Live from Omaha!

Live from Omaha!
On the scene at the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final

Saturday, April 1, 2017

For the New "Queen of Omaha," the Journey to the World Cup Dressage Final Was Werth the Trip

Germany's Isabell Werth and Weihegold OLD, the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final champions. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

She’s now known as the “Queen of Omaha”: Isabell Werth of Germany, living Olympic equestrian legend and winner of two previous FEI World Cup Dressage Finals, today added a third Final win to her dizzying long resume of international triumphs.

US FEI 5* dressage judge Anne Gribbons, who presided at C for the Grand Prix Freestyle final, likened Werth’s mount, the 12-year-old Oldenburg mare Weihegold OLD (Don Schufro x Sandro Hit), to a ballet dancer. “Weihe,” as Werth calls her, has a prowess for piaffe and passage that was unmatched by any other in the 14-horse field, Gribbons said afterward. The mare’s contact and connection in the bridle are also practically without peer thanks to Werth’s world-class training and riding, Gribbons said.

A record crowd of 8,578—the largest so far at these Dressage and Jumping Finals at the CenturyLink Center in Omaha—was on hand to watch Werth become the only competitor to top the 90-percent mark. She won the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final on a total combined score of 90.704 percent, with all seven judges—Gribbons, Maribel Alonso de Quinzanos (MEX), Raphael Saleh (FRA), Katrina Wuest (GER), Mariette Sanders van Gansewinkel (NED), Andrew Gardner (GBR), and Leif Tornblad (DEN)—placing Werth first.
 
Weihegold OLD's outstanding piaffe helped propel Isabell Werth to victory. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Werth’s freestyle, ridden to a pleasant but not compelling instrumental medley, had a degree of difficulty of 9.37, according to audio commentator and retired FEI 5* judge Axel Steiner. Although it wasn’t the most difficult freestyle of the competition—that honor goes to Judy Reynolds of Ireland, whose routine aboard Vancouver K has an eye-popping degree of difficulty of 9.78—it was certainly among the most difficult, and the points Werth racked up in the double-coefficient movements including the piaffe and passage put her test on top.

“I’m really proud of Weihe. She did a great job,” Werth said afterward. “She was so focused. She knew it could be her day today. Laura pushed me up to show the best we could show, and it worked. It was a fantastic atmosphere and a fantastic competition.”

Exulting after her own nearly flawless freestyle was second-place finisher Laura Graves on her own Verdades. The fifteen-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding’s (Florett As x Goya) tremendous power and strength perfectly suited his music, a series of themes football fans will have heard many times accompanying National Football League TV broadcasts.
 
Laura Graves and Verdades let it rip up their final center line. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Graves’ freestyle had a degree of difficulty of 8.91, according to Steiner. One crowd-pleasing sequence was a series of two-tempi flying changes on a curved line, followed by a diagonal straight line of one-tempis toward the corner marker, which produced spontaneous applause. And the sequence that Graves added at the end of the ride to amp up the difficulty—a piaffe “fan” to the left and right, with “Diddy” then erupting in a monstrous extended trot up the center line to the final halt and salute—had the audience cheering so loudly Graves said afterward she had to guess at when to halt because she couldn’t hear her music.

Graves was certainly the favorite of the primarily American audience, but her technical marks couldn’t quite catch Werth’s. She finished second on a score of 85.307 percent, with all judges placing her second except for one, who had her third behind the eventual third-place finisher, Great Britain’s Carl Hester on Nip Tuck (83.757).
 
Graves exults after her freestyle. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
“I think I didn’t even realize how badly I wanted to win,” Graves said afterward. “I’m very competitive. When I saw the technical marks for Isabell’s ride go up and then [the broadcast crew] cut to a shot of the World Cup [trophy], I thought, ‘Oh, I want that so badly!’ To be honest, I was a little disappointed to come second, but as I said Thursday, coming second to Isabell, who’s number one in the world and has done this on so many horses, still feels an awful lot like winning.”

Nip Tuck, an enormous 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Don Ruto x Animo), was “bang on” with his instrumental music as Hester might put it. The music—I couldn’t identify it but it had that movie-score sound—had a pronounced percussive rhythm that perfectly matched “Barney’s” trot and piaffe/passage tempos.
 
Accuracy, relaxation, and correctness helped to put 2012 British Olympic team gold medalist Carl Hester and Nip Tuck on the World Cup Dressage Final podium in third place. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Hester had a few small bobbles in transitions, and the piaffe didn’t always “sit” behind. His final halt, which followed a sweeping half-pass zigzag, lacked crispness. But Barney’s work is so correct, and Hester has an incredible feel for contact. He also has an incredible way of managing his famously hot and spooky mount, and Barney appeared relaxed and totally focused. Afterward, Hester expressed complete satisfaction in the way his horse—who also hasn’t been eating well in Omaha because he misses his longtime travel buddy, Valegro, who is now retired—rose to the occasion and handled the electric atmosphere.

