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

Friday, August 29, 2014

All Hail Queen Charlotte!

2014 WEG Grand Prix Freestyle gold medalists Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro (with Norman, the WEG horse mascot, redubbed Freddy by the British team) wave to British fans during their victory lap. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro won everything in sight at the 2012 London Olympic Games, and they’re not stopping any time soon.

The 29-year-old protégé of British dressage veteran (and Dujardin’s 2012 Olympics and 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games teammate) Carl Hester has a lock on the individual WEG dressage gold medals. Today in Caen, Dujardin picked up her second individual gold of the week, adding a Grand Prix Freestyle medal (and a Rolex watch) to the GP Special gold she won on Wednesday.
"Blueberry" in piaffe: "He's good at everything," Dujardin said. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
It was a decisive victory, with judges Isabelle Judet (FRA), Lilo Fore (USA), Stephen Clarke (GBR), Francis Verbeek (NED), Elizabeth McMullen (CAN), and Dietrich Plewa (GER) awarding Dujardin and Valegro a score of 92.161 percent over silver medalist Helen Langehanenberg of Germany on Damon Hill NRW (88.286).
The 2014 WEG Grand Prix Freestyle medalists: Helen Langehanenberg of Germany (silver), Charlotte Dujardin of Great Britain (gold), and Adelinde Cornelissen of the Netherlands (bronze). Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
From the audience’s viewpoint, it was almost a toss-up as to who would win bronze, Langehanenberg or the Netherlands’ Adelinde Cornelissen. But although Damon Hill looked a bit tired, his supple and harmonious test got the nod over Jerich Parzival NOP’s greater power and flamboyance that occasionally showed moments of tension, earning the Dutch veterans a score of 85.714 percent.
Helen Langehanenberg of Germany thanks Damon Hill NRW for his freestyle performance. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
“After London, I didn’t really think it could get much better,” Dujardin said afterward. “But then at the Europeans [Championships], two golds there, and then I focused on my first World Equestrian Games. To win any medal is always a great achievement, but to come away here with two individual golds and the team silver is just unbelievable. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

Dujardin, like most riders, is well aware that the best rider in the world can’t do it on a horse that is not at the top of the international standard. She currently sits on the greatest jackpot the dressage world has ever known. Valegro, a twelve-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Negro x Gerschwin), is the Secretariat of dressage. He is more supple, more straight, more ridable, and with greater talent for both extended and highly collected work than any other horse today. The fact that he has an adorable pony face and is called Blueberry is icing on the cake.

Although Dujardin and Valegro have smashed all the high-score records and have nothing left to prove, the rider knows that although getting to the top is hard, staying there is harder.

“The challenge is then to recreate [the success], and try to do it on some other horse, a younger horse. I enjoy training young horses and getting them up to Grand Prix, so maybe I can do it again on another horse,” Dujardin said.

All of the riders who stood atop the medium podium today expressed fierce pride in their mounts. Dujardin said simply: “He’s just good at everything.”
Adelinde Cornelissen of the Netherlands describes Jerich Parzival NOP as "seventeen going on seven." Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
“He really deserved a medal today. I’m really proud of him. He just keeps on doing it, over and over again,” said Cornelissen of Jerich Parzival NOP, a seventeen-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Jazz x Ulft). Several times this week, Cornelissen said: “He’s seventeen going on seven.”

Of the medalists today, Langehanenberg gushed the longest about her mount, Damon Hill NRW, a fifteen-year-old Westfalen stallion (Donnerhall x Rubinstein I).

“He can speak and read; he’s something else than a horse,” she said. “Every time, he gets better and better and better. You think that [a performance] was perfect and the best, and then the next time it’s wow, even better. He has no weaknesses; he has perfect gaits, his mind is perfect. He is like a little dog. If he were a little smaller, he’d sit beside us on the sofa. He has the best character someone can have. He’s absolutely honest and he’s the best.”
French judge Isabelle Judet, the president of the ground jury for the GP Freestyle. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Although most of the fifteen freestyles today were not mistake-free—most of the horses showed a few signs of fatigue from the long week of competition—French judge Isabelle Judet, the president of the ground jury today, had nothing but praise for the standard.

