Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Au Revoir

This French phrase usually is used to mean "goodbye," but the literal translation is "until we meet again."

It seems a fitting way to end both this blog and the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, for the equestrians of the world will of course be meeting again in four years, at the 2014 WEG in Normandy, France.

With the Lexington, Kentucky, Games now behind us, we take stock of the event, and we recall the highlights and the indelible moments. For American dressage enthusiasts, no moment could have surpassed that on Wednesday, September 29, when Steffen Peters became the first US dressage rider to win an individual medal at a world championships. His joy and emotion at the achievement, and his elation at the superb performance of his mount, Akiko Yamazaki's Dutch gelding Ravel, in the Grand Prix Special, will stay with me always.
Breaking on through: Steffen Peters and Ravel smash the glass ceiling to become the first US dressage WEG individual medalists, in the Grand Prix Special

Only slightly less burnished was Steffen's second individual bronze two days later, in the Grand Prix Freestyle. In the first few seconds after a competitor's final halt and salute, the facial expressions and body language express pretty plainly how the rider felt about the performance. In Steffen's case, the smile was not quite the grin of before, and the body language showed that he knew his freestyle hadn't quite matched the heights of his previous test. But the pride was still genuine and the performance was still world-class.

My one WEG regret is that I was not able to stay in Lexington for the second week of competition. I so wanted to see the para-equestrian dressage competition. I watched some of the para competitors schooling while I was at the Kentucky Horse Park, and I was awed at their skill. On the other hand, had I attended the para events, I wonder how well I would have been able to maintain my facade of journalistic impartiality. Watching some of the para competition highlights on demand back home on my computer (they're archived on the US Equestrian Federation's online network if you missed them or other WEG events), I got a lump in my throat. Heaven knows what sort of state I would have been in had I seen them in person.

Our US para-equestrian competitors did us proud. Grade IV rider Susan Treabess, of Winters, California, was the highest-placing American, finishing tenth individually in her freestyle class with a score of 69.65 percent aboard Moneypenny, owned by Katy Peterson. The US para-equestrians finished eighth in the team competition.

Owner Akiko Yamazaki had already had her share of emotional moments with Ravel's medals. She was in for another heart-tugging day when she watched her other WEG horse, the Dutch gelding Kranak, complete his final test with US para-equestrian Jennifer Baker, of Loveland, Ohio. Kranak, Yamazaki's former Grand Prix horse, had come out of retirement when Baker's intended WEG mount sustained an injury and was unable to compete. His Grade IV individual freestyle test with Baker was his last, as he's headed back to a well-deserved retirement.

Of course, there were many other shining moments for US competitors at the WEG. The reining team swept team gold as well as the gold and silver individual medals. The driving team won silver, and Tucker Johnson clinched the individual driving bronze. And Team USA won the gold medal in the vaulting competition.

I hope you have enjoyed following this blog as much as I enjoyed writing it. If you weren't in attendance in Lexington, I encourage you to consider attending the WEG in Normandy. This region is perhaps best known as the site of the D-Day Allied troops invasion during World War II, and no visit would be complete without a trip to the beautiful and moving American Cemetery and the famous beaches on which the landings took place. What you may not know is that Normandy is France's horse country -- its Lexington counterpart, if you will. The region is home to famous Thoroughbred farms and the French national stud, Haras du Pin. It's gorgeous country (I know; I have family there), and the French are determined to put on another WEG for the memory books. They got off to a good start at the Lexington WEG, cooking up a storm and offering all manner of French delicacies at the "Rendez-Vous in Normandy" booth.

Au revoir!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Driving: Another Form of Dressage

If you've never watched combined driving in person, you're missing out. The wheeled version of eventing is every bit as exacting and thrilling as its mounted cousin.

It's hard enough to pilot one horse through a dressage test. I can't imagine how much skill it must take to keep a four-in-hand in sync for an entire test in an oversized dressage arena, my only aids being reins and whip. But that's exactly what the "whips" do.

Today is the final day of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky, and the final phase of the driving competition, the cones course (equivalent to show jumping), is under way. It's a nail-biter for sure, with entrants tied for both second place (the USA's Chester Weber and the Netherlands' Ijsbrand Chardon) and fourth place (the USA's Tucker Johnson and the Netherlands' Theo Timmerman) after yesterday's marathon (equivalent to eventing's cross-country). Boyd Exell of Australia is the individual leader.
Chester Weber of the US shows his skill in driven dressage. Photo by Kit Houghton/FEI.

In the team standings, the US and the Netherlands are tied for first place, so a fierce battle for the gold medal is taking place.

