Saturday, October 2, 2010

Oh, the Musical Freestyle!

Wow. As you can see from the date of this post, I was so overwhelmed (not to mention tired!) last night that I could not even write about the freestyles. It was a fantastic night until we got back to the car. More about that later!

A most generous woman sitting next to me for the week had a ticket for the Freestyles that she was not going to use, and to make a long story short, she offered it to one of my students, who is a HUGE fan of Steffen and Ravel, not to mention Edward and Totilas and many of the other riders. So on account of a new friend's generosity, Lindsey made the drive down to Lexington on Friday and was able to join me for the freestyles.

I could probably, well, definitely, tell you something about every ride. I have been taking notes all week, in order to better keep you all informed as well as to be able to pass tips along to my students. But rather than go through all 15, I will give you some highlights.

We all absolutely LOVED Marcela Krinke Susmelj and her ride on Corinth. Very artistically pleasing and great musicality, plus, it was a clean test. Her tempi changes on a circle were quite fantastic (better than some we saw later in the evening!) and Corinth looked happy and relaxed throughout. It was early in the night, and Marcela earned a 75%, which would not end up enough to keep her in the medals. I think she was quite thrilled with her ride, though, and she should be proud.

Nathalie zu-Sayn Wittgenstein was another fun test to watch, with music from West Side Story. She received a 78.75%, which put her in the lead. Speaking of great music, the crowd went a little crazy when Christoph Koschel and Donnperingon entered the arena to the Police singing "Every Breath You Take." The freestyle was a medley of Police music, which was definitely a crowd pleaser. Some tightness and bobbles left Christoph with a 76%.

Nathalie and her horse Digby remained in the lead through the first 14 rides, which included Anabel Balkenhol, whose Dablino was visibly tense in the walk and earned only a 73.25%. Isabell Werth took over the lead with Warum Nicht even though the horse repeatedly stepped down with his right hind leg in the passage and they looked tight throughout. Their 80% would not top the leader board for long.

The final five rides were almost too good for words. I can say, though, that too many people in the crowd "forgot" to turn off the flash on their camera, which was distracting to the horses, and there was too much noise, which often ruined a rider's halt. We all need to respect the fact that, for the benefit of the horse and the rider, we need to wait until the final salute to let them know how much we appreciated the ride.

Laura Bechtolsheimer rode Mistral through a nice test, with some lovely moments (especially in piaffe), but they just seemed tighter tonight and not quite as harmonious as earlier in the week. Perhaps a bit of nerves, or who knows what, but they still earned a great score of 85.35% to take the lead!

A crowd favorite from day one, Fuego XII came high stepping into the arena next with Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz aboard. The crowd had a very hard time keeping their mouths shut during this ride (which did cause Fuego to jig out of the opening halt) but later on, the rider was asking for it as he rode his changes one-handed down the center line. The timing of the music with the horse was just super during the piaffe work as well as the pirouettes, but Fuego's collected walk was very short. They scored 81.45%, which put them into second place!

After a huge roar from the crowd at Juan Manuel's final salute, just a few moments went by before another roar erupted when Edward Gal and Totilas floated in to the ring. This was the one everyone had been talking about...could he beat his own record? Unfortunately, with a break to the canter at the end of an extended trot line, one tempis that were short behind and another little bobble, we can't say that this ride was perfection. But a 91.8% is closer than I will probably ever get!

But did they leave the door open for Steffen Peters and Ravel? The hugely American crowd at the WEG sure hoped so! Their freestyle is a beautifully choreographed test, and the half passes were beautiful both in trot and in canter. Ravel did break to the walk once in the piaffe, and was tight behind in the one tempis after a pirouette, so their ride was not perfect either. But a score of 84.85% left them hanging on to third place with one ride to go!