“We are like the spectators: We just loved it. We had great fun,” Judet said.

All five judges were in agreement regarding the placings of the gold- and silver-medal winners, and there was little discrepancy regarding the bronze, as well.

Said Judet: “When you are in the booth, you are not thinking about the results. We don’t try to do any placing; it just comes out. We’ve had a lot of experience, all of us. [In the moment] we’re almost not thinking; it’s like second nature. We just trust our feeling and that everybody will do their best. Sometimes, like today, it happens that we all have the same idea. It’s not quite always like this, but today we did.”
Steffen Peters and Legolas 92 performing their "Under Pressure" freestyle. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Steffen and Legolas: Looking Ahead to Las Vegas

Aboard Four Winds Farm’s twelve-year-old Westfalen gelding, Legolas 92 (Laomedon x Florestan II), Olympic team and WEG individual bronze medalist Steffen Peters expressed satisfaction with today’s “Under Pressure” freestyle, which earned a score of 77.321 percent for tenth place.

“A lot of things worked out great, especially the difficult parts: going from the extended canter to the pirouette, from the pirouette to the piaffe. And when he’s this excited, as he was today, the walk can be difficult. But today he walked absolutely beautifully, very relaxed. I could push him actually a little bit in the extended walk. The collected walk was great; I could actually relax for a moment myself. Then he came very nicely into the piaffe from the walk. Overall, a very good freestyle. I’m super happy,” Peters said. “It’s always the one-tempis that are tricky, but they worked out today. There was one where he was a bit tense, they were not perfectly straight; but I don’t think we had a mistake.”

Of his score, Peters said: “Seventy-seven at the World Games, nothing wrong with that. Of course you’re always hoping in the freestyle that you get a little closer to 80 percent, but we’ll leave that up to Laura today.”

The US dressage-team veteran already has a long-term strategy planned for Legolas: “The next big step is the [2015 FEI] World Cup [Dressage Final] in Las Vegas,” he said. Referring to the very electric atmosphere in the Thomas & Mack Center, with the audience positioned very close to the arena, he said: “It’s obviously a very difficult arena for Legolas, a bit of a nervous horse, but we’ll go there in plenty of time, a few days before, to practice there. Right now he gets a long break, at least four weeks; then we’ll pick up again from there.”

Legolas’s freestyle won’t be quite the same when we see it again in Las Vegas, Peters said. “When we made the music for the freestyle, we made a couple versions of the music. There is room for some new ideas. Those I’ll show you guys in Vegas.”
Laura Graves and Verdades have trotted -- make that galloped -- onto the world scene, finishing fifth in the WEG GP Freestyle. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Hello, World, I’m Laura Graves

The 27-year-old American phenom from Geneva, FL, was the talk of the WEG dressage competition. If I had a nickel for every time a foreign journalist asked me what the US press knew about her before the WEG and whether we were surprised that she was doing so well, I’d be considerably wealthier.

Graves’s story has grown more and more remarkable this week. I’d never heard her name before the US WEG selection trials in June. She stormed in and finished second to Steffen Peters on her developing superstar horse, Verdades, a twelve-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Florett AS x Goya), elbowing many decorated veterans aside. She and “Diddy” proceeded to travel to Europe—their first time—and made the Europeans sit up and take notice at the CDIs Aachen and Fritzens. To top it off, the pair came to Caen, qualified for the Grand Prix Freestyle, and then finished fifth—fifth!—on a score of 82.036 percent.

Do you have any idea how hard it is to break 80 percent in, well, any competition, but particularly international championship competition? And the WEG was Graves’s first score over 80.

“It’s a great feeling,” she said afterward. “If we hit 82 now, I’m excited to see where this could go. Just because your horse is talented doesn’t mean you’re going to get the big scores right away. It has to be really reliable; it has to be beautiful; it has to be strong; it has to be relaxed. All these things have to come together.”

“I wasn’t even expecting to come to Europe, let alone ride on this team,” Graves said.

