets together to exchange ideas, it’s a big deal in DQ Land. The atmosphere is a bit like if you had a group of monks who had taken a vow of silence for a year, and this is the first moment they are allowed to speak again. Not everything they say is all sweetness and light. It’s possible to offend even in silence, and the GDF is often the place grievances are aired. The GDF is like my favorite kind of movie: one with multiple crises, not all of which are resolved, and delivered with great dialogue-driven character roles that might make you laugh, or might make you question your own established set of beliefs. And being a hater of Hollywood, I particularly like the ending of every GDF, which may be hopeful (most years) but is never a stock happy ending, all loose ends tied neatly in bows.
I arrived in Amsterdam with a day in hand before my reservation at the bungalow where I stay every year commenced, and on a whim I decided to spend it over the Belgian border in Antwerp – a city I had never visited. It was a fairly arbitrary decision, possibly motivated by the city’s name. Anything with ‘twerp’ in the name has to be fun, right? The Flemish call it Antwerpen, as in ‘you been antwerpin’ again?’ What I completely forgot when I drove the short distance from Schiphol was that Antwerp is a globally important center of the diamond trade, and that the group historically dominant in that business is Antwerp’s large community of Hasidic Jews.
I realize that I’m setting myself up for accusations that I’m being an ignoramus, but when I drove into the center of Antwerp and saw the streets alive with men in black coats, funny big brimmed top hats, flowing beards and f0re-ear ringlets, I was riveted. It’s not that I haven’t seen Hasidic Jews before (not surprisingly, they are pretty numerous at Brussels airport), but I had never seen them as a majority presence on the street. For some reason I particularly enjoyed the ones riding bicycles. Many of the men wear long pants, but quite a few prefer a kind of breeches that are invisible below the coat hem, resulting, in my overstimulated imagination at least, in a slight visual similarity to a flasher.
Probably the most stunning thing I saw while walking through the diamond district was a man wearing a hat the size of a large lampshade, covered in fur.
As I wandered around trying not to be caught staring at these very dignified people whose culture and religion I know very little about, I noted that the men were much more conspicuous than the women, for the reason that their dress code seems to be more strict than that of the women. The women wore a variety of hats and scarves, and while there were clear rules – no pants, black dominant – I realized that this is the first culture with a dress code that I’ve ever seen where the men are bound by stricter guidelines than the women.
After a night in Antwerp, I dragged my jet lag off to the Brabant on Friday and began to do strengthening exercises for my fingers. I type almost constantly during the two days of the GDF. And in addition to making sure I don’t miss a single spicy quote or pearl of wisdom (Isabell, I’m so excited!), as an honorary member of the IDRC I am invited to sit in on their AGM tomorrow morning. It’s always a treat to get to be a fly on the wall.
Oh, just one more thing before I begin my preparations for tomorrow’s excitement. As promised a couple of weeks ago, I’m continuing to keep my finger on the now pounding pulse of Endurance scandals. A colleague shared with me a rather funny bit of endurance foot-in-mount disease of the photographic kind. A few days ago, Normandy 2014 posted an image of a new promotional poster on its Facebook page. Featured front and center on the poster is an Endurance rider, and not just any old garden variety Endurance rider, either. The athlete is none other than UAE rider Ali Al Muhairi, who is currently serving a record four year ban handed down by the FEI. The image has since been yanked from the Normandy 2014 FB page, but fortunately for our entertainment, the clever folks at Endurance Belgium got a screen capture before it disappeared (and presumably a hundred or so boxes of posters are well on their way to a recycling depot in Caen).