Every World Equestrian Games Has A Lesson To Teach

Sep 17, 2010 - 3:51 AM

Attending every World Show Jumping Championship since 1978 has left this author with countless memories.

We are rapidly approaching the start of the first U.S.-hosted Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. This particular event, which hosts the World Championships in every Fédération Equestre Internationale discipline, happens to be the event I anticipate and enjoy most within our sport. I am honored to be a member of the ground jury for show jumping and the show jumping expert for eventing this year, but there is no way I would miss it even if this weren’t the case.

I attended my first World Championship for jumping in 1978 in Aachen, Germany, and I haven’t missed a single one since. Watching, whether in the role of spectator or official, has provided more opportunities to learn about the sport and its evolution than just about anything else I could imagine. Each one brings back clear memories of special pairings and the courses they jumped.

That trip to Aachen was a real eye-opener, as it was my first time live at a European event. Although I viewed it all from a seat toward the back of the immense grandstand, I won’t forget watching the then-new combos of Paul Schoeckemohle and his soon to be great Deister, or Hugo Simon and the amazing little chestnut Gladstone.

I watched in awe as Conrad Homfeld (this year’s WEG course designer) on Balbuco nearly fell to trot on the approach to the largest and toughest triple combination I had ever seen and jumped out clear—unlike the large number who came to grief at the huge vertical/oxer/oxer effort.

It was thrilling to watch four superlative yet very different riders with totally different horses in the Final Four. No one thought the big, strong German, Gert Wiltfang, could ride Michael Matz’s fine Thoroughbred, Jet Run, but a surprisingly sensitive ride brought the gold home once again to Germany. Michael finished with bronze despite leading coming into the final day.

The next championship meant traveling to the horse-crazy country of Ireland and its famous Royal Dublin Society grounds. Aachen’s huge grass field is equaled only by Dublin’s monstrous arena. I watched Norbert Koof win the change of horses thanks to his giant dark chestnut, Fire. Everyone else found him so very difficult to master. Malcolm Pyrah, a great rider in his own right, struggled with the nearly 18-hand German horse so different from his own more nimble Anglezarke. Norbert’s victory was a timely one since he suffered severe paralysis in a fall not that much later.

This was the first time I witnessed the superb horsemanship of Frenchman Michel Robert. Michel, now in his 60s and still riding at the top of his game, is one of the smoothest riders I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch. He was a successful eventer before focusing strictly on jumping, and his forward yet smooth style is a joy to watch.

A Personal Stake

Four years later, the championships returned to Aachen. Watching the event unfold had a new meaning for me since this was the first team selected by a new selection committee on which I served. Conrad Homfeld, Katie Monahan (now Prudent), Michael Matz and Katharine Burdsall made up the team.

The first three were seasoned international competitors, but my friend Pamela Carruthers (a renowned course designer from England) had something to say about a newcomer to this level of competition being on the team at no less a venue than Aachen. Katherine saw us all proud, however, and gave her teammates the scores needed to see a victory for the U.S. team. Conrad went on to win an individual silver medal riding his Olympic partner Abdullah in what proved to be a very exciting change of horses.

By the next time the championships rolled around a whole new event had been created bringing championships for all the FEI disciplines together in a true World Equestrian Games. Prior to this event each discipline had organized its own championships, each at a different venue and time.

For lovers of the sport this was an exciting time to be in Stockholm, Sweden. Most of the events were held within a beautiful old stadium in the center of the city, but even the eventing cross-country was walking distance in a huge city park. Fewer disciplines were recognized by the FEI back then—reining, endurance and para-equestrian have been added since 1990—but it was still a huge undertaking. The organizers held a test event the year prior to make sure everything ran like a Swiss watch, and I learned a lot about all that goes into a production like this when I served on the ground jury for the test event.

American-bred Gem Twist was named best horse in Stockholm with Greg Best aboard. He led the competition after the five rounds of jumping leading up to the Final Four, but Gem Twist jumped a little too well for the other three riders on Sunday. It was an exciting change of horses because not only did we get to see Gem under two Frenchmen, (eventual winner) Eric Navet and Hubert Bourdy, but rival equine star Henderson Milton with John Whitaker was also in the mix. What a pair of grays those two horses made!

On to 1994 and the trip to The Hague, the Netherlands. Serving as the technical delegate for jumping at this one really gave me insight into what it takes to host one of these extravaganzas. Without a true test event, and with a venue constructed especially for the arena events, there were many times that management was stretched to the max to make things happen. Yet the jumping was super.

The German team swept to victory with more than a 12-fault margin. These riders had something to prove after failing to win with a team since the team event had been created in 1978. Franke Sloothaak, with his blue-eyed mare Weihaiwej, became the first rider in 20 years to emerge with the gold after coming into the Final Four in first place. Three riders from Germany made up the top four. Unfortunately, the United States was not part of the medal ceremonies despite the efforts of Patty Stovel, Tim Grubb, Susie Hutchison and Leslie Lenehan.