Imagine being in the boots of Imke Schllekens-Bartels, who had to top the rides of Edward and Steffen. I can honestly say that she rose to the challenge. Her ride on Hunter Douglas Sunrise was so harmonious and just beautiful to see. I think her piano-based music could have been my favorite soundtrack of the evening, and their canter work was definitely a highlight. She was the last score between Steffen and the medals stand...and she eared 82.1% which left Steffen and Ravel as the bronze medalists!

Steffen apparently was wiping tears off his face as he stood on the podium to accept his bronze medal, the first ever individual medal in dressage for the US at a World Equestrian Games. Congratulations, of course, to Edward Gal and Laura Bechtolsheimer, earning the gold and silver, but the biggest hometown heroes last night were Steffen Peters and Ravel. What a great way to end the dressage competition at the first WEG in America!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Some random favorite photos thus far!

From top to bottom: Edward Gal and Totilas in extended trot; Steffen Peters celebrating his ride with Ravel; Laura Bechtolsheimer and Mistral in the one-tempis,

and Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz and Fuego XII in piaffe.

Grand Prix Special at WEG

It was another fantastic day at WEG, filled with great rides, great weather, and just a little bit of drama. I'll get to the great rides and drama in a minute. As for the weather, quite a change from the first day, but it still started out quite cold (about 50 degrees at 9am). The sun was out all day though, and it sure warmed up quick. We passed around SPF 50 sunblock and I still got a bit red. I think the mercury got up to 80 today - pretty nice for the end of September.

So today was the Grand Prix special - the top 30 riders from the first two days came back to ride a different test and compete for Individual World Champion medals. The order of go was determined by putting those 30 riders into 6 groups of 5 based on their score in the Team round, and then a random draw within the groups of 5 put the riders in order. So the top five riders from the first two days of competition were the last five to ride today.

In the first group of five, Anabel Balkenhol came away with the early lead and a score of 72.6% (please note, I have been rounding off the scores). Her lead would hold through the next 16 riders, until Christoph Koschel from Germany rode almost 4.5 hours later! Again, Christoph rode Donnperignon beautifully. Aside from some piaffe work that earned only 5s and 6s, their test had a soft supple flow that was truly special to watch.

The next rider was another of the Germans, Matthias Alexander Rath on Sterntaler-Unicef. His test started out really well, even earning a 10 for his walk from one judge. His work on centerline in the canter did not score as well (the test calls for a pirouette left, then a series of one-tempi changes, then another pirouette to the right) and some of those scores were as low as 4. And just like his previous ride, he basically did not ride the piaffe at X on the final centerline. Yesterday he earned some low marks, today, there was even less attempt at piaffe, and he earned two zeros. Crazy to get a zero and a 10 in the same test! So that problem caused his score to drop to a 70.25% which was surely a dissapointment.

Another shocking disappointment came from Exquis Nadine and Hans-Peter Minderhoud. Nadine was rather worried about something today, and after a couple of smaller spooks or startles within the test, during the final centerline passage she leaped off the ground and Hans-Peter was lucky to stay on and finish the test! She was definitely not as well focused on her work today, and that caused the score to fall to only 68.3% which definitely displeased the crowd.

After Hans-Peter, Imke Schellekens-Bartels entered the ring. There was a slight moment of tension and resistance at the first piaffe (earning just 4s and 5s) but the rest of the test was really quite well done, and each of e 5 judges scores placed her in the lead at that point with a score of 74.8%. One more break where the John Deeres came in to drag the ring, and it was on to the top five.

I could go on forever here, but I will try to keep it brief. Isabell Werth had a couple of minor bobbles, a 10 from one judge on the extended walk, but had some trouble at the beginning of the two tempi flying changes and ended up with a 72%. Then it was time for Steffen Peters and Ravel.

They had a very steady test, with highlights in the half pass and flying changes. The extended walk scores of 6s and 7s and extended trots of 7s and 8s did affect their final score. The final score of 78.5% however, was enough to put them in the lead! And Steffen received straight 9s for the collective marks for rider's position and seat.