Of her freestyle performance, Graves was particularly thrilled that Diddy “was really, really calm in [the stadium]. I could feel how cool he was. That was the most exciting of all. I worked him really lightly this morning; I didn’t want him to be tired, but I didn’t want him to be wild.” As it turned out, Diddy was a bit lazy in the trot half-passes early in the freestyle—but “he’s an easier horse to rev up than to cool down.”

Whenever a horse starts to get noticed, purchase offers usually follow. Graves concedes that she’s been approached, but “I refuse to hear numbers because he is never for sale,” she says.

Diddy is a gem, and “I want a horse for many years,” Graves said. So she’ll “take really good care of him” and then begin pointing him, carefully, toward the 2016 Olympics in Rio. But the US dressage team didn’t qualify for Rio here at the WEG—we would have had to medal in the team competition in order to do so—so there’s work to be done before then, she said.

Meanwhile, although “everyone’s looking forward to going home,” there’s little time to relax and celebrate. “The horses have to be out of here between six and seven tomorrow morning,” Graves said. The riders will return to their Belgian training base, and then Graves flies from Belgium to Miami on Monday. So let’s get the party started without further ado: “Hopefully there’s cold champagne at the barn!”

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Scene at the WEG

Today, Thursday, was a rest day for dressage. Not having to race between the dressage and the para-equestrian dressage venues meant that I actually found myself with a bit of time to check out the Games Village at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

The Games Village, located adjacent to the Parc Exposition Center, the reining venue, is the shopping and trade-fair site. Wow! There were a lot of vendors at the 2010 WEG in Kentucky, but Normandy has Lexington beat for opulence, variety, and sheer numbers.

Here, you can browse the spacious Hermes boutique, or perhaps you'd rather have a Rolex. Luxury French retailer Printemps has a store here. There is all manner of high-end equestrian retailers and clothiers. Title sponsor Alltech repeats its Alltech Experience pavilion from Lexington. And the Land Rover Experience -- both kid- and adult-sized versions -- well, you'll just have to see the photos (below) to believe it.

Strolling the aisles, it is plain that horses are more embedded in French culture than they are in the US. There are TV broadcasters and radio stations. French regions promote their equestrian offerings. And there is a striking number of fun and educational displays designed to appeal to kids and families. Large groups of children were streaming in the entrance as I left. Now this is how you get youngsters involved with horses!

Enjoy the photos. I've thrown in a few other shots, as well, to give you a feel for the local couleur here in Caen and the WEG.
Team USA duds on display at Hermes. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Hermes merchandise. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Price tag at Hermes. That's 690 euros for a pair of ladies' breeches, folks. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Greetings from Kentucky! Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Enjoy a Bourbon Barrel Ale in Caen. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Horse-race game. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Normandy Horse pavilion. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Carousel. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Joules clothing boutique. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
A visitor from Australia pedal-charges her phone in the FEI pavilion. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

A customer tries out a Stubben saddle using a moving horse simulator. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

A child takes a miniature Land Rover for a spin on a pint-sized off-road track. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Visitors were lined up to ride along on the Land Rover Experience, where drivers showed what the SUVs can do over specially designed "hills." Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Second half of the Land Rover Experience. "Bridge" descends hydraulically. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

US Para-Equestrian president Hope Hand (left) watches para-dressage with Team USA competitors Sydney Collier and Roxanne Trunnell. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Flamboyant announcer Pedro Cebulka looks every bit the ringmaster at the dressage competition. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Sodden FEI TV cameraman during the Grand Prix team competition. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Ring-crew member tries to firm up the arena surface after the downpour. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

During the deluge, dressage judge Isabelle Judet tries to decide whether to venture out of her booth. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

One who did brave the elements was Dutch judge Francis Verbeek (right), who's smiling in the rain with her scribe. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Laura Graves Isn't in Kansas Any More

Laura Graves and Verdades passage their way to a 77.157 and eighth place in the WEG Grand Prix Special. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

After her Grand Prix test yesterday, Team USA’s Laura Graves talked about adjusting to the realization that she and her horse, Verdades, had been named to the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games dressage team. It didn’t all sink in until yesterday, she said, and when she first heard the news there were no “fireworks and rainbows.”