“If somebody says, are you disappointed to be third, how can I be disappointed in a horse that did his absolute best?” Hester said.

The USA’s Kasey Perry-Glass on Goerklintgaards Dublet (Diamond Hit x Ferro) finished seventh on a score of 77.068. Their Tom Hunt freestyle, to music from The Avengers and Lord of the Rings, featured “Dublet’s” piaffe and passage, including passage half-passes, a relaxed and expressive line of one-tempis, piaffe fans, and a difficult transition from passage to extended walk. (Steiner’s comment: “That’s what an extended walk should look like, with the horse stretching to the bit.”)

The judges varied in Perry-Glass’s placing: from as high as fifth (Gribbons, at C) to as low as tenth (Saleh, at E).

In ninth was the USA’s newest and youngest international dressage horse, Rosamunde, who finished on a score of 75.879. The experienced Steffen Peters (who won the World Cup Dressage Final in 2009 aboard the legendary Ravel) said his goal was to give the 10-year-old Rhinelander mare (Rock Forever x Fidermark) a good, solid experience to build on in the future. But it certainly wasn’t a beginner’s choreography: With a degree of difficulty of 9.4 and choreography including steep half-passes and transitions from canter pirouettes directly into piaffe, Peters wasn’t babying the talented mare. It is evident watching “Rosie” that she will grow into her astonishing ability to “sit” behind; currently she can get her hind legs so far underneath herself that she can “pedestal” in the piaffe and have some difficulty getting out of it.

Peters promised a surprise in today’s freestyle, and it came toward the end of his test, when the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” rang out for the final piaffe/passage work. Fans of a certain age will recognize the music as from Peter’s championship freestyle with Ravel, and it served as a nice coda to the new music, which included a vocal passage from Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” Afterward, Peters said he hadn’t been entirely happy with Rosie’s trot music, and so he decided to replace it with the portion of Ravel’s music inasmuch as it suited Rosie so well.

But today was Isabell Werth’s day to shine, and the German Olympian got the party started early when she playfully sprayed Hester and Graves with sparkling wine while on the podium—then took a deep pull from the bottle, gave drinks to her podium-mates, and then gave each of the horses’ grooms a swig.
 
World Cup Dressage Final champion Isabell Werth (center) sprays third-place finisher Carl Hester with sparkling wine after dousing second-placed Laura Graves. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
“This night I think we will have [a party]!” Werth said afterward at the press conference. She had effusive praise for Omaha, World Cup Finals organizer Lisa Roskens, and the entire event; so it looks as if the USA has a lot to celebrate right along with the German champion.





7 Questions for Kasey Perry-Glass

Kasey Perry-Glass. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

The USA's Kasey-Perry Glass, 29, finished seventh in the Grand Prix (72.257%) at the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final aboard the 14-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding Goerklintgaards Dublet (Diamond Hit x Ferro). I caught up with her as she prepared for the Freestyle Final, set to kick off in a little under an hour at Omaha's CenturyLink Center.

Tell me about your Grand Prix on Thursday.
I kind of went in with no expectations for him. A lot of it is just keeping him happy and relaxed and supple and through. I think we accomplished that for the most part. It was very steady. It was the first really clean ride we’ve done for a while. That’s really all that I can ask for, especially being in such a big environment like this. Dublet has never been in an indoor before. For a horse that can get very tense in his body during riding, he’s been doing really well with his emotions.
 
With Goerklintgaards Dublet in the Grand Prix at the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Omaha. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
What can you tell me about the freestyle we'll be seeing at the World Cup Final?
The choreography is from Adrienne Lyle. My music is from Tom Hunt, who does Charlotte Dujardin’s [freestyles]. I’ve worked with him for a really long time. He’s amazing. I run through my choreography, I film it, I send it to him and he tells me what he thinks and the music that would go well with it. Almost every time he’s sent me music, I’ve cried. My music is a little bit from The Avengers and a little bit from Lord of the Rings. It just fits perfectly with him: It’s bold but it’s also subtle and soft, pretty much like how he is. He just kind of relaxes in it, and he really loves it. 

Where did you find Dublet, and what attracted you to him?
I got him from Andreas Helgstrand [in Denmark]; I think he was nine. When I first saw him, he was very hot. I love that, but once I got on him, he just kind of formed to me a little bit. He had this intensity about him that I loved. Also the calmness in his eyes, and his personality. 

He’s fourteen now. He’s a little older, but he’s new at the Grand Prix. He started the Grand Prix before we bought him, but we kind of had to backtrack a little bit, not because of training issues but nervousness. We literally took him back to the Prix St. Georges, and we didn’t do the Grand Prix until this last year.

