Live from Omaha!

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

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’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√©deration 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.

Grand Prix Starting Order: It's a Draw

Judy Reynolds of Ireland and Carl Hester of Great Britain ready to draw the dressage starting order for the Grand Prix. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

There's a dressy hoopla at major international championships known as a draw party.

In my limited experience, it's a chichi affair held at some cool offsite location, where competitors, coaches, officials, and assorted hangers-on (that would include yours truly, as a member of the media) gather to nosh on hors d'oeuvres, quench their thirst at the open bar, listen to music, and generally see and be seen.

(Clarification: There usually aren't enough morsels to go around. And, being both on duty and on an empty stomach, yours truly figured she'd better lay off the sauce lest she end up either making a spectacle of herself or falling asleep in a corner.)

The real purpose of this fete, however, is to draw the starting order for the next day's competition. I'm sure a simple computer program could dispatch this task easily and cheaply in seconds, but I guess it's considered more fun to stage a party around the event, with selected riders drawing numbers and names out of fishbowls for a bit of live entertainment. Last night, at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, orders of go were drawn for today's dressage Grand Prix and first round of jumping.

For the dressage, competitors Judy Reynolds of Ireland and Carl Hester of Great Britain did the honors. There were the requisite speeches and acknowledgments, including a few words from the Omaha Equestrian Foundation's Lisa Roskens, the driving force behind the city's successful bid to host these FEI World Cup Finals.
Fishbowls containing numbers and rider names are displayed on stage along with the jumping and dressage World Cup Final trophies at the draw party. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

I'm told I missed a great after-party (and real food!) in the aquarium, but I was hustling back to my hotel to rest up for today's big event, the Grand Prix. Here are the ride times and the results of the dressage draw. All times are local (CDT).

2:00 p.m. Maria Florencia Manfredi (ARG)/Bandurria Kacero
2:09 Edward Gal (NED)/Glock's Voice
2:18 Marcela Krinke-Susmelj (SUI)/Smeyers Molberg
2:27 Hanna Karasiova (BLR)/Arlekino
2:36 Joao Victor Marcari Oliva (BRA)/Xama Dos Pinhais
2:45 Carl Hester (GBR)/Nip Tuck
2:54 Mai Tofte Olesen (DEN)/Rustique
3:03 Madeleine Witte-Vrees (NED)/Cennin
3:32 Kasey Perry-Glass (USA)/Goerklintgaards Dublet
3:41 Steffen Peters (USA)/Rosamunde
3:50 Judy Reynolds (IRL)/Vancouver K
3:59 Kristy Oatley (AUS)/Du Soleil
4:08 Wendi Williamson (NZL)/Dejavu MH
4:17 Inessa Merkulova/RUS)/Mister X
4:26 Laura Graves (USA)/Verdades
4:35 Isabell Werth (GER)/Weihegold OLD.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

All Pass Jog; on with the Show!

The Netherlands' Edward Gal jogs Glock's Voice. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

All 16 competitors at the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final have cleared the final pre-competition hurdle: Their mounts have passed the horse inspection, aka "the jog" or, in Britain, "the trot-up."

In the horse inspection, the four-member FEI Veterinary Commission appointed for this competition watches as each horse is jogged in hand on a straight line, down and back in a prescribed pattern. The objective: to determine whether the horse is fit to compete.
Laura Graves and Verdades of the USA. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Occasionally the excitement, coupled with the crowd of onlookers and the wall of journalists' clicking cameras, gets the better of a horse, as it did for the first horse to jog, Argentina's Bandurria Kacero (they jog in alphabetical order by country name). If officials aren't able to see enough trot because of equine hijinks, they'll ask the competitor to jog again. But apparently Bandurria Kacero wasn't so crazy that they couldn't evaluate him.
At least one horse typically gets overexcited during the jog. Maria Florencia Manfredi of Argentina has her hands full with  Bandurria Kacero. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Inessa Merkulova of Russia had to jog Mister X twice before the horse was accepted for competition. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

The only rider whose heart must have been in her mouth for a few tense moments was Inessa Merkulova of Russia, who was asked to jog Mister X a second time -- and not because he was being unruly. The veterinarians do that when they think they see something the first time around and want to have another look. Merkulova was undoubtedly relieved when Mister X was passed after repeating the jog.