Driving competitor and dressage rider and judge Sara Schmitt recounted in a recent USDF Connection "Outside the Arena" training article the ways that driving and dressage can be symbiotic. I have never tried my hand at driving, but someday I'd like to.

One incident has marred the otherwise fun and exciting driving competition, and that's the slashing of seats and spilling of brake fluid on Chardon's vehicle sometime in the night prior to marathon day. The vandalism was discovered shortly before the Dutch competitor was to contest yesterday's marathon. He was permitted a later starting time so as to ensure the safety of the vehicle and especially its brakes.

Security on the grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park obviously wasn't sufficient to prevent the incident. As of this writing, the culprit(s) has not been identified. It is an embarrassing moment for the WEG, of course. I'm also a little disgusted that I had to learn of the incident from a report in the Lexington Herald-Leader and not from WEG officials themselves, who only last night released a statement confirming the vandalism and the involvement of the Kentucky State Police in the investigation.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

People-Watching at the WEG

Spotting a movie star on the streets of New York City is all well and good, but we horse people are likely to get much more excited when we see one of our equestrian heroes in person.

The celeb-sighting opportunities don't get any better than at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky. I've seen a lot of spectators zoned out, chatting with friends, and not keeping their eyes peeled for who might be nearby. Big mistake! Besides the stars competing in the ring, there are famous coaches, teammates, and other supporters standing on the stadium apron, sitting in the "Athletes and Grooms" area of the stands, or passing by on foot or in one of the ubiquitous golf carts. Here are photos of some of my own sightings.
US eventing chef d'equipe Capt. Mark Phillips and eventing legend and blogger Jim Wofford take in the action during the eventing show jumping
Do competitors watch one another? You'd better believe it. Dutch competitors Edward Gal (raincoat), Imke Schellekens-Bartels, and Hans Peter Minderhoud and Dutch dressage chef d'equipe Sjef Janssen (right) were on hand for the Grand Prix team dressage competition.
Competitors from other disciplines frequently come watch to support their countrymen and -women. Brazilian jumping star Rodrigo Pessoa (in cap) was in the stands for eventing show jumping.
US dressage Olympian Courtney King-Dye, recovering from a head injury, came to Kentucky to cheer on her teammates.
In addition to the famous faces in the crowd, if you keep your eyes and ears open, you may avail yourself of some interesting encounters in and around Lexington. Example: boarding the plane in Lexington a few days ago for my trip home, I was settling into my seat when I overheard the chatty woman across the aisle quizzing her seatmate about her Down Under accent and whether she'd been in town for the WEG.

Yes, the young woman replied: "My brother was on the team that won a bronze medal yesterday."

What? Bronze medal? Sitting across from me? Yes indeed, and I had a short, nice talk with Grace Johnstone, younger sister of Clarke Johnstone, who at 23 was the rookie on the New Zealand eventing team that had indeed just won bronze. Grace was headed home to resume her university studies, and she confessed to having turned in early the night before while her brother, their parents, and their teammates celebrated.

File in the "you never know" category. So as you're out and about this final WEG weekend, taking in the driving; the para-equestrian, jumping, and vaulting finals; and the closing ceremonies; or as you head home, keep your ears open and your eyes peeled. You never know whom you might come across.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Meet the US WEG Para-Equestrians

Para-equestrian dressage competition at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games is under way, concluding this Sunday, October 10, with the final day of individual freestyle tests.

As you may know, this is the first time in history that para-equestrian sport has been included at an equestrian world championships. In the past, para-equestrians -- skilled horsemen and -women who have varying degrees of physical disability -- have had separate championships, including the Paralympic Games, which are the "para parallel" to the Olympic Games and take place immediately after the Olympics conclude, in the same venue(s).

It is exciting to see the full range of world-class equestrians in one place. I feel confident saying that, just as the para-equestrian dressage riders at the WEG can watch and learn from the able-bodied riders, the able-bodied competitors can learn a thing or two from the para riders, who have ridden to a high level even while dealing with all manner of disabilities. I watched some para-equestrians schooling while I was at the WEG, and more than one had horses going enviably. Let's just say I'd be happy to get a horse as nicely collected and through as some of the ones I saw cruising around at the Kentucky Horse Park.

