For years Christopher Hickey has been waiting for the opportunity to stand on the top step of a podium with the U.S. national anthem playing in the background.
“I’ve been around a long time and competing heavily for many years on many horses, but every time I was close to making a team for [the] Olympic Festival or Pan Am Games something would happen with me or my horse,” said Hickey. “One Olympic Festival I had appendicitis two days before the horses were to leave. I was in the hospital having my appendix taken out as the horses were being loaded onto the truck, so I wasn’t able to go. Then two Pan Ams ago [in 1999 in Winnipeg] I had a horse problem at the last moment, so I couldn’t go.”
So when Hickey traveled down to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the Pan American Games dressage competition, July 14-18, he made good use of his time in the ring, riding off with the individual gold medal aboard Regent. He also helped the United States to its third consecutive Pan Am team gold with teammates Lauren Sammis, aboard Sagacious HF, and Katherine Poulin-Neff, riding Brilliant Too. Sammis also snagged the individual silver medal, and Yvonne Losos de Muñiz took the bronze back to the Dominican Republic.
Susan Dutta also traveled to Brazil as the reserve rider. According to the new format at the Pan Am Games, only three riders compete, but Dutta, who brought Pik L, also received a gold medal for her contributions to the team’s success.
The U.S. team’s performance was all the more impressive considering their inexperience. Although Hickey had competed twice in the North American Young Riders Championship, neither Sammis nor Poulin-Neff had ever ridden for the flag nor competed internationally before.
The sacred experience of riding as a member of the U.S. team wasn’t lost on Sammis. “It’s my first time I’ve ever been on a team, and that support that you have from other team members has just been amazing,” she raved. “To go in and feel like you’re not just riding for yourself—it’s so rare in this sport that you’re cheer-
ing others on, wanting them to do better and better.”
Sammis was especially moved by her first overseas competition. “I went to opening ceremonies,” she said. “I was the only equestrian that went, so I got to represent us all. From going to the Pan Am Village and
meeting the other athletes, I’m in such awe of everyone. It was an amazing ceremony.”
Realizing Golden Dreams
Hickey started the competition by placing second in the Prix St. Georges with a 69.15 percent behind Sammis, and his rides just improved as the competition went on.
“That first day of competition was not that horse’s best day, but I knew that,” said Hickey. “That horse at the horse shows has gotten better as the show progresses. You have to have faith and not be too greedy on the first day and say, ‘I’m fine. It’s OK,’ ” explained Hickey. “Then I add gas and fire him up. You have to decide where the most important days are.”
Hickey’s strategy paid off as he and Regent improved with every test, winning both classes in the individual competition: the Intermediaire I and the Intermediaire freestyle. By the Intermediaire I day, the Dutch Warmblood gelding (Flemmingh—Jenny) was stealing the show.
“Today I felt a little bit more secure in the collection—therefore he was a little bit more balanced and had a little more self-carriage,” said Hickey after winning the day’s competition. “So I was able to ride boldly, but he was also able to stay a little more underneath himself today, which allowed me to be a little bit more expressive in the extensions.”
Regent, owned by Brenna Kucinski, put in an excellent performance during the pair’s difficult freestyle, earning them the day’s highest score despite a few mistakes.
“The freestyle is very complicated,” explained Hickey, who trains out of Hilltop Farm in Colora, Md. “When I make one little mistake, especially at the canter, which I did today, it can go down the drain very quickly. But there are places in that freestyle for me to repeat things.”
After a mistake in the tempi changes, Hickey took advantage of this flexibility to sneak in an extra line of changes.
“I intended to re-ride the three-tempis,” he said. “I came into the three-tempis between the pirouettes, and my brain was saying three-tempis and my legs did two-tempis. I did a few and then thought, ‘Oh my God, these are twos! They are supposed to be threes!’ It was too late to do anything about it.”
Hickey hardly had time to enjoy his victory, however. The day after the individual competition ended he traveled to Verden, Germany, to compete in the 5-year-old division of the World Dressage Breeding Championships aboard Hilltop’s Cabana Boy. The rest of the U.S. dressage horses remained in Rio until the culmination of the eventing competition, July 23.
A Sagacious Presence
The friendly rivalry that cropped up between Sammis and Hickey leading up to the individual competition fell away as the silver medal hung around Sammis’ neck. The look of intensity and determination that had dominated her expression fell away, replaced by a sincere and relieved grin.
Sammis and Hyperion Farm’s Sagacious set the tone for the week with a confident ride in the Prix St. Georges that earned them the high score of the class, 70.20 percent.
“When I went into the ring I was staring at the judge at C and trying not to see anything else going on around me,” said Sammis. “I tried to ride just like it was any other horse show. Then after the first half-pass I thought to myself, ‘Well, you need to start to ride now, the trot work’s half over and you need to get it together.’ ”
Sammis impressed the judges—and the crowd—with Sagacious’ incredible presence. By the second day of competition, the Dutch Warmblood (Welt Hit II—Judith) literally stopped all conversation at the National Equestrian Center when he entered the ring. Even the wait staff in the VIP area stopped serving to watch the pair perform.