He’s really calm; he travels really well. He’s a big puppy dog, and I love that. His personality is coming out. It’s important with these horses to have a personality and to be able to show it. He loves his bananas; he loves his naps. He really loves attention from the people he knows; he wants you to be right next to him. He travels like a saint. He’s just a joy to have around. You never hear him in the barn; he’s really quiet. I try to get him out at least five hours a day on grass, and he’s just quiet. He never runs around. We got lucky.

How has training with Olympian and US Equestrian national dressage development coach Debbie McDonald helped you?
It's helped us tremendously. She got really technical with our work, really picky. She really goes for the higher marks, and she also brings in that throughness in her training. She got us up to Grand Prix in less than a year, and we went to the [2016 Rio Olympic] Games.

It’s been a whirlwind, and I’m lucky to have the team I have around me. It does take a village.

What's next after Omaha? 
I think we’re going to try to shoot for National Championships, then head to Europe and try to do Rotterdam and Aachen, then give him a break until the [2018 World Equestrian Games] year. Just be really selective with the shows we do next year. It’s tricky that we kind of have a break from September to January; that’s a long time to have a break in competition. Just trying to keep him going, keep him quiet, happy, healthy, sane. Loving his job.

It would be a true blessing to do [the 2020 Olympics in] Tokyo. To be able to keep a horse going that long, keep his mind going.

What are your goals?
Obviously I want to be competitive. I’m a really competitive person. After last year, the Olympic year, I really wanted this year to be positive for Dublet. Really work on our throughness and suppleness in the test. Then we can add power. He has it in him; it’s just a matter of keeping him happy in it and not pushing him too hard.

His piaffe/passage in schooling are unreal. His trot work can be even more impressive. The lateral work is a little bit difficult for him; he loses a bit of the throughness for that because he gets a little bit tense in his neck and his back. It’s just a matter of me figuring out how to ride him through it and not push him too hard. Not overtraining.

In the very short term, what are your goals for the Freestyle Final at the World Cup?
I want to get more power out of him than I did in the Grand Prix while keeping the relaxation. I want to go out there and just have fun with it. This is our fun spot. We love the freestyle. If we bomb it, we bomb it; but I have a feeling we’re going to do really well.

Isabell Werth's Power Hour


Mini-clinic put the show in the World Cup Finals' Dressage Showcase
Isabell Werth coaches Endel Ots on Lucky Strike during the Dressage Showcase. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

As inspiring and enjoyable as yesterday’s Dressage Showcase entertainment was, I for one came for what followed: an opportunity to learn from the master.

The living legend Isabell Werth of Germany—the most decorated Olympic equestrian in history and the leader going into today’s World Cup Dressage Final freestyle—followed the preliminaries with an hour-long “through the levels” demonstration. Using three demonstration horses and riders, Werth gave a condensed (I wish it had lasted for hours longer!) master class in what she looks for in a young dressage horse and how she starts her prospects on the road to Grand Prix.

The demo pairs themselves were a treat—every bit the quality we’re fortunate to see at the USDF FEI-Level Trainers Conferences. First up was the Canadian international competitor Karen Pavicic (who actually was a demo rider at this year’s Trainers Conference), riding the five-year-old stallion Totem (Totilas x Donnerhall).
 
Karen Pavicic on the five-year-old stallion Totem. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
As Pavicic warmed up, Werth explained: “We look for three very good gaits without weaknesses” in a dressage prospect.

Werth had Pavicic show the basics: 20-meter circles, changes of direction, transitions, leg-yield, shoulder-in. “It might look boring, but this is basic work,” Werth said. “This makes a horse supple.”

The developing horse must go freely forward, Werth emphasized. “Let the swing come out of the horse; don’t interrupt the swing. Let the horse find the good contact into both reins.”

How many times has your instructor chanted that dressage mantra, “Inside leg to outside rein”? That phrase is a favorite of Werth’s, as well, and judging by the number of times she used it with Pavicic, it’s a tenet that bears repeating even to accomplished riders. Werth noticed right away that Pavicic tended to overuse the inside rein a bit to position the horse (something we’ve all been guilty of!). The problem, she explained, is that doing so blocks the horse’s inside hind leg and therefore interrupts the inside leg-outside rein connection and blocks the all-important swing.

Instead, Werth counseled Pavicic  to “always think a bit shoulder-in. Let go the inside rein. Inside leg. More inside leg. Outside rein. Free swing. Let him go.”