So, now, on with the show! The World Cup Dressage Final competition gets under way tomorrow at 2:00 p.m. CDT with the Grand Prix. Per World Cup rules, the Grand Prix does not itself count toward the final placings; it serves only as a qualifier for the Grand Prix Freestyle, the results of which determine the winner.

Getting to Know You

The USA's Laura Graves on Verdades (left) and Germany's Isabell Werth on Weihegold OLD shared the ring for the final dressage-familiarization session before World Cup Dressage Final competition commences tomorrow. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

Dressage enthusiasts—and, judging by some of the questions being aimed at audio commentator and dressage judge Axel Steiner, spectators new to the sport—showed up bright and early at the CenturyLink Center this morning to watch three and a half hours of “dressage familiarization.”

In this important final step in prepping horses and riders for the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Omaha, competitors are allowed unstructured time in the main competition area to school and to accustom their horses to the surroundings. They’ve been in there earlier in the week, but without the flowers, judges’ stands, banners, and, of course, the spectators. Because many horses have a “Who moved the furniture?” response when surroundings change, it’s only fair to allow them to see the venue in its final form before asking them to go in and perform when the judges are watching.

Tightly structured and scheduled, and supervised by the FEI stewards (who included USDF Connection advisor Elisabeth Williams and USDF vice president Lisa Gorretta), the competitors were allotted 30-minute time blocks. There were four groups of three and two groups of two, owing to the pre-competition withdrawal of Germany’s Unee BB due to colic and the Netherlands’ Glock’s Flirt (the 2016 champion) after an injury.

To the casual observer, the riders appeared to be running through some test movements and doing a bit of last-minute schooling. But as Axel Steiner pointed out, some were dealing with such issues as tight backs and tension in a nonconfrontational but effective way. Steiner, whose audio commentary throughout the competition is accessible via the FEI World Cup Finals Omaha 2017 app for iOS and Android, narrated what turned out to be a master class in how the world’s top riders deal with the same issues that you and I face with our own horses at home and at shows.
Great Britain's Carl Hester and Nip Tuck. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Great Britain’s Carl Hester on Nip Tuck was first into the ring, along with Marcela Krinke-Susmelj of Switzerland on Smeyers Molberg and Danish rider Mai Tofte Olesen on Rustique. “Barney” is notoriously spooky, and so Hester spent time schooling transitions as well as riding down center line toward C. Directly behind the short side at C is a VIP seating area with table drapes and waiter service, so competitors want to be sure they have their mounts’ full attention, even during halts and salutes.

The Argentinian rider Maria Florencia Manfredi on Bandurria Kacero, who competed in Wellington, Florida, this winter, has less experience in indoor venues than many of the other World Cup Final competitors, according to Steiner. The 12-year-old Argentinian gelding (by Wonder Boy) handled the atmosphere well, however. More rattled was Dejavu MH (De Niro x Anamour), a 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding owned and ridden by Wendi Williamson of New Zealand. Dejavu looked tense and “on the muscle,” and Williamson left after only about 16 minutes. Steiner speculated that the rider may have decided to resume the training session in the comparatively more private setting of the warm-up arena.

