Live from Omaha!

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

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Leaving Las Vegas

Homeward bound. Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau. 

I’m writing this on the plane from Las Vegas, site of the 2015 Adequan/USDF Annual Convention. Personally I’d be OK with never having to set foot in a casino again ­­— if there’s a more pathetic sight than a handful of all-nighter gamblers on the casino floor at 6:00 a.m., clutching their beers at the blackjack tables while Christmas music warbles in the background, I don’t know what it is — but the USDF members I talked to made the most of the less seedy aspects of Sin City, like the shows, the excellent food, and a classy wine-tasting venue at our host hotel. (But if anybody indulged in a Chippendales show, they haven’t admitted it to me yet.)

No beefcake for me in Vegas: I, like many other convention-goers, was so tightly scheduled that extracurricular entertainment was out of the question. And a number of Executive Board members and other committee VIPs had it worse than I, with meetings beginning at 7:00 a.m. and going nearly nonstop until 10:00 p.m. If I heard any complaints about this year’s convention, they revolved around the jam-packed meeting schedule. Some years ago the USDF cut a day out of the convention in an attempt to ease committee members’ travel burdens, but this year a few people were saying that maybe it’s time to consider adding that day back again.

The meetings, although a whirlwind, are always worthwhile. As a committee member (Historical Recognition), it’s wonderful to welcome USDF members, with their varied perspectives and backgrounds, to the open meetings. You’d be surprised at how many actionable ideas — not to mention story ideas for USDF Connection — bubble up from these informal exchanges. The cross-pollination of ideas can be especially valuable. In the open Membership Committee meeting, for example, I listened to several thoughtful comments regarding the challenges facing USDF group-member organizations (GMOs), which I then took to USDF Connection’s group of editorial advisors so that we could brainstorm ways to bring additional GMO-focused content to USDF’s member magazine.
 
Allyn Mann of Luitpold lectures on equine joint health. Photo by Jennifer Bryant. 
And the education! It’s always a treat. This year, the USDF was fortunate to have chosen the same convention city as the AmericanAssociation of Equine Practitioners, the US professional association of horse vets. Our top veterinarians attend the AAEP convention, and several of them spoke at the USDF convention, on topics ranging from equine back lameness to the role of good old-fashioned horsemanship in keeping our horses happy and healthy. Some of the speakers are, or have been, US Equestrian Team or FEI veterinarians and are world-renowned experts. These are the kinds of vets whom you’d pay dearly for a consultation — and here they were in front of us in a meeting room, lecturing and answering questions. Priceless. I took notes as fast as my fingers could type, and I’ll be bringing you reports on selected sessions in future issues of USDF Connection.
USDF president George Williams presents Melissa Creswick of the California Dressage Society with the 2015 Region 7 GMO Volunteer of the Year award. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Convention concludes with a celebration of the year’s dressage accomplishments at the Salute Gala & Annual Awards Banquet. Outstanding volunteers are honored, and we learned about the many contributions of USDF Volunteer of the Year Roz Kinstler and USDF Youth Volunteer of the Year Rebekah Mingari, both of whom you’ll be meeting in USDF Connection soon. We celebrated our gold-medal-winning US 2015 Pan American Games dressage squad, and we clapped, cheered, and whipped out our smartphones to record friends and loved ones’ moment on stage as they accepted rider medals, year-end awards, and All-Breeds awards.


This year’s banquet did have one sad note, however, because 2015 USDF Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Lloyd Landkamer was not with us to accept his award. Lloyd, a former USDF Region 4 director and an internationally known show manager and dressage steward (I’m just scratching the surface of his many roles, contributions, and accomplishments here), lost his battle with cancer in September. It was obvious, based on the number of people at the banquet who wept openly before and during the Lifetime Achievement Award presentation, that Lloyd was far more than a colleague to many in the dressage world. The dressage world is a small world, and many in the dressage world and the USDF community considered Lloyd a treasured friend or even family. We have lost a family member and feel that loss keenly. But it is those bonds, and our shared love of the horse and our sport, that will help to keep the USDF and American dressage strong. If you couldn’t make it to Las Vegas this year, I encourage you to come to the 2016 convention in St. Louis. You won’t regret it.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

The Door Remains Open for a Western US Dressage Finals

The USDF Board of Governors has spoken: The US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan will remain at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington for the moment, but Kentucky is not necessarily the Finals' permanent home.

This morning, during the second and final day of the Board of Governors assembly, the BOG voted 992-459 to approve amending yesterday's US Dressage Finals motion as follows:

The US Dressage Finals will be held in Kentucky "until such time that the western USDF regions -- 5, 6, 7, and 9 -- can come forth with a proposed venue site and dates that the four regions agree are appropriate to host the national finals.”  

The BOG also approved a motion that USDF shall establish a travel fund to aid competitors traveling to the Finals from long distances. Details will be worked out by the USDF Executive Board.


According to the BOG, West Is Not Best for US Dressage Finals

The 2015 USDF Board of Governors. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

In 2011, when the USDF Board of Governors (BOG) voted to approve the creation of a new national dressage championships called the US Dressage Finals, they green-lighted a motion that "proposed" -- not mandated -- the rotation of the championships location from East to West every three years.

The 2013, 2014, and 2015 editions of the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan were held in Lexington, Kentucky, at the Kentucky Horse Park. The USDF decided to commit to Kentucky for the 2016 show, as well...but then what?

