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Friday, September 14, 2012

At a Crossroads

A final salute to the 2012 Olympics: Adrienne Lyle and Wizard of Team USA. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

If an Olympic Games and a Paralympic Games are as wonderful as the ones in London 2012, their conclusion brings a bit of wistful sadness. It's hard to see something so special come to an end.

As joyous as the performances and as thrilling as Great Britain's hard-earned victories were, many US dressage fans are feeling more down in the dumps than usual. After having won team bronze from 1992 to 2004, we'd become accustomed to our status as dressage medalists. But London was the second Olympics in a row to leave the American dressage team off the podium.

Depending on whom you ask, the medal-less status is anything from a nonissue to a crisis. Some argue, reasonably, that any horse and rider can have an off day, and that failure to medal in such exalted company is no reason to hang one's head in shame. After all, those in London had made it to the Olympics -- no easy feat!

Others perceive that, at the high-performance level, as it's called, competition is a big-stakes affair. Medals, and the promise of more medals to come, help lure donors and sponsors. Or to put it more bluntly, people tend to back a winning team but few want to back a loser. To further complicate matters, by not medaling, a nation must qualify to participate in a future Olympics, meaning that we need to fight to get in the game for Rio 2016.

The question that many are asking is: Why did the US not medal, and what can we do about it?

The consensus seems to be that, although American riders are top-notch, our crop of horses, at least at the time of the London Games, was outclassed, eclipsed by a new breed of superhorses (Exhibit A: Valegro). So the solution to the problem would seem to be: Buy Valegro or horses of his quality, or breed a Valegro or horses of that quality.

In the months and years to come, we shall see whether our rising stars -- Wizard, Paragon, Legolas, Pikko del Cerro HU, and others -- are of that caliber. And I have a feeling that sales of top dressage horses will engender even more scrutiny than in the past, now that we see how assembling a dressage dream team of horseflesh vaulted Team GB from pretty much nowhere to Olympic gold in a short four years or so.

Great Britain's lottery helped to fund its equestrian teams. In the US, we depend largely on the largesse of private sponsor/owners. But presumably even wealthy patrons don't have unlimited resources. Can American dressage find the necessary funding? Should doing so be the priority of those who govern our sport? These are not easy questions to answer. The only thing I'm willing to bank on at this point is that these issues will receive a lot of attention and debate over the next four years.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Great Britain, Already Olympic Dressage Team Gold Medalists, Scores More Gold at Paralympic Games

The 2012 Paralympic Games equestrian team medalists (from left): Germany (silver), Great Britain (gold), and Ireland (bronze). Photo by FEI/Liz Gregg.
Team Great Britain was unstoppable at the 2012 London Olympic Games dressage competition, and our friends and rivals from across the pond did it again at the 2012 London Paralympic Games.

The British Paralympic equestrian team (Lee Pearson/Gentleman, Grade Ib; Sophie Wells/Pinocchio, Grade IV; Deborah Criddle/LJT Akilles, Grade III, and Sophie Christiansen/Janeiro 6, Grade Ia) claimed gold with a total score of 468.817.

Paralympic equestrian team silver went to Germany, with a team total of 440.970: Angelika Trabert/Ariva-Avanti, Grade II; Britta Napel/Aquilina 3, Grade II; Steffen Zeibig/Waldemar, Grade III; and Hannelore Brenner/Women of the World, Grade III.

The team bronze medal, with a total score of 428.313, went to Ireland: Eilish Byrne/Youri, Grade II; James Dwyer/Orlando, Grade IV; Geraldine Savage/Blues Tip Top Too, Grade Ia; and Helen Kearney/Mister Cool, Grade Ia.

