“Oh, the places horses take us. He’s been an adventure from the start,” Joe Sandven said of Rachmaninoff.
And on May 21-23, Sandven and “Rocky’s” adventures led them to Wayne, Ill., for the Lamplight CDI, where they scored Sandven’s first CDI wins in the Grand Prix (65.06%) and the Grand Prix freestyle (71.25%).
Sandven was pleased with a clean Grand Prix test, “and then he felt really on for the freestyle. He gave me everything I asked for, and it’s a fairly complicated freestyle. We had no mistakes, so being able to ride two clean tests in a CDI is just OK by me,” Sandven said.
Rocky’s freestyle is—of course—ridden to a compilation of Rachmaninoff music.
“I think it’s a great piece of music just to listen to, and Marlene Whitaker did a great job putting it together,” Sandven said. “It’s a little complicated to ride because there are a lot of changes in the music, from really big music and then back to nice light delicate stuff. The music always tells me what I need to be doing, so I almost don’t have to worry about remembering the test—certain music sounds like half-pass. I get a kick out of riding it.”
In Rocky’s freestyle, Sandven highlights his canter work and transitions between piaffe and passage. He also performs 25 one-tempis to 15 two-tempis to 25 one-tempis into a double pirouette in front of the judges.
“When I put the freestyle together, I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to get bored with it. I want to be able to grow into it,’ ” Sandven said. “So I was finally able to do it justice and get everything I’d set up for myself right.”
Rocky, 12, and Sandven have been competing at Grand Prix since 2007 and were on the U.S. Equestrian Federation long list for the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong, but Sandven thinks they’ve made a big breakthrough this year.
“He always had great big gaits and was willing to get up and go, but it all comes down to those simple things like the half-halts,” he said. “At this show, I focused on all the things we hear about—riding your corners, using your half-halts. I just have been working on such basic stuff that it paid off in the hard stuff.”
Sandven trained in Florida over the winter with Cathy Connelly, who introduced Rocky to some long-lining and in-hand work. Sandven credited those hours for helping Rocky, and now all his horses, be more responsive to his half-halts.
“Somehow it made something click in him, and he’s gained leaps and bounds,” he said. “He’s always had good piaffe and passage, but it makes a difference when you’re standing on the ground and you can see what you’re asking for. I think that’s what made the biggest difference since Florida.”
Skinny As A Fish
Sandven, of Fletcher, N.C., bought Rocky, by Rubenstein, as a 4-year-old at the Verden, Germany, auction.
“He was 18 hands as a 4-year-old but skinny as a fish. Luckily he didn’t grow any taller!” Sandven said. “Debbie McDonald tried him and thought he’d be able to do the work, but he was too big for her. I was able to afford him.”
From the first time Sandven saw the horse, he knew he had to have him, and he hoped the gelding was too big for anyone else to want.
“It was all the money in the world I had to spend, but it was chump change on what most people spend on a potential Grand Prix horse,” he said. “I had to buy him young and make him myself— I couldn’t afford to buy him now if I wanted to.”
Rocky won the Markel/USEF Young Dressage Horse Eastern Selection Trials in his 5-year-old year and traveled back to Verden to compete at the World Breeding Championships. The pair also competed in the Markel/USEF National Young Horse Dressage Championships the next year. In 2006, Rocky won the Heidelburg Cup. By the time he was 10, the gelding had caught the attention of the USEF.
“We got to play with the high-performance stuff and found out that it’s a lot tougher than it looks! It was great to have such goals and get to play with the big dogs, even if you don’t get to win all the time,” Sandven said.
After their success at Lamplight, Sandven is mailing in his letter of intent for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. He hopes to be invited to Gladstone, N.J., for the Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF Festival of Champions and WEG selection trials.
Sandven and his wife, Helen Wiest, run Tantalus Farm in Fletcher, N.C. Wiest is a radiologist who rides and shows dressage in her spare time, and Sandven has a training and sales business.
“Helen told me that if I wanted to be with her, I had to move to Asheville, N.C., where she worked, so I said, ‘Yes, dear.’ We built the farm, and it just turned out to be our little slice of Heaven,” he said. “I do a little bit of training and teaching, but most of the time we import young Hanoverians and train them until we sell them. That’s how I support my horse habit.”
Though he’s in the sales business, Sandven knew right away Rocky was a keeper. The gelding is the best horse of his career so far, and he’s enjoying the ride.
“He’s fun to even just stand and look at. I take him out for an evening hand-graze and just get a kick out of watching him,” he said.
Did you enjoy this article? Want to know more about the Lamplight CDI and other great dressage competitions like it? Consider subscribing. A longer version of "Sandven And Rachmaninoff Play A Winning Grand Prix Tune At Lamplight CDI" ran in the June 11 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.