A site-selection committee headed by USDF president George Williams and US Dressage Finals organizer (and former USDF secretary) Janine Malone did research and identified the HITS Desert Horse Park facility in Thermal, California, as a likely location for the 2017 Finals. But then a funny thing happened: Some people started wondering whether the Finals shouldn't remain in Kentucky, after all.

According to Malone, it's not unheard of for a BOG to vote to overturn a decision approved by a previous BOG. Thus it came to be, on the first of two days of the 2015 BOG assembly, that group-member and participating-member delegates engaged in a good hour of impassioned debate as to whether the Finals should be given a permanent home at the Kentucky Horse Park or whether it was better to honor the wishes of the 2011 BOG and attempt to allocate the Finals locations in something of an equitably divided manner between the two halves of our enormous nation. Then it was time for the BOG to vote on the motion, which was to commit to a Western Finals in 2017.
US Dressage Finals officials Janine Malone and George Williams address the Board of Governors. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

I've sat through enough debates at enough BOG assemblies that I can usually tell which way the winds of popular opinion are blowing; when the vote comes, it's not too much of a surprise. But honestly, today I couldn't get a sense of which way the vote was going to go. As a colleague remarked to me after the discussion period had been ended and the voting had begun, all of the delegates who waited patiently at the microphones for their turn to speak made thoughtful, persuasive arguments. There wasn't as much "I want the Finals in my back yard because I don't want to travel" as you might imagine, and there were even a few surprise endorsements of Kentucky as a permanent Finals site by West Coast-area delegates. Some people pointed to the success of such institutions as the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event and the iconic show in Aachen, Germany, which are always held in the same location. California Dressage Society president Kevin Reinig made several trips to the microphone, declaring that "We will do whatever it takes to make the Finals a great show." Riders from the western half of the US lobbied for the opportunity to show at a championships a more reasonable distance from home.

I was in for another surprise when George Williams announced the results of the electronic voting. Assuming a close race, I didn't expect the motion to be defeated soundly, with 855 delegates voting no and 569 voting yes, with 12 abstaining.

But it ain't over 'til it's over, and there is much still to be decided. Janine Malone said that some facilities won't commit to less than a three-year contract. It looks as if the US Dressage Finals will remain in Kentucky through 2017, but what is to happen in 2018 and 2019? That question may be decided tomorrow morning when the BOG reconvenes. Before they adjourned today, delegates agreed to resume discussion tomorrow. Tomorrow they may determine the future of the US Dressage Finals.

One thing emerged clearly from the discussions, however: The Finals, which were so long in the making and doubted by so many, have exceeded expectations and have quickly become a prestigious flagship event for the USDF. This show has been embraced and continues to earn accolades from competitors, officials, and spectators alike. The US Dressage Finals are a point of pride, and no one wants to see them lose their luster or become diminished in any way. What a difference five years has made!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Rio Grande

Our convention host hotel: The Rio All-Suites Hotel and Casino. Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau. 
Everything's supposed to be bigger and better in Texas, but perhaps they haven't compared the Lone Star State to Las Vegas.

Here, everything seems outsized. The portions. The rooms. The sheer number of eateries, casino attractions, lit-up twinkly signs, and crowds of determined-looking gamblers.

Have I mentioned the hike from the main hotel portion of the building to the convention-center area?

Folks, if you're coming to convention, pack your comfortable shoes. It can be upward of a 15-minute walk from your hotel room to a meeting room. The cavernous hallway that winds past the breakfast restaurant, and the Starbucks, and the spa, and the Penn & Teller theater, and a bunch of other meeting rooms before you arrive at the promised land of friendly USDF faces and enticing sponsor displays goes on...and on. So don't say I didn't warn you!

On the bright side, if you don't have time to squeeze in a workout, you'll get some measure of your daily aerobic requirements just going to and fro. If you do that 10,000-steps fitness-counting thing, these next few days are going to be a piece of cake. And speaking of cake, if you eat any, you'll walk it off.
Fitness expert Jennifer Kotylo (front) leads USDF members in an early-morning Pilates class. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

But just in case you want more than walking, you can get up early every day and meet equestrian-fitness expert and Pilates and Balimo instructor Jennifer Kotylo (whom you may recall having met in "Loosen Up!", our article on dealing with tight hips, in the November issue of USDF Connection) for a fitness session. This morning about 20 intrepid USDF members got a 45-minute introduction to Pilates and its core concepts -- literally, since Pilates is all about core strength and stability. (It's changed my riding. I highly recommend it.) Tomorrow Jennifer's going to teach us about Balimo exercises as developed by biomechanics expert Eckart Meyners, and Saturday's going to be devoted to "a whole bunch of other stuff" from Jennifer's bag of tension-easing, balance-promoting, rider-enhancing tricks.

Each of USDF's nine regions had the first of two meetings this morning. I'm from Region 1, and the hot topic in my meeting was the US Dressage Finals -- specifically, the issue of whether to execute the original approved plan of initiating the Finals in the eastern part of the US (the first four years, 2013-2016, will have been held at the Kentucky Horse Park) and then moving west in 2017, most likely to the HITS Thermal grounds in California, according to Finals organizer Janine Malone. There are strong feelings on all sides of the location issue, and I'm betting it'll be the flash point of this year's USDF Board of Governors assembly, which begins tomorrow.

