Sunday, Apr. 14, 2024

Haddad Holds Her Own On The Western European Tour


Competing against the best dressage riders in the world on a regular basis might intimidate some people,
but Catherine Haddad loves the challenge and credited many of her achievements to her regular participation in the high-powered show atmosphere of Western Europe.

This year she decided to test herself by attempting to qualify for the Rolex FEI Dressage World Cup Final
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Competing against the best dressage riders in the world on a regular basis might intimidate some people,
but Catherine Haddad loves the challenge and credited many of her achievements to her regular participation in the high-powered show atmosphere of Western Europe.

This year she decided to test herself by attempting to qualify for the Rolex FEI Dressage World Cup Final
in the Western European League. Last fall she applied for permission from the U.S. Equestrian Federation to qualify in Europe, and officials at the Fédération Equestre Internationale agreed to the plan.

She’d not only have to compete in some of the most intimidating arenas in the world against some of the world’s most experienced riders, but she’d also have to score well enough to convince the USEF High Performance Dressage Committee members to send her to the Final in Las Vegas, Nev., April 19-22.

More than 4,660 miles later, Haddad hopes she and her horse Maximus JSS are one show away from doing just that. She stands in 11th place in the Western European League and planned to ride in the League Final at ’s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, March 23-25.

“Whether it’s through our League or the Western European League, she’s very strong in both leagues. The FEI wants to have the top riders in Vegas, and Catherine qualifies on both counts,” said Gil Merrick, USEF Dressage Managing Director. “She’s done every single thing that anybody else in the Western European League has done. She’s going head-to-head with the folks who are going to end up in Las Vegas.”

Haddad noted, “If you had asked me six months ago if I thought it was possible to qualify in Western Europe, I’d have said, ‘No, it’s a pipe dream.’ Today, I’m absolutely astounded and thrilled that we stand a chance of qualifying in this league.”

“It was a ton of fun to travel all over Europe, and the qualifiers are fantastic shows,” she continued. “My horse, fortunately, travels extremely well. We competed against the world’s best in indoor stadiums that were sold out. The atmosphere was always electric. I feel like I gained a lot of experience over the winter and definitely nerves of steel.”

Why Europe?

Between the fierce competition and demanding travel schedule, it’s reasonable to wonder why Haddad chose to try and qualify in Europe instead of heading to California for the U.S. League Final.

“First and foremost is managing the stress on my horse,” said Haddad. “That’s the main reason for staying here. [Chef d’Equipe Klaus] Balkenhol advised me to avoid flying to California if I had the chance to qualify in Europe.”

She said the easiest thing for her horse would be to fly to Las Vegas a few days before the competition and then fly directly back to Germany.

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“That’s stress, but not nearly as much stress as flying to California, acclimating to a completely different climate and time zone over six to eight weeks, then flying back to Germany and doing exactly the same thing six to eight weeks later,” said Haddad.

And dealing with the complications of competing in Europe as a U.S. rider is something Haddad has grown accustomed to over the past 14 years. She moved to Germany in 1993 after working in Michigan as a dressage trainer.

“I was a fairly successful rider with a good business, but I was waking up in the morning, looking in the mirror and asking myself, ‘Do you want to be the best you can be? Go to Germany and learn from the best
if you want to be the best.’ So I did,” she said.

Haddad established herself in Vechta, Germany, and worked with Willi Schultheis until he died in 1995. Since 2003 she has trained with Rudolf Zeilinger, and she credited him with her rise in the international dressage scene.
 
“I’ve worked hard to earn the position that I’ve attained here in Western Europe. I learned and trained my way to the top. But, of course, without the support of a top sponsor, I could not have come so far,” said Haddad.

She is sponsored by Robert, Richard and Susan Schneider, trustees of the Janet S. Schneider Trust. Haddad intends to remain in Germany, for now. “If you want to win against the best, then you must compete against the best,” she said. “If I wanted to be the best basketball player in the world, I would move back to America and play there, but I want to be one of the best dressage riders in the world. So I’m staying here.”

But that doesn’t make her any less patri-otic. “I was born in America, raised in America and I’m competing for America.  My father was an immigrant to the United States. He chose our country to raise his children. In my heart I could never ride for another nation. I want to represent the United States.”

Reaching A Whole New Level

Completing the Western European League World Cup circuit has convinced Haddad that she still has a lot to learn in Europe.

“It’s been a wonderful experience to be on the tour the whole winter,” she said. “These have been some of the best horse shows I’ve seen in Europe as far as the footing goes, the arena and the atmosphere in the stadium.”

Haddad’s journey to qualify for the World Cup has sent her to Denmark, Sweden, England and Belgium. Their scores have risen along the tour so that now she and Maximus routinely finish over 70 percent in the freestyle. She’s had some good finishes, including a third place in Mechelen, Belgium, in December and a fourth place in Gothenburg, Sweden, in February.

“One of the best parts about competing on the World Cup tour is the camaraderie between the riders,” said Haddad. “The same 15 to 20 riders in Western Europe are at every show. It’s a very open and friendly atmosphere. I got a lot of input, a lot of help and good advice from the other riders on the tour.”

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She raved about getting to know dressage megastars like Isabell Werth, Jan Brink and Kyra Kyrklund. “Both Kyra and Isabell have been especially helpful with advice on how to get to the particular competitions,” said Haddad. “Travel is complicated. We had to take a lot of ferries. They gave me advice on travel and fitness, which ferries to avoid, where to stay on the road, rest days, etc.”

Haddad’s confidence has also risen along with her scores from her experience trying to qualify for the World Cup.

“Maximus and I started 35 times at Grand Prix level last year, and 28 of those were international,” she said. “All that time and experience is paying off for us.”

She hopes that her performance at ’s-Hertogenbosch will cement her place as a worthy World Cup competitor. “Maximus and I will spend the weekend before ’s-Hertogenbosch at Klaus Balkenhol’s stable
in Rosendahl to fine tune for the upcoming competition,” said Haddad. “A lot depends on how I go at ’s-Hertogenbosch. But if Maximus and I can hold our own in that incredible starting field, then I think we stand a very good chance.”

There Are Limited Spots Available

Only 18 horses and riders are allowed to compete in the FEI Dressage World Cup Final in Las Vegas, Nev. The United States automatically receives two spots, while Western Europe gets eight, and then Canada, the Pacific and Central Europe receive one each. National federations must apply to the FEI for the remaining five positions as wild cards.

This year the United States is in a bit of a bind because the U.S. League Final won’t be held until March 30-April 1 in Burbank, Calif. The top two finishers at the League Final will qualify, and normally the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage High Performance Committee would nominate the third-placed person for a wild card. But the League Final is after the March 25 FEI deadline for wild card applications.

“It’s certainly an awkward situation,” said Gil Merrick. “The FEI has always used ’s-Hertogenbosch as their final Western European qualifier. We’ve always had our League Final right around this time. We’re going to rely on the FEI—it’s their wild card, not the organizers and certainly not ours. We’re going to keep them apprised of where everybody is and what the status is and hope they look favorably on us.”

Technically, the United States should only receive one wild card, but in 2005 the FEI awarded a second wild card to the United States because it was the host nation.

“Our High Performance Dressage Committee will convene on March 25, when we’ve had our last qualifier for our League Final, and they’ll evaluate all the results for all the riders and then make their recommendations as far as wild card applications,” said Merrick.

Sara Lieser

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