When we talk, Michel Assouline is boarding a plane in England en route to North Carolina. Many of his days are now spent airborne, as the French-born, Britain-based coach is now at the helm of the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s para-dressage program.
This FEI World Equestrian Games at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, North Carolina, will be Assouline’s first major championship as the leader of the U.S. para high performance program after 12 incredibly successful years revolutionizing the attitudes, scores, ethos and culture in and around para-dressage in the United Kingdom. Under his tenure, the British team was unbeaten in every major championship the riders contested.
And now this multi-talented, highly focused Grand Prix rider wants to do the same on this side of the Atlantic.
This year’s WEG comes at an early juncture in Assouline’s tenure with the U.S. para program, but his innovations and his vision are already reaping rewards.
“I’m flying to Charlotte now for team training,” he said. “Then there will be pre-camp training at a private dressage yard outside Tryon two weeks beforehand.”
The team—Rebecca Hart, Angela “Annie” Peavy, Kate Shoemaker and Roxanne Trunnell—are all currently based in Wellington, Florida, which eliminates the usual challenge of moving horses and riders across the country to bring squads together.
“We’re lucky this time,” Assouline said. “It’s only by chance, but they’re all in the same region. And for me this is a new venture—my first major championship for the U.S.”
Assouline can’t stress enough how highly he regards the Tryon facilities. “The venue is second to none; it’s an amazing place,” he said. “I’ve been around a lot, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a beautiful set-up, and the staging, with the mountains in the background, is wonderful. People love nature and beauty.
“The stabling is superb and all permanent,” he continued. “They’re the best stables you could ever have. And it’s the same with the arenas, as they have the best surfaces you can get.”
Assouline has already managed to bring on board some significant new sponsors to para-dressage, and those crucial supporters will be well served by the restaurants and shops on site. He described the whole operation as being “on a scale like Aachen in Germany, and possibly even bigger.”
These supporters include the longtime dressage devotee Rowan O’Riley, who is the owner of the Dutch gelding El Corona Texel, on whom three-time Paralympian Hart will contest her third WEG.
Hart and the 9-year-old are so far unbeaten internationally—with help from their home coach Melissa MacLaren Velix—though they’ve been somewhat sheltered, only contesting the test event in Tryon in April and shows at Wellington in January.
Shoemaker and Trunnell were also part of the winning team at the test event, and they will be riding the same horses—Shoemaker on Solitaer 40 and Roxanne on Dolton, who is only 6.
“It’s a team made half of new combinations,” Assouline said, and he admitted he’s not expecting gold medals to rain down on the U.S. team instantaneously. “Most of them have been to the site, done the national championships there in September and the test event, so they’ve had the chance to check it out.”
Despite the inexperience, Assouline is excited about the team’s potential.
“Roxanne has a very good new Grade I horse; he’s big and black with amazing paces,” he enthused. “He walks like a cat, very supple, and they get on. I’m expecting her to do well, although it’s a young horse. Anything can happen, but she had scores up to the mid 70s in the test event.
“The horse actually belongs to Kate, one of two Grade IV riders on the team,” he continued. “We saw her on him in Wellington and discussed him being a prospect for Roxanne. Then we found Karin Flint, who has taken over his running costs for Roxanne up to the Games. They’re all such a good bunch supporting each other.”
Shoemaker and her 11-year-old stallion Solitaer 40 have been competing together since 2015.
“It’s early days for him,” said Assouline, “but he’s a big, impressive horse. I’m hoping that they will hold their form, but they have not done a major championship like this before.”
Peavy is the other grade IV rider on the team, and she rides her mother Rebecca Reno’s 10-year-old Oldenburg mare Royal Dark Chocolate.
“Annie came to me for a month in England last summer to train. She then competed in the U.K. and did well, and the judges really liked the mare,” said Assouline, who also praised Peavy’s coach Heather Blitz. “Annie also did the test event and scored into the 70s. But this is still quite a new horse for her, and the combination doesn’t have loads of experience yet.”
Shoemaker and Trunnell train with Andrea Woodard, who was chief rider at Andreas Helgstrand’s barn in Denmark and now runs his sales stable in Wellington.
The expectation this time around is not for the U.S. team to sweep the board, but Assouline hopes this championship will represent valuable steps up the ladder to international success.
“I am in the process of designing the individual targets for every rider,” he said. “We also have a great sports psychologist in Jane Savoie, who is a former international Grand Prix rider. She doesn’t compete any more, but she’s very experienced and has all the background knowledge to help. It’s all about helping to develop strong home team for the riders, including coach, vets and physio, so the athletes are never on their own.”