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August 29, 2008

German Team Can't Be Knocked Off The Top Podium In Olympic Dressage

But Anky van Grunsven prevails in the individual showdown.

A small chink appeared in the armor of the impenetrable German dressage team last fall at the European Championships. With a win there, the Dutch garnered new hope for the 2008 Olympic Games—they had proved that their old rivals were, in fact, beatable.

But they were only beatable with the Dutch at the top of their game in Hong Kong, China, Aug. 13-19, and those perfect Dutch performances didn’t quite materialize.

The Dutch started the Games with the undesirable first draw, and as soon as their first rider—Hans Peter Minderhoud—produced a lower score than expected, the challenge to Germany’s 10 Olympic team victories looked unlikely.

With Isabell Werth as their anchor, riding beside Heike Kemmer and Nadine Capellmann, the Germans won their seventh consecutive title over 10 other teams.

The Germans welcomed the stiff competition. “It’s very exciting for our sport, although it’s not as exciting for us,” said Werth. “We had a lot of pressure. When we lost the medal at the European Championships, that was a sign that maybe it was the right time to wake up.”

Kemmer and Bonaparte started the effort for the Germans with piaffes that were right on the spot and a relaxed walk, earning a 72.25 percent. “They sent me first because I have strong nerves,” she said. “I know that feeling now; I am used to it. We are here to go for it.

“A little pressure isn’t so bad for us,” she added. “We try to get better and better. It feels good to have a partner to fight with.”

Capellmann and Elvis VA started the second day of competition for the Germans with a 70.08 percent and a few mistakes. “I’m not pleased with the piaffe. I [asked for] too much; maybe a little less would have been better, but I’m here at the Olympics and want to do my best,” she said.

She was pleased with her canter tour. “But the trot and piaffe I have to work on. In the first extended trot, he was looking at something. That’s normally an 8 or 9 for him. And in the extended walk he was distracted by something.”

Werth secured the win with the top score in the Grand Prix of 76.41 percent, with gorgeous half-passes and extensions from Satchmo.

“A lot of people didn’t believe in the German team after we lost the European Championships, so we’re really proud,” said Werth. “From the beginning we had a positive attitude that we could do it. Satchmo was in great shape, and I was hoping he could show the same [form] inside [the arena as in warm-up].”
Although Satchmo kicked out once in his piaffe, the pair had no other major mistakes.

“That can happen, but the rest was really good,” she said. “I’m really happy and excited that we got the gold medal. We are all really close, and that is the key to our success. Heike was a good competitor from the beginning, and we had a positive attitude that we could get it.”
Down To Three Riders

In an effort to accommodate more nations, the number of dressage riders per team was reduced from four to three this year. The change meant an unprecedented number of nations—22—competed, but there were mixed reactions about whether having a drop score added or detracted from the team competition.

“I’ve been fighting for it, and I’m really happy with it,” said Mariette Withages, technical delegate and chairman of the Fédération Equestre Internationale Dressage Committee. “As we get more horses, if we want to stay global, we have no choice.”

“It’s good,” said Belgian coach Johan Zagers. “It can allow more opportunities and more countries to participate in the Games.”
Emma Hindle of Great Britain also liked the idea of three riders. “It’s more interesting with three horses because if one horse has a problem or mistake, then everything is wide open.”

Anky van Grunsven of the Netherlands said she doesn’t like the new format with three riders. “You see a couple of teams like the U.S., where if there is one bad ride, the team is gone,” she said. “I hope it’s the last time we have a team of three; it’s more exciting with four.”

“Obviously it worked better for us to have four riders; that’s my preference for sure,” said U.S. team member Steffen Peters.

Andreas Helgstrand of Denmark said he could see both sides of the issue. “For us, we have not so many good riders, so it’s a good idea, but then for countries like Portugal, they have no team [when one rider has to withdraw], so I see both sides,” he said.

Withages said the International Olympic Committee is still debating whether to award two individual gold medals, one each for the Grand Prix Special and the Grand Prix freestyle, as is the case at the World Equestrian Games.

“The Germans believe in the classical way of doing dressage,” added Chef d’Equipe Martin Richenhagen. “We had good team spirit, good horses and good trainers.”

The Dutch Pull Off Silver

The Dutch assault on Germany’s domination got off to a shaky start when Minderhoud scored 69.62
percent aboard Nadine as the first rider of the competition. He rode seven strides instead of six in his
canter zigzag, and had a bobble in the piaffe, but he received high marks for his trot work and extended walk.