Next to halt at X was Laura Bechtolsheimer and Mistral, a pair that I enjoyed watching yesterday. Today was no different. Laura rode a very clean test, receiving a 10 from one judge on one of the piaffe scores, two 10s on the extended canter, and too many 10s to count on the final centerline passage and piaffe. Their low scores were the halts. I think she was so excited by the time she approached the final halt she didn't even notice that Mistral barely halted! Their score of 81.7% rocketed them to the lead.

Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz and Fuego XII were the last to go before Edward Gal and Totilas, and they had another great ride today. An fun pair to watch, the passage was a highlight, but Fuego did not show as much extension in the canter or freedom in the walk as some of the other horses. Their final score was 76%, which would end up keeping them just out of the medals behind Steffen.

So if I did not just give it away, Edward and Totilas won the gold by a landslide. And a beautiful landslide it was! He earned 10s from at least two or three judges on each passage score, as well as 10s on a piaffe, a piroutte, and too many 10s to count on the final passage and piaffe down centerline. Truly spectacular (did I say that yesterday too?). And Edward was awarded straight 10s on the rider collective mark. Best of all, during the victory gallop at the medal ceremony, Totilas was completely relaxed. He cantered around with his new cooler (while Ravel was a little bit crazy) and just took it all in stride on a long rein. That horse knew he was king of the ring today, and I think he loved every minute of it! So did everyone who got to see it.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dressage Team Finals - Netherlands get the Gold

Wow. I can honestly say I have never seen a more spectacular dressage test in my life than the test Edward Gal rode today with Moorlands Totilas. More perfect 10s were given today than I ever dreamed I would see. And they really are spectacular, not just fancy or flashy. The horse looks so incredibly pleased to be doing the work it is hard to believe. And Edward is a part of him, as a rider should be. Amazing to have the chance to see them in person. And then tomorrow and Friday again!!! Needless to say, he had the high score of the day slightly over 84% and that is not a typo. With that score, and Hans-Peter's and Imke Bartel's, the Dutch won the gold handily.

As for the US, Tina Konyot rode a good test but Calecto started out a bit hot and danced through the halt and then broke to the canter in an extended trot. She ended with a score right around 70%. Steffen Peters was the last rider of the day, but he and Ravel have been out of competition for a short while and this was really their first time out on this type of stage in months. It seemed at first that either Steffen was riding a bit on the conservative side, or maybe Ravel was not just "on" yet like he has been at other competitions. A few bobbles here and there, but also a few 10s as well! His half pass in the trot was fantastic, as was the extended canter, each of which scored a 10 from at least one judge. Good showing for the US, but we ended up just out of the medals. Steffen was third place overall at the end of the day, but the team score was just not enough.

The silver team medal went to Great Britain, their first ever team medal at a World Equestrian Games. Laura Bechtolsheimer had a beautiful ride on her chestnut Danish warmblood Mistral Hojris. He reminded me very much of Carver, who I used to show way back when. Big, obedient, well balanced, with a great piaffe that did earn a few 10s as well. She ended up second for the day with a huge score of 82%, which propelled the Brits to the silver medal along with the scores of Carl Hester and Fiona Bigwood.

The Germans barely edged out the US for the bronze; the point differential was really only two or three total points. If only we could go back and fix the little mistakes, right? Anyway, Isabell Werth turned in a great ride as you would expect her to, but some rhythm issues in the piaffe and final passage on centerline kept her score to a 75%. The other German rider today, Matthias Alexander Rath, is one to watch with his horse Sterntaler-Unicef. Nice energy, a huge walk, soft and supple work, but he really almost skipped over the final piaffe at X which dropped his score down to about 72.5%. Enjoyable pair to watch and I look forward to seeing more of them this week.

One more highlight was the ride by Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz riding Fuego XII, a PRE (pure Spanish) stallion. This was the best of the Spanish horses we saw by far, and he had a few little mistakes here and there, but overall was really quite nice. Huge extension in the trot, very steady and active in passage and a great walk. He was quite obviously thrilled with his ride as he showed the crowd after his final salute by repeatedly pointing at his horse to give him the credit. He ended up fifth individually, and we will get to see him ride again in the Grand Prix Special tomorrow.