What else has gone down thus far? Several committee meetings and the annual United States Equestrian Federation rule-change forum, at which members of the USEF Dressage Committee explain proposed USEF rule changes that could affect dressage and solicit input in advance of January's USEF convention. One proposed rule change, which would disallow double bridles at Third Level in USEF/USDF dressage competition, was not met with enthusiasm. A straw poll of forum attendees showed strong support for the current rule, which gives riders the option of using either the double or the snaffle bridle at Third Level.

The other rule-change forum hot button involved two proposals pertaining to the current rule regarding the use of logos on saddle pads. Although members of the USEF Dressage Committee expressed strong support for rules that help enforce the distinction between amateur and open (professional) riders, the audience favored a rule-change proposal that would allow all dressage competitors to display a modestly sized logo on saddle cloths. I can't predict how this one will wind up, so we'll have to wait to see what comes out of the USEF convention.

OK, speaking of meetings, I have another one in 15 minutes, so I'd better wrap up this post. Tonight: welcome reception. Watch the blog and the USDF Facebook page for photos!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Hashtag a Go Go

There's a restaurant at the USDF convention host hotel-slash-casino called -- I am not making this up -- Hash House a Go Go. Apparently I have too much social media on the brain because I first read the name as "Hashtag a Go Go."

Hashtags, aka pound signs, are the symbols that preface highlighted and shared words and terms on social media -- and the terms themselves are now called hashtags too. They got their start on the microblogging site Twitter, but nowadays they show up on Facebook posts and all manner of other social-media apps.

Because nothing says "wish you were here" like social-media posts, the USDF is encouraging everybody who attends the 2015 Adequan/USDF Annual Convention to post liberally, and with a liberal sprinkling of hashtags.

Use #USDFConv as the general all-purpose hashtag for convention-related posts. We'd also love it if you'd give a social-media shout-out to the generous convention sponsors: #Adequan, #Standlee, #CDS (the California Dressage Society), #DressageExtensions, #Saddlefit4Life, #DressageClinic, #ClinicintheCloud, #TDF (The Dressage Foundation), and #EquuscomWiWi. And we can't forget our wonderful championship sponsors #GreatAmerican, #SmartPak, and #Merial.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What Happens in Vegas...

...will appear in this space! Tomorrow I'll be winging my way to Sin City for the 2015 Adequan/USDF Annual Convention. Follow my blog for photos, news, governance decisions, awards, and fun stuff from Las Vegas.
Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas News Bureau

This year's convention should be particularly chock-full of great education because the United States Dressage Federation is taking full advantage of the fact that its convention in Vegas coincides with that of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. A virtual Who's Who of top equine veterinarians will be speaking to USDF convention attendees about the latest in horse-health science. I personally love learning about horse-health topics, so I'm going to feel like a kid in a candy store. Except that I plan to share as much candy with you as possible -- nuggets in blog posts, and more detailed reports in future issues of the USDF member magazine, USDF Connection.

But of course that's just scratching the surface of what happens during a USDF convention. There are committee meetings, a United States Equestrian Federation open forum during which USDF members can learn about and voice opinions on proposed USEF rule changes concerning dressage, a fabulous silent auction benefiting USDF youth programs, and of course a plethora of awards and honors. Join me for all the fun, and I hope to see you in Las Vegas!

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Long Live the Queen

Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro on their way to their second consecutive Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final title. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Her new logo – just released within the past couple of weeks – incorporates an image of a crown, so it’s only fitting that Charlotte Dujardin, the Queen of Everything, retains her title.

With the almost too-good-to-be-real Valegro, the British woman is now the back-to-back Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final champion as well as the reigning Olympic, European, and World Equestrian Games champion. With the same How to Train Your Dragon freestyle that won gold in Normandy last August, Dujardin squashed the competition with a score of 94.196 percent in today’s Grand Prix Freestyle, coming just tenths of a point short of the world-record score of 94.300 percent she and “Blueberry” set at Olympia in London last December. The nearly foot-perfect freestyle brought the crowd of nearly 11,000 in the Thomas & Mack Center to its feet for a thunderous ovation.

“Valegro just loves it,” Dujardin said afterward when asked how she keeps the 13-year-old Dutch gelding (Negro x Gerschwin) going. “It’s not like I have to force him, because he loves the work.”

Dujardin frequently comments on how lucky she is to have the ride on this reliable horse. “I just sit and steer him ’round. There’s no sweat involved,” she quipped.
 
Edward Gal and Glock's Undercover N.O.P. of the Netherlands passage to second place in the World Cup Dressage Final freestyle. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Nearly 10 percentage points behind the untouchable Dujardin was second-placed Edward Gal of the Netherlands, who piloted the 14-year-old Dutch gelding Glock’s Undercover N.O.P. (Ferro x Donnerhall) to a score of 84.696 percent. Undercover was more relaxed than he’d been in Thursday’s Grand Prix, with a longer neck and a nose in front of the vertical. He could have stretched out more in the extended trots, and the walk rhythm varied a bit at times on account of tension. His pirouettes drew audience applause. It was a solid program to mildly interesting but not compelling orchestral instrumentals; bottom line, it wasn’t Dujardin’s freestyle.

Gal showed a quick wit and good humor when he was asked how it felt to be the oldest rider at the press conference for the top four finishers. “Normally I’m not the oldest one because Isabell [Werth of Germany] is here,” he said with a grin.
 