Maybe someone overheard Graves’s comment, for “Over the Rainbow” was among the medley of songs playing during her spectacular Grand Prix Special test today (more on those songs in a minute).

“Diddy’s” tension all but disappeared today, and we saw the horse who wowed us at the WEG selection trials in June. Better than at Gladstone, actually: There was an added power and expression to Diddy’s piaffe and passage, and the test was spot-on accurate. Best of all, he achieved that elusive goal of making the extraordinarily difficult Grand Prix Special test look elegant and easy.

“He was just really nice to ride—which is why we do this, isn’t it?” Graves said afterward. “To go in and have a ride when you can’t be too critical of anything is a really nice ride to have.”
GP Special gold medalists Valegro and Charlotte Dujardin of Great Britain. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Graves’s score of 77.157 percent vaulted her into the lead—for a while, anyway. But the British and German juggernaut came along, and reigning Olympic champions Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro took the definitive and unshakeable lead with a score of 86.120 percent, which would have been even higher had it not been for a momentary resistance in the walk-piaffe transition and a mistake in the two-tempis. (Australian judge Susan Hoevenaars, the head of the ground jury today, quipped afterward: “We wanted to give her 90 percent, but she wouldn’t let us.)
GPS silver medalists Damon Hill NRW and Helen Langehanenberg of Germany. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
On Dujardin’s heels through the entire competition and finishing second again today was Germany’s Helen Langehanenberg with the fourteen-year-old Westfalen stallion Damon Hill NRW (Donnerhall x Rubinstein I). Damon Hill is a fabulous athlete with an impressive piaffe-passage but lacks just a smidge of Valegro’s elasticity and range. An almost mistake-free test with a slight loss of balance in the piaffe after the walk put Langehanenberg in silver-medal position with a score of 84.468 percent.

A newcomer to the international-championships scene claimed the individual GPS bronze: Kristina Sprehe on the thirteen-year-old Hanoverian stallion Desperados FRH (De Niro x Wolkenstein II). From Sprehe’s wide eyes and at-a-loss-for-words responses in the post-medal ceremony press conference, it was evident that the 27-year-old Sprehe was amazed at her medal-winning score of 79.748 percent.

Graves and Verdades ended up eighth in the Special, beating tenth-place finishers Steffen Peters on Legolas 92—just as Peters had predicted could well happen one of these days. Legolas’s GPS test was a marked improvement over yesterday’s Grand Prix, with one mistake in the one-tempi changes on the center line and a final score of 75.742 percent.
Fans cheer on the American riders. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
“It was tricky because in the warm-up, he didn’t want to stop after nine [tempi changes],” Peters said afterward. “I was super-excited that he actually quit on nine. And I had a better feeling than yesterday in the Grand Prix, and seeing those two American flags up there, making it into the final, that’s just awesome. We’re ‘keeping it in the family.’” But make no mistake: Peters isn’t ready to cede to Graves just yet. “Legolas has a hell of a freestyle,” he said.

Unfortunately, this was not Adrienne Lyle's day. A test marred by a series of mistakes gave the fifteen-year-old Oldenburg gelding (Weltmeyer x Classiker) a disappointing score of 69.202 percent for last place.

"My horse was not himself; something was bothering him," Lyle said afterward. 

Another disappointed competitor was German team gold medalist Isabell Werth, whose mount, Bella Rose 2, was withdrawn from the individual competition because of what the German federation called inflammation of the sole of the foot. When I find out more about that, I'll let you know.

Name Those Tunes

Oh, and about that music: Each rider gets a background-music medley of instrumental tunes, obviously chosen to reflect the nationality and the horse’s gaits, during the tests. The music is loud enough over the PA system that the effect is not unlike watching a freestyle, although Laura Graves said it’s not as loud in the arena itself. The effect can be pleasing or distracting, depending on whether the tempos match (they’re often not perfect) and whether the music selection seems appropriate for the pair. For instance, Carl Hester of Great Britain rode his Special aboard Nip Tuck to Rolling Stones tunes—OK, that makes sense. But the Netherlands’ Hans Peter Minderhoud on Glock’s Johnson TN rode to “Werewolf in London” followed by “It’s Raining Men.” To borrow from Forrest Gump, that’s all I’m going to say about that.