The US WEG para-equestrians did their pre-WEG training at Kentucky Equine Research in Lexington. KER prepared a lovely video on our athletes, who speak eloquently about their histories, their horses, and their goals. My colleagues at KER kindly gave me permission to share the video here. Watch and enjoy!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Two More Historic Firsts at WEG Grand Prix Freestyle

With something of an upset in the team medals (Netherlands atop the podium, Great Britain winning its first-ever World Equestrian Games medal, a silver) and with Steffen Peters collecting the first US individual world championships dressage medal in history (bronze in Wednesday’s Grand Prix Special), the sellout crowd of 25,000 was primed for more history-making in tonight’s Grand Prix Freestyle at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky.
Sellout crowd at the start of the WEG Grand Prix Freestyle

Sunset over the Kentucky Horse Park stadium
The top fifteen finishers from the Special contested the Freestyle, which left only Peters and Ravel to represent the United States. At the end of the first rotation, Germany’s veteran, Isabell Werth, was atop the leader board with a score of 80.000%. But that score didn't stand for long because Britain's Laura Bechtolsheimer and Mistral Hojris, the GP Special silver medalists, came in and shattered it with a delightful, accurate ride to surf-themed music that earned a score of 85.350%.
Bechtolsheimer and "Alf" in the Freestyle
From there, the excitement just grew. Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz of Spain brought the house down with a crowd-pleasing freestyle aboard the PRE stallion Fuego XII to (what else?) Spanish music, complete with extended trot that drew spontaneous cheers and a flamboyant finish of one-handed one-tempis down the final center line, with Diaz pumping his free hand to encourage the clapping and shouting. He got the audience so pumped up that Fuego XII scooted and bolted at the raucous applause that followed his final halt and salute. But his score of just 81.450% drew equally loud boos and whistles from the crowd, which clearly thought Diaz deserved better.
Showman Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz of Spain plays the showman aboard Fuego XII
Then it was the golden boy of these Games: blond Dutchman Edward Gal and his black KWPN stallion, Moorlands Totilas. Having clinched both team gold in the GP and individual gold in the Special, Gal was expected to deliver something extraordinary in the Freestyle. And he did -- a final total score of 91.800%, with American judge Linda Zang, sitting at "C," awarding him an astonishing 93.500% -- but Gal's ride was not up to the standard that he set in the GP Special, with Totilas breaking to canter in one extended trot, walking out of a halt, and stopping momentarily during a passage. 
Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas
Steffen Peters' freestyle also did not quite equal his performance in the Special, with a little buck at the start of a line of tempi changes and some momentary losses of balance. But Ravel's suppleness and elasticity, to what Peters later referred to as a "turbocharged" version of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" and Men Without Hats' "Safety Dance" freestyle that they used at the 2008 Hong Kong Olympics, earned the pair a score of 84.900% and the bronze medal.
Steffen Peters and Ravel
"It's amazing how high the standard has risen," Peters said afterward. Of his second individual medal, he said, "Tonight we sprinkled a little more icing on top of the cake. It's a pretty wonderful cake."

Peters tonight becomes the first American rider ever to win one -- much less two -- individual medals in world-championships dressage competition.
Same medalists, same order: Bechtolsheimer, Gal, Peters
Gal accomplished the other WEG first: winning three gold medals. "It's just now sinking in," he said of his historic achievement.

"Tonight we had three totally different types of horses," said Zang, who was president of the ground jury. "Totilas has so much power but seems so easy and light. Laura's horse has a lot more power, a very big horse. Sometimes it's a little hard for Laura to keep that propulsive power balanced. Ravel's strength is that he's so elastic and soft."

Gal confirmed that Totilas has been bred to Brentina, who achieved much success under Debbie McDonald. I wonder what kind of super-foal that will be!

There was a poignant moment during the awards ceremony, when Peters entered the stadium wearing a helmet instead of the top hat in which he'd competed. Asked about the headgear switch, he replied: "I sent an e-mail to Courtney [King-Dye, who suffered a severe head injury last March] today. I said tonight I want to dedicate my ride to you." (King-Dye was in attendance tonight.) 
A helmeted Peters dedicated his victory gallop to injured rider Courtney King-Dye
"I saw her after her accident," Peters continued. "It was one of the hardest things I've seen in my life. So tonight I wanted to dedicate my honor round to her."

Friday, October 1, 2010

Reining Rocks!

OK, I'm hanging up my Prince of Wales spurs and my dress boots and gettin' me some hand-tooled leather and a big old pair of rowels.

Well, maybe not really, but after yesterday's individual reining final and freestyle reining exhibition at the 2010 FEI Alltech World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky, I'm sorely tempted.

We dressage types like to refer to reining as "Western dressage." Is it, and how similar are these two equestrian disciplines? That's what I set out to learn when I headed for the new indoor arena at the Kentucky Horse Park and the individual reining medal final yesterday afternoon.
Sellout crowd for the WEG reining individual final
The din emanating from the sold-out arena was the first clue that a reining competition has a different atmosphere than that of the usual staid dressage show. Loud pop music blared from the loudspeakers, and the announcer was exhorting the crowd to get pumped up and make some noise -- something they didn't seem to need a lot of encouragement to do.