World Cup Dressage Final newcomers Jessica von Bredow-Werndl and Unee BB of Germany finished third. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
A new face ascended the medal podium in Las Vegas to claim third place: Germany’s Jessica von Bredow-Werndl on the 14-year-old Dutch stallion Unee BB (Gribaldi x Dageraad). Von Bredow-Werndl’s unusual freestyle began with the voice of Martin Luther King Jr. and his iconic “I have a dream” line. Later in the program, we heard the rider’s own voice as she uttered over the music, “I have a dream that all living creatures can respect each other.” Unee BB missed a two-tempi change and swapped leads as von Bredow-Werndl brought him back from an extended canter down the long side, but the freestyle was strong enough to earn a score of 80.464 percent.

For the US, Delight…and Crushing Disappointment

Our new young stars, Laura Graves and Verdades, gave a super performance in Las Vegas. This competition is “Diddy’s” very first indoor show – and it happens to be an incredibly close, loud, and electric venue. After an initial spook at the floodlit World Cup Dressage Final trophy in the corner near H, the 13-year-old Dutch gelding (Florett As x Goya) got a little backed off for a short time. He got afraid during a piaffe at A, and later he scooted forward during a canter half-pass when the crowd applauded. But these were honest rookie-horse reactions, and Diddy’s overall excellent quality and a sensitive and sympathetic ride from Graves resulted in a score of 79.125, which put them in fifth place…except that it didn’t.
 
The USA's Laura Graves and Verdades finished fourth. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
In the official standings, Graves was fourth. The reason didn’t become clear right away, but the first sign of a problem was the buzzing in the audience when the fourth-placed scorers, Steffen Peters and Legolas 92, didn’t appear at the awards ceremony. They weren’t mentioned. Where were they?

Where they were, I’m sorry to report, was eliminated. As World Cup Finals press chief Marty Bauman announced at the press conference afterward, Peters was eliminated because evidence of blood was found on Legolas’s side after his freestyle. The FEI has a zero-tolerance rule regarding blood on horses – you may recall Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival’s elimination during their Grand Prix test at the 2010 World Equestrian Games when the horse showed blood in his mouth from biting his tongue – and so the FEI stewards had no choice. According to Bauman, Peters “accepted their decision gracefully.”

I feel terrible for Peters, who is an outstanding horseman and whose training methods are beyond reproach. He doesn’t need for me to defend his reputation, but I’ll put in my $.02 anyway.
 
A strong performance by the USA's Steffen Peters and Legolas put them in fourth place, but the pair was eliminated after blood was found on the horse's side after their Grand Prix Freestyle. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The elimination is even sadder considering the fact that Peters had, in fact, placed fourth on a score of 80.286 percent. The notoriously spooky Legolas kept it together admirably in front of the exuberant crowd, although the 13-year-old Westfalen gelding (Laomedon x Florestan II) did lose it for a moment at the loud laughter that greeted the voice-over line at the beginning of the freestyle: “Hey, I’m Legolas. Let’s go!” His two-tempis were clean, although he missed a change in the ones; and a double pirouette directly into piaffe showed a high degree of difficulty. Peters got a standing ovation from the largely American crowd at the final halt and salute, which was punctuated by the voice-over words of “Legolas” saying, “Hey, let’s get out of here!”

The Vegas Experience

For Dujardin, Gal, von Bredow-Werndl, and Graves, this was their first trip to Sin City. All were in agreement that Las Vegas was living up to its glitzy image.
 
FEI World Cup Dressage Final title sponsor and haute couture fashion designer Reem Acra (center) poses with top-placed finishers Edward Gal, Charlotte Dujardin, Jessica von Bredow-Werndl, and Laura Graves. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
“It’s everything I thought it would be,” said Dujardin. “Seeing how crazy the Strip is; going to shows in the evening. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”

“It’s not real!” exclaimed von Bredow-Werndl. “I go through the casino [hotel] at six in the morning and they’re playing loud music; I come to the arena and the people are going crazy.”

“It is very surreal,” Graves agreed. “I left the hotel very early this morning, before six o’clock, to come ride, and there was still a party in the bar.”

Although the Vegas lights and boisterous fans may have bolstered the energy level at the World Cup Dressage Final, at least one attendee said the thrill was entirely the result of the rush from seeing the best dressage in the world.

Said US FEI 5* judge Lilo Fore, who was the head of the ground jury for today’s freestyle final: “No matter how many years you sit in those [judges’] boxes, the excitement of seeing those good horses and riders never goes away.”



Friday, April 17, 2015

First-Ever Open Rehearsal Gives Audiences a Sneak Peek at World Cup Freestyle Finale

Under the watchful eyes of her coach, Debbie McDonald, and US dressage chef d'equipe Robert Dover, Laura Graves rehearses her freestyle aboard Verdades. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Somebody at the International Equestrian Federation (FEI), which governs the Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final, figured out that enthusiasts will pay to watch riders rehearse their freestyles. In an early-morning VIP-ticketholder-only event, a hundred or so diehards clutched their coffees and watched the world's best riders (sometimes with horses, sometimes without) do their sound checks and run through some choreography in final preparations for tomorrow's Grand Prix Freestyle.

By virtue of earning scores over the 58-percent mark in yesterday's Grand Prix, all 18 competitors here in Las Vegas punched their freestyle tickets. The freestyle results alone will decide the 2015 World Cup Dressage Final champion. So everything's riding on the music, if you'll pardon the expression.