On Deck: Freestyle Friday

The second individual-medal dressage competition, the Grand Prix Freestyle, takes place Friday after the horses and riders enjoy a well-deserved rest day tomorrow. Audiences will be watching eagerly for Graves’s new freestyle: She says she’s amped up the difficulty and changed the choreography to improve the flow.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

So Close...

For a heady few hours, it looked as if the USA was going to clinch the dressage team bronze medal at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. But then Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro came in and spoiled it all.

The five-member ground jury—including the USA’s own Lilo Fore—universally placed Dujardin and the twelve-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Negro x Gerschwin) first, with an average score of 85.271 percent. Sixth from last in the field of 100 horses, Valegro soundly beat the previous day’s front-runner, Bella Rose 2, ridden by Isabell Werth of Germany (81.529).

“I had a fantastic ride today,” Dujardin said of “Blueberry.” “He felt really, really good; he’s felt good all week. He went in and he really, really did perform.”
WEG team gold medalists Germany. From left: chef d'equipe Klaus Roeser, Kristina Sprehe, Fabienne Lutkemeier, Isabell Werth, Helen Langehanenberg, and head judge Stephen Clarke of Great Britain. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

But Dujardin’s stratospheric score wasn’t enough to knock the German team off the highest step of the medal podium. The all-women team (Helen Langehanenberg/Damon Hill NRW, 81.357; Kristina Sprehe/Desperados FRH, 78.814; Fabienne Lutkemeier/D’Agostino FRH, 73.586; and Werth) claimed the team gold medal with a total score of 241.700. And we should point out that the gold medal was theirs despite the injury and withdrawal of the horse considered Germany’s front-runner, the 2010 WEG gold medalist Totilas (under Dutchman Edward Gal) with current rider Matthias-Alexander Rath.

“We bought her as a three-year-old,” Werth said of Bella Rose 2, whom she says may be the best horse she’s ever ridden. (That’s saying a lot, considering Werth’s numerous Olympic and WEG appearances and medals, including gold ones, with such famous mounts as Gigolo and Satchmo.) “This is one of the diamonds you find in your life. I had the luck already with Gigolo and with Satchmo to have some diamonds, but she is really something special. She is so beautiful, so proud, with great charisma.” Bella Rose 2 is a ten-year-old Westfalen mare (Belissimo M x Cacir AA).

Team Great Britain (Carl Hester/Nip Tuck, 74.186; Michael Eilberg/Half Moon Delphi, 71.886; Gareth Hughes/DV Stenkjers Nadonna, 69.714; and Dujardin) took silver with 231.343. And even with two horse/rider combinations pinch-hitting at the last minute when team horses suffered injuries, the Netherlands (Adelinde Cornelissen/Jerich Parzival NOP, 79.629; Hans Peter Minderhoud/Glock’s Johnson TN, 74.357; Diederik van Silfhout/Arlando NOP; and Edward Gal/Glock’s Voice, 72.414) won team bronze over Team USA (227.400 vs. 222.714, respectively).
The bronze-medal winning Dutch team (Hans Peter Minderhoud, Edward Gal, Diederik van Silfhout, and Adelinde Cornelissen) shares a laugh at the post-medal-ceremony press conference. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Judge Stephen Clarke, who was president of the ground jury for the team competition, said: “The whole thing was outstanding. It’s unbelievable that, year after year, the standard gets higher and higher, and our sport grows more and more. We should all be very excited and very positive about it.”