As in dressage, each competitor enters the arena separately and (with the exception of freestyle) rides a designated pattern (what we call a test) -- accompanied by yet another uptempo soundtrack. I was surprised not to hear much country & Western music; the songs ranged from Euro-pop and Lady Gaga to "Beat It" and a mashup of AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long." Definitely not the hushed classical or Latin tunes that seem to play under one's breath at the big dressage shows.

Adding to the rowdy atmosphere is the audience. Fans let out catcalls, wolf whistles, and lots of "yee-hahs" (kind of funny coming from the European contingents) when their favorite competitors do something impressive. The arena feels like a competition but also like a big party.

And in the midst of all this, the horses, which have to do several halts (called "hesitating" in reining lingo) during their patterns, stand quietly on a loose rein. I saw a number of horses do that I'm-relaxed lick-and-chew move during their halts. One scratched his head on his leg. Another turned his head to regard the phalanx of photographers with calm interest. The hesitations aren't momentary, either: I clocked a few with my stopwatch. The shorter ones were around 4 seconds in duration, and the longest one I observed lasted 17 seconds. Eight seconds was about average.

Now, on to the maneuvers (movements) themselves. I bounced my impressions off my colleague Holly Clanahan at the American Quarter Horse Association to make sure I wasn't saying anything too ignorant. With thanks to Holly for correcting my jargon gaffes before I made them in print, here's what I saw.
Sliding stop: Individual reining gold medalists Tom McCutcheon and Gunners Special Nite of the USA
Competitors loped (cantered) into the arena, then performed a sliding stop: They literally sit down behind, and their special shoes allow their hind feet to slide while the front legs keep moving until friction and gravity bring them to a complete stop. They then back up to the middle of the ring  ("Don't say rein back!" begged Holly) as quickly as possible. There's a hesitation, followed by a spin clockwise and then one counterclockwise. Unlike in a dressage pirouette, the inside hind leg stays almost entirely grounded and pivots as the horse turns. And the spin is really fast: Someone told me the horses literally get dizzy, thus the halts (sorry, hesitations).

Then the reining horses take off like bats out of hell into "large, fast" circles at a lope (I'd call it a gallop at a good clip). Oddly, the depart is through the walk. On crossing the center line, the riders sit tall and half-halt into a "small, slow" circle. They're still loping, although it's a draggy four-beat canter to my eye. The objective, said Holly, is to the show the five-member judge panel that you can lope as fast as possible and then as slow as possible, and not break gait entirely.

Swapping leads on the center line, it's off in circle pairs in the opposite direction. The pattern concludes with a series of dramatic sliding stops and rollbacks (super-quick half-pirouettes of sorts). The footing sprays up during the sliding stops like snow under a skier, and the audience screams and cheers. The riders pat their horses, get off in the ring, unclip one side of the reins from the bit, and lead their mounts out the gate like ranch horses going off to water.

There's more than one road to self-carriage

Dressage self-carriage means balance in contact, without the horse's leaning on the reins. In reining, it's all about the horse maintaining a more or less level balance on a loose, looped rein. The riders even lean forward (quite far, to my way of thinking) and reach forward in an exaggerated manner, seemingly to show the judges that they're not using the reins.
Reining self-carriage: Legendary US reiner Tim McQuay on Hollywoodtinseltown
The fact that reiners' main cues (aids) are the seat and legs comes as no surprise to those of us in dressage; but Holly at the AQHA tells me that a lot of Western riders balance on the reins, so the independent seat and legs and the self-balanced horse is a big deal. Ditto the flying change, performed without breaking rhythm at a fast lope.
Rollback: Looks kind of like a canter pirouette, doesn't it?
Two great things about reining are the displays of horsemanship and the fun competition atmosphere. One not-so-great thing is the stress on the horses. The strain on the hocks and the hindquarters is obvious in the rollbacks and, of course, in the sliding stops. It is no accident that most of the WEG reining horses are in the range of six years old. Holly told me that six is old for a reiner. And to think that we're having "young horse" classes for our six-year-olds in dressage! Quite the contrast.

The icing on the cake

Reining met dressage (literally!) when the dressage superstar Anky van Grunsven, who competed at the WEG on the Dutch reining team (they finished eighth), provided the finale to last night's reining freestyle exhibition. Riding her competition mount, the American Quarter Horse Whizashiningwalla BB, Anky brought her best showmanship skills to a spirited freestyle set to "America" from West Side Story.

Besides the standard reining maneuvers, Anky threw in a good measure of dressage movements: canter pirouettes (real ones), tempi changes, half-pass. And the crowd went wild, as they say. The revved-up crowd went wild for the displays of advanced horsemanship, and I got the impression it was the first taste of dressage for a number of the reining fans in attendance. It was a great crossover moment for both sports.