Then, taking Totem from trot to canter: No slow, flat canter! “Jump, jump, jump first. Really clear, big jump for a young horse.” Once Pavicic had established sufficiently bounding canter strides, “Try to collect him a little bit: sit, sit, sit a little without losing the jump.” Typical for a young horse that needs to develop strength, as Pavicic brought Totem’s strides shorter and more active the stallion broke to a trot. “Doesn’t matter,” said Werth, who pointed out that timing is critical: “That was one second too long [collecting the canter] before going out.”

As the 2017 World Cup Dressage Final judge Katrina Wuest noted after Thursday’s Grand Prix, Werth’s Omaha mount, Weihegold OLD, shows exemplary straightness. The highest level of dressage work cannot excel without straightness, and Werth is a stickler for this critical basic—which again goes back to the horse’s correct acceptance of being ridden from the rider’s inside leg into the outside rein.

“He’s always discussing on the inside rein—‘Give me, give me,’” Werth said of Totem. As Pavicic worked on the right rein, Werth instructed her to “flex him to the left a little bit. Tak-tak-tak,” she chanted in the desired rhythm of the gait. “Uphill. Outside rein to get him straight and keep him in front of you.”

The training progression continued with the next horse, this time a seven-year-old. The talented Hanoverian gelding Lucky Strike (Lord Laurie x His Highness), ridden by Endel Ots of Wellington, Florida, represented the USA at the 2015 FEI World Breeding Championships for Young Dressage Horses in Verden, Germany. Clearly stronger and able to work in a greater degree of collection than the five-year-old Totem, Lucky Strike has three extravagant gaits—but Werth still found room for improvement.

“I would start with much more flexion and bending,” she told Ots, “to try to make him a little quicker and smaller. Less trot. Little, quick steps. Sit, sit. Flex him so he’s not running against your reins in a straight way. Keep the [inside] leg. Long with your [inside] leg.”

Translation: Werth was not instructing Ots to flex Lucky Strike laterally or to shorten or restrict the gelding’s neck in any way. Rather, she saw that the horse likes to move with huge, ground-covering strides and with fairly even contact into both reins. But to develop greater collection, the horse must “give” through his rib cage (that inside leg again!) and become a bit more connected into the outside rein so that he can bring his shoulders slightly to the inside of his haunches (straightness, aka alignment) while moving with that all-important unobstructed swing from the inside hind leg.

“You have to make the inside hind leg more active, more jumping, but you will only get it when you have him in a little bit of shoulder-in,” Werth said.

In the half-pass work, Werth told Ots to keep his outside rein low, where it can better stay connected and influence the positioning of the horse’s shoulders. “Free shoulder in the half-pass. Give the inside rein.”

“Lightness” in dressage is a frequently misunderstood concept. Some lightness is a good thing, but Werth succinctly explained that insufficient contact indicates a lack of connection. It was subtle in Lucky Strike, but “there is not enough weight in the reins,” she said. “The horse needs the confidence to come into the reins; then you will get more forward and a freer back.” She emphasized that her instructions to the demo riders were not intended as “quick fixes”: “This is months and years [of training], not ten minutes.”

Werth wants the horse always to want to stretch into the contact. Let’s rephrase that in a way you’ve probably heard in your dressage lessons: The horse takes the rein forward; the rider does not produce contact by pulling backward with the rein.
 
"He should look for the reins; don't throw away the reins." Endel Ots on Lucky Strike. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
“When he asks for a bit more stretching, you give him,” Werth told Ots during a walk break. “He should look for the reins; don’t throw away the reins!” she said when Ots made a too-quick transition from contact to “on the buckle.”

Werth wrapped up Ots’s session with some canter work and flying changes. “You only go in the canter when the horse walks,” she said, meaning a quality marching walk into the contact.

It’s always basics first for Werth before any “tricks.” As Ots prepared to ride some flying changes: “Before you change, first straight canter and a good canter. Only a good canter can bring a good change.” When Lucky Strike became overflexed to the inside: “He’s crooked. Forget the inside flexion, and come with the leg and outside rein. Flex a little bit to the outside, and come with the inside leg.” With the horse straightened, the canter quality improved and the changes were easy.
 
Direct, enthusiastic, funny: Isabell Werth of Germany during her clinic at the Dressage Showcase. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Werth’s love of training was evident: She got so involved in working with Ots and Lucky Strike that she nearly shortchanged her final demo pair, US Pan American Games team gold medalist Sabine Schut-Kery of California aboard the eight-year-old Hanoverian mare Hellohalli. (Announcer Nicho Meredith prompted Werth to wrap it up, which the Olympian either didn’t hear or ignored. With the jump crew undoubtedly anxious to set the ring for the evening’s competition, Meredith called time again, this time in German. Werth shot back, “I don’t understand German,” which got a big laugh from the audience.)

“Here we have to try to bring the croup lower and lower,” Werth said to Schut-Kery, noting that Hellohalli likes to go with her croup a bit higher than would be ideal for the upper-level work. But “We see here a lot more self-carriage already” as compared to the seven-year-old Lucky Strike. “We have to improve the mouth and that the horse stays a little bit lower behind.”
 
