Calm, almost serene, usually describes Steffen Peters’ demeanor, but he couldn’t help showing some strong emotion as he racked up one unbelievable score after another in the Collecting Gaits Farm/U.S. Equestrian Federation Grand Prix Championship and World Equestrian Games selection trials, June 14-18 in Gladstone, N.J.
Riding Laurelyn Browning’s Floriano, Peters swept all three Grand Prix classes, finishing on an outstand-ing 83.25 percent in the freestyle and a final average of 77.20 percent for the three days.
The total score is determined from the weighted scores of the individual tests: 45 percent for the Grand Prix, 35 percent for the Special and 20 percent for the freestyle.
“Nobody ever camped on Mt. Everest, but in the meantime I’m going to enjoy the view,” said Peters with a chuckle after the competition ended.
For three days the pair performed correct and expressive tests. An experienced professional, Peters took risks where he could, like in the passage and extended trots, and highlighted Floriano’s strengths such as his foot-perfect canter pirouettes and straight tempi changes.
“I consider myself a tough guy, but I came out of the ring crying,” said Peters after his Grand Prix Special (77.24%). “You don’t have too many of those rides in your life. He was so expressive. That he’s that supple and energetic at 16 is unbelievable.”
Peters scored straight 9s and a 10 for the rider in his collective marks after that test.
But he’s always a horseman first, and his focus throughout the trials was on Floriano’s health. “I was very happy that Floriano had so much energy and felt 100 percent healthy,” he said. “For a 16-year-old horse, that’s a priority.
“If he shows the slightest bit of aging, he’ll be done. But we still have a very happy, sound horse,” he said.
Peters, San Diego, Calif., first saw the Westphalian gelding (Florestan I–Wichita) in 2003 while teaching a clinic. He knew the Grand Prix movements but couldn’t put them together in a test.
“He had a serious lack of confidence,” said Peters. “He’s a serious talent, but I couldn’t show him for six months. Now he’s trusting me.”
The gelding’s hotter side came out in the honor rounds, when he stood straight up on his hind legs in excitement and fear.
“He’s still a very hot horse,” admitted Peters. “Because of his energy, he still goes very strong at 16. If he keeps going this
strong without showing any signs of aging, I could see that he could go for another couple of years.”
The highlight of Peters’ weekend was probably the Grand Prix Special, but the crowd loved his freestyle. Riding to the strains of Fleetwood Mac, John Lennon and Supertramp, Peters put together a flowing and elegant test.
Terry Gallo created the freestyle in the studio after the Athens Olympics. “It’s very customized. There’s no room for error,” said Peters. “Every single second has to be where it needs to be. Some freestyles have a little more room for improvisation, but this one doesn’t. That’s what makes it very difficult, and it becomes very obvious when you’re not with the music. Today every single movement changed when the music changed. Most of the time the rhythm was right with the music. I was beside myself.”
On To Germany
Peters’ impressive performance not only earned him the title of 2006 U.S. Grand Prix Champion, but also a spot on the United States dressage team for the upcoming World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany, Aug. 20-Sep. 3. He and second-placed Guenter Seidel and Aragon are guaranteed a spot on the team barring illness or injury.
Seidel and Peters spent all spring trading first and second places at the California shows, but Aragon’s performance was not 100 percent up to par at Gladstone.
“He’s doing well, but he was not as good here as I ex-pected,” admitted Seidel at the end of the competition. “But it was good enough. I know he can do better than this.”
Seidel said he rode a bit cautiously on the first day because the 14-year-old Bavarian Warmblood (Abydos–La Sabrina) can get hot and tense. But when he started to push a little in the Grand Prix Special, they had a mistake in the first extended trot.
“I tried to keep him open and loose, and he came up high,” explained Seidel. “It was a bad start, but he was relaxed and obedient.”
Their freestyle was also a bit disappointing as they performed to the strains of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina.” Aragon reared in his first piaffe, normally one of the highlights of his test, and they finished that class in fourth place.
But Seidel is known to be a perfectionist and even though he said Aragon could do better, they still scored in the 70s in all of their tests.
Seidel planned to head home to Cardiff, Calif., to fine tune the freestyle and work on peaking Aragon for the WEG.
In addition to Seidel and Peters, four other riders have been named to the short list. Although Debbie McDonald and Brentina didn’t compete, they submitted a letter of special interest asking that they be considered for the short list, as did Leslie Morse for Kingston and Catherine Haddad and Maximus, who train in Germany. All three were named to the short list.
The selection committee looked at the selection trials results and also at the qualifying competition results, according to Marilyn Adams, the High Performance Director of Dressage.