Two horses were eliminated today, which added a bit of drama. The fourth Dutch rider, Adelinde Cornellison started the test out with nothing but 8s and 9s in the first few marks, but the bell rang as she went to ride the halt and rein back at C, right in front of the judges. The foam on her horse's lips was bloody, which is cause for immediate dismissal. They announced later that the horse had bit his lip, and everything was fine, but rules are rules and she was out. Which means that she cannot compete in the Special or the Freestyle since she did not post a score today. Quite a shame, as the bit we got to see was looking as good as anything that was getting high marks today. Wonder what her score could have been. An Australian rider, Hayley Beresford, was also excused when her horse looked a little bit uneven or off in the extended trot and passage. A huge disappointment for sure, but hopefully the horse will be okay.

I really am going to try to get pictures up tomorrow, I promise!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Dressage Part One

What a day. It rained and rained and rained. Not very hard, just a steady, chilly drizzle. I was sure glad I decided to put on that extra vest this morning. And many thanks to the man at the hotel desk who gave me free ponchos this morning! He was a lifesaver.

With the aid of ponchos keeping me and my camera dry (or as dry as possible), I watched every single rider today. I took notes on every rider, and took as many pictures as I could, but the light was not very good for photography even with the stadium lights on, so I am not sure how some of them will be.

It is now very late already, almost 11:30pm, and I just got back after attending the most fantastic concert I have been to in recent memory. I heard the American Spiritual Ensemble (that had sung at the opening ceremony) at the 1st Presbyterian Church in Lexington. They were amazing - each and every song gave me chills or brought me almost to tears, or both. Look them up.

As for the horses, wow. The first big wow was Hans-Peter Minderhoud riding Exquis Nadine, who is a spectacular horse. His score of just over 72% was no shock at all. Could have been even higher without a few little bobbles in the test. Other rides I liked out of the morning session were Anabel Balkenhol (Germany), whose horse Dablino has a lovely passage and a well balanced canter, but was very tight and nervous in the walk, and Emma Kinerva (Finland) who is a lovely, soft rider. Her horse Sini Spirit started well but they had some mistakes in the canter zig-zag. A bit of controversy in the crowd after Anabel's ride since the judges scores ranged from 62% up to 72%. Interesting. Yet another reason I want to enter the USDF "L" judge program.

After a break for arena maintenance and the medals ceremony for Endurance (complete with victory gallop) there were six more rides before the lunch break. Oded Shimoni (Israel) rode a steady test but had some issues in the changes. I loved watching Luiza Tavares de Almeida (Brazil) ride. Her horse Samba was a bit heavier bodied and he needs to develop more thrust and power, but they were a lovely pair to watch and I will keep my eye out for them in the future.

After a very wet lunch break where I managed to score a free sample of some french pork dish at the booth advertising the next world games in France, our first US rider, Todd Flettrich, had a very good test. Some lovely piaffe work, but the last piaffe was quite stuck and tense, and Otto's flying changes tended to be a bit short behind. But a good showing for the first US rider with a score of over 66%.

The next few riders all had some nice moments, and some not so nice moments. The four riders after Todd ranged in scores from 64% to 66.5% or so. Then the next Dutch rider, Imke Schellekens-Bartels entered the arena. Wow. She gave Hans-Peter a run for the money, and she stole it. Her horse, Hunter Douglas Sunrise, was amazing. But for one bobble in the canter zig-zag, they would have scored even higher than the 73.4% they received.

The next horse to go was quite a contrast - a Spanish horse ridden by Claudio Castilla Ruiz from Spain. VERY different horse than the previous. Typical Spanish style stallion - very thick neck and crest, and a much more compact stride, especially in the canter. But he rode a well balanced test, and scored a respectable 67.3%. After that, a young German rider by the name of Christoph Koschel entered the arena on Donnperignon. Very nice, uphill moving horse with big extensions. Perhaps something of a sleeper after the Dutch horses were so flamboyant, but I loved him. And Christoph has a lovely seat with forward energy and none of the tension and backwards push I had seen in some of the other riders. Keep an eye on him too.