Manfredi and Williamson were accompanied by Ireland’s Judy Reynolds on Vancouver K (Jazz x Ferro). Some American audiences saw this pair last year when they won the Grand Prix and the GP Freestyle at Dressage at Devon (PA) in September, and that same month claimed the GP Freestyle championship at the Rolex Central Park Horse Show in New York City. Reynolds, who is ranked 19th in the world, showed three quality gaits and accurate riding. It was around this time during the familiarization sessions that the audience began applauding the riders when they entered and departed, as well as breaking into spontaneous applause when they saw movements that impressed them. Left alone in the arena after Manfredi left, Reynolds drew applause for Vancouver K’s piaffe.
Supporters and coaches from each nation watch intently when their representatives are in the ring. The USA contingent looks on as Kasey Perry schools Goerklintgaards Dublet. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The first American of the day entered with the next group of riders. Kasey Perry on the 14-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding Goerklintgaards Dublet (Diamond Hit x Ferro) was accompanied by the Netherlands’ Madeleine Witte-Vrees on Cennin, a 10-year-old Dutch stallion (Vivaldi x Donnerhall); and by Hanna Karasiova of Belarus on Arlekino, an 11-year-old gelding (Aromats x Gudvils). Witte-Vrees left the arena after less than 10 minutes, leaving the two remaining horses as an interesting compare/contrast opportunity for Steiner. The expert commentator helped the audience to see that Arlekino’s extravagant foreleg action is not always matched by equal activity and engagement from his hind legs, and that he occasionally lost the rhythm of the passage gait, with his legs not always in diagonal-pair sync. “Dublet’s” canter work was strong, the passage somewhat less so, Steiner said. But his walk was excellent.
The USA's Kasey Perry and Goerklintgaards Dublet. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The final group of three riders included both the oldest competitor at this World Cup Dressage Final (Russia’s Inessa Merkulova, 52) and the youngest (Brazilian Joao Victor Marcari Oliva, 21). They were joined about seven minutes later by past World Cup Final champion Edward Gal of the Netherlands, riding the 15-year-old KWPN stallion Glock’s Voice (De Niro x Rohdiamant).
Even though his mount Glock's Flirt went lame and was unable to travel to Omaha, Dutch rider Hans Peter Minderhoud (right) made the trip to support his partner, Edward Gal, who is competing with Glock's Voice. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
Merkulova and her mount, Mister X, a 13-year-old Trakehner gelding (by Egeus), are World Cup Dressage Final veterans. The newbies are Marcari Oliva and the 15-year-old Lusitano stallion Xama Dos Pinhais, although they seemed composed in the electric atmosphere of the CenturyLink Center. Steiner draw his listeners’ attention to the precision and tactfulness of Gal’s riding. Glock’s Voice entered the arena short and tight in the neck, but through Gal’s skillful riding the stallion relaxed and showed why he’s predicted to be among the top finishers in Omaha. Extremely active hind legs and great suppleness made for eye-popping trot half-passes and canter pirouettes.

The USA’s own Captain America, Steffen Peters, got a big round of applause from the largely American audience when he entered the ring on his new international mount, Rosamunde, along with Australia’s Kristy Oatley on Du Soleil.

“I judged ‘Rosie’s’ first Grand Prix ever, at a small show in [Peters’ home state of] California,” Steiner said. The Rhinelander mare (Rock Forever x Fidermark) is only 10 years old and can be a bit unpredictable, he added, pointing out that “Rosie” is the greenest of the US World Cup Dressage Final entries and is not yet as secure and confident in the Grand Prix as the more experienced (and higher ranked) Dublet and Verdades. Peters, who occasionally stopped to confer with US chef d’√©quipe Robert Dover during the session, gave the mare plenty of walk breaks and did a substantial amount of stretching work on a longer rein, starting and finishing in rising trot. He also rode a number of movements on a longer-than-usual rein, seeming to be staying out of Rosie’s way and allowing her to loosen herself up and find her balance in a relaxed manner.
Steffen Peters on Rosamunde chats with US chef d'equipe Robert Dover during his familiarization session. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.
The 13-year-old Hanoverian gelding Du Soleil (De Niro x Caprimond) looked more “finished” by comparison. There were a few moments of tension, but Oatley appeared to be concentrating largely on increasing the activity and closing her mount’s hind legs to the bridle.