Team USA (Dale Dedrick/Bonifatius, Grade II; Rebecca Hart/Lord Ludger, Grade II; Jonathan Wentz/Richter Scale, Grade Ib; and Donna Ponessa/Western Rose, Grade Ia) finished seventh with a total score of 417.528.
Team USA's Jonathan Wentz and Richter Scale on their way to fourth place in the Grade Ib Individual Championship test. Photo by Lindsay Yosay McCall.
Wentz, 21, of Richardson, TX, had the best individual placing of any American equestrian at the Paralympics: fourth in the Grade Ib Individual Championship test with a score of 70.348 percent. The gold medal went to Australia's Joann Formosa on Worldwide PB (75.826). Great Britain's Lee Pearson on Gentleman, so accustomed to Paralympic gold medals, had to settle for silver this time with 75.391. Austria's Pepo Puch on Fine Feeling won bronze with 75.043.

US Paralympian Rebecca Hart also made a strong showing in London, with a fifth-placed finish in the Grade II Freestyle on a score of 73.250 percent. It was an impressive rally after a somewhat disappointing eleventh place in the Grade II Individual test on 68.286.

Hart's Grade II teammate, Dale Dedrick on Bonifatius, was tenth in the Grade II FS with 69.150.

As in the Olympic dressage competition, Team GB also dominated the individual dressage medals. The big winner was Grade Ia rider Sophie Christiansen, who won gold in the Grade Ia Individual and Freestyle in addition to her team gold. Christiansen was the only equestrian athlete to score three gold medals at these Paralympic Games.
Natasha Baker of Great Britain exults after her record-breaking score and gold medal in the Grade II Freestyle. Photo by Lindsay Yosay McCall. 
Another British rider, Natasha Baker, made headlines of her own for toppling the Paralympic record in the Grade II Freestyle. Aboard Cabral, Baker broke the 80-percent mark, earning a score of 82.800 to win the gold medal. Baker also took gold in the Grade II Individual championship test, with a score of 76.857.

Congratulations to all the Paralympic equestrians and their horses, coaches, horse owners, and supporters!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Welcome to the Paralympic Games!

Go Team USA! Athletes and support staff gather for a group photo. Photo courtesy of Wes Dunham/USPEA.
Many people are aware that the 2012 Paralympic Games commenced yesterday with the opening ceremony. Fewer seem to understand that the Paralympics are always held in the same venues as the summer Olympic Games, which conclude a short time before the Paralympics begin.

For 2012, that means horses and riders are in Greenwich Park, site of the 2012 London Olympic equestrian events. In the Paralympic Games, dressage is the sole equestrian sport. Paralympic competition is for athletes with physical disabilities.

Paralympic-level dressage, like its able-bodied counterpart, is governed by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI). Para-dressage horses and athletes undergo the same level of scrutiny (veterinary inspections, drug testing, and so on) as those at the Olympic Games, which wrapped up earlier this month.

In some ways, para-equestrian competition is more complicated than "regular" dressage competition. First, before they can participate, riders must undergo a process known as classification, in which specially trained officials assign them a "grade" based on the severity of their disability. Grade Ia riders are the most profoundly disabled, and Grade IV riders are the least.

Naturally, each grade has its own FEI tests. The Grade Ia tests are walk-only. Grade Ib includes trot. Grade IV, the most challenging, includes walk, trot, and canter; shoulder-in and half-pass in trot; simple changes of lead; collected, medium, and extended paces; and half-pirouettes in walk.

Team USA 2012 Paralympic Games chef d'equipe Missy Ransehousen jogs Lord Ludger, owned by Jessica Ransehousen and ridden by Rebecca Hart, at the veterinary inspection. Photo by Lindsay Yosay McCall.
Before yesterday's opening ceremony, the Paralympic horses underwent the veterinary inspection. There are 77 horses at the 2012 Games, from 27 nations. There are fifteen teams and nineteen individual competitors.