Rome took over the chore of hosting the 1998 edition of the WEG after the Irish government failed to assist the Irish organizers who had originally been awarded the bid. Rome kept the budget down as much as possible, but the quality of the competition didn’t suffer in the slightest. And who can ever object to a visit to this incredible city?

Our riders were once again shut out of the awards ceremonies with strong teams from Germany, France and Great Britain sweeping the team event. It was a very exciting individual final with Rodrigo Pessoa clinching the title over Thierry Pomel from France, Franke Sloothaak of Germany, and Willi Melliger from Switzerland on his huge gray Calvaro. Very different horses, and once again, riders with very different styles. It was incredible to watch the horsemanship displayed by each of them.

In 2002 sports fans were off to Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. Very different in atmosphere but great fun and great sport once again. The United States still didn’t manage a team medal—it was getting very frustrating to have been shut out four times since our win in 1986. But Peter Wylde brought home individual bronze on his lovely bay mare, Fein Cera. He is a beautiful soft rider to watch, and I think we were all especially happy to see his success after the sacrifice he made to return to the States for the selection trials from his base in Europe. The individual winner was Dermott Lennon from Ireland with former winner Eric Navet in second.

Long Wait For A Team Medal

The next trip was back to Aachen once more for the largest and one of the most exciting WEGs yet. This would be the last edition of the championships prior to our own event in Lexington, Ky. By now the event comprised seven disciplines (para-equestrian will make its debut this year, bringing it up to eight), and the scope of it made the two previous championships I had attended in Aachen pale by comparison. Aachen 1978 included 58 riders from 17 countries (12 teams). The 2006 edition had 116 riders from 41 nations (25 teams)—double the numbers in every respect.

As a course designer I especially appreciated the effort it took for Frank Rothenberger to come up with suitable tracks while working around the dressage court complex in the central portion of the huge stadium. He achieved great jumping throughout the week despite the virtual racetrack shape of the remaining field.

The U.S. team was comprised of Margie Engle, Laura Kraut, Beezie Madden and McLain Ward, and they did us proud with silver in the team event (behind the Dutch and ahead of the Germans) along with Beezie’s silver in the individual.

For the first time three women contested the final against Jos Lansink of Belgium. Despite the five-foot plus track, the level of these four competitors became just a lot of jumping on the horses’ part without a result since Meredith, Jos and Beezie were faultless on all four horses. They got back on their tired or frazzled horses for a three-way jump-off, which ended with Jos on top, Beezie silver and Meredith bronze.

It shows how the sport has progressed that three women made the final when prior to that only two other women had made it this far: Gail Greenough from Canada who won in 1986 and Helena Lundbäck from Sweden who finished fourth in 2002. In fact, a separate Women’s World Championships were held in 1965, 1970 and 1974. Kathy Kusner won silver in 1970, and in 1974 Michele McEvoy (Grubb) won silver as well.

I appreciate the format used for these championships because the gamut of questions posed over the first five rounds of jumping requires exceptional ability, consistency and cool nerve to master. The team event, unlike a Nations Cup or even the Olympic Games, counts three rounds: the initial big Table C as well as both rounds of the team format.

For the individual, the results of two more rounds are added so the individual rider coming into the last day has proven his or her mettle beyond all doubt. The Final Four, however, is not my favorite part of the format since, once the four riders are determined from the five prior rounds, they all start from zero in this change of horses portion.

Historically the horse-and-rider combination with the best performance over the toughest courses is the least likely to win. In the eight editions of the world championships prior to 1978 there were four occasions when the leader coming into the final went on to win. In the eight editions since 1974 only Franke and Rodrigo managed to win from the pole position.

Interestingly enough three of those eight times saw U.S. riders enter the final having led to that point. I am a great believer that the sport is based on a team of horse and rider and what they can produce together. I don’t like this means of determining the individual medals any more than I would like to see figure skating pairs change partners in order to win a medal. Yet despite some level of controversy this is the way it continues to be done, at least for now.

As I finish this column the short list for the U.S. team this year has just come out naming McLain Ward and Sapphire, Laura Kraut and Cedric, Lauren Hough and Quick Study, and Mario Deslauriers with Urico in the top four spots, with Candice King and Skara Glen’s Davos as the traveling reserve.

It is still a few weeks out, and as we all know horses can be fragile commodities at times, so nothing is absolutely certain until the end, but our team members have all worked very hard and demonstrated their great abilities at the top of the sport. They all deserve our support, in person, during this first-time-in-America event. If you come you won’t regret it I’m sure, and you might just begin a tradition of traveling off to wherever the next Games are held and start collecting the array of memories that I’ve accumulated over the years.

See you in Lexington!

Noted international course designer Linda Allen created the show jumping courses for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 1992 FEI World Cup Finals. She’s a licensed judge, technical delegate and a former international show jumper. She lives in Fillmore, Calif., and San Juan Cosalá, Jalisco, Mexico, and founded the International Jumper Futurity and the Young Jumper Championships. Allen began writing Between Rounds columns in 2001.

If you’re a Chronicle subscriber, you can log into www.coth.com and read all of the Between Rounds columns that were printed in the last five years.


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