Don't believe me? Have a look for yourself. Please forgive the camcorder quality. Hope you enjoy Anky's reining freestyle!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Grand Prix Special Bronze for Steffen Peters and Ravel!

Grand Prix Special medalists Laura Bechtolsheimer (silver), Edward Gal (gold), and Steffen Peters (bronze)

Folks, the drought is over. With a score of 78.542%, Steffen Peters and Akiko Yamazaki's Ravel rode to the first individual dressage world championships medal for the US in...well, a long time.
Peters and Ravel

On a day when a number of horses looked a bit tired from the Grand Prix exertions of the past few days -- exacerbated, perhaps, by a temperature spike that pushed the mercury up around 80 -- some of the top competitors actually seemed more relaxed and able to deliver better performances. Ravel was one of them, and he looked comfortable on the sunny, dry afternoon very much like home in San Diego.

But another horse that looked more relaxed was Moorlands Totilas, Edward Gal's ten-year-old black stallion, and Gal said afterward that "I could take more risk" in the Special than in the Grand Prix. "I had a really good ride today."
Gal and Moorlands Totilas

"Really good" meant a string of scores that started to be reminiscent of the legendary gymnast Nadia Comaneci's record-shattering 10s at the 1976 Olympics: 10 after 10 after 10. Tens for passage. Tens for piaffe. A 10 for a canter pirouette. Tens for the extended canter. There were just enough marks of 8 and 9 to temper the eye-popping string of high marks, but at one point during the test, I wondered whether Gal was going to get a 90. He finished with an 85.708%.

And then there was the huge, fabulous Mistral Hojris, who stayed right where he'd placed in the GP -- right behind Totilas -- earning a score of 81.708%.
Bechtolsheimer and Mistral Hojris

"It's exciting to be a part of the sport when it's being pushed up so far so fast," Bechtolsheimer said. "It used to be just Isabell and Anky; you knew one of them was going to win."

It's hard to believe that the poised, gracious, well-spoken Bechtolsheimer is just 25 years old. Clearly, she stands to bring glory to the British team for many years to come.

And speaking of people who seem genuinely nice and without a DQ attitude, I'd add Gal and Peters to the mix. I've known Steffen since the late 1980s (I rode with him when I lived in San Diego), and he's obviously a good businessman and an exacting taskmaster, but he's a wonderful horseman and a pretty down-to-earth guy. It's special getting to see someone you know compete and excel on the world stage. My suspicions that the medal ceremony were a special moment for Steffen were borne out when he wiped away a few tears while standing on the podium.
An emotional moment for Peters

Yes, those were tears, Steffen said afterward. "Only Shannon [his wife] knows how tough that was to miss a medal in Hong Kong [the 2008 Olympics, where he and Ravel were fourth]. I never really admitted it before now." Knowing that "we didn't have an individual medal in the US for a really long time" made the moment particularly emotional, he said.

One Unplanned "Air Above the Ground"
Hang on! Exquis Nadine goes airborne with Hans Peter Minderhoud. Photo by JenniferMunson.com.
One of the Dutch team gold medalists, Hans Peter Minderhoud on Exquis Nadine, was favored to place highly in the Special but had an error-marred test capped with a dramatic disobedience. Nadine resisted in a passage-canter transition and later swapped leads early during an extended canter. During the final piaffe-passage tour down the center line, the mare stopped, sank part way onto her haunches, then gave an enormous leap that drew gasps of horror from the audience. Had Nadine kicked out with her hind legs in midair, it would have been nearly a textbook capriole.

A Judge's Perspective 

Mary Seefried of Australia attended the post-competition press conference, as is customary for the head of the ground jury. Like Stephen Clarke yesterday, she fielded questions about scoring discrepancies. She affirmed that the WEG dressage judges did indeed meet yesterday evening for a review of the rides (albeit not of every test, due to time constraints) and called the session helpful, although she acknowledged that "the FEI standard deviation is 5 percent" -- so in some cases, there is work to be done because scores on occasion varied more widely.

Of the top finishers in the Special, Seefried said, "What impressed the judges with the first three [finishers] was the harmony. They were -- do I dare use the word? -- classical. Their horses were so well trained, so responsive. And there was the precision of the riding itself."

Seefried also praised the "wonderful Spanish horse": Fuego XII, a twelve-year-old PRE stallion ridden by Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz of Spain to a fourth-place finish and a score of 76.042%. She said that the Spaniards' dedication to improving their dressage standing internationally shows in the selection of horses and in their performance, willingness to work, and impulsion. There is really no difference between the Iberian horses' training (or, by extension, judging) and that of any other dressage horse, she said.