All four of the US entries passed the veterinary inspection. They are:

Lord Ludger (pictured), a 20-year-old Oldenburg gelding owned by Jessica Ransehousen and ridden by Rebecca Hart, 27, Unionville, PA (Grade II)

Bonifatius, a 14-year-old Hanoverian gelding owned and ridden by Dr. Dale Dedrick, 57, Ann Arbor, MI (Grade II)

NTEC Richter Scale, an 18-year-old Shire-cross gelding owned by Kai Handt and ridden by Jonathan Wentz, 21, Dallas, TX (Grade Ib)

Western Rose, a nine-year-old Oldenburg mare owned by Wesley Dunham and ridden by Donna Ponessa, 51, New Windsor, NY (Grade Ia).

Competition Gets Under Way 

Paralympic equestrian competition opened today with FEI Para-Equestrian Team tests for Grades II and Ib. Team USA's Rebecca Hart on Lord Ludger finished a strong fourth in the Grade II test with a score of 69.095 percent. Teammate Dale Dedrick on Bonifatius was nineteenth with 60.286 percent. Topping the leader board were Natasha Baker of Great Britain (76.095), Britta Napel of Germany (72.571), and Lauren Barwick of Canada (72.095).

There was another strong US showing in the Grade Ib Team test: a fifth place for Jonathan Wentz and NTEC Richter Scale (70.364 percent). Finishing ahead of Wentz were the legendary nine-times Paralympic gold medalist Lee Pearson of Great Britain (74.682); Josef Puch of Austria (73.636); Joann Formosa of Australia (71.955); and Katja Karjalainen of Finland (70.909).

On deck for tomorrow: Team tests for Grades IV (9:00 a.m. London time), III (1:15 p.m.), and Ia (3:45 p.m.).

Monday, August 13, 2012

It's Not over Yet!

I'm suffering from Olympic withdrawal today.

Last night, I watched as much of the taped NBC coverage of the closing ceremonies as I could before the jet lag caught up with me. I drank in all of the highlight reels, feel-good-story recaps, and other coverage of the past two weeks--because, crazy busy as I was with Olympic equestrian coverage, I'd missed it all.
The Tower of London provided a striking backdrop for the Olympic rings in the Thames. Photo courtesy of the International Olympic Committee.
By most accounts, the 2012 London Olympic Games were a smashing success. The events were well run and the venues were well received by athletes and officials alike. The city, endlessly fascinating in its own right, proved a striking backdrop and a photographer's delight. The normally reserved British people threw themselves into the Olympic spirit, welcoming visitors and appearing to thoroughly enjoy themselves and the spotlight on London. The royal family participated. British rock stars participated. Even Mother Nature cooperated, giving London a nearly complete respite from the torrential rains that had plagued the city earlier in the summer.

The Olympic equestrian events were positively history-making. Great Britain won team gold in jumping and then claimed both the team and the individual dressage gold medals, a first in Olympic history. The largely British crowds at Greenwich Park went mad with joy; I think they did the wave at least ten times around the entire stadium after Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro won the individual dressage gold. And Dujardin's 90-plus Grand Prix Freestyle score set an Olympic record, causing even more pandemonium.

Residing as I do in a country that is lukewarm at best to equestrian sports, it was really fun to see hordes of spectators crowding around individual dressage medalists Dujardin, Adelinde Cornelissen, and Laura Bechtolsheimer, following the three women en masse as they made their way from the medal ceremony to the press-conference room. In this world, for this moment, dressage riders were superstars, with photos being snapped like mad, and tickets and pens being outthrust with requests for autographs.

London was fab...the Olympics were fab...the only thing that wasn't fab was that our wonderful event, jumper, and dressage riders couldn't seem to catch a break at these Games. It was the first time since Stockholm 1956 that the USA won no Olympic equestrian medals at all. Ouch. We equestrian enthusiasts get to know (or feel as if we know) our sports' top performers. We know how hard they work and how talented their horses are, and we feel for them when they try so hard for the brass ring and miss. But we also know that you don't get to the top without mental toughness, and we know our riders will be right back out there fighting in just two years' time, at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France.