Steiner did everything but sing the praises of the number-one-ranked rider, Germany’s Isabell Werth, as she worked through some tension and a tight back with her mount, the 12-year-old Oldenburg mare Weihegold OLD (Don Schufro x Sandro Hit). Werth, who as of the 2016 Olympics became the most decorated Olympic equestrian in history, is a true master who’s probably dealt with every possible equine situation. Going back to some simpler work, such as three-tempi flying changes, she slowly loosened up Weihegold’s body and gained her focus; then there were no problems with the Grand Prix-level work. Werth executed several outstanding pirouettes, prompting Steiner to remark that “Isabell can ride a pirouette on a serving plate.”

Werth shared the arena with America’s top-ranked pair, Laura Graves on her Dutch Warmblood gelding, Verdades (Florett As x Goya). Dressage enthusiasts know that “Diddy” can be hot and spooky, and that he’s not always crazy about indoor arenas. He may not have had much opportunity to be in an indoor since the 2015 World Cup Final in Las Vegas, so Graves could be seen using her ring time to help Diddy overcome his own tension, which he showed by becoming a bit tight in his body and strong in the hand while his hind legs can be a bit more “open” than Graves would like. Like many riders, Graves schooled the halt and rein back at C, and also practiced the transition from passage to extended walk. (USDF members will learn more about that transition, and Graves’ other training techniques, in the May issue of USDF Connection.) Graves also sweetened the deal for Diddy by occasionally halting and feeding him a lump of sugar.

Final pre-competition rides completed, the next and last hurdle on the journey to Omaha is the dressage horse inspection, scheduled for later this afternoon.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

World Cup Finals? There's an App for That

There's a curious lack of paper in the 2017 FEI World Cup Finals press office. Instead of the traditional program, printed news releases, and so forth, the assistant directed me to the FEI World Cup Finals Omaha 2017 app.

Download the app (pictured) for free for iOS from Apple's App Store or for Android from Google Play. Configure it with your desired notifications, and you'll be able to follow along during the exciting Dressage and Jumping Finals. If you are an FEI TV subscriber, you'll be able to watch the whole thing live, as well. Link to FEI TV from your Internet-enabled device or directly from the World Cup Finals app.

As you can see from the app screen shot above, things get under way at Omaha's CenturyLink Center tomorrow morning (Wednesday) with "dressage familiarization." That's when the competitors each get a short time to accustom their horses to the competition arena. The dressage horse inspection is also scheduled for tomorrow, at 4:30 p.m. In between I'm hoping to check out the trade fair. The vendors were busily setting up this afternoon when I showed up to collect my press credential, and the offerings look mighty interesting. I'm going to have to keep a firm grip on my wallet here!

Welcome to Omaha (with a couple of sad exceptions)

The top 18 dressage horses and riders in the world have landed in Omaha, Nebraska, where for the first time this Midwestern city will host the FEI World Cup Dressage Final (plus the Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Final, featuring that sport’s top contenders).

Should have been 18, that is, but unfortunately only 16 boarded their respective planes for Omaha.
The 2016 FEI World Cup Dressage Final champions, Hans Peter Minderhoud and Glock's Flirt of the Netherlands, had to withdraw when "Flirty" suffered an injury the day the Swiss Warmblood gelding was scheduled to board a plane for Omaha. Photo by Arnd Bronkhorst/FEI.

A colic and a lameness made for eleventh-hour upset and no-go decisions for two of the highest-ranked competitors. Germany’s Unee BB, a 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion ridden by Jessica von Bredow-Werndl, suffered an episode of colic at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport and was withdrawn from the Final — thankfully before taking off for the USA. Von Bredow-Werndl, who herself had already departed for Omaha, had to find a return flight to Europe; but the inconvenience was tempered by the good news that Unee BB had recovered and was doing well.

Unee BB and von Bredow-Werndl were third at the 2015 FEI World Cup Dressage Final in Las Vegas and at the 2016 Final in Gothenburg. They were ranked second in the Western European League coming in to the 2017 Final.

