During the Rio Olympics, my Facebook feed was utterly blowing up with comments regarding Dutch dressage rider Adelinde Cornelissen, and her choice to retire mid-test on her veteran partner, Parzival. Just a day or so earlier, Parzival had been found with a fever and swollen jaw, determined to be the result of a bite from some foreign bug. Under the supervision of FEI veterinarians, the horse was treated with fluids; as the swelling and fever reduced, Parzival was given clearance to compete. However, Cornelissen felt that her horse did not feel right and that it was inappropriate to continue to push him to complete the demanding Grand Prix test.
Initially, Cornelissen was lauded as a hero for putting the needs of her horse ahead of medal aspirations. But quickly the backlash began. Accusations of horse abuse were rampant. Implications that the true cause of the swelling was a hairline fracture of the jaw as the result of Cornelissen’s training methods became a common chant.
Cornelissen and Parzival have been staples on the Dutch international team for years. They were the alternates for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and at the 2012 London Games her team earned the bronze and Cornelissen, the individual silver. They have had numerous other successes in the international ring, but also some lows. The most notable of these occurred at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, when the pair was eliminated due to blood in the mouth, allegedly the result of the horse biting his tongue. The 2016 Rio Games were almost certainly intended to be the 19 year old horse’s final competition.
I am not a huge follower of international equestrian sport, but I watch and see enough that I usually know the key players and the major events. Since the days of the great rivalry between Van Grunsven and Werth, the Dutch riders have frequently been criticized for the use of rollkur in their training system. Of course, the Dutch say that the method they use is different than rollkur—I think they call it “low, deep and round”—and for people who live in that world, the similarities and differences between the two techniques could be debated for hours. For the greater equestrian community, the 98% of us who do not exist in the world of elite dressage performance, the line between the two methods is very, very blurry. The FEI was finally forced to take a firm stance against the use of rollkur largely as the result of public pressure. Low, deep and round is still allowed, within certain parameters; this ruling still rankles some within the equestrian community.
From what I understand, Cornelissen has been frequently accused of using rollkur, and many negative statements have been made specifically in regards to her riding style and performances with Parzival. Given the quite passive and osmosis-like manner in which I absorb information about most of these elite riders, I do feel that it is significant that the impression I have always had of her is that she perhaps uses less than classical training methods. I have utterly no foundation on which to base the impression other than the trickle of comments which come through social media, bulletin boards and occasional articles. But yet, the impression is there.
So when the whole situation in Rio started to unfold, I initially noted that this particular rider was making (negative) headlines again. But it wasn’t until nearly every other post on my Facebook timeline was deriding her that I began to look more closely at the details. And the more I learned, the more I scratched my head over the kinds of comments I was seeing—strong, vicious statements such as, “I hate her” and “She shouldn’t be called a hero. She has been abusing that horse for years.”
Wait a minute here. Regardless of anything you might have thought or do think about this rider….she felt as though the horse was not right. She stopped performing her test. It is almost a certainty that her decision to retire put the Netherlands out of medal contention as well. She chose to retire anyway—and I am sure the pressure to produce a winning test was extremely high, given that the Netherlands is a nation which actually enjoys and follows equestrian sports. In spite of all of this…she stopped. How could this one decision alone not be considered a heroic act?
The video of Cornelissen and Parzival’s test up until she withdrew seems to have vanished from the internet. It was out there for a bit, and I watched it with great interest, because apparently some of the Armchair Quarterbacks know far more about dressage than I do, and I wanted to see what they saw: “You can tell from the minute he entered the ring that he was lame.” (What? He looked sound to me.) “He is obviously unhappy. Look at how much foam is coming out of his mouth.” (Yes, he was a bit more foamy than average, but certainly I have seen other horses look similarly and no one is saying that those horse are unhappy; some foam is actually considered a good thing. The person commenting wouldn’t know the difference.) “He just looks miserable. I feel so bad for him.”