So if the end of the Olympics and the lack of big celebrations for Team USA have you feeling down, chin up! as the Brits might say. The 2012 London Paralympic Games are just over two weeks away. The US Paralympic dressage team looks to be very strong, and we'll be bringing you news and photos from London once again. And if ever you needed something to boost your spirits, the sight of an otherwise physically disabled rider dancing with a beautiful dressage horse is sure to bring a smile to your face.

Meanwhile, if you can't get enough from the London Olympics and you're a United States Dressage Federation member, you're in luck. We'll be featuring more great photos in the November issue of USDF Connection, the USDF member magazine. Best of all, I'll be bringing you my exclusive interview with British FEI 4* judge Stephen Clarke, a member of the 2012 Olympic dressage ground jury. Mr. Clarke is a soft-spoken British gentleman of the first order--but he doesn't tiptoe around his opinions. Don't miss it.

Cheerio from London, and good luck to our Paralympians!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Doomed Encounter with Dressage

Dear Simon*:

I’m writing to tell you I’m sorry that things between us had to end this way.

From the first moment I saw you, somehow I knew that our relationship wasn’t meant to be. There you were, all insouciance and carefully cultivated five o’clock shadow, at the Olympic equestrian press tribune at Greenwich Park, awaiting the start of the Grand Prix Freestyle, the individual dressage medal final. When I saw the eager young female volunteers cooing over you and asking for photos, I knew I didn’t stand a chance.

An apparently well-known columnist, you obviously were there only to check out the strange sport in which Great Britain had recently won a gold medal. We had a brief exchange, you and an equestrian-journalist colleague and I, and I could feel your lack of interest. When one of your only questions about dressage was “If he shits in the ring, does he lose points?”, I knew I’d lost you forever. I love the sport and would have been happy to share it with you; but Simon, you just didn’t seem to care.

When I opened the following day’s paper to find your assessment of dressage, I saw that my instincts had been correct. Your disdain for dressage, your lack of awareness that Great Britain in fact had not been a shoo-in for gold, your failure to spell a horse’s name correctly—these saddened me but did not surprise me. Even your mention of me as one of the “grizzled American ladies” in the press tribune didn’t come as a complete shock, although I must confess I thought it was a tad below the belt.

Simon, I would like to leave you with one parting thought. On that bright and sunny day in Greenwich, you claimed that you “do not believe in sunscreen.” Let’s wait a few years and we’ll see who’s more grizzled.



* Not his real name.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

A New Dressage World Order

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro of Great Britain on their way to victory in the Grand Prix Freestyle and individual Olympic gold. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The Germans have been toppled off the dressage pedestal. The Dutch have lost their grip on the top spot. There's nary a Dane nor a Swede to be seen. What has dressage come to?

What it's come to is a complete erasure of the conventional wisdom about which nations do and do not belong on the dressage world stage. If there was any doubt about Great Britain's dominance after it won 2012 Olympic team gold on August 7, those doubts were wiped away when two British team members stepped back on the podium today to claim individual Olympic dressage gold and bronze.

The 26-year-old phenomenon Charlotte Dujardin rode Valegro to a movie-soundtrack medley including The Great Escape and Live and Let Die, which segued into canter pirouettes to the bonging of Big Ben, extended canter to "Pomp and Circumstance," and passage to John Williams's "Summon the Heroes," better known as the Olympic theme we hear on TV. Together the musical selections made for an enjoyable freestyle; my main quibble would be over some choppy edits and musical transitions.
British fans go wild after Charlotte Dujardin's score of 90.089 went up on the board. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
"With the Olympics being in London, I wanted something special," Dujardin said of the freestyle. She described being "totally unprepared" to do a freestyle until she rode a Grand Prix Special test at the 2012 CDI Hagen (Germany) to which organizers used The Great Escape as background music. "I thought it was brilliant, and I thought that's what I'm going to do: I'm going to have a British theme. I went back to Tom Hunt, the composer, and I said I want a British theme, and I want Big Ben, and I want all the other stuff. And he was like, 'I'm not sure if I can do that.' And I was like, you can, and he did, and he produced an amazing freestyle, and it's really, really great to ride to."