Then, after what he reported to be a good morning ride, the World Cup Dressage Final title defender, the Netherlands’ Hans Peter Minderhoud, announced that his 2016 champion partner, the 16-year-old Swiss Warmblood gelding Glock’s Flirt, had come up lame just prior to leaving for Omaha. Veterinarians diagnosed an injury, and so “Flirty” was withdrawn, as well.

So who does that leave? The world’s top-ranked combination and the favorites going in, for starters: 2016 Olympic Games team gold and individual silver medalists Isabell Werth of Germany on Weihegold OLD, a 12-year-old Oldenburg mare. The pair led the Western European League standings going in to this World Cup Dressage Final.

Also from the Western European League: Judy Reynolds of Ireland on Vancouver K, a 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding; Australia’s Kristy Oatley riding Du Soleil, a 13-year-old Hanoverian gelding; 2016 Olympic team silver medalists Carl Hester of Great Britain on the 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Nip Tuck; Swiss Olympian Marcela Krinke Susmelj on the 16-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding Smeyers Molberg; Dutch competitor Madeleine Witte-Vrees and the 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Cennin; fellow Dutch rider Edward Gal (who won the 2010 FEI World Cup Dressage Final aboard the legendary Totilas) with the 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion Glock’s Voice; and Mai Tofte Olesen of Denmark riding Rustique, a 15-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding.

Two slots go to riders from the FEI’s Central European League. For 2017 they are the Russian Olympic and World Cup Final veteran pair Inessa Merkulova on the 13-year-old Trakehner gelding Mister X, and Hanna Karasiova of Belarus riding Arlekino, an 11-year-old Latvian Warmblood gelding.

Wendi Williamson will become the first rider from New Zealand to compete in a World Cup Dressage Final. Winner of the “competitor who traveled the farthest to reach Omaha” award, she will represent the Pacific League aboard Dejavu MH, a 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding.

(What does it take to transport horses internationally? Watch this short video by the FEI, chronicling the journey to Omaha.)

One competition slot goes to a non-league rider. For this year that will be Argentinian rider Maria Florencia Manfredi on her own 11-year-old Argentine gelding, Bandurria Kocero.

The host-country audience will surely be cheering on the three representatives of the North American League, with two slots plus one extra for Omaha, all held by US riders. The league leader is Laura Graves on her own Dutch Warmblood gelding, Verdades, followed by second-ranked pair Kasey Perry-Glass on the 14-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding, Goerklintgaards Dublet, owned by Diane Perry. The third-ranked pair, who earned the extra slot for the North American League, is Steffen Peters riding Rosamunde, a 10-year-old Rhinelander mare owned by Four Winds Farm.

Graves, Perry-Glass, and Peters were teammates on the bronze-medal-winning US team at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, with Peters riding his previous international mount, Legolas 92. Peters is a past FEI World Cup Dressage Final champion, having claimed the title in 2009 aboard the legendary Ravel.

Last but not least will be the youngest dressage rider in Omaha: 21-year-old Joao Victor Marcari Oliva of Brazil, who earned the extra starting place for the World Cup Final. Marcari Oliva will be riding his 2016 Olympic Games partner, the 14-year-old Lusitano stallion Xama Dos Pinheads.

Inquiring minds want to know: I was asked several times whether other competitors would be given the chance to compete in Omaha, given the last-minute withdrawals of Minderhoud and von Bredow-Werndl. The answer is no: Qualification and entry deadlines had passed, and from a practical standpoint, the planes were pretty much ready to leave at the time of the horses’ illness and injury. So the 2017 FEI World Cup Dressage Final will be a “sweet sixteen” competition that would’ve been sweeter if it had included those top horses, Glock’s Flirt and Unee BB. Both are fantastic horses, and we’ll miss them and their wonderful riders. But the riders are horsemen first and foremost, and so we salute them for doing the right thing for their mounts’ welfare.