No, Toto's Not Coming to Kansas

Rumors were flying today that Moorlands Totilas had been sold to the United States. Gal vigorously denied the scuttlebutt and said "not true."

Oh well. But Toto and Gal look to be a perfect match, so I'd kind of like for them to stay together. Now, if Gal would like to become a US citizen and bring Toto with him, I don't think anyone in this country would complain!

A New World Order

Dressage enthusiasts have been wishing for a long time that some nations would emerge to challenge the usual European powerhouses in international competition.

2010 WEG dressage team medalists: Great Britain (silver), Netherlands (gold), Germany (bronze)

Yesterday, in the team competition at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky, they got their wish.

For the first time ever, British riders stood on the medal podium at a dressage world championships. Buoyed by their dressage superstar, Laura Bechtolsheimer on the 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Mistral Hojris (by Michellino), the team from Great Britain won the silver medal. Bechtolsheimer finished in second place individually with a stratospheric score of 82.511%. She was one of only two riders to achieve scores in the 80s, the other being -- of course -- the Netherlands' Edward Gal on the horse that has been called "the Secretariat of dressage," Moorlands Totilas, with 84.043%.

"It was the best score and the best ride I've ever had," Bechtolsheimer said afterward. Of "Alf," she said, "I've never been able to ride him with so much energy yet really relaxed."

Her teammate, the veteran Carl Hester on Liebling II, said, "British dressage has been waiting for a superstar like Laura and Hojris. We are all having to work harder to try to match her. It makes us all ride better. I am old enough to remember being on a team when the best British score was a 66 percent, and we thought we were doing really well," he said with a chuckle.

Dutch drama 
Dutch gold medalists Adelinde Cornelissen, Imke Schellekens-Bartels, Hans Peter Minderhoud, and Edward Gal

Led by Gal on his ten-year-old Dutch fantasy horse (by Gribaldi), the Netherlands handily won the team gold medal. But the victory was bittersweet for Gal and teammates Imke Schellekens-Bartels on Hunter Douglas Sunrise and Hans Peter Minderhoud on Exquis Nadine.
Edward Gal and Moorlands Totilas

During yesterday morning's session, on day 2 of the team competition, Dutch rider Adelinde Cornelissen was part way into what was shaping up to be possibly a third 80-something-percent-scoring test when, just after her halt and rein back on Jerich Parzival, Stephen Clarke, the head of the ground jury, rang the bell. Clarke had spotted blood coming from the mouth of the 13-year-old KWPN gelding, and FEI rules state that blood from a horse's mouth requires immediate elimination. A stunned Cornelissen patted her horse and walked from the Kentucky Horse Park main stadium to applause as the Dutch riders and supporters sitting in the stands stampeded toward the exit to find out what had happened and to comfort their devastated colleague.
Adelinde Cornelissen and Jerich Parzival prior to their elimination

What had happened, the Dutch contingent announced in a midday press conference, was that Parzival had bitten the tip of his tongue, presumably sometime after leaving the warm-up. The blood mixed with the horse's foamy saliva to produce a red froth that looked alarming but in fact was a minor injury: The bleeding stopped shortly after Cornelissen left the ring, according to Dutch team veterinarian Dr. Jan Greve.
Cornelissen and Parzival leave the arena. The horse's bloody mouth is visible in the photo.

Of having to "ring out" Cornelissen, Clarke said, "I think that was the worst moment of my career. I thought I would have a second heart attack." He praised the Dutch rider's composure and said, "She was so gracious and professional about it."

"It was a difficult day for us," said Gal. "We are happy to have won, but we are so sad for Adelinde. There were many tears in the stable today."

Cornelissen was permitted to stand atop the podium with her Dutch teammates and received a medal (the announcer called it "special recognition"), but she did not participate in the victory gallop and, having already endured one press conference about her ordeal, she did not attend the post-medals press conference with the rest of the medalists.

I've gotten this far in my report on dressage medals and haven't yet mentioned the Germans. That must be a first! It's because yesterday, they had to settle for bronze, which surely is a color they haven't seen much for the past couple of decades, at least. The team anchor, the much-decorated Olympian Isabell Werth on Warum Nicht, joked afterward about being "one of the old ones" on a team consisting mainly of freshmen international competitors who need some seasoning before they're ready to reclaim top medals for Germany.
Germany's Isabell Werth and Warum Nicht

Werth's teammates were Christoph Koschel on Donnperignon, Matthias Alexander Rath on Sterntaler-Unicef, and Anabel Balkenhol (daughter of Klaus) on Dablino. Balkenhol was the youngest member of the German squad.