The musical selections suited the ten-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (by Negro), who executed a technically outstanding test marred only by a bobbled transition from an extended canter down center line to passage at D. Judges Stephen Clarke (C), Leif Tornblad (K), Wim Ernes (E), Jean-Michel Roudier (H), Maribel Alonso (M), Evi Eisenhardt (B), and Gary Rockwell (F) awarded Dujardin's effort a technical average score of 86.750 percent and an artistic average score of 93.429 percent for a combined average of 90.089 percent--an Olympic Games record.

"It's unbelievable," said an emotional Dujardin afterward. "[Valegro] felt tired, but he still gave me everything. I can't believe it was only last January that we did our first Grand Prix, and now we have two Olympic gold medals."
Individual silver medalists Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival of the Netherlands. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Finishing a close second for the individual silver medal was the Netherlands' Adelinde Cornelissen on Parzival. Showing great musicality to pleasantly amped-up versions of The Nutcracker Suite, the Dutch pair earned marks of 92.286 (artistic) and 84.107 (technical) for a total score of 88.196 percent.

Parzival's piaffe to the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" was a highlight of Cornelissen's freestyle, as was his extended canter to the "Russian Dance." The routine featured numerous double pirouettes, clearly one of Parzival's strong suits. The fifteen-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (by Jazz) was short in the neck at times in the extended trot, and later piaffes started to get a bit croup-high.

Stephen Clarke, who served as president of the ground jury today, said of the rides: "I think the first two horses were very close. The impression we had was that Adelinde had huge power and expression, but for us there needed to be a little more lightness and self-carriage. You could see sometimes that the horse crosses his jaw a little bit, so that took down the harmony mark a touch.

"Charlotte's [horse] generally has a little more self-carriage but maybe not quite as much power and expression in some of the piaffe-passage," Clarke continued. "So they were very close together. I'm sure lots of people will have different opinions, but our decision was for the harmony."

Of her ride, Cornelissen said: "Parzival felt great. I think it has been one of his best tests ever. I gave it all."
Great Britain's Laura Bechtolsheimer exults after her bronze-medal-winning ride aboard Mistral Hojris. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Dujardin's gold-medal teammate Laura Bechtolsheimer and her longtime partner, Mistral Hojris, had a lovely interpretation of music from The Lion King. "Alf's" movement harmonized well with the music, including a passage half-pass to a piaffe pirouette that was right on the beat, and a piaffe-passage tour that showed great musical interpretation. Alf's movement looked a bit flatter than in the Grand Prix Special, but Bechtolsheimer was exuberant at the conclusion of her performance, which earned a technical score of 80.679 and an artistic score of 88.000 for a combined total of 84.339 percent and the individual bronze medal.

"Today I wanted to do him justice," Bechtolsheimer said, referring to the little mistakes of her previous tests at the 2012 Olympic Games. "I wanted to go out and enjoy the atmosphere and enjoy riding to an awesome freestyle in front of so many spectators and fans. He rose to the occasion. He gave me a very special ride. I felt like finally I'd done him justice."
Anky van Grunsven thanks Salinero for a job well done. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The previous Olympic individual champion, the Netherlands' Anky van Grunsven on Salinero, ended the eighteen-year-old Hanoverian gelding's (by Salieri) competitive career on a high note. Salinero gave his best performance of these Olympics, and in fact it's the best I've ever seen him look. He showed greater softness over his topline and relaxation to a French-themed medley that showcased van Grunsven's famous freestyle artistry. The freestyle was so good that I wouldn't have been surprised if she had medaled. The ride scored 77.714 (technical) and 86.286 (artistic) for a combined score of 82.000--and I actually thought it might have deserved a tick higher.

