She and George Williams start winning as soon as they get back from Europe.
George Williams and Michael Barisone both got a boost at the Paxton Farm CDI in their goal of competing at the Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF Dressage Festival of Champions, June 20-22 and June 27-29 in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., which will also serve as the Olympic selection trials.
The two riders tied for first place in the CDI Grand Prix (67.54%). The technical marks broke the tie, giving the win to Williams and Rocher. Only 12 horse and rider pairs will be invited to compete at the Festival of Champions, based on their scores at CDI competitions. As of May 19, Williams and Rocher were 12th on the list. Barisone and Neruda were 10th.
Williams and the 17-year-old Westphalian mare Rocher, owned by Chuck and Joann Smith, had just returned from Europe days before Paxton.
They had been in Europe training with Klaus Balkenhol. They competed in the CDI in Hagen (Germany) on April 23-27, and while they finished 14th in the Grand Prix Special with a 66.24 percent, Williams wasn’t sure their scores would be quite good enough to guarantee them an invitation to California, which is why he brought the mare to Paxton.
“Overall, I was very pleased with her at Hagen, but the piaffe and passage work lacked a bit of impulsion. She didn’t stay in front of me as much as she can. We scored around a 65 percent, which was a little disappointing to me, but I was happy with how she felt through the test,” Williams said.
Over the past years, Rocher, one of America’s favorite dressage horses, has had injuries that have kept her sidelined for long stretches, but Williams said he’s confident that she’s fully recovered and up to the challenge of international competition. Next stop for the pair is the Raleigh CDI (N.C.) on May 30-June 1.
A Puzzling Problem Solved
The Paxton CDI was the first time Barisone had competed with Neruda since withdrawing from the Palm Beach Dressage Derby (Fla.) in late February. And for some time, it was questionable if he’d be able to return the 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, owned by Jane Suwalsky, to competition in time to make a run for California.
The “injury” that sidelined Neruda was a recurring infection on the outside of the jaw. Barisone described it as a sort of staph infection of the skin. It made it impossible to ride the horse in anything but a snaffle with a drop noseband.
“It popped up in [at the FEI Rolex World Cup Finals (Nev.) in April 2007],” Barisone said. “They took the scar tissue out and it went away. And then it came back at the Derby with a vengeance—it was a big swollen thing with pus that was hot and painful. The vets looked at it and x-rayed it. At first they said it was a bone infection and we thought, ‘Oh no.’ That’s serious. It was right where the noseband goes at the bottom of the jaw.”
Barisone credited Florida veterinarian Dr. Byron Reid with discovering that a possible cause is that Neruda’s jaw isn’t even. “He looked at the jaw and said the jawbone is different on the left and
right. One side is wider and sits differently. And with Neruda, the unevenness of the jaw caused the noseband to create a pressure point in that one spot,” Barisone said.
Knowing the possible cause was one thing, finding an answer was another. Ingenuity saved the day. Reid suggested that Barisone find someone who makes orthotic and prosthetic devices to see if a special noseband could be created that relieved the pressure point. Suwalsky, the gelding’s owner, went hunting and came up with Beth Blontz.
“She came and put a plaster material on his face to make a mold. The following week she came back with this thing that makes a perfectly fitted noseband that released the pressure on the spot,” Barisone said. “It works like a million bucks. It’s the coolest thing. Beth gave me back my ride without any stress or problems for the horse.”
Barisone admits the time off made both he and Neruda a bit rusty—he more than Neruda.
“He’s always sharp and on and it seems that the judges want to give him a 70 percent or better in the Grand Prix, but unfortunately, I have a habit of making mistakes and taking a 71 down to a 67 or 68,” Barisone said. “But the good news is Neruda is capable of that. I just have to go in there and ride it right. Sometimes you just have to ride that line and say, ‘I’m not going to make any mistakes.’ ”
Barisone thought his mistakes in Friday’s Grand Prix cost him the blue to Williams. He had fewer mistakes in Saturday’s CDI Grand Prix freestyle, but he found tough competition in Danish rider Lars Petersen who was competing with Succes.