I must say, I wish that I could take a clinic or lesson with some of these Armchair Quarterbacks. Because I will freely admit that I just didn’t see all of these horrible things that everyone else did in the video I watched. The horse is in good weight, muscle and tone. He appears healthy and willing. He was not swishing his tail, pinning his ears, visibly sucking back or showing other signs of overt resistance. I understand that at some point in the video, Parzival does start to stick out his tongue—this is a classic symptom of a contact/connection issue, and it certainly can indicate an unhappy horse. However, I was unable to see that in the footage I watched. I have seen some photos of him from Rio with his tongue out; they were all taken after the horse had left the ring.
I saw a lovely horse performing the Grand Prix, whose rider sensed was not himself, and who was pulled up. We know he had had something wrong with his face before the competition– a fact that Cornelissen doesn’t deny and in fact shared freely with fans. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation why the horse was not at his best, especially in the connection. Let’s not forget, he was cleared to compete by some of the best vets in the world.
I must really not know much about horses or dressage. But these Armchair Quarterbacks really do seem to know EVERYTHING about the training, management and performance capability of this foreign based pair. I found the amount of energy spent condemning Cornelissen to be, frankly, disappointing. One woman actually is threatening to sue Cornelissen over her alleged abuse of Parzival. I wish I was making this up.
There is an article which I use in one of my classes called, “Can Horse Sports Face the Central Park Test?”. The article looks at common practices within several prominent equine disciplines through the frame of a comment from former US Equestrian Federation president and current US Eventing Team Coach, David O’Connor. “Could I go through the middle of Central Park with an NBC camera following me around as I get my horse ready to go into a competition?” O’Connor asks. “Will you show anybody anything you’re doing? If you can’t, there’s a problem.”
This article really resonated for me, because in my years in the industry I have certainly heard tales of “those things which happen behind the barn”. The stuff that no one talks about but people know about. It happens in all equine sports, at all levels. And it is not right, and just because it is the “norm” in a certain sphere doesn’t make these activities ok. This isn’t about saying one discipline is better than another. This is about good, basic, horsemanship.
Is it possible that Cornelissen has inappropriately used rollkur, or strong bits, or other less than ideal methods to achieve a training end with Parzival? Sure. I don’t know one way or the other, because I have never spent time watching her work, or touring her facility. But I do know that the horse at 19 was sound enough in brain and body to be chosen for the Dutch squad and then flown half way around the world to represent them. So I surmise that he must have a pretty good crew of people taking care of him to get to that point—Cornelissen included.
If you want to pick on Olympic riders, maybe we should condemn all of them, and our federations while we are at it, for choosing to bring their horses to compete at a Games in an area with an active glanders outbreak? Certainly exposing some of the best in the world to this nearly unheard of disease is worthy of outrage?
Years ago, as a working student for Lendon Gray, she would really get after me for using a “half way aid”. She argued that it was far kinder to a horse to make your point once—give them a clear aid with a particular expectation of a response—than it was to nag, and nag, and nag. This lesson has really stuck with me. The fact is that daily training can be cruel too—too tight nosebands, excessive or uneducated use of spurs, aggressive use of training aids like draw reins or bigger, harsher bits, heck, even ill fitting saddles, can all cause pain and frustration in our equine partners. And let’s be honest—a rider who chooses to show mid level dressage but can hardly sit the trot, someone who wants to jump but refuses to learn to see a distance, the pleasure rider who doesn’t bother to learn about basic conditioning…are these not their own forms of cruelty to our beloved horses?
The honest to gosh truth is that if you really feel fired up and want to make a TRUE and IMPACTFUL difference to the lives of animals…start with yourself. Educate yourself. Learn from the best that you can afford. Practice. Eat healthy. Stay fit. Reach out to your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues and your clients….help them to be the best that they can be too.
There are absolutely examples of truly heinous training methods which are employed by riders to extract a certain performance from their horse. But for the Armchair Quarterbacks to vilify someone the way they did Cornelissen, without first taking a good, hard look in the mirror, is to me as much of a crime.
I only can hope that this vocal contingent can take some of that energy and direct it closer to home—where it can make a real, meaningful difference.