Some riders, including Britain's Charlotte Dujardin (who won yesterday's Grand Prix with Valegro), Dutchman Edward Gal (second with Glock's Undercover), and Germany's Isabell Werth (eighth with El Santo NRW), opted not to ride. They walked in, listened to their music being played over the Thomas & Mack Center's sound system, made any necessary comments to the audio coordinator, and left when satisfied.
Sweden's Malin Hamilton brought not her horse but her daughter to the sound check. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Others, including third-placed Steffen Peters (Legolas 92) and Laura Graves (fifth with Verdades), rode partial or complete run-throughs. Peters rode pieces of his well-known "Under Pressure" freestyle, first in a warm-up outline; later, after having his music volume turned up, he put Legolas together and did a few lines of tempi changes on the diagonal and piaffe-passage transitions. Graves rode her entire freestyle after halting near H -- near the shiny World Cup Final trophy that scared him yesterday -- and feeding Diddy a sugar cube. The horse got a little backed off in the final piaffe-passage tour down center line, so that got repeated.

So what can I tell you about the freestyles? For starters, Malin Hamilton (pictured above) appropriately chose a Fleetwood Mac medley for her horse, Fleetwood. And if you didn't see it in Florida this winter, you're going to love Mikala Munter Gundersen's ride with My Lady to "All That Jazz," "Big Spender," and music from the movie Burlesque. The big, brassy tunes suit the big, brassy mare and her tempos very well.

The London Philharmonic shows up in a few routines, as does the artist Two Steps from Hell (I know this only because I was Shazam-ing the heck out of the soundtracks in an effort to learn the more obscure song titles). Agnete Kirk Thinggaard of Denmark would like for you to "Call Me Maybe." Russian Inessa Merkulova's soundtrack for Mister X is too cut-and-paste, with unrelated songs, for this music teacher's daughter's taste; but I loved him with the Bossa Nova -- very Mad Men. And Isabell Werth's music is fun -- David Bowie and Queen among the artists.

It's sure to be exciting. See you tomorrow for the big finale!



On Fun Freestyle Day, Grease Is the Word

Danny (Jan Ebeling on Darling) woos Sandy (Charlotte Bredahl-Baker on Chanel) in their winning Grease-themed exhibition pas de deux. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

The dark day of no competition at the 2015 Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final proved an opportunity for spectators as well as riders to cut loose and show the lighter side of our buttoned-down sport.

Just as many enthusiasts packed the Thomas & Mack Center for today’s Las Vegas Dressage Showcase as attended yesterday’s Grand Prix competition, which drew more than 7,300 spectators. But today was all about music, fun, and costumed exhibition rides – all by California-based riders and horses – plus a couple of milestone tributes.

The midday program kicked off with two “rising star” freestyles, ridden sans costumes: an Intermediate I Freestyle by Sabine Schut-Kery on Sanceo, and a Grand Prix Freestyle by Steffen Peters (who’s contesting the World Cup Final with Legolas 92) on the up-and-comer Rosamunde.
 
Sabine Schut-Kery rides Sanceo in an Intermediate I Freestyle. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The crowd was “looser” than at a traditional dressage competition, clapping and vocalizing freely during the rides. When Sanceo first entered the Thomas & Mack and spooked at a patch of unevenly dragged footing, the audience laughed; then when the stallion neighed, the crowd responded with a chorus of “awww.”

Light moments aside, Sanceo is a stunner, with tremendous scope and presence. His pirouettes and extensions drew cheers, and Schut-Kery was clearly thrilled with his performance.
 
OK, maybe she's a little too far underneath herself in front. But holy moly, can Rosamunde sit! Steffen Peters and his new wunderkind perform their Grand Prix Freestyle at the Las Vegas Dressage Showcase exhibition. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The other stunner is Rosamunde. It’s really hard to believe that this mare is only eight years old because her relaxation in the electric environment, coupled with her ease with the demands of the Grand Prix level, belie her age. She was so comfortable in the arena that I only saw her flinch once at some stimulus, and Peters was able to drop the reins and leave the arena on the buckle amidst the thunderous applause after his final halt and salute. Peters is not one to push a horse, and it’s obvious that Rosamunde has not been pushed. She’s extraordinary, and I expect great things from this pair in the future.
 
Not all dressage judging is this much fun! Linda Zang, Stephen Clarke, and Hans-Christian Matthiesen share a laugh with World Cup Finals announcer Bob Tallman (who's a well-known voice in the rodeo world). Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
With those more serious demonstrations concluded, it was time to turn the volume up – way up – for a three-way Dancing with the Stars-style pas de deux competition, complete with celebrity judges. FEI 5* judges Linda Zang of the US, Stephen Clarke of Great Britain, and Hans-Christian Matthiesen of Denmark made up the celebrity panel, awarding their scores via card after each ride.
 
Poison Ivy (Shannon Peters on Weltino's Magic) tries to put Batman (David Blake on Ikaros) under her evil spell. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Each pas de deux was themed, elaborately costumed, and expertly choreographed and edited. First up were Batman and Poison Ivy, aka David Blake on Ikaros and Shannon Peters on Weltino’s Magic. The horses – all of the horses today, actually – handled the atmosphere really well, in fact better than during the much quieter schooling session on Wednesday.
 
