Live from Omaha!

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

Saturday, April 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 Questions for Kasey Perry-Glass

Kasey Perry-Glass. Photo by Jennifer Bryant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isabell Werth's Power Hour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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