The US team of Steffen Peters/Legolas 92, Laura Graves/Verdades, Adrienne Lyle/Wizard, and Tina Konyot/Calecto V finished in the same order as at June’s WEG selection trials. Peters had the high score of 75.843, despite two mistakes in the one-tempi changes. As before, Graves was hot on his heels with 74.871, with her nemesis being “Diddy’s” apprehension of the TV cameras lurking between the judge’s booths, which caused him to stop dead momentarily during his extended walk. Lyle’s solid test aboard Wizard earned them a score of 72.000, and Konyot’s mostly solid test with Calecto V had a few small errors for 69.643.
Yikes! Verdades spies a monster in the bushes during his Grand Prix test with Laura Graves. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
If you were a horse, you'd be scared too. Glock's Voice and Edward Gal of the Netherlands negotiate the monster in the bushes, aka an FEI TV camera. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

According to Peters, he pushed the envelope with Legolas 92—and almost pulled it off. “The rest of the test was probably the best we’ve done,” he said afterward. “I really fought for my team, fought for my country. We risked everything. The extensions felt better than before, and we really went for it in the half-passes. The strong points are the piaffe-passage. A wonderful feeling—very supple, very energetic. We went for it in the one-tempis, and that’s where the mistake happened.”
One-tempis might be Legolas 92's Achilles heel, but this one looks just fine. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Peters, who was hospitalized with pneumonia prior to the Aachen CHIO and was forced to withdraw from the competition, credited his wife, Shannon, with keeping both Legolas 92 and Rosamunde in top shape, riding until her husband was able to get back in the saddle. In fact, he said, Shannon uncovered a bit more suppleness in Legolas than Steffen even realized the horse had in him.
Floating: Laura Graves and Verdades show why they're putting the international dressage community on notice. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
For her part, Graves handled her first appearance on a truly international stage with grace. Saying she’s not normally a nervous competitor, she admitted: “When I was warming up, I said, ‘I have this pain in my stomach. I don’t get nervous.’ [US dressage chef d’équipe] Robert [Dover] said, ‘That’s nerves.’ I said, ‘I’m not nervous; I have a pain in my stomach.’ He said, ‘That’s what nerves are.’ So yeah, I was very nervous,” Graves concluded with a laugh.

In the twelve years Graves and “Diddy” have been together, she’s learned that he’s the type of horse that overreacts if he’s pushed when he’s scared. He’s an honest type who spooks only when he’s truly scared, so she knew there was no point in pushing him when he froze momentarily in the walk, she said of the twelve-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Florett AS x Goya) her mother found as a yearling.

“He has a lot of points to earn with his walk; he has a super walk, so whenever we miss it from tension like we did today, it’s a real bummer,” Graves said afterward. “Still, everything else…there were no mistakes in the changes and I’m super happy with how his piaffe is coming along. So I’m really proud to be here.”

Of the WEG experience, Graves said: “It just keeps feeling like the next step. This is the big boom you’ve been waiting for. When you find out you’re on the team, you kind of expect fireworks and rainbows falling from the sky. This [going in the WEG arena for the first time] is the big bang for me.”

Monday, August 25, 2014

Passing the Torch

The 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games is serving as a rite of passage for two members of Team USA dressage.

Riding in her first senior international FEI championship competition is Laura Graves, 27, with her 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Verdades (Florett AS x Goya). The pair, who finished second at the WEG selection trials, impressed audience and judges alike at the European shows since the 2014 Dutta Corp./USEF Dressage Festival of Champions and stand to do the same here in Normandy tomorrow. Graves is poised, with an enviable confidence and maturity in her riding. The future looks bright for her and “Diddy,” and with luck this will be the first of many appearances for this talented pair.

Tina Konyot and her Danish Warmblood stallion, Calecto V, in the team Grand Prix test at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

For Graves' teammate Tina Konyot, Normandy will be memorable for a very different reason. Konyot, who was the first to go for Team USA this morning to earn a score of 69.643 percent, said after her ride that the 2014 WEG will be the swan song for her longtime equine partner, the 16-year-old Danish Warmblood stallion Calecto V (Come Back II x Rastell).

“I am very, very happy,” Konyot said after her Grand Prix test, ridden in a light drizzle and cool temperatures under grim skies. “I had, obviously, little mistakes that cost you points [they had a mistake in the one-tempis and slightly undershot the last center line], but overall I’m thrilled. And he was quite energetic. I feel like I got an 80,” she said with a laugh.

“It was my goal to get here with my horse,” Konyot continued. “It’s his last hurrah. He’s in the three-plus club: He’s done two WEGs and an Olympic Games. There are only three other horses in America that have done that.”

