“Wow!” said Judge Axel Steiner, who was spectating at the U.S. Freestyle Championship/U.S. World Cup League Finals. “I think that was best Grand Prix I have ever seen on American soil.”
Just when it seemed Brentina was at the top of her game, she’s gotten even better, and she proved it by easily winning the U.S. League Final for the FEI World Cup in Burbank, Calif., Feb. 28-29, under Debbie Mc-Donald. The pair topped a small but high-quality field of five to win their second U.S. Freestyle Championship/League Final title.
Leslie Morse and Kingston finished second overall, recovering from a lackluster Grand Prix with a brilliant freestyle ride. Guenter Seidel rode two horses for Dick and Jane Brown, finishing third on Nikolaus and fourth on Aragon. Steffen Peters, on Grandeur, was fifth in the U.S. Freestyle Championship, but because he didn’t declare for the World Cup Final, Peters’ ride didn’t count for the U.S. League Final.
Brentina has a new lease on life since undergoing wind surgery last August, and the result is that she has more energy than ever, said McDonald. Brentina has also slimmed down considerably, so her new svelte figure, combined with her newfound animation, has made her more buoyant and graceful on her feet.
“It’s like riding a new horse. She’s so much more energetic and continues to improve as I work her,” said a pleased McDonald.
The pair won the U.S. League Final in 2002 but didn’t contest that World Cup. Then, because of their fourth-placed finish at the 2002 World Champion-ships, they were given a wild-card invitation to the 2003 FEI Dressage World Cup Final (Sweden). There they finished second to Ulla Salzgeber and Rusty, but they moved up to the top spot last November when the Federation Equestre Internationale disqualified Salzgeber because Rusty had tested positive for too much testosterone.
As the defending titleholder, McDonald gets an automatic invitation to this year’s final, on April 2-4 in Dusseldorf, Germany. So she didn’t have to compete in the League final.
“But I really need the ring experience to get ready for Athens,” said McDonald, who’s spending the winter at the Browns’ farm in Carlsbad, Calif., instead of Sun Valley, Idaho, to prepare for her first Olympic bid. The pair hadn’t competed since the Aachen CDIO (Germany) last June.
McDonald started her weekend by riding an impeccable Grand Prix, the scores for which count only to set the starting order of the Grand Prix freestyle, just like at the World Cup.
Peggy Thomas’ chestnut mare performed with her hallmark accuracy and consistency, the rhythm of the test never varying. The mare’s piaffe and passage tour was excellent to earn every point of her 77.37 percent.
Uwe Mechlem, head of the ground jury and an O-rated German judge, agreed with Steiner’s sentiments. “This Grand Prix matched what we see in Europe. This was a very high standard, and I think the marks speak for themselves,” he said.
But McDonald chided herself for being too conservative on her extended trots. “I’m still getting used to riding this new horse, and I was a little nervous as this was my first show in a very long time,” she said. “I’m still not sure how much to push her.”
She echoed those same sentiments after her freestyle ride too, even though she scored a respectable 82.32 percent. Performing the same freestyle she used in last year’s World Cup, McDonald turned in a polished performance, but once again rode a little conservatively.
“I can do better, I know that,” she said ruefully. “I just can’t seem to shake the nerves, no matter how often I do this sort of thing.”
Pulling Out All The Stops
Leslie Morse could have let her nerves get the better of her. Her Grand Prix ride on Kingston was a basically solid ride, but it lacked a dynamic quality. Morse said the Dutch Warmblood stallion “had an off day,” so they made many little mistakes.
“He’s too big a horse not to have him completely with me. He seemed tired. I’m still trying to learn the balance of how to peak him for a competition. I have to figure out a plan that works for us,” she said.
Standing in fifth place, Morse knew she really had to pull out all the stops in her freestyle to impress the judges. And she did exactly that, scoring a 78.97 percent that sent her and Kingston to the World Cup Final, their first international championship. Next, she hopes to make the team for Athens.
Riding to music from the movie Pirates Of The Caribbean, Morse highlighted her 12-year-old stallion’s strength in collection. From her first halt, she went straight into a piaffe pirouette and then transitioned in and out of piaffe and passage as she worked the arena.
Morse perfectly matched her extended trots with a change in the music’s tempo, showing off Kingston’s big, bold gaits. She also performed four or five double canter pirouettes, one right at C in front of three judges, and several piaffe pirouettes. She topped off an already technical ride with a canter pirouette into a piaffe pirouette, finishing up with a long piaffe session at X.
As technical as the test was, Morse’s accurate riding made everything flow together smoothly. The powerful, soaring music matched the 17.3-hand, black stallion’s powerful presence perfectly and as she saluted the judges for the final time, the crowd went to their feet.
Morse said she made sure that Kingston rested well the night before the freestyle. “I also worked with Klaus Balkenhol [the U.S. team coach], and he helped me develop a good warm-up for the horse and helped me concentrate on what we needed to do for the performance,” she said.
Morse choreographed her own freestyle, and Canadian freestyle designer Karen Robinson helped her with the music. “When I sat down to choreograph this freestyle, I just took what Kingston does well and highlighted it. For the music, I went back to my love of movie scores’they’re so epic and dynamic,” she said.
“All these riders exactly matched the degree of difficulty [in their tests] to their horses’ strengths,” commented Mechlem. “No horse was asked too much. We judges like to see this; no one should push their horse to perform what he finds difficult.”
From a physical standpoint, Nikolaus has never found the Grand Prix movements difficult, but his nervous temperament, resulting in tension, often diminishes his innate talent. But for this competition, the 15-year-old showed an added dose of maturity.
Seidel said he was pleased with how supple and relaxed Nikolaus was able to stay throughout both tests, finishing second in the Grand Prix (72.12%) and third in the freestyle (76.85%).
Seidel too used the same freestyle, “Hernando’s Hideaway,” he used in last year’s World Cup Final, where he finished third, and this test was highlighted by wonderful passage and the gelding’s trademark dynamic extended trot.
His other mount, Aragon, a Belgian Warmblood, is less a veteran than Nikolaus, and his inexperience showed in the Grand Prix (70.00%). Seidel said he was a little disappointed with the tension the 13-year-old, gray gelding displayed, but the Los Angeles Equestrian Center’s spooky indoor ring is a tough arena at the best of times and can take a further toll on the horses’ psyche when filled with spectators.
Mechlem said that he was impressed with Aragon’s piaffe, which is active and comes easily. “This horse showed his talent today,” Mechlem said.
Much of that initial tension had dissipated by the time Aragon returned to the arena for his freestyle (74.22%), which was pleasantly choreographed and had movements like a passage half pass that highlighted the gray’s excellent passage/piaffe and trot work.
To a contemporary, horn-driven medley composed of the Men At Work song “Land Down Under,” Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O” (the Banana Boat song) and Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me,” Seidel cantered to his halt, went from halt, to passage, to an extended trot across the diagonal, to piaffe through the turn, to passage down the short side, and followed that with another extended trot across the diagonal. The horse also performs notably correct tempi changes and Seidel, as usual, received 8s and 9s for position and seat.
Seidel will ride Nikolaus at the World Cup Final and then aim both horses for the Olympic selection trials in June.