Saturday, May. 18, 2024

Team Hilltop Sweeps Markel/USEF National Young Horse Dressage Championships

Cabana Boy earns his second national title for Chris Hickey in Kentucky.

Christopher Hickey and his students blew away the competition during the Markel/USEF National Young Horse Dressage Championship, and the remnants of Hurricane Ike tried to finish the job on the final day. While Hickey led Team Hilltop to sweep the Young Horse divisions, unrelenting 60-mph winds from Ike scuttled nearly everything that wasn’t nailed down—and even a few things that were.


Cabana Boy earns his second national title for Chris Hickey in Kentucky.

Christopher Hickey and his students blew away the competition during the Markel/USEF National Young Horse Dressage Championship, and the remnants of Hurricane Ike tried to finish the job on the final day. While Hickey led Team Hilltop to sweep the Young Horse divisions, unrelenting 60-mph winds from Ike scuttled nearly everything that wasn’t nailed down—and even a few things that were.

The Sept. 12-14 competition at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington showcased invitation-only championships for young horses (4-, 5- and 6-year-olds) and the USEF National Developing Horse Dressage Championship (for 7-, 8- and 9-year-olds). Guenter Seidel and Susan Dutta took first and second places with U II and Golden Choice DC, respectively, in the developing horse division.

Hickey, who was Dutta’s 2007 Pan Am teammate, won the 6-year-old championship with Cabana Boy, the horse he rode to clinch last year’s 5-year-old championship. His students claimed this year’s 5-year-old championship (Nicole Bellah aboard Winsor) and took champion and reserve titles in the 4-year-old division (Michael Bragdell with Selten HW and Emily Gershberg with Zatino H, respectively).

Hickey and Cabana Boy, the last to ride on Sunday, maintained the lead they had established Friday in the preliminary test. Their final combined score was 8.64, ahead of Shannon Peters and Weltino’s Magic (8.21), reserve champions. Both horses received a 9.5 for the walk and 9 for the trot.

“I’m very happy with my horse. He came out and did his job,” said Hickey, who hopes to return next year with three horses in the developing horse division.

Cabana Boy, a bay Hanoverian U.S.-bred gelding (Contucci—Britania, Bordeaux), is owned by Hilltop Farm in Colora, Md.

Weltino’s Magic, a bay Westphalian gelding, is owned by Jen Hlavacek and was bred in Germany.
Peters was having a superb ride until the wind prompted Weltino’s Magic to spook and come above the bit. “Today’s ride was not our best,” she said.

Because the youngster has grown in a year from 16.3 to 17.3 hands, she said she will probably compete him at fourth level next season “and take it easy to let him catch up with himself.”

This was Peters’ first time at the young horse championships and her mount’s eighth show. She described him as “a big teddy bear who loves everybody” but is “very hot and smart and hard to ride.”

Her Olympic competitor husband, Steffen Peters, flew in on the red eye to watch her ride Sunday.

Bellah Bests 5-Year-Olds

The heat was on during Sunday’s finale for the 5-year-old championship, with the top four horses separated by .3 points after Friday’s preliminary test. Rider/owner Nicole Bellah of Lee’s Summit, Mo., won aboard Winsor, a dark bay Dutch Warmblood stallion (8.02).


Another Chris Hickey protégé, Bellah said that, despite the high winds, she knew she could push Winsor (San Remo—Para Lady, Julio Mariner) because he is so quiet. “He’s a good-hearted stallion and very trainable,” she said.

He demonstrated his character in the victory gallop, cruising around calmly on the buckle in the wind. The judges found Winsor’s canter his best gait, noting it “was highlighted by clear beautiful mediums that come up under straight.”

Coping With Winds

Gale-force gusts played havoc with Chris Hickey’s championship test, snatching his top hat and tossing it into the arena, where it remained for the rest of his sand-pelted ride. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Hickey. “It was a new hat, and it was so tight it was hurting my head. I was sure it wouldn’t come off.”

Some riders benefited from drawing morning rides, others from brief interludes between wind and sand storms, which intensified as Sunday afternoon wore on. Part of a tent next to the young horse arena became unfastened and flapped menacingly just as Joe Sandven rode by on Ronatella S in the 5-year-old finals. The mare maintained her focus, and the pair rode away with the reserve championship—and the wind at their heels.

Given the near whiteouts from blowing sheets of sand, it was amazing the judges could see the arena. Before the start of the 6-year-old finals, the tent on the judges’ podium blew down, forcing the panel to observe the rides from inside a truck parked at “C.” During the lunch break, the show grounds lost power, which was never restored. That required competitors to sidle up to the pickup truck after their tests to listen to the judges’ oral assessments of their mounts, which were conveyed through a window. Unfortunately, spectators were unable to hear the panel’s observations, which had added an educational element to the previous young horse divisions.
In a nearby arena, the developing horse finals progressed in silence (except for the howling of the wind), with no announcement of horse and rider as they entered the arena, nor of scores or current placings. Even the large electronic screen, which had to be folded over for preservation, was wordless.