The Indian (Anna Dahlberg on Rico) meets the cowboy (Mette Rosencrantz on Marron). Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Then we visited the “Wild Wild West” courtesy of cowboy Mette Rosencrantz on Marron and Indian chief Anna Dahlberg on Rico. The upbeat soundtrack included themes from The Lone Ranger, A Million Ways to Die in the West, and Bonanza. The excitable Marron did give a half-rear during the program, but I think the audience thought it was part of the act! The judges scored the program higher than the Batman performance – but as Clarke (who was obviously relishing his role as the Simon Cowell of the panel) quipped, “Mette has a gun, so I’m going up.”

It was the final pas de deux, however, that brought down the house, winning top marks both from the judges and from the audience applause meter. “Danny” (Jan Ebeling on Darling) pursued “Sandy” (Charlotte Bredahl-Baker on Chanel) to the well-loved songs from Grease. Judge Linda Zang commended the horses’ synchrony and also confessed an affection for the 1950s-style music, saying that “This was my era!”
 
Elvis (Guenter Seidel on Zamorin) is a hunka-hunka burnin' love accompanied by showgirls (from left) Michelle Reilly on Umeeko, Sarah Christy on Xirope, and Elizabeth Ball on Orion. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The final musical showcase of the exhibition was a “Viva Las Vegas” quadrille. Elvis (Guenter Seidel on Zamorin) was most definitely in the building, accompanied by the scantily clad showgirls Michelle Reilly on Umeeko, Sarah Christy on Xirope, and Elizabeth Ball on Orion. The quadrille wasn’t part of the celebrity judging, but it was the perfect extravaganza to conclude the exhibitions.

Tributes and Touching Moments

Two short, related ceremonies punctuated the otherwise-exuberant Las Vegas Dressage Showcase with a serious note. The first honored the contributions of E. Parry Thomas – yes, of the Thomas & Mack Center – to both Las Vegas and dressage. Thomas, now 94, was a banker who was instrumental in developing Las Vegas as a city and a resort destination. And thanks to the equestrian interests of his wife, Peggy, and daughter Jane, Thomas became a strong supporter of the sport. He and Peggy developed their River Grove Farm in Hailey, ID, where husband-and-wife team Bob and Debbie McDonald became the trainers. The Thomases went on to sponsor Debbie McDonald through their purchases of many top horses, including the legendary Brentina, McDonald’s 2004 and 2008 Olympic mount.
 
Rider Adrienne Lyle (right) helps to lead Wizard from the arena after his retirement ceremony. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
A former working student of Debbie McDonald’s also benefited from the Thomases’ patronage. Adrienne Lyle was given the ride on their Wizard, whose career culminated in performances at the 2012 Olympics and the 2014 World Equestrian Games. The 16-year-old Oldenburg gelding (Weltmeyer x Classiker) appeared in public one last time in full show regalia (quite amped up in the T&M Center) before Lyle dismounted and the great horse was unsaddled, draped with a cooler, and led from the arena.


The tributes were a reminder that without supporters like Thomas and horses like Wizard, who give so much of themselves, dressage would be a pale shadow of the robust and thriving sport we have today. It was fitting that the ceremonies were bookended by the lighthearted and uplifting exhibition rides that, like our horses themselves, brought joy to so many.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

It's Valegro First, the Rest...Trailing

On their way: Great Britain's Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, the reigning World Cup Dressage Final champions, half-pass to Grand Prix victory with 85.414%. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Nobody here at the 2015 Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final can touch the golden pair of Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. Not yet, anyway.

The 2014 World Cup Final champions, 2014 World Equestrian Games champions, and 2012 Olympic champions remained firmly fixed in the dressage-scoring stratosphere today, in the World Cup Final Grand Prix. One of a precious few horse-rider combinations in the world to crack the 80-percent scoring ceiling, the British superstars did so again today, topping the field of 18 with a final overall score of 85.414 percent.

All seven judges (yes, seven  --there were judges at K and F in addition to the customary C, E, H, M, and B) placed Valegro first. Today's judging panel consisted of Francis Verbeek-von Rooy at C, Hans-Christian Matthiessen (who replaced Isabelle Judet) at K, Stephen Clarke at E, Annette Fransen Iacobaeus at H, Maria Schwennesen at M, Peter Holler at B, and the USA's own Lilo Fore at F.

Dujardin clinched victory easily, even with a couple of minor bobbles, including a small loss of balance stepping into a piaffe on the center line. We've come to expect perfection from Valegro, and even when he's not breaking his own world record, he still comes pretty damned close. The 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Negro x Gerschwin) is a cadence machine. His tempos never waver -- most notably in the difficult piaffe-passage tours that ruthlessly expose any loss of balance. He has three fantastic gaits with no obvious weak link, and – in another comparison that leaves some other horses coming up short – he is equally supple and strong on both sides and in both hind legs. He pushes and carries equally with both hind legs.
The Netherlands' Edward Gal and Glock's Undercover N.O.P. piaffe to second place with a score of 79.057%. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Second behind Dujardin was Edward Gal of the Netherlands on Glock’s Undercover N.O.P. The 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Ferro x Donnerhall) earned an average score of 79.057 percent.

Gal’s test was not without mistakes. He picked up counter-canter instead of passage at M. There was a slightly overeager canter transition at E. And Gal had to delay the start of the one-tempis for a couple of strides because the horse wasn’t quite balanced, which made for a less-polished execution. Undercover—black and beautiful like a certain other famous former mount of Gal’s, but not quite in the league of the legendary Totilas—had tension creep into moments of the test, and he gets short and tight in the neck when it happens. But he’s lovely and talented, and his good basics evidently overcame the bobbles in the judges’ minds today, as all had him in second place (except for Fore, who placed Undercover fifth).

