Bravo, Omaha!

Apr 17, 2017 - 11:25 AM

Our columnist, who was president of the ground jury at the FEI World Cup Dressage Final, reports on how the top riders—and the competition—impressed the officials.

When I first heard of the 2017 FEI World Cup Final going to Omaha, Neb., I did a double take. Really?

A year later there was a test event, and riders and judges came back raving about the facility. OK, but it was still in Omaha, where I would most probably never had gone if it were not for being a judge at the World Cup this year. And was it ever fabulous!

The CenturyLink Center is possibly the best indoor venue available in the United States. Attached to the Hilton hotel, where competitors and officials stayed, you arrived via a skywalk to the spacious upper floor of the exhibition hall where VIP lounges, offices and media were housed. Down the escalator, the main floor was set up with a trade fair second to none in the world, offering not just equestrian equipment but fashion, jewelry, furs, cosmetics and leather attire from jackets to boots.

In the center was a sizable schooling ring where spectators had a perfect view of all warm-ups for dressage and jumping, with a cafe, full bar and food service next to it. You could have been at any show in Germany or the Netherlands and had the same atmosphere. The main arena is huge and has all the bells and whistles of a world-class sports venue.

I had the fortune to make the acquaintance of Lisa Roskens, the soul of this event. She is a businesswoman and jumper rider who has a farm on the edge of Omaha and is active in the local equestrian club. Ever since she visited the 2009 FEI World Cup Final in Las Vegas, Lisa has had her mind set on bringing a top equestrian event to the heartland of America.

She and her like-minded friends, mainly Susan Runnels (executive director for the Omaha International) and Mike West (CEO of Omaha Equestrian Foundation), formed a foundation and have worked tirelessly to promote the idea. They were very successful in fundraising and educated themselves by visiting World Cup events in the United States and Europe over the last eight years. This April all their efforts came to fruition.

At the draw for the first dressage and jumping class, Lisa gave an inspired speech, and it was written all over her how thrilled she was to have the best riders in the world in both disciplines sitting right there in front of her.

This event took place in the aquarium of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, considered one of the best in existence. Carl Hester of Great Britain, assisted by Judy Reynolds of Ireland, made the dressage draw, usually a mundane event, into an amusing entertainment by bantering back and forth with a great sense of humor.

Top Horses

The collection of dressage horses was an extremely elite group. I’ve been to a number of World Cups, and there has always been a star combination or two, but I don’t recall an overall quality field like the one this year. And, in spite of the fact that the European Championships are in August, all the European riders brought their top horses.

Unfortunately, we lost our defending 2016 champion Glock’s Flirt due to a last-minute injury. His rider, Dutchman Hans Peter Minderhoud, told me he was so disappointed he didn’t want to go at all, but then he decided to, rather than sitting at home and wondering what was happening. Well, we all know how this kind of setback feels, but I think Hans Peter cheered up a little when he arrived and saw huge posters of Flirt and himself all over Omaha.

There was a buzz of excitement as we started the Grand Prix on Thursday. Although the class only determines the order of go for the freestyle, it sets the tone for the performance of each horse and gives them an opportunity to work in the arena before the kür.

As the president of the ground jury, I was pleased to find, after only a couple of rides, that we had a good team assembled to do the job of selecting the best out of this challenging group of horses and riders. The quality of these equines has improved incredibly in just the last couple of years. What used to be considered an international prospect a very short time ago is now a “nice horse” but not necessarily considered fit for prime time.

But, as always, even a supreme athlete has a few flaws or especially strong points of his own. This is where, particularly in the freestyle, the rider has to showcase the talents of the horse and cover up for a possible weakness.

We saw a great deal of very competent riding at this World Cup. The three eventual top placers (Isabell Werth, Laura Graves and Carl Hester) are masters on the extremely capable horses they showed, but what was interesting was the differences in build and talents between their mounts.

Isabell’s mare Weihegold OLD is the queen of collection, feminine in type, light on her feet, and with an inborn ability to “sit” and accept weight on her hindquarters without showing any physical or emotional stress. Verdades, Laura’s mount, is almost the opposite, filling your eye with his large-boned presence and displaying enormous power, volume and positive tension in his movement. He gives you the impression there is even more available and that his reach in the lateral work is limitless. In the meantime, Nip Tuck is more middle of the road, but he displays such accuracy and precision in every step and movement that it’s impossible to deny him and Carl a single point they earn.

On the first day all the judges had Isabell on top, but not by much, and since I wasn’t entirely convinced, my scores between first and second in the Grand Prix were only a fraction apart.

My position was that while Verdades went full out from start to finish and had a very clean test, Weihegold was quite conservative in the beginning trot work and did not really start to shine until after a third of the program. She also had a mistake in the two-tempis.

The three top horses remained in their positions after the freestyle, when Isabell and the mare were really on the job, displaying their flawless piaffes and spot-on transitions to remind us how and why they earned an Olympic team gold in Brazil last year.

The three were, however, given a fair fight by Judy Reynolds on Vancouver, who has an incredibly difficult freestyle program and managed to almost pull it all off, except for the changes on the first centerline where she starts with the tempis immediately after the halt. With the new judging system for evaluating difficulty in use, Judy took advantage of every point and managed to surpass Dutch rider Edward Gal, whom she’d finished closely behind in the Grand Prix, to take fourth.

Dressage In Middle America

After spraying her colleagues on the podium with Champagne in a burst of victory joy, Isabell had a lot of praise for the Omaha venue and the organization of the show. She expressed her appreciation of the facility, the care taken to ensure the safety and comfort of the horses, and the friendly atmosphere.

These sentiments were echoed by many of the riders, and Omaha can be rightfully proud of their first FEI World Cup event being a resounding success. I very much doubt it will be their last!

An additional highlight in Omaha was the incredible jumping performance displayed by McLain Ward. His rides were, like Isabell Werth’s freestyle, a study in how to win and make it look easy.

They both showed, in their own different disciplines, how horse and rider can unite to go beyond partnership to become one in body and mind.

As I walked around in Old Market, a reminder of the days when the cattle drives came through, now turned into restaurants and shops, I thought of the late Lowell Boomer, founder of the U.S. Dressage Federation. He started the office in Lincoln, Neb., because he lived there, but he also hoped that the location would bring dressage to the center of America.

The USDF now has its headquarters in Kentucky, and I’m certain Lowell would be very proud of how it’s developed and grown into the organization in charge of all education about our sport. But I know he would have gotten a huge charge out of taking part in this event on his home turf. Well, maybe he did, who knows?

Anne Gribbons was the U.S Equestrian Federation technical advisor for dressage from 2010-2012. She has trained and shown 15 horses of her own to Grand Prix and competed in 10 national championships, as well as in Europe, including the Aachen CHIO (Germany). Seven of her horses have been named U.S. Dressage Federation Horse of the Year, and she was a member of the 1995 Pan American Games silver medal-winning team for the United States. Anne is a Fédération Equestre Internationale five-star judge, and she was a member of the FEI Dressage Committee from 2010-2013. She was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame in 2013. Anne started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995, and a collection of those columns is now available in the book Collective Remarks.


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