The pair’s performance slipped a bit during the Intermediaire I, however. Though it was a lovely test, Sammis executed only five of the required seven tempi changes and suffered a little bobble in the extended canter to collected canter transition.
“Sagacious was pretty fresh,” said Sammis. “You never quite know when you get on exactly how long the warm-up should be, if you need 40 minutes or half an hour before you go in, and you don’t really know that until it’s too late. He’s getting fresher as the time goes on instead of more tired; the horse hasn’t had a day off since we’ve been here.”
Sammis revamped her freestyle choreography before the Pan Ams, adding difficulty to match Sagacious’ growing abilities. The judges rewarded her more challenging test with the second-highest score of the day, securing the individual silver medal.
A Brilliant Week
The final U.S. rider, Katherine Poulin-Neff with Brilliant Too, showed the most improvement of the Games. She admitted that nerves hindered her performance during the Prix St. Georges when the ceremony surrounding the Games was at its peak. Tension marred the pair’s usually expressive canter sequences, though they still completed a solid test to stand sixth after the first day, good enough to score a team gold.
Though Poulin-Neff’s first-day jitters disappeared by the start of the individual competition, the 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood-Thoroughbred hadn’t yet relaxed. Something in the grandstand caught his eye, and he
stiffened and lost impulsion throughout the test, especially in the extensions heading into that spooky corner.
By freestyle day both Poulin-Neff and Brilliant Too entered the ring looking like seasoned international competitors, putting in their best ride of the week. Their score of 67.67 percent was good enough for sixth
“It’s been a learning experience,” said 28-year-old Poulin-Neff. “He’s never been in a stadium before. I’m really happy with the ride in consideration of what happened, him being nervous.”
Brilliant Too (Brilliant—Blue Brigetta) is owned by Poulin-Neff’s mother, Sharon Poulin, and was bred by the Poulins.
The Future Of The Sport
Going into the freestyle, only 1.4 points separated the top four riders, making for an exciting finish to the individual competition.
“We kept each other on our toes through the whole thing,” said Losos de Muñiz. “Nothing was clear-cut from the beginning, which was fun. We were all waiting right to the end; that’s the most fun in the competition.”
Judge and FEI Dressage Committee Chairwoman Mariette Withages agreed. “It was very thrilling for the five judges who were the members of the ground jury, and we might as well have been reading a James Bond book,” she said.
Withages has judged in many of the countries represented at the Games over the past few years, and she also served as a member of the ground jury for the 2003 Pan Am Games in the Dominican Republic, giving her a good feel for the state of the sport in Latin America.
“In a short period of time, the Central and Latin American countries have been doing a big jump forward,” said Withages. “Dressage is really growing fast in Latin America and doing very well all over the American continent.”
One of the sport’s biggest advocates in the region is Dominican Losos de Muñiz. The sole dressage rider from her country, she successfully defended her 2003 individual bronze medal after wowing the judges aboard 11-year-old Bernstein Las Marismas.
Though she spends much time in Spain training with Jean Bemelmas, she makes a point to encourage other riders in the Dominican Republic. For Losos de Muñiz winning the bronze medal was especially important to help the growth of horse sports in the Dominican Republic.
“I have a group of up-and-coming riders, and they need to see that their hard work can pay off,” she explained. “This medal will help to promote the sport in the Dominican Republic, give us the chance to campaign for more support and build the sport.”
Going into the Pan Am Games, the United States had already secured a spot at the 2008 Olympics after their strong performance at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany. But the Canadian dressage team still sought a ticket to Hong Kong that only a Pan Am team medal could provide.
With defending Pan Am individual gold medalist Leslie Reid staying in Canada, finishing in the top two, or top three behind the already-qualified U.S. team, was likely, but hardly a given.
At the end of the week, however, Tom Dvorak on Beaumarchais, Diane Creech on Wiona and Andrea Bresee on Raffles delivered the silver to their country, finishing right on the heels of the U.S. squad.
Meanwhile, Brazil earned their first dressage medal since the 1983 Caracas Pan Am Games, 24 years ago, as well as the right to send a dressage team to the Olympics. Even more impressive, the young team called two reserve riders into duty who boosted the team up to third ahead of Mexico.
Rogeiro Clementino, 25, earned his spot 10 days before the Games when Pia Aragão’s horse, Nirvana Interagro, colicked. Clementino’s teammate, 15-year-old Luiza Almeida, stepped in aboard Samba when veteran competitor Jorge Ferreira suffered from food poisoning the night before the competition. The precocious rider only took up dressage two years ago, before which she was a show jumper.