“When I heard the draw order, I wasn’t that happy, but I thought I could perform really well and put the pressure on the other riders,” he said. “But it was not good enough.”

Imke Schellekens-Bartels then scored 70.87 percent for the Dutch, despite Sunrise’s tongue flapping out of her mouth in the canter zigzag.

“I could come through my changes nicely, and my pirouettes were good,” she said. “The piaffe and passage could have been stronger, and she came behind my leg in the canter work and put her tongue behind the bit. It cost us a lot of points, but I could fix it.”

Schellekens-Bartels later had to withdraw Sunrise before the individual final because the mare came up uneven after the awards ceremony.

Anky van Grunsven said her score of 74.75 percent reflected a conservative ride aboard Salinero to secure the necessary points for the team silver. 

“I didn’t want to make a big mistake, but in the Special and freestyle I can go for it,” she said. “After yesterday I forgot about the gold team medal. We had a bad draw [as the first team to compete], and our first two rides were not good enough. If another country’s better, that’s life.

“It was a difficult competition for us,” she added. “We’d hoped for more, for sure. I’m disappointed with a couple of scores because I was happy with my own test, and I thought there could have been a few more points. It’s not the end of my life, although it’s a bit disappointing.”

Piaffe and passage highlighted Salinero’s test, as well as the pirouettes, although he moved off from his final halt. “He almost started to stand, and then the applause started, and that was it,” she said. “The changes were also good, and it was mistake free.”

Denmark Earns First Team Medal

Having earned the past four bronze medals, the U.S. team was favored again this year, but top performances from Danish riders, along with an inexplicably unsettled test from Debbie McDonald and Brentina, meant they finished fourth.

Andreas Helgstrand of Denmark said his team Grand Prix test (68.83%) may have been the most important he’s ever ridden, and together with scores from Anne van Olst and Clearwater (67.37%) and Nathalie Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein on Digby (70.41%), it was good enough to bring bronze to Denmark for the first time.

“I’ve never ridden under such pressure,” Helgstrand said. “I’d hoped for a bit more; I was not super happy with my test. I was trying to qualify for a team medal and not do a stupid thing.”

He didn’t like one of his piaffes or his last extended trot. “I could hear him breathing—the weather got to him a bit,” he said. “But there was no problem with spooking; he is a gentleman.”

McDonald couldn’t explain the performance of the mare who’s never let her down before.

“She started spooking at something on the side,” said McDonald of the chestnut mare who has earned Olympic, World Championship and Pan American Games medals. “I have no idea what it was. I couldn’t put my leg on or anything. It totally took me by surprise. I feel awful. I knew in the pirouettes I had no hope. It was a bad day.”

Courtney King-Dye and Mythilus had gotten the U.S. team off to a fabulous start with a 70.45 percent.

But after McDonald left the arena on 63.00 percent, Peters needed to score 73.60 percent with Ravel to bring the U.S. team up to bronze.

It was a stiff task for a horse who shows supreme talent but was competing in only his 12th Grand Prix. Peters risked as much as he could, but their strong performance fell short of the mark at 70.00 percent.

Peters lost some points when Ravel grew tense in his extended walk, and his first and last piaffes weren’t quite as good as he’d hoped, but his trot work—especially the half-passes—was lovely.

“Right now I couldn’t expect more of him,” said Peters. “I went for it in the half-passes and extensions. I
can’t risk that much in the changes right now, so I went for safe and clean.”

But even with the bronze eluding them, Peters said McDonald had no reason to apologize to the team. “The last four or five weeks, [Brentina] has been extremely consistent,” he said. “They’re horses, not machines. Some people say horses are human too, but horses are horses.”

Van Grunsven’s Third Title

The race between Werth and van Grunsven for the individual gold medal intensified when they each made major mistakes in the Grand Prix Special. Werth prevailed in this first of two tests to determine the individual champion, in part due to van Grunsven’s mistakes in the half-passes and two-tempis.

But Satchmo also made an unbelievable mistake, performing six or seven steps of piaffe before rearing and backing up.
Balagur Wins Fans

Alexandra Korelova of Russia advanced into the Grand Prix freestyle in fifth place and finished her second Olympic Games in sixth place aboard Balagur.

Korelova, 31, took over the reins of the gray Orlov Trotter stallion when he was 11, after he’d spent most of his life as a police horse in Russia. “I made a video of him and sent it to [the late German dressage trainer] George Theodorescu,” she said. “He said take the horse and bring him to me quickly.”

She started training the horse in December of his 11-year-old year and had him performing the Grand Prix movements by April of the following year, despite the fact that he didn’t know how to perform a proper walk at first. She now works with George’s daughter, Monica Theodorescu, in Germany as often as possible. 