Werth coaches Sabine Schut-Kery on Hellohalli in canter half-pass right. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
In preparing for tempi changes, “Sit heavy so she comes a bit lower behind with a free swing. Ride contact to both reins in between the changes.” Hellohalli demonstrated easy lines of three- and two-tempi changes; then Werth asked Schut-Kery to try a one-tempi change. Even though Hellohalli hasn’t practiced them, Schut-Kery’s correct riding and excellent timing produced two separate “one-one” tempi changes.

Ending with a bit of developing passage/piaffe work, Werth told Schut-Kery to position the mare “in a little bit shoulder-in so she is not jumping in the passage, so you can ask a little bit more for the diagonal. Slowly, slowly. In shoulder-in and half-pass positioning, “Think slowly. Find the rhythm.” Similarly, a tactfully ridden passage-piaffe transition while allowing Hellohalli to find her balance resulted in a quality transition and the maintenance of clear rhythms in the gaits.

Werth’s master class was over far too soon, but she packed a remarkable amount of education into the short time. If you’re ever fortunate enough to have the opportunity to see her teach and train, do it!

Friday, March 31, 2017

First, the Fun Stuff

As the inept dressage rider "Brett Kidding," Aussie horsemanship expert Tristan Tucker brought laughs to the entertainment portion of the Dressage Showcase at the 2017 FEI World Cup Finals in Omaha. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Friday afternoon’s Dressage Showcase, held on the “dark day” of no dressage competition at the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Omaha, was a split-personality event.

The first half consisted of lighthearted dressage exhibitions and freestyle performances (with a dollop of educational value). Audiences enjoyed them, but what I suspect got many of them in the door was the second half of the showcase: a “through the levels” mini-clinic with the world’s #1 ranked dressage rider (and winner of yesterday’s Grand Prix), Isabell Werth of Germany.

In a statistic that should prove heartening for the USDF, which has dressage education as its core mission, more people came to watch the Dressage Showcase than yesterday’s Grand Prix: 4,755 vs. 3,806, to be exact. Put another way, last night’s round 1 of the World Cup Jumping Final drew 5,126 spectators—fewer than 400 more than attended the showcase. That’s a lot of people who paid for dressage education in Omaha!

I want to do justice to Werth’s presentation, and it dovetails nicely with another aspect of this event, which is the fact that the warm-up is smack-dab in the middle of the facility—the trade-fair vendor booths actually surround it—and so there’s a veritable feast of education for the taking for anyone savvy enough to park themselves beside the warm-up. So I’m going to tell you about the educational angles in my next blog post.
 
The Frontier Strings from the Omaha Conservatory of Music performed. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
A Devocoux Saddlery demonstration-cum-exhibition served as a preamble of sorts to the showcase, with a fancy liver chestnut horse passaging extravagantly to show off his freedom of movement. Then the Dressage Showcase opened with a performance by the Frontier Strings, a youth ensemble of Omaha Conservatory of Music students.
 
World Cup Dressage Final competitors Steffen Peters, Inessa Merkulova, Laura Graves, and Isabell Werth were honored for achieving scores of 80 percent or better in World Cup Final series competition. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Audiences thrilled to see four of the world’s top dressage riders—Steffen Peters and Laura Graves of the USA, Isabell Werth, and Inessa Merkulova of Russia—together in the arena to receive the “80 Percent Award”: jeweled browbands to commemorate their having earned a score of 80 percent or better at a World Cup Dressage Final or qualifier. The award was created by Dressage-News.com’s Ken Braddick, and Braddick was on hand to bestow the browbands as well as a blingy belt for Werth, whom Braddick said is the only rider to have achieved scores of 80 percent or better on three different horses.
 
Katie Jackson, who lost part of her right leg to cancer, gave an impressive para-equestrian dressage demonstration. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Impressive freestyles by two high-performance para-equestrian dressage riders followed. First up was Katie Jackson of Texas, who lost part of her right leg to cancer. Riding the mare Royal Dancer, who is a veteran of the 2014 World Equestrian Games and the 2016 Paralympics with rider Roxanne Trunnell, Jackson performed a Grade 5 freestyle. Announcer Nicho Meredith explained that para-dressage riders are classified into grades according to severity of physical disability. Grade 5 is the least severe (Grade 1 is the highest degree of disability), and its tests approximate US Equestrian Third Level dressage, with walk, trot, and canter and lateral movements but no flying changes.
 