A sigh of relief for the US 

A year ago, US dressage-team technical advisor Anne Gribbons's main goal was for the US WEG team to qualify for the 2012 London Olympic Games. The team accomplished that goal yesterday by finishing fourth. (Ordinarily we'd have needed to finish in the medals, but as the home team the Brits have a bye, and so the fourth-placing team also qualified.)
Steffen Peters and Ravel

With the relatively recent emergence of a strong group of players, Gribbons's hopes had risen considerably, and the conventional wisdom going into WEG was that the Americans had a good chance of winning bronze. But the top teams bankrolled scores in the 70s, and US riders Tina Konyot on Calecto V (69.915%), Katherine Bateson-Chandler on Nartan (69.617%), and Todd Flettich on Otto (66.553%) put the anchor, veteran Steffen Peters on Ravel, in the position of having to earn a phenomenal mid- to upper-80s score in order to medal. With a lovely test marred by just a bit of overeagerness on Ravel's part, Peters' score of 78.596% put him in third individually but wasn't high enough for a team medal.
US fans cheer an American rider
"It is one of our higher scores," Peters said after his test. "It's exactly the same score we had in Las Vegas [2009, when they won the FEI Dressage World Cup Final]. "We got a lot of criticism for not showing up in Europe this year, but it was the right decision for the horse."

Peters knew, of course, that his score would make or break the team's chances at a medal, but "I've done the mistake before where I chased the scoreboard, and it was one of the worst tests I've had. I learned I just have to ride -- take what the horse has to offer that day. Today I asked for a little more than he was offering" (Ravel kicked at the leg during one passage transition). "But today, third place, that's awesome, with first and second over 80 percent."

Peters said he was looking forward to today's Grand Prix Special, the first leg of the individual dressage competition. "We usually score a little higher in the Special," he said, citing the lines of "flowing half-passes" in which the extraordinarily supple Ravel shines.
Australians Hayley Beresford and Relampago Do Retiro prior to their elimination

There was one other disappointment in the team dressage competition. Australian pair Hayley Beresford and the Lusitano stallion Relampago Do Retiro were eliminated during their test for irregularity of steps.

The Special

The top 30 pairs from the Grand Prix will contest the Grand Prix Special today. Of those, the top fifteen will go on to Friday night's highly anticipated Grand Prix Freestyle. Both competitions will award separate individual medals.

Photographs by JenniferMunson.com.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Cautious Optimism After Team Dressage, Day 1

So far, the teams are placed exactly how everyone had predicted: Netherlands in the lead, Germany second, Great Britain third, and the United States fourth. Those were the standings after the first of two full days of team dressage competition at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky.
The main stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park during the dressage competition

The Grand Prix will decide the team medals, which will be awarded late this afternoon, September 28. Only three scores count (some teams have only three members), which gives four-member teams the advantage of having a drop score.
Todd Flettrich and Otto in the team dressage competition
Half the US team competed yesterday. Todd Flettrich on Otto was the first American to go, right after the lunch break. The pirouettes could have "sat" better behind, and afterward Todd admitted that he relaxed his aids a moment too soon during the final piaffe-passage tour and Otto walked momentarily. The pair's final score was 66.553%.

Despite the fact that his ride time got changed more than once -- a significant time difference, with the time moving from before the lunch break to afterward, a difference of nearly two hours -- Todd was relaxed and happy after his test.

Oded Shimoni, who resides in the US but who competes for Israel, earned a score of 66.298% aboard Granada

"It was fabulous," he said afterward. "I made a few mistakes, but I was very pleased with Otto. I hope I get to do this [ride for the US] again sometime."

Katherine Bateson-Chandler, the youngest member of the US team at 35, was the final competitor on day 1. She put in a solid and elegant test aboard Jane Forbes Clark's Nartan for a score of 69.617%.
Although Bateson-Chandler has attended her share of big international championships during her apprenticeship as Robert Dover's groom, the WEG is her first as a competitor. And she had not one speck of nervousness, she claimed.
Katherine Bateson-Chandler and Nartan

"It was exciting, actually," she said of her test. "When everyone starts cheering, you just have to smile. I was happy with my test, although I had two expensive mistakes. We had a mistake at the end of the ones, where he threw an extra one in. I thought his highlights were the extended canter and the pirouettes."

The damp, chilly weather didn't bother the former Dutch team horse a bit, Katherine said. "In Belgium [right over the border] they don't have an indoor arena, and you know what winter there is like. It doesn't bother him."
Imke Schellekens-Bartels (right) receives congratulations from her mother, Dutch Olympian Tineke Bartels (left), and another competitor after her Grand Prix test, which was the high score of the first day of WEG team dressage competition.

