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!