Para-dressage freestyle by 2016 Paralympics competitors Annie Peavy and Lancelot Warrior. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The Grade 4 athlete Angela “Annie” Peavy, a 2016 Paralympic Games veteran, rode her Rio freestyle with her longtime partner Lancelot Warrior. Both riders did a good job of showcasing the talents and determination of those talented equestrians who are determined not to let disabilities stand in the way of their dreams.

It is its own discipline separate from dressage, but there’s no denying that Western dressage has grown in popularity in recent years. Some riders of stock breeds—particularly if they’d rather wear chaps than breeches—have embraced the opportunity to compete against similar horses, in their preferred tack and attire. And when it comes to excellence in both dressage and Western dressage, surely one of the country’s best and most well-known is the Florida-based Lynn Palm, who performed two Western dressage musical freestyles—to Western music, of course, including “Riders in the Sky” and the themes from Bonanza and other classic TV westerns.
 
Western dressage demo by Lynn Palm on Hot Royal. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Palm’s first mount was the appendix Quarter Horse Hot Royal. Later in the program she was back aboard the colorful 20-year-old American Paint Horse Rugged Painted Lark. Quarter Horse and equestrian sport enthusiasts alike know his sire, the legendary Rugged Lark, who with Palm gave a memorable bridleless exhibition at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Son Rugged Painted Lark must be doing OK for himself, too, as he’s been immortalized as a Breyer model.

The top Young Rider Barbara “Bebe” Davis performed her championship dressage freestyle to a medley of pop vocals including “Hundred Miles” by Yall, “Here for You” by Kygo, and an updated version of the 1980s hit “Ain’t Nobody (Loves Me Better).” But for some different musical innovation, one needed only to look up in the stands during the freestyle performance of FEI-level rider Amanda Johnson of Wisconsin, where a DJ appeared to be live-mixing her music. Aboard the Hanoverian gelding Foley, Johnson rode to a dance-worthy mix of Bruno Mars tunes including “Treasure” and “Chunky.”
 
Amanda Johnson on Foley. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Johnson's musical accompaniment? Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

(Are you starting to see why I’m saving the education for later? There was a lot of entertainment!)

A type of performance I hadn’t seen before was the pas de deux with living props. That sounds peculiar, and it looked a bit unusual, with five or six spotlighted groups of people standing in the purple-light-bathed arena while dressage riders Missy Fladland and Grace Schoenfeld trotted and cantered around them. The groups represented the “behind the scenes” supporters all riders need—veterinarians, farriers, show organizers, and others—and a country-music singer performed an original song honoring these unsung heroes’ efforts.
 
Honoring those who work behind the scenes in the horse industry: a unique pas de deux to an original song. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The entertainment segment of the Dressage Showcase ended on the day’s lightest note. The Australian “horsemanship guru” and equine desensitizer donned an ill-fitting shadbelly, a stovepipe top hat, and a wig as his equestrian alter ego, Brett Kidding. Aboard “Legless” (that’s a parody of Steffen Peters’ Legolas, friends), “Brett” was an inept dressage rider attempting to perform a Grand Prix test while voicing the imagined thoughts of his long-suffering mount. “Brett” may have dreadful equitation, but I’d like to see you execute one-tempi changes while “talking on the phone”! It’s safe to say that it takes a really good rider to get a horse to perform well while looking like a really bad rider.

Equestrian Outreach: Spreading the Gospel of Horses

A girl enjoys her first "horseback ride" at the FEI World Cup Finals. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
One of the stated goals of the 2017 FEI World Cup Finals organizers is to introduce horses and horse sports to more people in the Omaha area and beyond.

To that end, along with the usual fancy high-end equestrian boutiques in the trade fair in the CenturyLink Center are lots of kid-friendly "intro to horses" interactive exhibits, a stableful of horses of various breeds for admiring, and other introductory-type attractions. As I wandered around the trade fair this morning, I found myself amidst throngs of schoolchildren on field trips -- most elementary-school-aged, some older -- as well as a good number of folks with various disabilities. Let's just say that the crowd did not look like the people we're accustomed to seeing at horse shows -- and that's a mighty welcome change. Quite frankly, the future of our industry and our sport depends on it.

The kids seemed equally fascinated by the real horses and the make-believe ones. Volunteers were doing things guaranteed to appeal to the younger set, like drawing forth a long length of tubular pink material from a box and announcing the length of a horse's intestines. Of course the kids loved it, complete with laughter and the cries of "Ew, gross!"

Confession: I loved it too. Among those tykes is undoubtedly one who will get bitten by the horse bug as completely and utterly as you and I did. And who knows: That little kid may well be our next McLain Ward or Laura Graves.

Ride on. Share your equine passion. And enjoy these photos.
The Omaha venue is unique in that the competitors come cheek-to-jowl (or tail) with the spectators. Visiting schoolchildren watch as a groom returns the jumper Liborius from Uruguay to the stables after a hand-walk in the warm-up arena. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

The World Cup Finals aren't just about dressage and jumping. US dressage rider Endel Ots was spotted schooling a demonstration horse alongside a Western rider. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.