"I am not sad. It has been an emotional week, but it was always in my head that it was my last time, and I wanted to enjoy it," van Grunsven said afterward.
You can tell everything you need to know about how Steffen Peters felt about his GP Freestyle on Ravel by the expression on his face. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The other emotional ride of the day, unfortunately not in a good way, was that of the lone American rider to qualify for the Grand Prix Freestyle. Steffen Peters and Ravel's ride to music from the movie Avatar was artistically compelling but riddled with minor mistakes. Supporters, including Peters' wife, Shannon, teared up watching the ride, which Peters acknowledged afterward was indeed Ravel's competitive swan song.

"We did a super warm-up," Peters said of the freestyle. "We can't blame the heat; we are used to that, and I had plenty of horse. There were just too many mistakes. That is it for Ravel. He is retiring now to his owner's [Akiko Yamazaki] stud in California. I will remember him for his great career. If you put it all together, today was only a glitch. He has given us so much, and it is so sad, but it was not quite happening today."

Endings are always a little sad. The 2012 London Olympic Games have been a thrilling and memorable experience. The organizers did a superb job, and the Greenwich Park venue received accolades from every rider, veterinarian, and official I talked to. Over the past fourteen days we've seen outstanding displays of horsemanship, and we've seen the sport of dressage lifted to new standards. I will go home with memories of the friendly and welcoming staffers and volunteers and the hospitable locals, who seemed to enjoy sharing Greenwich and London with us. But I will also go home feeling sad for the American riders and their wonderful horses, owners, and supporters who worked so hard and yet will go home empty-handed.

Medals aren't everything, but at this level they are of course what competitors are striving for. Teams and individuals want to bring home medals to make their nations and their supporters proud. I know that Steffen Peters in particular is having a bittersweet evening, for this is not how he wanted to end Ravel's career. But I think I speak for the American dressage community when I say that we are proud, we appreciate Ravel's incredible legacy to US dressage, and we look forward to seeing Steffen doing great things in the future. He is a great rider and a great horseman, and his own legacy, although secure, is far from over.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Grand Prix Freestyle Order of Go

Tomorrow, August 9, is the finale of the 2012 London Olympic Games equestrian competition: the Grand Prix Freestyle, which is the individual dressage medal final.

The top 18 horses and riders from the Grand Prix and the GP Special qualified to contest the Freestyle, which commences at 12:30 p.m. London time. Of the US riders, only Steffen Peters and Ravel have made the cut.

The Freestyle will decide the individual medals. Scores from the GP and the Special served as qualifiers only for individual-medal purposes and will not count toward final totals.

Judging by the quality we've seen this week, you're not going to want to miss the Freestyle. Set those alarms and get up early. Here is the complete order of go.

12:30 Valentina Truppa/Eremo del Castegno (ITA)
12:40 Patrick Kittel/Scandic (SWE)
12:50 Anna Kasprzak/Donnperignon (DEN)
1:00 Goncalo Carvalho/Rubi (POR)
1:10 Victoria Max-Theurer/Augustin (AUT)
1:20 Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven/Don Auriello (SWE)

1:45 Steffen Peters/Ravel (USA)
1:55 Edward Gal/Undercover (NED)
2:05 Nathalie zu Sayn-Wittgenstein/Digby (DEN)
2:15 Anky van Grunsven/Salinero (NED)
2:25 Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz/Fuego (ESP)
2:35 Kristina Sprehe/Desperados (GER)

3:00 Helen Langehanenberg/Damon Hill (GER)
3:10 Dorothee Schneider/Diva Royal (GER)
3:20 Laura Bechtolsheimer/Mistral Hojris (GBR)
3:30 Carl Hester/Uthopia (GBR)
3:40 Adelinde Cornelissen/Parzival (NED)
3:50 Charlotte Dujardin/Valegro (GBR)

And the ground jury:
K: Leif Tornblad (DEN)
E: Wim Ernes (NED)
H: Jean-Michel Roudier (FRA)
C: Stephen Clarke (GBR) (president)
M: Maribel Alonso (MEX)
B: Evi Eisenhardt (GER)
F: Gary Rockwell (USA)