Sunday, Apr. 14, 2024

The Olympic Games Aftermath

Our columnist provides her thoughts on the dressage action at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong.

In spite of a valiant effort by all of our U.S. dressage team members to bring home another Olympic medal,
the Danes slipped a hair in front and poff, the team bronze was gone! We always look for excuses and explanations, but this time around I think we just got unlucky.

It had been a strange pre-Olympic year anyway, with our hopes rising and sinking as our horses in the running to be on the team improved or lost ground.
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Our columnist provides her thoughts on the dressage action at the 2008 Olympic Games in Hong Kong.

In spite of a valiant effort by all of our U.S. dressage team members to bring home another Olympic medal,
the Danes slipped a hair in front and poff, the team bronze was gone! We always look for excuses and explanations, but this time around I think we just got unlucky.

It had been a strange pre-Olympic year anyway, with our hopes rising and sinking as our horses in the running to be on the team improved or lost ground.

The first weekend of the Olympic Dressage Selection Trials in California wasn’t overloaded with breathtaking rides, but then, on the second weekend, there was a great turn around that gave us a lot of encouragement.

One thing is for sure: Brentina looked really sound and happy in California, and there was no doubt in the minds of the judges or the veterinarians about her being fit for fight. We sent her off to Hong Kong with complete confidence, feeling that she and Debbie McDonald were our anchors for the team, since Ravel and Mythilus are younger and less experienced horses.

As usual, people are quick to blame somebody or something when things don’t turn out to their liking, but in this case there’s not the least reason to think that anybody could have predicted Brentina’s trouble in the Grand Prix.

It was obvious from the damp appearance of all the horses and the sweat running off the faces of the riders that the temperature in Hong Kong was difficult to deal with. Overheating can cause major problems for athletes, even when every precaution is taken to prevent it.

I’m not saying that this is what happened to Brentina, but it’s possible that she was momentarily uncomfortable, and that whatever she experienced upset her and interfered with her ability to focus. From watching and judging Brentina throughout her career, I’ve never before seen her agitated after the final salute like she was in Hong Kong.

I have a mental picture of her striding out like the queen of the ball after every test, soaking in the attention and applause. At this Olympics, she was jogging and fussing when exiting, clearly aware that something hadn’t gone quite right.

In the final analysis, Brentina and Debbie don’t owe this country anything. They have had the most illustrious career, and Brentina has consistently delighted us with her intelligence and wonderful work ethic. She and Debbie have shown us, and the world, that dressage is teamwork between horse and rider and displayed in living chestnut color what suppleness and throughness is all about.

Brentina is one of the main reasons mares have become popular in dressage, and for all the holes rivals have tried to shoot in her reputation, she always came back on top. Even if she retires now, her fan club will remember her triumphs for a long time, and we will miss her presence at our big shows.

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With the medals and the big wins she gathered, Brentina got our attention. In time all those details become hazy, but she will linger on in our minds as the picture of what dressage should really be.

Beyond Expectations

Our two “new” horses made a fine international debut in Hong Kong.

The greatest joy was to see how fabulous Courtney and Mythilus looked in test after test. A little over a year ago, during the Pan American Games trials at Gladstone, N.J., they performed a test ride before the Grand Prix. It was a little green and careful, but we all agreed it could get ready in a year.

Well, it happened beyond our wildest expectations!

For correctness, harmony and position you could use this combination for a prototype. If the judges did not put her first, it was because the power is not quite there yet in the really forward movements, such as extensions and half passes, and this horse isn’t ready to be pushed with the same abandon as some other riders can afford to.

Courtney is such a smart rider, who kept her composure every stride of the rides, and capitalized on what Mythilus does best, which is flowing from one movement to another with what looks like the greatest ease. To be in your first Olympics at a, for this sport, young age and perform with Courtney’s poise and maturity is remarkable. She even got Mythilus’ neck extended a couple of inches, and it made a lot of positive difference in the view from the side.

At the time I write this, Mythilus has just tested positive for Felbinac, a substance few of us have ever heard of before (see Sept. 5, p. 50). After such a promising debut, it’s a horrible thing for Courtney to go through and a heartache for all of us who know Courtney as a true sportsman, and therefore believe the whole thing must be a mistake of some kind.

Steffen Peters was all business in the Grand Prix, and he rode it like his life depended on it. Ravel probably went back to his stall thinking: “What happened to him?”

Well, there’s a time to go for broke, and when you know it can save a medal, that’s the right time. I almost laughed because it’s not like Steffen to gun his horse like that, and his face was set in determination.

The magic nearly worked, and Steffen demonstrated once again what an asset he is to our team by pulling out all the stops at the right time and making it work even on a horse that’s not really ready for such strong demands.

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No worse for wear, this combination then continued to improve in their tests, and in the freestyle Steffen and Ravel got a hair’s breath away from the bronze. In two years, when Ravel is stronger and physically on top of his game, that combination will be ready to capture an individual medal at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Kentucky.

New NBC Fans

The Olympic Games in Hong Kong were by far the best to date in available coverage, mainly due to the miracle of computers. Every dressage fan will now also be an NBC fan for a long time, and we are all grateful and thrilled with the fantastic computer access NBC offered our sport.

Television is a different story. The Oxygen channel took mercy on dressage and included some of it. Without seeming ungrateful, I feel we still have to lobby to get more time and a dressage expert to narrate.

Why, you may ask, is television coverage so important now, when almost everyone has access to a computer and we could watch every ride? True, the aficionados faithfully logged in, but hardly anyone who is not a dressage fan had any opportunity to be introduced to dressage, because there was almost none shown.

For example, on the last medal evening, we were treated to an hour of synchronized swimming and barely
15 minutes of dressage. One quarter of the test ridden by Steffen, our fourth-placed Olympian, was shown, and then we went right to Anky van Grunsven after commercials. There seems to be endless television time available for every other imaginable activity but very strict limitations on dressage. That’s getting old.

Isabell Werth proved again that she’s the coolest of them all, and Satchmo is a great fit for her, both physically and mentally. He has a touchy “go” button but can be ridden on the edge without losing his composure or looking pressured. They had a textbook Grand Prix, and although their great rival Anky van Grunsven also had a ride without faults, her horse showed a bit of tension and, as usual, avoided the halts, which can become a tiebreaker in such intense competition.

Perfection didn’t stick around for the Special. Isabell had a phenomenal ride, marred by a severe run-out in the piaffe where Satchmo almost backed out of the ring. Not with this rider. I found it fascinating to watch the correction made by Isabell, which was instinctive, immediate and effective, whereupon the performance continued as if nothing ever happened.

Even with this problem, Isabell probably deserved the win, because Salinero and Anky kept having little hiccups, and the horse appeared too much on the muscle, to the point when Anky looked like she had her hands full to hold him in check. In the freestyle, when Satchmo repeated his dirty little trick, Anky sailed in to clinch her third individual gold medal. Once again the two queens of dressage kept us guessing until the end. 

Anne Gribbons



Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained more than a dozen horses to Grand Prix. She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and earned a team silver medal at the 1995 Pan American Games. An O-rated dressage judge, based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as co-vice chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.

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