Belinda Trussel from Canada had a great ride, as did Sune Hansen from Denmark and Rackel Sanna from Australia. Last to go today was the other US rider, Katherine Bateson-Chandler, riding Nartan, a horse she has only been riding for about 6 months. They had a very good test, but there were a few errors that very much could have been due to the newness of the partnership. Must be nice to have a sponsor to go out and buy you a million dollar horse so you can qualify for the WEG. She did show well, ending with a score of 69.6% to put the US in fourth place after today.

I will try to get pictures up tomorrow!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The finale of the opening ceremonies

The final portion of the evening was titled "The Cadence of our Country" and was, I guess, somehow supposed to showcase the role horses have had in the history of the United States. Or was it supposed to touch on different cultures across the country and how the horse is a part of that? I am not really sure.

It opened in "The Big Apple" with Mario Contreras (who, if you don't know, is actually from Medieval Times in Chicago, nowhere near New York!) riding an Iberian horse. It was, perhaps, to the average person, lovely to look at. I was not particularly impressed, but he did put on a show. I did appreciate the moments that involved a solo dancer from the Lexington ballet mirroring the horse's spanish walk, but had enough of the horse doing the spanish walk backwards about two strides after it started.

Staying in the New York theme, they brought out renowned opera singer Denyce Graves, who sang some fabulous selections from Carmen. I had a bit of deja vu here, as I was once a member of the University of Miami Chorale singing these same pieces behind soloists from the French Opera under the direction of Alain Lombard. Great memories of that time. Again, I digress. So the singing was phenomenal, and the soprano Cynthia Lawrence was beautiful opposite Denyce singing the Flower Duet from Lakme. Look it up on YouTube - you will recognize it instantly. They were really top notch.

Unfortunately though, there was not much going on with horses during this segment, and a significant number of people left at this point. Really quite a shame, as it was musically a highlight of the evening. Note to future WEG planners - keep the horses coming or the horse people will get bored and leave. The tenor that joined the ladies for the last piece from La Traviata was fine, but just not really in the same league as the stars from the Met.

From the Big Apple, we headed to the "Wide Open West" where we met the California Cowgirls, and saw Vince Bruce and the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls do some trick roping before Eitan Beth-Halachmy came out and demonstrated his "cowboy dressage." I have heard of Eitan before, and maybe seen a video or something, but never thought much of it. Last night, I was really impressed. Sure, it is not exactly dressage in the same manner that competitive dressage is. Then again, how often is competitive dressage really what "dressage" is meant to be? Another discussion entirely. I loved Eitan's riding. Quiet, soft, lovely to watch. Headset of course a bit different than "on the bit" in traditional dressage. His aids were virtually invisible though, and he rode like a true gentleman.

Following the cowboy dressage came an entirely different pair of cowboys - Tommie Turvey and Dan James, who both do a kind of natural horsemanship trick riding sort of show. Fun to watch; crazy to imagine training a horse to do what they did. Each rider (Tommie is from the US, Dan from Australia) came out bareback on their respective mounts, and later, a matched pair of each was sent out at liberty to join the show. Tommie had two paints, Dan two bays, and they both rode one horse while the liberty horse followed and mirrored their movements. Even to the extreme of laying down prone on the ground on command. If they can train their horses to do such things, shouldn't we all train our horses to do the simple things like stand still to mount or walk politely on a lead? It is all about consistency, and if we as the rider or handler are not consistent, the horse would never think it necessary either.