The highlight of day 1 was Dutch rider Imke Schellekens-Bartels on Hunter Douglas Sunrise, whose expressive test earned them the day's high score, 73.447%. The 16-year-old Hanoverian mare is a leggy dressage supermodel. A walk into a halt transition and an awkward canter zigzag (Imke said later the mistake was pilot error) were the main flaws in an otherwise impressive test.

Monday, September 27, 2010

All Clear in WEG Dressage Horse Inspection

The USA’s Tina Konyot and Calecto V, with the other three American horses, passed the FEI horse inspection one day before the start of WEG dressage competition

There haven’t been too many glaring glitches thus far, two days into competition at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Unfortunately, the scheduling of the dressage veterinary horse inspection was one of them.
The press center told us 11:00 a.m. All materials indicated 11:00. So it was with panicked voices that press-center workers dashed about the building this morning, calling that the horse inspection was already under way. In fact, it had started an hour ago—something to do with a last-minute rescheduling to accommodate the endurance competition, which was taking place today.

THE BLACK STALLION: The overwhelming favorite for gold, the Netherlands’ Moorlands Totilas and rider Edward Gal
So I’m sorry to say that I (and most other media folks) missed France, missed Germany—missed nearly every nation from A to G, seeing as they “trot up” in alphabetical order. Fortunately N and U come later in the alphabet, meaning that we made it in time for the Netherlands, the heavily favored gold-medal contenders; and for the good old US of A. Also fortunately, all 66 of the dressage horses representing 24 nations passed inspection, although Norway’s Carte d’Or and Switzerland’s Corinth were “held” and had to be re-presented to the veterinary officials before getting the green light to compete.

The Schedule
Dressage competition begins tomorrow, September 27, at 8:34 a.m. There will be two successive days of Grand Prix competition, which will decide the team medals. Then on Wednesday, September 29, it’s on to the Grand Prix Special. The top-placing horses and riders from the Grand Prix will contest this class for the first set of WEG individual dressage medals. They’ll get a day off on September 30, and then the grand finale comes the evening of October 1, when the final fifteen will ride their Grand Prix Freestyles for the second and final WEG individual dressage medals.

 An Equestrian Cornucopia
ALL UNDER ONE ROOF: These World Equestrian Games comprise eight disciplines. A para-equestrian dressage competitor practices under her coach’s watchful eye.

There were naysayers who said the WEG would be a mess: There wasn’t enough money, everything was too expensive, and the organization would be a disaster. Well, so far, I can tell you that it appears there was plenty of money, everything is kind of expensive (food is pricey, which makes for a handy diet plan), and the organization seems pretty good for such a massive undertaking. And the volunteers and workers seem determined to impress all visitors with a healthy dose of friendly Kentucky hospitality.

KENTUCKY PRIDE: American horses, celebrities, and music—especially those hailing from Kentucky, like this champion Saddlebred—were the focus of WEG opening ceremonies
If you’re not here, you’re missing out. This is my first WEG, and even an Olympic Games pales in comparison for sheer horse-world scope. I walk down the lane at the Kentucky Horse Park, and on my left are eventers schooling. A para-equestrian competitor is hard at work at the ring on the right. Over on the steeplechase course, endurance riders, eventers, and jumpers (maybe even some dressage riders!) are enjoying a walk or a bit of a hand-gallop. The reiners are up there on the hill in the indoor arena. The really fun part is watching the cross-discipline interaction: folks in cowboy hats and Wranglers, taking in a driving exhibition; or the opening ceremonies themselves, probably the first time many in the audience had seen high-stepping Saddlebreds, racing Standardbreds, or native Americans and their horses.

DRESSAGE ON DISPLAY: Come visit the USDF National Education Center at the Horse Park. Attractions include a special Members Lounge and the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame (pictured).
 I haven’t been to downtown Lexington’s equine expos yet (a trip is planned for this week), but there’s plenty of shopping at the WEG. The Trade Fair Village, the Kentucky Experience, the Alltech Experience—these aren’t the standard pipe-and-drape vendor booths; these are full-fledged perma-tents with doors, floors, lighting, air conditioning—buildings, really, with walls and furniture and d├ęcor. Today I retreated to the “Media Chill-Out Zone” in the Alltech Experience pavilion (which is big enough that I had to ask directions) to conduct a phone interview. I chilled in comfort on a comfy barstool with a cup of coffee, surrounded by wood flooring and TV screens showing the progress of the reining competition. Too bad I was on duty and couldn’t enjoy a complimentary Alltech Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale. Maybe later…

SHOPPING: The Bit of Britain mega-booth at WEG
 Not too shabby, all around. I’m grateful to be here and excited for tomorrow’s dressage. Check back daily for the latest from WEG.

Jennifer O. Bryant