The six selected riders and two alternates may travel to Germany to work with team coach Klaus Balkenhol any time between June 19 and August. In Germany, there are three selected competitions for the Americans to compete in, two national shows and the CDI at Verden, Aug. 3-6. The final team will be named on Aug. 14.
“Klaus will work with the athletes, watch the horses and make his determination of the best plan for each combination,” said Adams. “It’s a nice plan because the athletes are able to go over when they’re comfortable and work out a plan with Klaus.”
Balkenhol expressed pleasure with the high scores in the Grand Prix championship. “We have no need to hide ourselves,” he said. “We can be very proud internationally coming up against the other riders.
“We have a number of weeks before the World Championships, and we certainly can do a lot of work at home to get ready for that,” he continued. “We have world-class riders here. They have experience, and they know what they need to do in the next weeks to be ready for the Games.”
Gaining International Experience
Peters hoped he could stay at home until two weeks before the WEG so that he wouldn’t have to stress Floriano with excessive traveling. This will be Peters’ third international dressage team.
“Floriano could go straight to Aachen and compete there,” said Peters. “He’s been in the show ring many times. My nerves are good to go. I feel pretty confident that we could do that.”
The pair was the reserve for the 2004 Olympics and was the highest-placed American combination at last year’s CDIO in Aachen, Germany.
But third-placed Morse and Tip Top 962 and fourth-placed Arlene “Tuny” Page and Wild One, who also were named to the short list, may want to head over sooner for some extra coaching and international exposure.
Both Morse, Beverly Hills, Calif., and Page, Wellington, Fla., represented the United States in the FEI World Cup Final, April 20-22, this year in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. But neither believed they’d seriously be considered for the WEG team with these horses.
Wild One is just 10 and only in his second year of Grand Prix. Yet he’s stepped up to challenge and proved he can consistently score in the 70s. He placed seventh in the Grand Prix at the World Cup final with 71 percent and scored 70.79 percent in the Grand Prix test at Gladstone.
Morse expected to be riding her other stallion, the Dutch Warmblood Kingston, in the selection trials, but an injury prevented him from being ready in time. So she decided to find out if Tip Top could be ready, and he proved he was, placing second or third each day.
“He’s constantly evolving,” said Morse. “I’m trying to get my horse as strong as he can be and as fit as he can be. By August, we’ll take it to another level.”
The highlight of their weekend was their freestyle test. Morse rode to new choreography, used the same music, but had it re-cut.
“I wanted to make some changes,” said Morse. “It takes a few freestyles to decide what the highlights are and where you can put things. I think the decision to make the changes was very smart. It was very risky, but I love my music and I knew in my heart that this was the right thing to do. I have two months to get really comfortable and secure with it.”
Morse hadn’t actually ridden the freestyle, but she listened to the music constantly beforehand so she would be familiar with it.
“I knew where the music was, so it didn’t matter where I was in the ring,” she said. “Up until the end, I was right on. At the end I got a little bit behind. I could hear it and feel it, and it worked. It suits him.”
A provisional score of 74 percent went up on the board after her swing freestyle concluded. But the crowd roared in delight as her true score came up just a few minutes later, 79.10 percent.
“When the changes came up on the board, I was like, ‘Whoa, I guess we all do like my new freestyle!’ ” she said, grinning.
Lex Lights Up The Intermediaire I
Michelle Gibson was another rider who couldn’t stop grinning all weekend. She swept the small tour classes in the Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF Intermediaire I Championship with Elite European Sporthorses’ Lex Barker.
“The horse is the same every day. He makes it easy for me,” said Gibson, of Wellington, Fla. “I was really happy with everything. He felt so good in the connection.”
Gibson, 37, began showing the 9-year-old Hanoverian in the small tour in Florida in 2005. She meant to just get him some exposure, but he ended up winning everything. She couldn’t go to the championships, though, because she didn’t have a freestyle ready.
“Last year I was not prepared,” she said. “I hadn’t shown him much. I wanted to get him in the ring, get the experience. I started working on my freestyle, and the time got away from me. He’s more confirmed, more seasoned this year. It’s just fine with me.”
The pair improved throughout the weekend, ending on a high note of 78.70 percent in the freestyle. Gibson rode to music from the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and the exciting music really fit the big mover.
“Marlene Whitaker put the music together and helped me with the choreography, but I picked the music,” said Gibson. “I was desperately looking for music that hasn’t been done a million times. I was trying to find music to fit him.”
It was only her third time riding the difficult freestyle, but Gibson had no trouble staying with her music.