A visit to the Heartland was the next stop on our tour of America. This was perhaps the simplest part of the program. To me, it was the best. Sarah Lee Guthrie sang some of her grandfather Woody Guthrie's classics (including This Land is Your Land, for which the audience was asked to sing along) while Stacy Westfall rode with no tack. No saddle, no bridle, not even a rope around the neck. The music choices were a beautiful soundtrack to one of the best horse and rider relationships I have ever witnessed in person. Stacy rode from a walk to a flat out gallop and looked as if she was part of the horse. I kept noticing the horse licking and chewing now and then throughout their performance as if it was having just as much fun as its rider. Really made me want to have that level of bond with a horse again someday.

The final stop on tour was to "The Big Easy" of New Orleans. Again, another great musical moment with the American Spirtual Ensemble singing some well-known spirituals that even got some of us singing along. Once more though, no horses involved in the moment, so more people got up to leave. Gotta keep the horses coming! As the singers finished up, the Jazz at Lincoln Center group started to play traditional jazz while a parade of circus carriages came in and around the ring. The carriages were neat to see, and there were some cute "acts" interspersed between them (a miniature donkey got a few laughs when he stopped and refused to move!) but as a finale sort of thing, it was not very exciting.

The closing musical number was "The Impossible Dream" sung by Ronan Tynan, whose voice was as great in person as it is on recordings. I personally felt the song choice to be a little bit cheesy, but the addition of children's choir members from Haiti was touching. And then it was over. I think they brought some of the previous performers back out for a final curtain call, but to be honest, I don't remember, since by that time I was tired and ready to go. And so was everyone else! Add a bit of aggravation to that once we got to the parking lot where I literally sat still for 20 minutes before my lane could start to inch toward the exit. By that time it was almost 11pm. At least I had no trouble finding my car - there were quite a few people looking very lost and worried. Plenty of security staff around to help them. Wish there could have been more staff to help figure out traffic flow!

Pictures to come tomorrow - I have an early wake up call tomorrow for the first day of dressage competition - pray that it doesn't rain!

Opening Ceremonies Part 2

After the parade of (human) athletes was finished, the orchestra began to play a haunting melody from "Scheherazade" and the audience hushed before a rider on an Arabian, in full native costume, rode out into the arena. She was joined by another rider in costume, plus others showcasing their discipline of western pleasure. Again, the horses and riders were winners of multiple championships and handled the electricity of the crowd like the true professionals they are.

Next came an appearance by a group that rarely comes to the US - the Koninklijke Vereniging Het Friesch Paarden Stamboek. How's that for a mouthful of Dutch? For those of you requesting translation, they called it "The Friesian Train" in English. I think it must be something less than a literal translation, but I can't say for sure! They started out with one rider, then two, in dressage attire of black coats and white breeches, trotting out to New York, New York. Eventually, there were ten horse and rider pairs doing quadrille work together. In terms of entertainment value for the non-dressage rider, it was great. The crowd loved it. I could not get past how tight the horses necks were, and how a couple of them almost looked as if they were actually touching there noses to their chests. Not really my training cup of tea, but it was another show of very precise riding set well to musical accompaniment. I am not sure I would have selected "Aquarius" as part of that segment, but since it is from the musical "Hair" and the friesians were all shown with their opulent manes left unbraided, I suppose it was appropriate!

After the friesians danced out of the arena, it was time for the business side of the opening ceremonies. The dignitary parade included the Kentucky bigwigs (Mayor Newberry and Governor Beshear) along with HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein of Jordan. These dignitaries were driven into the arena in beautiful coaches that were immaculately turned out - there were pairs, and coach and fours. Someday I will get into carriage driving - the little I have done before has been very much fun, and I would love to feel the power of driving four in hand! Muhammad Ali was later driven in a classic car as a special guest. There was another car as well, but I can't for the life of me remember who was in it. Anyway, I digress. There is not much to say about the speeches other than they took to long. They were all very well spoken, and the Princess is very eloquent, but come on, we were all bored after 10 minutes. Finally, she said "Let the games begin!" and we were off. But not really - little did I realize there was still another hour of show to go.