Will Konyot hold a retirement ceremony for her horse? In her own way, she will: “I’m going to Deauville to ride on the beaches Friday and Saturday. That’s my ceremony.”

With Calecto, Konyot also participated in the 2010 WEG in Kentucky and the 2012 London Olympic Games. Of the three competitions, she said: “It’s all a wonderful experience. This may be a bit…” she trailed off, her eyes welling with tears. “I’m retiring him and I don’t know what it’ll be like not to have him. I have a younger one coming up, but it’s a big experience to get here, to be here with my boy the last time.

“He’s not the greatest dressage horse, but he is the greatest horse in the world. There’s no other horse that’s going to go galloping down the beach in Normandy. Out of these 103 horses [in the WEG dressage competition], he’s the only one that will do that.”

But who knows: Konyot said she “absolutely” plans to breed her horse of a lifetime after he retires. With a little luck, perhaps some of Calecto’s talent, heart, and temperament (“He’s a big teddy bear,” Konyot said) will be passed down to a younger generation. Watching the normally steely Konyot struggle to talk through her tears, it's a safe bet that nothing would please her more than to see her stallion pass his own torch.
Singin' in the rain: A torrential downpour didn't affect Wizard's focus or relaxation, and he and Adrienne Lyle hit the rider's goal of a 72% in the team Grand Prix test. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

As for the other US rider who competed today, Adrienne Lyle on Wizard, this pair—in the international arena on a team for the first time after competing as individuals at the 2012 Olympics—is definitely on the rise. The fifteen-year-old Oldenburg gelding (Weltmeyer x Classiker), owned by Peggy Thomas, is “getting fitter and fitter” following his pre-WEG European training and competition tour, according to Lyle, 29. These two are entering their prime, and today it showed in Wizard’s relaxation and elasticity even while doing a Grand Prix test in a downpour, each footfall producing a spray of sand and mud on his face, legs, and belly.

“I was thrilled with how he went. He didn’t get fazed at all,” Lyle said afterward. She praised the footing for remaining secure even during the deluge.

Told her score—72 percent on the nose—Lyle exclaimed, “Yay! That was my goal, to hit a 72, so I’m thrilled. You just want so badly to do well for your team.”

As some dressage fans may know, the 2014 WEG dressage-team selection process caused some controversy when the selection committee removed Caroline Roffman and Her Highness O and named Lyle and Wizard to the team instead. Obviously Lyle is aware that some tongues wagged, but she had high praise for Roffman and her mare and said that “I think everyone had the team’s best interests and the horses’ best interests at heart. We just kept trying to improve as the summer went on, to let Wizard speak for himself [as a strong candidate].”

Currently lying in seventh place, Lyle is sure to advance to the Grand Prix Special on Wednesday; the top 30 combinations, plus any ties for 30th place, will qualify—meaning that Konyot, currently 17th, also may go on.

Before today’s Grand Prix, Lyle said, Wizard “was a little amped up, and I spent a few days cantering long and low, trying to burn off the energy. Now we can build the energy back up and go in with a little more horse. And the Special for us has always been our stronger test—big extensions, collected work. I never worry too much about that one.”

Still, she’s glad that her mentor and longtime coach, Olympian Debbie McDonald, has returned to Europe for the WEG. McDonald, who also coaches Laura Graves, has racked up plenty of frequent-flyer miles this summer, flying back and forth for the CDIs at Rotterdam, Aachen, and Hickstead. If McDonald’s hard work pays off, she may get an extra-special gift for her birthday this Wednesday: a chance to see one and perhaps two of her students vie for WEG medals in the individual Grand Prix Special.
Kristina Sprehe and Desperados FRH of Germany are in the lead in the team dressage competition going into day 2. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

The leader going into day 2 of team GP competition, Kristina Sprehe of Germany riding Desperados FRH, has set the bar high with a score of 78.814%. In second are Hans Peter Minderhoud and Glock's Johnson TN of the Netherlands (74.357). Great Britain's Carl Hester and Nip Tuck are currently in third place with 74.186.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Yes, It Was an Early Morning for the WEG Dressage Veterinary Inspection

Nonconformist: Dressage announcer Pedro Cebulka at the veterinary inspection. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

So early, in fact, that announcer Pedro Cebulka's hair was still in curlers.