Michael Poulin, a judge for the developing horse finals on Sunday, said at one point he felt the wooden judges’ booth wobbling so badly that he was concerned it might tip over. His fears were not unfounded. “Look! The judges’ stand is levitating!” gasped a spectator in the adjacent patrons’ tent. At the winds’ zenith, a portable latrine blew over, wooden scoreboards toppled, and heavy metal tables did cartwheels toward the warm-up arena, where a few young horses spontaneously demonstrated airs above the ground.

Said a delighted Bellah: “I didn’t think I’d win. I was completely intimidated because I’ve never done this [competition]. I was going against the best horses in the nation, and Joe had such a great ride Friday.”
Joe Sandven of Fletcher, N.C., had won the preliminary 5-year-old class aboard Ronatella S, a stunning black Hanoverian mare (Rotspon—Ronja, Raphael), owned by Helen Wiest and bred in Germany. The pair scored 7.84 to finish second overall.

“I felt good about my ride, but the judges definitely didn’t get to see the best of my horse,” said Sandven, who said the mare stayed with him, even when a tent blew down during their walk work. He described her as “incredibly sensible. She’s super and easy and delightful to ride.”

Another Hanoverian mare, Lucky Girl BC (Londonderry—Weserlust, Wenzel 1), ridden by Lientje Schueler of San Diego, Calif., received the same score as Ronatella S but placed third. Under the rules, had the two horses been bred in different countries, the U.S.-bred horse would have automatically prevailed. However, because both were bred in Germany, the judges had to be convened to break the tie.

Bragdell Claims 4-Year-Old Division

Selten HW, a black Hanoverian stallion by Sandro Hit—SPS High Princess, won the 4-year-old championship (8.56), followed by Zatino H, a bay Dutch Warmblood gelding (8.24). Championship winner Michael Bragdell and reserve Emily Gershberg both train with Chris Hickey; she has also worked with Lendon Gray.

Bragdell, a native of Sweden, has long been employed by Hilltop Farm, where he originally began as a working student and where Selten HW has lived since he was a yearling. He started Selten HW under
saddle as a 3-year-old. The previous year the horse had been reserve 2-year-old champion at Devon (Pa.).
Bragdell described the 17.2-hand stallion owned by Cadence, LLC as a “big, easy-going child.”

Bragdell believes the canter is one of Selten HW’s best qualities: “The canter is a 10. It takes my breath away.” He wasn’t far off in his assessment; the judges gave the horse 9s for the canter and walk, with an 8.8 for overall impression.


During his ride in the finals, said Bragdell, a “wind gust grabbed me but he just chugged along. That’s what I love about him.”

The judges praised Selten HW’s brain and personality. They noted that the long-legged horse is “so balanced and so much off the ground,” lauding Bragdell for making “it look easy” to ride such a lofty creature.

In placing Gershberg second, they said her horse seemed more expressive and open in his frame than he had been in the preliminary test. The rider-owner from Hudson, N.Y., said she incorporated the judges’ feedback from her first ride into Saturday’s final test, in which she found Zatino H (Sir Sinclair—Karma) more consistent.

Gershberg was sporting a swollen black eye received just before Thursday’s jog, when a trash truck startled the horse while she was picking his hoof.

Seidel Tops Developing Horse Championship

U.S. team riders Seidel and Dutta rode away with the developing horse championship and reserve titles, respectively, aboard U II (70.87%) and Golden Choice DC (69.28%).

“I was lucky to draw an early [ride] time; the wind was not as severe then,” Seidel said. “My horse was very good today, more in front of my leg than yesterday [in the qualifier].” He described U II as “a very sweet horse with a super work ethic,” while conceding he can be “spooky, but not stupid-spooky.”

Dutta won Saturday’s qualifier with a 69.41 percent to Seidel’s third-placed 67.33 percent. Seidel won Friday’s Prix St. Georges test, an optional warm-up for the developing horse championship, with the 7-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding owned by Richard and Jane Brown.

Dutta praised “Goldie,” the 9-year-old chestnut Hanoverian mare (by Grand Cru) owned by her husband’s company, Tim Dutta, Inc.

“She’s focused on me and listens to me no matter what,” she said of the mare, who was purchased as a 4-year-old at the PSI auction. “I believed in her and developed her. I call her my ‘dolly.’ Goldie is my favorite horse. I know you’re not supposed to have a favorite, but this one is. From the first day I sat on her, I knew she was my horse.”

Dutta said she had two really good rides over the weekend, categorizing her qualifying test as mistake-free and conceding having made one small mistake in the finals.

Seidel’s sights for U II are set on the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, which will also be held at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Such goals are precisely what the organizers of the young and developing dressage horse program hope to foster: the proper development of future international stars. Said Hickey: “Let’s hope we see these horses again as team horses.”

Darlene Ricker




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