“He doesn’t want to be a police horse again. He understands that a dressage life is better and more interesting. He is the best partner, and I have so much luck to get this horse,” she said of her now 18-year-old partner. “It’s a dream.”

The pair, who excels at the piaffe-passage tour, competed in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games and 2006 World Equestrian Games (Germany). Korelova also has an economics degree from the State University of Nizhniy Novgorod.

“I’ve worked in finance, but the horses are much more interesting,” she said.

“There’s nothing I could say is the reason,” said Werth. “Horses are animals, and anything can happen. I don’t know what happened; I was really surprised. I was a bit upset like everyone else, but the most important thing was to get him back as soon as possible.”

Then, in the freestyle, Satchmo resisted again in the piaffe, and the mistake opened the door for van Grunsven, who specializes in freestyle.

As the last rider in the ring, van Grunsven didn’t disappoint her Dutch fans, scoring 82.40 percent for her freestyle, performed to “Dance Of Devotion” by Wibi Soerjadi. She earned a 10 for piaffe-passage transitions and 9s on her passage and piaffe, and her combined Special and freestyle scores put her first on 78.68 percent.

“Her piaffe-passage transitions were unbelievable,” said Gotthilf Riexinger, president of the ground jury. “Her harmony and music were fantastic.”

The only low scores she received were for her last halt, which came shortly after her last piaffe, and Salinero never stopped moving his feet. Van Grunsven had already ridden that last piaffe with a huge smile, and although she waited a moment for him to halt, in the end she just dropped her reins and wrapped her arms around his neck, knowing she’d already won.

She said she felt more relaxed than in her earlier tests, knowing that Salinero, her 14-year-old Hanoverian by Salieri, could do a good freestyle. “I knew I still had to do a good test [after Satchmo’s mistake], but I didn’t have to take all the risk. If I didn’t feel safe, I wouldn’t have done my changes on a curved line.

“It’s unbelievable to win a third individual gold medal in a row on two different horses,” she added, referring to Bonfire, her 2000 Olympic champion. “I’m the most spoiled person in the world with two good horses.”

Although her husband and trainer, Sjef Janssen, is encouraging her to try for the London Olympic Games in 2012, van Grunsven isn’t aiming for another Olympics since Salinero is already 14.

“[The age of] 16 would be realistic, but 18 is too much,” she said. “I’ve been so unbelievably spoiled with two wonderful horses, and I don’t think a person can have three. If I don’t have a really top horse, I’m not interested because there are many other things to do. I don’t feel like competing at the Olympics for 20th place. I will do it well or do other things in life. I have children, and I don’t want to go on until I’m 80.”

Werth couldn’t explain Satchmo’s second resistance, except to say that he’d been frightened in the Special and remembered that again in the freestyle as she began a piaffe pirouette. He stopped the piaffe, backed up, spun and lifted his front end, earning marks of 5s and 6s for the piaffe and the transition that followed. Her second-placed freestyle score of 78.10 percent resulted in a combined score of 76.65 percent for silver.

“In the last three years, no other horse has had so few mistakes in so many competitions,” said Werth. “The whole atmosphere made him a bit sensitive. The rest was super; nothing was wrong with it. Without this mistake, I’m sure it would be very exciting between Anky and me.”

She said her test, performed to “Hymn Of Emotion” by Markus Lehmann-Horn and Michael Erdmann, was as difficult as it could be, including two-tempis straight into one-tempis as well as a pirouette to extended canter and back to pirouette again.

Now she will focus on getting Satchmo’s confidence back. Although she’d had trouble with the 14-year-old Hanoverian by Sao Paulo several years ago, she hasn’t lost faith in him. “This horse is outstanding, and my emotions for him have not changed because of two mistakes,” she said.

Olympic Debuts For Mythilus And Ravel

Peters said Ravel, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood by Contango, may have made the best international debut in Olympic history, finishing on a score of 76.50 percent in his freestyle, for a combined score of 74.15 percent and fourth place, just .3 penalties from the individual bronze medal.

Peters was gracious and thrilled with his fourth place. “Sometimes you have dreams, and today it felt like I was dreaming, and I was in charge of the dream,” he said after riding to his highest score in the freestyle. “It was not enough for the bronze, but I was happy.”

He said his test to Rolling Stones and Talking Heads music, edited by Terry Gallo, went even better than the one he’d performed when he won the U.S. selection trials.

“He was more active in the piaffe, and I was able to add a few steps,” he said. “He was so with me the whole time.”