Speaking of tension, the 13-year-old Westfalen gelding Legolas (Laomedon x Florestan II) is known for being spooky, and the USA’s Steffen Peters has been expressing concerns about the horse’s ability to handle the electric indoor atmosphere at the Thomas & Mack Center since last year’s World Equestrian Games. Well, Peters has been prepping Legolas extensively to desensitize him to the lights, crowds, and noises, and all his hard work paid off today. Legolas was more relaxed than at the WEG, with clean tempi changes (a previous bugaboo) and a piaffe-passage tour in a better balance. The changes could have used more expression, and Legolas backed off the extended canter a tad early headed toward K (a corner that a number of horses weren’t thrilled about), and the second canter pirouette came around a bit too quickly. But otherwise it was a lovely test, and Peters exulted and pumped his fist in the air when it was over. His score of 76.843 percent put him in third place.
 
Steffen Peters' face says it all after a strong performance for third place aboard Legolas. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Afterward, Peters admitted that the strong showing “was probably a big surprise to me, too,” referring to the fact that Legolas’s performances in Florida this winter were sometimes marred by reactivity to the crowds. “We knew, if were going to qualify for Vegas, we needed to change things drastically. A week ago, we were invited to a farm three hours north of us. A hundred people showed up, a lot of noise, a lot of atmosphere. We recorded a sound file of the very end of a freestyle with the crowd cheering while the music was still playing.”

Peters edited the short clip to make it five minutes long, and he “played it over and over again in this new sound system we installed in this covered arena. I played it at 5:30 in the morning and when it was dark, and it paid off.” He said he was thrilled with how well Legolas handled the atmosphere: “Today I was probably even more excited than Charlotte and Edward.”

Finishing fourth was an exciting new pair from Germany: Jessica von Bredow-Werndl on the 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion Unee BB (Gribaldi x Dageraad). Unee BB is dark bay, gorgeous, and with that enviable combination of scope and suppleness. He had one mistake in the two-tempis, and he broke to trot at the beginning of his second extended canter because nature called. But his final score of 74.843 percent clearly thrilled his rider.
 
Laura Graves and Verdades in an expressive half-pass. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The score also just edged out the other US combination, Laura Graves and her 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Verdades (Florett AS x Goya). You probably know that this green-at-Grand-Prix pair burst onto the international scene at the 2014 WEG with a fifth-place freestyle finish, and the US press in particular has been buzzing about them ever since. I think Laura and “Diddy” got more attention than Captain America, Steffen Peters, before this World Cup Final, even though our captain is the competitive veteran and a past World Cup champion.

Las Vegas is Diddy’s first indoor competition, and it showed a little bit today with some moments of tension—a startle near H, a backed-off moment in the first piaffe, and a bobble at the end of the two-tempis. Diddy got a bit tight in the neck at times, and he wasn’t quite the elastic fantastic we saw in Normandy last August or at the Florida shows this winter. But let’s put it into perspective: This combination, still new to the international scene, placed fifth in a class at the World Cup Dressage Final, outranking such celebrated veterans as Germany’s Isabell Werth (eighth on El Santo NRW, 72.843 percent). Pretty good in my book.
 
But of course Elvis is in the building! Would you expect anything less in Vegas? Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
A Day of Rest (for the Horses, Anyway)

At a World Cup Dressage Final, all competitors who earn a score of 58 percent or better in the Grand Prix go on to the GP Freestyle. The lowest score today was 66.971 (Tatiana Dorofeeva of Russia on Kartsevo Upperville), so everybody will get to contest the Freestyle on Saturday, April 18. Tomorrow, dressage fans will be able to enjoy a diversion in the form of the Las Vegas Dressage Showcase, with exhibition performances that promise plenty of Vegas-style razzle-dazzle. Stay tuned for all the fun; plus I have yet to make it to that shoppers’ paradise known as the World Cup Finals Gift Show. Who needs gambling when you have an equestrian trade show to entice you to part with your money?


World Cup Dressage Final Grand Prix Order of Go

Well, I was inadvertently late to last night's rider draw party at the 2015 FEI World Cup Finals: I hiked to the MGM Grand, arrived half way through the advertised event time, and discovered that they'd already closed up shop. Argh!

So I apologize for the delay in bringing you the start order for today's Grand Prix dressage competition. The action commences at 12:15 p.m. PDT at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

Inessa Merkulova/Mister X (RUS)

Terhi Stegars/Axis TSF (FIN)

Fabienne Lutkemeier/Qui Vincit Dynamis (GER)

Laura Graves/Verdades (USA)

Malin Hamilton/Fleetwood (SWE)

Morgan Barbancon Mestre/Painted Black (ESP)

Paulinda Friberg/Di Lapponia T (SWE)

Tatiana Dorofeeva/Kartsevo Upperville (RUS)

Agnete Kirk Thinggaard/Jojo AZ (DEN)

Elena Sidneva/Romeo-Star (RUS)

Mikala Munter Gundersen/My Lady (DEN)

Charlotte Dujardin/Valegro (GBR)

Lars Petersen/Mariett (DEN)

Hans Peter Minderhoud/Glock's Flirt (NED)

Isabell Werth/El Santo NRW (GER)

Steffen Peters/Legolas (USA)

Edward Gal/Glock's Undercover N.O.P. (NED)

Jessica von Bredow-Werndl/Unee BB (GER)

That's it. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Grand Prix at the World Cup Final functions merely as a qualifier for the Grand Prix Freestyle. The winner of the Freestyle is the World Cup champion. There is no GP Special in this competition.

