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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Team USA: Relaxed and Ready to Go

Jan Ebeling, Tina Konyot, Adrienne Lyle, and Steffen Peters were all smiles at the pre-competition press conference. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
"Fun" isn't always a word associated with a press conference, but that's the word journalists were using to describe yesterday's pre-competition meeting with the 2012 US Olympic dressage team.

"That rider, Tina, she's a hoot," said one foreign journalist, referring to Tina Konyot's frank admission that she eschews regimented exercise programs in favor of "retail therapy," as she called it.

"'Oh, honey, don't do anything different,'" Konyot said her boyfriend told her after learning that there was a fitness program at the riders' training camp in England. "'Just go shopping.'"

The four riders appeared relaxed and to genuinely enjoy one another's company. Konyot would rib Peters, who would rib Konyot right back. (Asked if Peters, the Olympic veteran, was helping to keep the others' nerves at bay, Konyot quipped: "He's trying to keep me from getting any looser than I already am.")

 Jan Ebeling, seemingly unfazed by the mainstream-media spotlight trained on him thanks to Ann Romney's part-ownership of his Olympic horse, Rafalca, said he's welcomed the attention and has been trying to use it to raise awareness of the sport of dressage--that it's not just "riders trotting in circles," as he put it. Even Lyle, the youngest member of Team USA and the newest to the international scene, seemed at ease.

One can assume that the competitors wouldn't be this relaxed if they felt shaky about their upcoming performances, which begin today with the team and individual Grand Prix. And indeed all expressed confidence that their horses are going well--Konyot said Calecto V is the best he's ever been--and that their careful preparation and that of US national dressage high-performance coach Anne Gribbons has the horses peaking just at the right time.

"We showed at Aachen last year, then showed at the selection trials on the West Coast," Peters said of his mount, Ravel, "We did the World Dressage Masters in January, but I didn’t believe that the horse could stay in top shape for eight months, so he had a little break in April and May. Since then he's been great. We picked up the training a little more since he arrived in Gladstone, right after the championships. I have a very fresh horse. Today I did an extended canter and he was bucking a little bit. That's the Ravel that I had for the World Cup in 2007. That's the Ravel I had before Aachen in 2009. I'm excited that he feels this way, and I can't wait to go down center line."

The US has definitely created an "American way" of dressage, and Peters expressed pride in our reputation for horsemanship.

"We got so many wonderful compliments when we trained with [previous US national dressage coach] Klaus Balkenhol, that the American team is known for true kindness to the horse, and it's [training] always done with the most respect. To me, being competitive and on top of that hearing those compliments means the world to me."

It didn't take much prodding to get the riders to open up about their horses. Ebeling said of Rafalca: "She comes out every day and tries her best. That's what I love about her. I feel she's a horse that I can really depend on, and the effect she has on me is she makes me very calm. Of course there's a lot of pressure--this is the biggest horse show in the world--but she makes me feel, Hey, I can relax."

"He has a magnificent, sweet character," Konyot said of the stallion Calecto V. "He's a very unusual character for a stallion. He's very relaxed. They make fun of him in the stable because he sleeps all stretched out. He stretches out and gallops in his sleep. He dreams. He travels with his big teddy bear, and he plays with him in his stall. He's my pet horse that I get to take to the Olympics."

Lyle called her seven-year partnership with Wizard "an amazing journey. He's kind of a hot-tempered horse. He's a little stand-offish when you first get to know him. It's been a journey, earning his trust. He kind of has to size you up first, and you have to earn his respect. Now he's kind of my old best friend. I can read exactly what he's thinking before it happens, like, 'Oh, I know what that ear twitch means and I've got to get ahead of it and reassure him.' 

"Now he's kind of a one-woman horse," Lyle continued. "He gets mad if I lead another horse by at home; he'll pin his ears and get angry. Someone else can lead a horse by, but not his mom."

"There are two sides of Ravel," Peters said. "When we deal with him in the barn, if you dare to walk by without giving him a treat, he reacts very grumpy. He pins his ears; he doesn't do anything, he doesn't bite or kick, but there's just a lot of entitlement. We spoil him and we certainly reinforce this," he said with a smile. 

"As soon as he has his halter on, his groom, Dawn White-O'Connor, doesn't need to tie him anywhere; he ground-ties," Peters continued. Ravel also feels entitled to daily scratching sessions from Peters and will actually block the stall doorway if he doesn't feel he's received sufficient ministration, Peters said.

Peters described Ravel as a horse that likes to be "a bit by himself. He doesn't like to be with too many other horses. But as grumpy as he can be in the barn, he's so extremely generous under saddle. So sensitive, still at fourteen years old, I don't get the feeling that he doesn't want to do it or that he gets a little lazy. It's an incredible feeling, and on top of that that amazing suppleness. He's just a blast to ride. I've said many times that I feel extremely lucky to ride him."

Luck, of course, plays a role in getting to the Olympics; but as Ebeling pointed out, hard work is the driving force behind these riders' success. We're proud of them; we thank them for sharing their special bonds with their horses; and we wish them good luck and can't wait for the Grand Prix, which starts just a few hours from now, at 11:00 a.m. London time!

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