Petersen and Succes had a difficult ride on Friday and ended in fifth place, but their recovery on Saturday gave them a first in the freestyle (74.05%). Petersen also won the Grand Prix Special with Schumacker, owned by Melissa Taylor (64.80%).
Although second in the Grand Prix freestyle, Barisone and Neruda ended with a score of 71.90 percent, and Barisone was clearly pleased to have broken the 70 mark.
“Neruda’s passage and piaffe always carry him through, but I missed the two tempis—that’s not news. It’s a monkey on my back, but one day I’ll get rid of it. I routinely have like a 9 on the passage and piaffe, but then I get a 4 or 5 on the changes and they even each other out. In the warm-up I can get big, beautiful changes, but I can’t find that in the ring,” he said.
What will it take to break that pattern and up his scores? Barisone said he needs to “throw caution to the wind and ride him like I’m going to get a 9 and what the heck, if I fail to get a 9, it’s no different than going for a 6 and failing and getting a 5, like I’ve been doing. He’s a really, really exceptionally great horse. We just have to iron out some things.”
Creech Makes A Bid
In the CDI Prix St. Georges and Intermediaire competition, Canadian rider Diane Creech dominated. She and Devon L won the opening day Prix St. Georges with a score of 68.65 percent. Creech and Devon L also won the Intermediaire I (70.30%).
“It was quite a special weekend. It made it even more special that Doug and Louise were able to be here with me,” Creech said.
Doug and Louise Leatherdale, own Devon L and several other top FEI horses, including the Dutch Warmblood geldings Robin Hood and Mark, both in training with Sue Blinks in California. Mark and Blinks are currently fourth on the list to qualify for the Olympic selection trials. Doug is Canadian and Louise American, hence, they support both nations.
“He’s quite a talented young horse,” Doug said of Devon L. “We were thrilled because this is his first show of the year. He is already schooling most of the Grand Prix moves and he’s only 8. He’s probably got another year or two on the small tour, but we definitely think he’s the next Grand Prix horse.”
The Leatherdales, who own and operate Leatherdale Farms in Long Lake, Minnesota, also own Creech’s current Grand Prix mount Wiona. Creech and the mare finished third in Friday’s Grand Prix at the Paxton CDI with a score of 67.25 percent, just behind Williams and Barisone. It was Wiona’s first show at Grand Prix, but Creech is considering attempting to qualify for the Canadian Olympic team.
“The horses went really well,” she said. Of Wiona, whom she broke to ride before the Leatherdales bought her at the age of 5, Creech said, “She’s a horse you can go to war with.” Creech broke Wiona, an 11-year-old Hanoverian mare by Weltmeyer, prior to Leatherdales buying her at age 5. “She’s a working girl who really tries everything for you. She never, ever says no. Any mistake we make is probably mine because she really works very hard at what she does.”
The Leatherdales bred Devon L. “Doug actually pulled him out himself,” Creech said. “Devon L is special and talented. All he needs to do is grow up, get more mature and get stronger and he’ll be there. He doesn’t feel this is work. For him, this is all fun and games.”
Wiona does have international experience. She and Creech were members of the silver-medal Canadian team at the 2007 Pan American Games (Brazil). Doug and Louise are aware of their unique position as owners—the time may come when they will find their own horses facing off on opposing international teams.
Prior to Paxton, the Leatherdales sponsored a three-month trip to Europe for Creech so that she could take Devon L and Wiona to Germany to train with the Canadian team coach, Norbert van Laak.
Creech is a breast cancer survivor who managed to keep going in her riding last year despite battling the illness. She made it, she said, because of a team effort that included not only the Leatherdales, but also her groom, Chris Bacher.
“The support I’ve had has been so amazing,” she said. “I’m so grateful to Doug and Louise for being such great sponsors and wonderful owners. Chris is a wonderful groom who has been going with me for years and years. She’s been my right hand and she helps me whenever I need it. She also listens to my whining and gives me the strength to keep going.”