“I got a little bit ahead of the music at the extended canter, but it worked out just fine,” she said. “It’s a miracle. The test had steep half-passes and pirouettes on the centerline into two-tempis. I’ve got the trot zigzags that are pretty steep. I didn’t exactly think it was easy.”
Gibson’s outing at Gladstone may have been delayed a year, but she doesn’t intend to stick around at the lower levels any longer. When asked about the Pan American Games next year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she said they were not in the plan.
“We’ll spend the summer working on Grand Prix and see where that takes us,” said Gibson. “This was his last Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire I.”
He’s Big Enough For The Job
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Gibson, who won a team bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics, was reserve champion Katherine Poulin-Neff, who just barely graduated from young riders.
Showing in her first adult championship on her mother’s pint-sized homebred, Brilliant Too, Poulin-Neff wowed the judges with their correct and energetic performance.
Brilliant Too may be just 15.1 hands and only in his fifth show competing in the small tour, but he was all business as he marched up centerline.
“I’m just happy to be here,” enthused Poulin-Neff, 26. “I came here with no expectations whatsoever. Just to make it here was an accomplishment. I just wanted to stay consistent, not make any mistakes and do a good job.”
They did more than a good job, finishing second in the freestyle (75.50%) and third in the Prix St. Georges (69.10%).
Poulin-Neff was the first person to ride “Zeul,” and she’s trained him with the help of her parents, Sharon and Michael Poulin. Now she’s moved to Newbury, Ohio, and is on her own, although Sharon does come up monthly from Florida to teach.
“I just take every day one at a time,” said Poulin-Neff. “It would be nice to show him Grand Prix someday, and if that happens, wonderful. We’ll just see what happens. I’d only do it if he was confident to go out there and keep scoring well.”
Hart Scores A Para-Equestrian Hat Trick
Rebecca Hart, 21, has big dreams. And winning all three classes in the U.S. Equestrian Federation Para-Equestrian National Championship with her own Nordkap is just the start.
Hart and Nordkap looked smooth and steady in the grade 3 Para-Equestrian team and individual tests, but they got to really have some fun when they performed their freestyle to songs from Phantom of the Opera.
That test allows for more difficult movements, including half-pass and flying changes.
“That felt really good,” said Hart with a smile after her winning freestyle ride (78.51%).
Hart, Erie, Pa., has been riding for 12 years and trains with Nancy Lewis-Stanton. She’s owned Nordkap, a 14-year-old, Hanoverian gelding, for 18 months, but she wasn’t able to ride him until eight months ago because he was recovering from a fractured leg.
Hart participated on the USEF Para-Equestrian Team in the 2003 World Championships in Belgium and is aiming for the 2008 Paralympics. She also wants to ride in the 2010 Alltech FEI Games in Lexington, Ky., and possibly in able-bodied competition after that.
Austin Captures Inaugural Brentina Cup
For many young aspiring dressage riders, the gap between competing in young riders and winning against experienced professionals can be a long and frustrating time.
But this year the officials at the U.S. Equestrian Federation decided to give these riders a leg up by offering the Brentina Cup, a competition open to riders between 18 and 26 who are competing at the Intermediaire II level.
Named to honor Debbie McDonald’s fabulous Brentina, the Brentina Cup was created to assist and encourage riders in their transition to the adult ranks.
Six combinations competed, riding first in a warm-up class at Intermediaire I and then competing for the Cup in the Intermediaire II.
Elisabeth “Lis” Austin, of Williston, Vt., won the class with her mother’s homebred, 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood stallion Olivier (Idocus–Rowillie).
Austin, 22, hasn’t been able to compete the horse very often because of time and financial constraints. She’s a senior at the University of Vermont, but intends to move to Florida after graduating to pursue her dressage career.
“I’m so proud to be a part of this,” she said after her win. “Debbie and Brentina have done so much for the sport.”
The pair scored 70.39 percent to win the class. “For him, the limit is me,” said Austin. “The piaffe and passage on him is amazing. He loves to show, and he loves to show off.”
Austin was there when “Fizzy” was born and has done much of his training on her own with help from her mother, Madeleine Austin.
“He went with Pierre St. Jacques to Florida for one season and did one show,” said Lis. “This is his ninth horse show and his third FEI competition. I competed him at third and fourth levels. I did Lendon Gray’s dressage festival at Prix St. Georges. We put the one-tempis on him over the winter.”
The competition was made a bit tougher for Lis because she was ill with mononucleosis. “Don’t tell my doctor I’m here,” she said with a giggle. “In the Intermediaire I, I was a little behind him. But [in the Intermediaire II], I felt more with him, a little bit stronger.”