A number of people have asked me if they can watch the competition online. You can -- but not for free. Subscribe to FEI TV (quick!) to gain access.

Are you excited? I am!

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

World Cup Dressage Schooling Session Draws Appreciative Audience

Charlotte Dujardin rides Valegro in the dressage World Cup Final schooling session. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.


Yes, you can sell tickets to watch dressage riders schooling.

It wasn't anywhere near a sellout crowd at the Thomas & Mack Center, but a couple thousand dressage enthusiasts (who evidently had already filed their tax returns on this April 15) kicked off their trips to Las Vegas with a chance to watch the world's best riders and horses familiarize themselves with the arena in preparation for the 2015 Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final competition.

Here's how it worked: Pairs of horse/rider combinations were assigned 15-minute time blocks of time in the main arena. If a pair chose to school in the ring together, both got the full 15 minutes. If they opted to school separately, each was allotted just 7.5 minutes. There were no judges, although the arena decorations were set up.
Laura Graves schools Verdades. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.


Most of the combinations had clearly already warmed up in the designated warm-up ring prior to entering the main arena: They walked in, did a couple of trot circles, then put their horses through their paces. Most rode bits of test movements -- center line and halt, diagonals with extensions (not full bore, though) or tempi changes, pirouettes, short piaffe-passage tours. One whose horse spent more time in warm-up mode was the USA's Steffen Peters, the 2009 World Cup Final champion aboard Ravel, who rode his 2015 mount, Legolas 92, in rising trot for a couple of minutes at the beginning of his session. Peters moved to an easy canter on longish reins before bringing Legolas into full Grand Prix mode and running through a few movements. Legolas appeared to be giving something near H the hairy eyeball a couple of times, and he flubbed a two-tempi change, but otherwise he was obedient and looked relaxed in the indoor environment.
Laura Graves gets a high-five from Steffen Peters after her session. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

The other US contender, Laura Graves and her Verdades, had an air of quiet confidence. Like many of the riders, Graves wore a headset and wireless transmitter so that she could receive coaching from her instructor (in Graves' case, Olympian Debbie McDonald) during the few precious minutes in the arena.

Edward Gal's mount Glock's Undercover looked notably more relaxed than the black KWPN gelding (by Ferro) did at last year's World Equestrian Games. Undercover is not as extravagant a mover as Gal's most famous mount, his 2010 WEG gold-medal-winning partner Totilas, but he's a lovely horse and he may well wind up placing highly. And Gal is a crowd favorite, for sure, drawing perhaps even more applause than the reigning Olympic, WEG, and World Cup Dressage Final champion, Britain's Charlotte Dujardin on Valegro.
Edward Gal and Glock's Undercover of the Netherlands. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

It's a rare treat to see any of these superstars in person at a competition. Even rarer is the chance to see them in schooling attire, horses unbraided (most of them), "just riding," even though a schooling session that charges admission isn't really just riding. And how many times do we get to see Dujardin riding in the ring along with the German legend Isabell Werth aboard El Santo?

With such a compressed time frame, the educational value of watching the schooling sessions was diminished; ideally I'm sure the spectators would have loved to watch an entire training session, from warm-up to cool-down. But it gave us a chance to compare the horses in an expedient way, to marvel at how well most of them handled the busy indoor atmosphere, and to get pumped up for tomorrow's Grand Prix, which begins at noon PDT.

(A note about the World Cup competition: The Grand Prix serves merely as a qualifier for the GP Freestyle. It does not count toward the final placings.)

The afternoon of dressage schooling sessions concluded with the pairs that will be participating in Friday's Las Vegas showcase. They constituted a Who's Who of dressage in California: among them, Steffen Peters/Rosamunde, Shannon Peters/Weltino's Magic, Sabine Schut-Kery/Sanceo, and Jan Ebeling/Darling. Poor Marron, Mette Rosencrantz's mount, got unnerved by the atmosphere in the Thomas & Mack and tried hard to avoid going down the ramp to the arena; but Rosencrantz got him through it and worked hard to give him a positive experience. And experience, one suspects, is the reason a number of these exhibition horses are here. The electric indoor Vegas atmosphere is unusual in the US and valuable for our horses to get under their belts if ever their riders aspire to compete in the prestigious European indoor shows.


Sunday, April 12, 2015

Be Sure Your Hay Nets Are Stowed and Your Shipping Boots Are Fastened Securely...

A groom hangs a hay net to keep her charge occupied during the flight. Photo by FEI/Dirk Caremans.


Horses from around the world, including defending champion Valegro from Great Britain, have winged their way to Las Vegas for the 2015 Reem Acra FEI World Cup Dressage Final and the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final. The competition gets under way this Wednesday, April 15, with the dressage warm-up.

I'll be winging my way to Sin City, as well, to bring you all of the news and excitement that only Vegas can offer. In the meantime, have you ever wondered how horses are transported by air? Then enjoy this short video from the FEI, which shows the European horses preparing to depart Schipol Airport in Amsterdam on Saturday, April 11. All arrived safely.