Of course, a trade fair is all about shopping! The USDF's Betsy Hamilton (left) and Sydney Manning are staffing the USDF merchandise booth. Stop by and say hello! Photo by Jennifer Bryant.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

It's Shaping up to Be an Isabell-Laura Showdown

Germany's Werth wins Grand Prix, with the USA's Laura Graves right behind

The queen of collection: Weihegold OLD's outstanding pirouettes and piaffe-passage tour put Germany's Isabell Werth on top in the World Cup Dressage Final Grand Prix. The photo captured the moment that Werth is making a transition from passage to piaffe, rocking the mare back on her haunches. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.


For much of the afternoon, British Olympic team gold medalist Carl Hester and Nip Tuck looked untouchable in the Grand Prix, the first leg of the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Omaha.

Hester’s score of 76.671% set the bar high, and it wasn’t until the last two riders that anyone was able to top it.
 
Great Britain's Carl Hester and Nip Tuck led in the Grand Prix until the last two riders. They finished third. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Dutchman Edward Gal, who won the Final in 2010 aboard Totilas, seemed Hester’s closest contender. But his score of 74.485% with Glock’s Voice put Gal in fourth place after the last of the 16 riders had gone.

Along the way, the USA saw strong scores from 2016 Olympians Kasey Perry-Glass on Goerklintgaards Dublet (who finished seventh on 73.828%) and Steffen Peters on his new partner, Rosamunde (eighth on 72.257%). “Dublet’s” test showed lovely harmony and relaxation, with accurate and correct work that prompted audio commentator and retired US FEI 5* dressage judge Axel Steiner to call the 29-year-old Perry-Glass “one of our up-and-coming stars.”

“I think she has what it takes to really move up” in the international standings,” Steiner said.

The almost ridiculously supple Rosamunde can flex her loins and hindquarter joints so much that she can “pedestal” in the piaffe, and one wonders if she can be a bit of a Gummy Worm in movements requiring straightness. Her tempi changes “swing” a bit—more noticeable in the twos—and she became a bit quick and frantic for a moment in the final piaffe/passage tour, probably a result of a momentary loss of balance. But it’s important to keep in mind that this mare is only 10 years old—and, as Steiner pointed out, Peters wasn’t really aiming her for this World Cup Final; he knows she needs to mature a bit, and she’ll be stronger, more experienced, and better by the time the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games and the 2020 Olympics roll around.
 
Although judge Katrina Wuest said Verdades has so much power that his straightness occasionally wavered, in this photo he appears arrow-straight with the USA's Laura Graves in piaffe on the center line. The top US pair was second in the Grand Prix. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
In today’s Grand Prix, however, both Perry-Glass and Peters took a back seat to the USA’s current number-one pair, Laura Graves and Verdades, who didn’t quite break the 80-percent barrier with their score of 79.800, which was good enough for second place. Graves put in a powerful and accurate test. There was one unsteady moment in the transition from passage to extended walk, and from my vantage point it appeared that “Diddy’s” haunches led in one canter half-pass right in the zigzags. The overall impression, though, was of great correctness and gaits that head judge Katrina Wuest of Germany praised as “maybe the best paces” of the three highest-placed finishers.

The adage about saving the best for last was true today: Isabell Werth of Germany, ranked number one aboard Weihegold OLD coming in to this Final and favored to win, did not disappoint. Despite a flubbed line of two-tempis that Werth later called pure rider error, the 12-year-old Oldenburg mare put in collected work of such high quality that she alone broke 80, winning the Grand Prix on a score of 82.300%. At the post-competition press conference, Carl Hester praised Werth’s unsurpassed ability to produce outstanding piaffe, passage, and other collected work from her mounts, with great shortening of the strides yet maintaining maximum activity.

“I was very happy,” Werth said afterward. “She felt a little bit tense when I came in, and of course there was big applause for Laura, so I had to start a bit careful. Besides the two-tempis—and certainly it was my fault, like always it’s the rider’s fault when you have mistakes—I felt safe. The rest was really good, very fantastic. The pirouettes and piaffe/passage, I’m completely happy, and I’m looking forward to the next days.”

“I came here to win,” Graves said, “and finishing second to Isabell still feels a lot like winning. I’m super-proud of my horse and the way he’s developed in the past two years. He’s extremely spooky; he’s a lot to manage in that kind of environment. He felt really honest. We had a couple of mistakes, mostly rider error, and they were unfortunately in double-coefficient movements, but that puts me in a place to be very excited about Saturday—knowing that if [I] ride clean, it could be a really good show.”

Wuest, who officiated at “C,” offered her assessment of the day’s top finishers.