But he couldn’t quite make up the points he’d lost due to tension in the two-tempis, for which he scored 4s and 5s, and Riexinger said he was marked down for sometimes being too short in the neck and for high action with one of his hind legs.

“I had to risk it and really rode forward [in the two-tempis],” Peters said. “You have to dream and have those goals, but you also have to be realistic. This was a wonderful stepping stone.”

Peters’ rapid progress with Akiko Yamazaki’s Dutch Warmblood has been remarkable, especially considering that Ravel had a long lay-off last year with an injury to his left front leg and had only competed in 11 Grand Prix classes before the Olympic Games.

“I knew I had a wonderful horse and seeing him sidelined was very tough,” said Peters.

Now Ravel will return home to San Diego, Calif., where Peters said he’s promised to build a small pasture just for his latest Olympic partner. He plans to take it easy for a while before starting World Cup qualifiers in November.

“The welfare of the horse comes first, and I hope to compete him [in a career] as long as Floriano, Grandeur and Udon,” said Peters of his previous championship horses, who all competed into their late teens.

King-Dye’s first Olympic experience was hampered by Mythilus feeling lethargic for a few days before the competition, but she still managed to post the best team score in the Grand Prix and advance to the Special and freestyle, where she finished 13th overall.

“He needed a couple more days to acclimate to the heat,” she said of her 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood by Ferro. “I’m particular and paranoid about the health of my horses, and I’m glad we have such fantastic team vets, who told me he’s totally fit and ready to compete.”

She said the opportunity to compete in the Olympics was largely due to a contingent of 250 supporters, who sent her various amounts of money, as well as Mythilus’ owner, Harmony Amateur Sports Foundation and Leslie Malone (see Aug. 8, p. 8 ).

“Without that support for the past two years, I would never be able to be here, or training away from home for eight months out of 12,” said King-Dye, of New Milford, Conn. “I loved the Olympics, even with the difficulties I had with Mythilus,” she added. “The team unity and support of everyone here—it was a fantastic experience. I learned so much as an athlete about priorities with the horses. It was an incredible learning experience. He tries his heart out, and I’m looking forward to the rest of my years with him.”

McDonald had decided before the Olympic Games that this would be Brentina’s final competition, and the famous 17-year-old Hanoverian mare is headed home to Hailey, Idaho, to her retirement. 


Olympic Dressage Tidbits

•    Bernadette Pujals of Mexico concluded the Olympic Games in ninth place on Vincent, despite the shock of losing her mother just 20 days before the Games began. “I feel like I could not ask for more,” she said of her 16-year-old Hanoverian by Weltmeyer.

•    Emma Hindle made an impressive appearance for Great Britain despite having an ovarian tumor removed six weeks before the Games. She couldn’t start riding again until the horses were in quarantine but credited her trainer, Richard White, who also trained Kyra Kyrklund (eighth overall) and Nathalie Zu Sayn-Wittgenstein (15th), for her seventh-placed finish. “This is more than I ever dreamed of, really, to come to Asia and do this well,” said Hindle, who also suffered a broken arm in the beginning of the season. “It’s all very well to be good, but to do it when it matters is a special quality that the best have and we all strive to achieve.”

•    Jan Brink said Briar may have made his final championship appearance, finishing 10th for Sweden. “If he is still fresh and can qualify [for the FEI World Cup Final] for Las Vegas, then he will go,” he said of the 17-year-old Swedish-bred warmblood. “I will retire him when he’s fresh, not when he’s fading. He did so much; I want to honor him.”

•    Luiza Almeda of Brazil became the youngest rider ever to compete in equestrian sports in the Olympic Games. At age 16, riding a 9-year-old horse, she finished 40th in the Grand Prix. “I don’t have any expectations; I just want to do my best,” she said. “My horse is young, me too. I want to show that age doesn’t matter.”

•    Australian dressage rider Hayley Beresford picked an unusual place to ride her fourth Grand Prix Special test—the Olympic Games. Beresford, 30, found out only five hours before her ride time that she’d be competing in the Special. After finishing 26th in the Grand Prix, she thought she’d be out of the running, but Imke Schellekens-Bartels’ last-minute withdrawal put her into the mix and she scored a 66.32 percent on Relampago. The ride was an emotional one for Beresford, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in early 2005. Radiation and surgery put her into remission quickly. “I am very lucky—I’m young, healthy and fit. I had an early diagnosis and treatment went well,” she said. Beresford only missed a few days of riding through her treatment, keeping four horses in work.

Beth Rasin
 
Horse Sports
 

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