Live from Omaha!

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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

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.

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