“Verdades is an extremely powerful horse…. But sometimes Laura has to keep this big, big impulsion under control, and that made her appear sometimes just a little crooked on the center line. Isabell’s horse is extremely collected and does everything with ease and is extremely straight. Except for the two-tempis, there was not the slightest hint of an inconsistency or a mistake. The same with Carl. The motor of his horse is not a Ferrari, and he knows, but he gets a 9 for [the entry halt and salute] for straightness and accuracy.”

Hester has said many times that “Barney” is hot and spooky, and he said that his World Cup strategy was “to give him an easy Grand Prix, coast around so that he’s fresh for Saturday.” But I’m going to make sure I put my foot on the pedal for Saturday,” he said in response to Wuest’s observation, garnering laughs from the audience and the other riders.

Saturday, of course, is the one that counts: the Grand Prix Freestyle, the winner of which will be crowned the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final champion.

One incident marred the otherwise outstanding day of competition: Wendi Williamson of New Zealand was eliminated after the Grand Prix when the FEI steward’s post-competition equipment check revealed blood in the mouth of her mount, Dejavu MH. The FEI “blood rule” mandates automatic elimination.

A score of 60% or better in the Grand Prix is required for a World Cup Dressage Final competitor to advance to the freestyle final. Therefore, the other rider who will not compete Saturday is Hanna Karasiova of Belarus, who achieved only a 58.885% aboard Arlekino today.

And I Asked Myself, Well, How Did They Get Here?

The leader: Isabell Werth of Germany on Weihegold OLD (shown schooling on March 29) is the highest-ranked competitor from the Western European League and is considered the favorite to win the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Winnowing all the world’s Grand Prix-level dressage competitors down to the top 18 for the annual FEI World Cup Dressage Final is quite a process. The F├ęderation Equestre Internationale’s (FEI) rules for the 2016-2017 season, which is culminating in the Final currently being held in Omaha, Nebraska, run 11 pages. Let me try to distill them for you here.

The dressage World Cup (jumping has its own World Cup, being held concurrently in Omaha) consists of a series of qualifying events plus the Final. The qualifying events are known as CDI-Ws, which is FEI-speak for FEI-sanctioned dressage competitions designated at World Cup Final qualifiers. There were five CDI-Ws in the US this season: Devon in Pennsylvania and four in Wellington, Florida.

As of the current season, there are four leagues in which competitors may qualify: Western European League, Central European League, North American League, and Pacific League (Australia and New Zealand). A rider from a non-league nation may qualify in the Western European League if his or her national federation completes the required red tape.

Horse/rider combinations qualify by earning points in their respective leagues. Points are awarded based on class placings. There are specified minimum and maximum numbers of qualifiers to be attended. Because the World Cup Dressage Final championship is based on the results of the Grand Prix Freestyle, it is the GP Freestyle that earns the qualifying points. To be eligible to qualify for the Final, the competitor must earn two or more scores of 68 percent or better.

Trust me, there are WAY more rules and intricacies regarding league participation, qualifiers, and how points are awarded. But let’s skip ahead to the actual process of determining who gets invited to the World Cup Dressage Final.

The Final is limited to 18 horse/rider combinations. (There are 16 in Omaha this year because two horses were withdrawn just before they were scheduled to ship from Europe to the USA.) For the current season, here is how the slots are allocated:

Western European League: 9 slots
Central European League: 2
Pacific League: 1
North American League: 2
Non-league national federations: 1
The World Cup Dressage Final title defender: 1
FEI extra starting places: 2

In the North American League, the two highest-ranked combinations were Laura Graves on Verdades (1) and Kasey Perry-Glass on Goerklintgaards Dublet (2). As an athlete from the host national federation (the USA/US Equestrian), Steffen Peters on Rosamunde (ranked #3) got one of the extra starting places.

The title defender, Hans Peter Minderhoud of the Netherland on Glock’s Flirt, was unfortunately one of the combinations that had to withdraw.

The non-league slot for 2017 went to Maria Florencia Manfredi of Argentina on Bandurria Kacero. An extra starting place went to Brazilian rider Joao Victor Marcari Oliva on Xama Dos Pinhais, who per the rules qualified at Western European League CDI-W competitions.

Now that the final 16 are here, they will contest today’s Grand Prix as a qualifier for Saturday’s Grand Prix Freestyle final. The FEI doesn’t really want anyone who’s made it this far not to make it to the Freestyle, so it set the bar fairly low: A score of 60 percent or better in the Grand Prix qualifies you for the Freestyle. Then the results of the Freestyle alone determine the World Cup Dressage Final placings.

Clear as mud? This is an oversimplified summary of the qualifying process, but I hope it’s given you an idea of the path dressage competitors from around the world had to take on the road to Omaha.