Wednesday, Jul. 3, 2024

For Olympic Dressage Riders, Different Paths But The Same Thrill In Selection

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The three dressage riders who will represent the United States at the Paris Olympic Games have taken very different paths to Versailles, but one thing was the same for all: the feeling that came from getting “the call.”

“Every time it just takes a second to sink in, that all of the stars aligned in the way that you were hoping for,” said Adrienne Lyle, Wellington, Florida. This will be her third Olympic appearance, after competing in the 2012 London Games and winning team silver in Tokyo in 2021. “There’s so many things that have to go just perfect along the journey, and I just feel so thankful that things worked out the way that we hoped. We’re getting the chance to do what we love on the world stage. I just feel so very thankful.”

Named to the team with her is her Tokyo silver-medal teammate Steffen Peters, the most senior member of the team with five past Olympic appearances—1996, 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2021—on his resume.

Steffen Peters rode Suppenkasper to team silver at the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games. Lisa Slade Photo

The fact that he’s received the fateful phone call five times before didn’t make the most recent one, from U.S. Dressage Team Chef d’Equipe Christine Traurig and Team Leader Laura Roberts, any less special.

“I received Christine and Laura’s official phone call [on Tuesday] at 4:45 p.m.,” said Peters, of San Diego, whose final selection performances were at the Hagen CDI3* (Germany), where he earned 72.86% and 72.66% in the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special, respectively, with Four Winds Farm and Akiko Yamazaki’s 16-year-old Dutch Warmblood Suppenkasper (Spielberg—Upanoeska, IPS Krack C). “I still remember receiving Debbie [McDonald’s] call before Tokyo. It was the same emotional response. I couldn’t talk for a minute. 

“I’m so proud of ‘Mopsie,’ ” he added. The gelding, with whom Peters is making his second Olympic appearance, not only helped the U.S. win a medal in Tokyo but also earned a more modern kind of accolade with his freestyle, rising to “Rave Horse” TikTok fame. “He still wants to do it, instead of having to do it.” 

For the one rookie on the team, Marcus Orlob, the emotion of being told he’d been selected was tinged with more than a bit of disbelief. Of the eight pairs initially named to the U.S. Dressage Team Olympic short list, The Loxahatchee, Florida-based rider and Alice Tarjan’s 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood Jane (Desperado— Zandra, Metall) were the literal and figurative dark horses. They had only been together a few months and were the last pair to make the short list, with the lowest average score (70.76%) going into the final weeks of qualification.

Marcus Orlob and Jane clinched their Paris Olympic selection by winning the Grand Prix Special on June 22 at the Kronberg CDI4* (Germany). Stefan Lafrentz Photos

Since flying over to Europe to compete in the mandatory CDIs and observation events, however, the pair’s consistently harmonious tests led to a meteoric rise in the ranking list. 

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The pair punched their ticket to Paris with back-to back personal bests in the Grand Prix (73.91%) and the Grand Prix Special (75.34%) at the Kronberg CDI4*, held June 20-23 in Kronberg, Germany. 

“Honestly, I think I’m still in a little shocked,” Orlob said. “I would’ve never thought that this would happen. At the show last weekend, her performance was amazing, so I thought to myself, ‘Maybe I moved up some placings within the rankings.’ I’m honestly super surprised but of course excited and happy too.” 

Though Orlob has known the mare since she was a 3-year-old, he has only been Jane’s rider since late February of this year. Prior to her Olympic bid, Jane was ridden and competed by Tarjan, with Orlob coaching them. The change was a big one for both Orlob and Jane. 

“My body shape is very different from Alice’s body shape,” Orlob said. “In the beginning, when I would try to ride the transition from walk to the canter, she would just run off from my aids. I was like ‘Alice, oh my God, how do you do this? How do I canter?’ But she was like, ‘Don’t worry! You just have to use your leg carefully.’ Clearly, my leg is much longer than Alice’s. I think she was just confused with the different leg positions. 

“Those changes really affected the mare but ultimately in a good way,” he continued. “That’s what we like about her, her sensitivity. But to find those buttons was the challenge.” 

Now that they’ve been named to the team, Orlob and Jane can relax just a little bit. 

“I felt pressure from Day 1 until now to deliver, and to do right by my horse, because I knew she is a good horse,” he said. “Over the years I saw Alice with her, and I always knew that she was amazing. So when Alice gave me the ride, I thought, ‘Now I have to really show that it is a good horse.’ Honestly, I think I feel like the pressure’s slightly less now.” 

His teammates Peters and Lyle are no strangers to riding under Olympic pressure, but this selection cycle nonetheless felt different for Lyle than past ones. She and Zen Elite Equestrian Center’s Helix (Apache—Zeester T, Jazz) are a new partnership, with Zen Elite owner Heidi Humphries having bought the 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding for Lyle to campaign just a few days before the Jan. 15 ownership deadline for Olympic qualification. 

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“It was a completely new kind of adventure for me,” said Lyle, whose Tokyo Olympic partner Salvino retired earlier this year. “I’ve never had a horse that was trained to that level by someone else before. I’ve always brought them along and had longer relationships with them before we got to the Grand Prix level, so it definitely was a whole new set of challenges, and it took a lot of critical thinking on my part. 

“I had to learn how to speak his language first before I could ask him to start to learn my language, because he already had this whole repertoire of aids and communication he knew,” Adrienne Lyle said of getting to know Zen Elite Equestrian’s Helix, shown here at the Kronberg CDI4* (Germany), in the few short months they’ve been together.

“I had to learn how to speak his language first before I could ask him to start to learn my language, because he already had this whole repertoire of aids and communication he knew,” she continued.

Where other horses might need more time to acclimate to a new rider and program, Lyle said Helix has risen quickly to every challenge.

“Not many horses would allow a new rider to get on, recreate their program, go to big competitions, and do all of this right away,” she said. “He’s taken everything in stride and been so up for everything I’ve asked of him. It just speaks to how special his character is.” 

The pair ended their qualification season the Kronberg CDI4* with a 72.73% in the Grand Prix and a 73.31% in the Grand Prix Special, finishing second to Orlob and Jane in both classes.

Anchored by a known quantity in the combination of Peters and Mopsie, the U.S. team is also banking on the momentum and potential of its two relatively inexperienced horses. And in the reserve slot, Olympic rookie Endel Ots is paired with another recent purchase by Zen Elite, the very experienced Zen Elite’s Bohemian, who was campaigned to individual and team fourth-placed finishes at the Tokyo Games by Denmark’s Cathrine Laudrup-Dufour. 

“I think this year is going to be very exciting for our country, because we can go out there and put in really good, really solid rides to show people a little bit what our country has coming up through the pipeline in these new horses,” Lyle said. “And, of course, we have Steffen and Suppenkasper, who are both veterans of this. We know that they can go out there and do their job. I think having all that for our country would be great, something to be proud of.”

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