After all, the opening ceremony ran pretty late last night, and with the enormous traffic jam outside the Stade D'Ornano and the pervasive shuttle snafu that stranded many of us journalists curbside for an hour or more, we all didn't get to bed until the wee hours.

But curlers?

Hey, who says a dressage veterinary inspection has to be a staid affair? Not Cebulka, a well-known equestrian emcee here in Europe who's loved by competitors and spectators alike for his flamboyant costumes and his effortless, entertaining way of keeping events on track.

Apparently Cebulka often dons wacky outfits -- spangles, crazy hats, that sort of getup. Here at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, however, officials are given uniforms to wear. But evidently no one banned wigs, and so Cebulka donned one festooned with pink curlers, just because.
A chilly morning made for some extraordinary displays of equine athletics. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

The multilingual Cebulka, who currently calls Canada home, has the gift of improv. When one of several dressage horses became fractious during the jog, he quipped to the officials: "Please step back against the rail. But if you have insurance, stay where you are." Another time, during a horse's airborne antics: "Horses, please control your riders."

The goofy wig and the patter couldn't conceal the importance of the veterinary inspection, however. It is during this in-hand "jog" or "trot-up" that the appointed veterinary panel watches each horse trot and decides whether it is fit to compete. And not all always are. One horse, Donpetro HL, ridden by Natalya Yurkovich of Kazakhstan, was held, re-presented, and eliminated.
Valegro and Charlotte Dujardin of Great Britain. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Such a fate did not befall any of the better-known WEG dressage contenders, fortunately, including all of Team USA: Legolas 92 (Steffen Peters), Wizard (Adrienne Lyle), Calecto V (Tina Konyot), and Verdades (Laura Graves). Although several top horses were withdrawn just days ago (click here for my report), there were no more changes today to the German or Dutch teams. Great Britain's squad, including Valego, the reigning Olympic champion, is likewise intact.
International-competition newcomers Laura Graves and Verdades are at their first World Equestrian Games. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
All day long, teams have been getting in one more training session before the start of competition. Tomorrow is day one of two consecutive days of Grand Prix tests, the combined average scores of which will decide the dressage team WEG medals and whose individual scores will determine which horse-rider combinations will advance to the individual Grand Prix Special on Wednesday, August 27.
US dressage chef d'equipe Robert Dover guides Calecto V through the turn during the veterinary inspection. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Tina Konyot and Calecto V will be first to ride for the US: tomorrow (Monday) at 9:35 a.m. local time, which is 6 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time for those of you tuning in via FEI TV (sorry, there's no free live-streaming). Adrienne Lyle and Wizard ride at 3:24 p.m.

Laura Graves on Verdades and Steffen Peters on Legolas 92 go Tuesday at 10:09 a.m. and 3:45 p.m., respectively.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

At WEG Opening Ceremonies, Vive la France!

The French are mad for Anerican Quarter Horses. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The main attraction: Team France! Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Barbary horses at the WEG opening ceremony. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

The audience at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games opening ceremony thrilled to the "breeds of honor" exhibitions: Norman Cobs, Quarter Horses, Barbary horses, and Akhal-Tekes. But they saved their biggest applause for -- naturally -- the French athletes' entrance into D'Ornano Stadium.

Actually, the overwhelmingly French audience seems thrilled to have the Games here, and is enthusiastic about everything. As the media shuttle bus made its agonizingly slow way toward the press center this afternoon, it was slowed by the massive traffic jam and crowds lined up to enter the stadium, a good two-plus hours before the show's commencement.

With events such as these pageants, pictures are most definitely worth a thousand words, so enjoy these snapshots!
Pre-sbow flyover. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Akhal-Tekes race from D'Ornano Stadium. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Canadian athletes. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Steffen Peters (front, left) helps to carry the USA banner during the parade of nations. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
An exuberant handstand by a Team USA athlete. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

French fans do the wave as the French WEG athletes parade. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.