Nancy Szakacs’ weekend at the California Dressage Society and Great American/USDF Region 7 Championships didn’t start out quite the way she wanted, but it ended up better than she’d imagined, with two first level, adult amateur tricolors.
Szakacs didn’t think Ruschkoi was performing at his best during the warm-up test on Thursday, though he managed to score a 66.71 percent to begin the show, held Oct. 5-8 in Burbank, Calif.
“He was good in the warm-up, but he just didn’t have that spark. [Trainer Heidi Gaian] said we could work on it Friday morning before the test, and so we really worked on getting him through and forward in his trot and suddenly it all came together! I was so lucky, that last little bit just fell into place right before the test,” said Szakacs proudly.
With the renewed cohesiveness, Szakacs and Ruschkoi claimed the CDS first level, adult amateur, championship with a 69.57 percent. The gelding stayed on top of his game to win the Great American/USDF championship on Saturday with a score of 72.50 percent. “He felt really good on Saturday; he was right on with everything,” added Szakacs, of Hollister, Calif.
Szakacs first saw Ruschkoi, 6, in Germany two years ago, when she was visiting there with her trainers, Pam Nelson and Gaian. After Johann Hinnemann imported the personable bay gelding a few weeks later, Szakacs bought him.
“When I got him, he pretty much knew how to walk, trot, and canter, but he also had this second gear that he’d kick into at the trot, and he’d go into a great lengthening. For me, that was a big selling point; his trot is almost magical,” said Szakacs.
Szakacs and her gelding have been working on achieving more regularity and stability during their tests. “I was just so happy, because he has that magical trot, but it’s been hard to get it and keep it consistently,” she said.
Szakacs, who works at a biotech company that de-velops drugs to treat cancer, competed Ruschkoi in a few second level tests this year, in order to push him a little bit and make sure his training is on the right timeline. “We did the second level, test 1, which is so much more collected. The shoulder-ins, simple changes, and lengthenings were much more in place and really helped us out at first level,” said Szakacs.
One of the best things that Szakacs enjoys about her gelding, besides his breath-taking trot, is his sweet personality. “He’s like a big dog; he’d just want to crawl in my lap if he could. He’s very personable, and I think he has a cuteness factor that radiates from him and gets people’s attention,” said Szakacs with a laugh.
Leslie Webb had a busy weekend at the championships, riding three of Harmony Sporthorses’ geldings to ribbons and collecting the CDS and Great American/USDF Region 7 Prix St. Georges championships on Harmony’s Sandro, with scores of 72.87 percent and 72.00 percent.
Webb, who owns a small private stable in Bakersfield, Calif., has been competing the 7-year-old Oldenberg gelding for barely a year. Harmony Sporthorse imported Harmony’s Sandro (Sandro Hitï¿½Balina) from Germany two years ago, and the gelding was already showing at the third level when Webb took over his training.
“He’s a heck of an athlete, and he tries really hard; he just gives me goose bumps. We’ve only been competing together for a year, so we’re just now getting to be a team,” said Webb, 50.
Webb admits that though Sandro performed well all three days, the pair incurred a few mistakes along the way. “He’d have little pilot errors, or lose his balance coming out of a turn, but it didn’t bother me. He performed with big, bold, confident movements,” said Webb.
Sandro, who wasn’t a fan of the noise and excitement at shows, is slowly becoming more acclimated to the atmosphere. “He used to be very nervous, especially with people clapping, but he’s getting better. It really makes my job easier because I don’t have to be so worried about him. He’s going to be quite a ham some day,” added Webb.
Webb rides and competes horses for Harmony Sporthorses, a breeding and training operation based out of Kiowa, Colo. She’s been working for the farm for more than nine years, and showed two more of their geldings at the championships.
Harmony’s Picasso took reserve in the CDS Prix St. Georges, behind Sandro (68.62%). They also claimed the third place ribbon in the Great American/USDF Championships with a 67.25 percent at the same level. “He tries his heart out, but he’s just not quite the athlete that Sandro is. He does give me a steady ride every time,” Webb noted. Webb also rode up-and-coming Harmony’s Riddler to several ribbons in the first level cham-pionships.
Webb regulates her horses’ training carefully and allows each horse to get the amount of work that she thinks it needs to be a solid competitor. “I have six stalls and six horses; it’s very doable for me. I’m the only one riding, and that’s why I think they’re winning consistently, because they have a consistent rider,” she said.
Hitting The Big Tyme
Marisa Festerling and Big Tyme are going to have a hard time topping their fantastic year, as they’ve won consistently at first level. Festerling and her 5-year-old Belgian Warmblood led the open first level division with double championships in the CDS and Great American/USDF sections.
“I was very pleased with all my rides; he was forward and sensitive to my leg. I think Sunday was the best; he was light and forward and listening,” said Festerling, a 29-year-old Newbury Park, Calif., native. Festerling’s hard work paid off, as the pair received scores of 73.45 percent and 74.16 percent on each of their championship tests.
Festerling and her trainer Marie Meyers run their business out of the Equestrian Performance Center in Moorpark, Calif. After being Meyers’ working student throughout school, Festerling became partners with her trainer of 13 years, and in fact, purchased Big Tyme, affectionately known as “Frankie,” from her.
“He had incredible movement for a 3-year-old–his power was just amazing. His three natural gaits are very good quality, and to go to the top, you need to start out with three excellent gaits and a great temperament. I’m lucky he has such a great character, too!” said Festerling.
Festerling bought the Belgian gelding three years ago with an investor who’s also a client of theirs, Anne-Marie Walter.
Big Tyme (Saros Van’t Gestelhofï¿½Elvira) blossomed into a more mature and responsive horse this season. “He’s seen so much this year; he used to be such a chicken, and I’d have to really boost up his confidence for him to be comfortable. We’ve done lots of traveling and he’s really grown up a lot. Frankie does his job well and tries to listen,” said Festerling.
Festerling plans to spend the winter working on flying changes and lateral movements, and hopes to try the FEI 6-year-old test next season.
Another bright, young competitor with high aspirations is 16-year-old Amanda Harlan. She and her 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Liberte snagged the win in both the Region 7 Prix St. Georges, junior/young rider championship and the Young Rider Team test (71.00% & 67.11%).
“This was the first ride since I’ve had him that I really felt like we knew each other. I usually have to work him up a little before our tests, and this time I really knew his limits and felt like I could push him. I feel like this is sort of the beginning of what’s next,” said Harlan excitedly.
Harlan bought “Lester” from Jan Ebeling a year ago and has consistently trained with Ebeling for four years.
“I’d been watching [Liberte] go for three or four years, and I never thought he’d be mine!” said Harlan. “We bought him for [the North American Young Riders Championships], where we won a silver medal in the freestyle. I sort of have the Olympic dream, and hopefully he’ll take me at least some of the way there!”
The junior from Napa Valley in northern California juggles riding at an FEI-level, competing in varsity volleyball, and working on her schoolwork until late at night. “It’s been really difficult, especially this year, but I love it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Harlan plans to keep balancing her various activities and compete Lester in Young Riders again, and possibly the Brentina Cup.