For horse owners nationwide, the beginning of 2007 was draped in a black cloud called equine herpes virus. This virus isn’t a new disease, but the strain, EHV-1, which was supposedly introduced with a load of horses arriving from Europe, hit the U.S. horses hard. A number of equines developed the neurological signs of the disease, and we started losing horses in various parts of the country.
The Florida show circuit, which usually starts its wheels in motion in December, was paralyzed. The worrying and rumors ran high, and every barn was careful not to transport horses or receive new arrivals. Many stables were quarantined, some of them voluntarily, as we concentrated on keeping our horses healthy.
As always, when catastrophe strikes, we change our focus, and the whole show scene suddenly appeared frivolous and unimportant by comparison to keeping our animals healthy.
If anything good came out of the ordeal, it was perhaps an improvement in stable management countrywide, and an increased awareness of how to avoid spreading infections. We also came to admire the commitment shown by our veterinarians, who networked and cooperated with each other in a most dedicated and efficient fashion.
As soon as the danger passed, the belated circuit got new wind in its sails with the Pan American Games selection shows bringing the competitors back to business.
They went at it with a vengeance, vying for a trip to Rio de Janeiro. Although we no longer needed to win to qualify as a nation for the Olympics, we were certainly eager to field a team. The Pan American Games are for all athletes in the Americas the precursor to the Olympics, and the Games are run accordingly, including opening and closing ceremonies, a full set of uniforms for each nation and all of the bells and whistles.
It’s a serious dress rehearsal for the following year. Unfortunately, for the dressage horses, this isn’t usually true. Since the standard of competition is held at the Prix St. Georges/ Intermediaire level, it’s rare that any of the combinations are the same as those who will compete at the Grand Prix during the following Olympics.
Perhaps in the near future there will be enough horses competing at Grand Prix south of the border to move the competition up to Grand Prix, which would then make it a somewhat more meaningful event for the dressage riders.
In any case, the United States went into the Games with a whole new “crew” on the team, and they emerged the clear winners.
Christopher Hickey, Lauren Sammis and Katherine Poulin-Neff were in good form. Although their beginning was rocky when they arrived on location and were faced with some strange immigration regulations, such as not being able to reunite with any of their horse equipment for several days, the team kept their spirits up and “winged it” until everything was worked out.
The communications via e-mail and blogs was amazing, and we were practically right there with them on an hourly basis. What a difference from my own experience in Argentina 12 years ago, when it felt like we were cut off from the rest of the riding world, and nobody knew what we were doing until well after the fact!
The Dutch Prevail
While we were busy with Pan American Games in 2007, our colleagues in the “old country” were occupying themselves with the European Championships in Turin, Italy.
This European Championships, at the end of August, proved to be a true clash of the titans to the very end, and the Dutch finally won the team gold! The Germans have been the team gold medal winners for almost 40 years, and I think we can all agree it was time to break the mold.
The Dutch have been knocking on the door for a while, and, as German rider Isabell Werth said about the final results: “It’s good for the sport and good for all of us to have a new country on top.” But, she added, as a true competitor: “Not for long.”
Some tidbits from Turin: Isabell was the first one to harvest an individual gold medal in the Grand Prix Special with a ride that was “right on” in flow and accuracy, the kind that gives you goose bumps and makes the very difficult look easy. She said she had a “fantastic feeling” on Satchmo, and she must have communicated that sensation to the judges, because they agreed the ride was worth the gold.
When it comes to riding freestyles, however, Anky van Grunsven has the inside track. While her horse Salinero was a bit on the muscle and croup-high in the canter work in the Special, he settled into the music in the freestyle. After reminding himself that he was dancing with a star, he allowed Anky to take the lead. Once again, Salinero and Anky blew them all away with their precision and flow to the perfectly choreographed piece.
Following on the heels of Isabell, who was second in the freestyle, was my favorite horse, Sunrise, with Imke Schellekens-Bartels from the Netherlands. Imke was fourth in the Grand Prix and took the bronze in the Special and the freestyle. With those performances, Imke and the mare cemented the impression that they are here to stay and will most probably be a force to be reckoned with in the coming Olympics.
The other Dutch team members, Hexagon’s Ollright, who is a supple and steady horse well-piloted by Laurens van Lieren, and the up-and-coming Hans Peter Minderhoud on Exquis Nadine—already well known as a star rider of young horses—are no slouches.
With such strong horse-and-rider combinations on the Dutch team, the Germans will have to hustle this year to try to regain their crown. Except for their shining star, Isabell, they’re currently a bit shaky since Whisper is a green Grand Prix horse under Monica Theodorescu, and Elvis and Nadine Capellman appear to be inconsistent. Ellen Schulten-Baumer and Donata seem to be getting their act together, but the Germans will need to manufacture at least two main players to keep up with the neighbors.
The fact that Monica Theodorescu competed at all in Turin shows the grit and commitment her family has had to this sport for so many years. In August, Monica’s father George Theodorescu died at age 81 after having a stroke.
On one of my training trips to Germany, I lived close to the Theodorescu stables, and I used to watch the riding there with, among others, Jan Brink and Belinda Nairn-Wertman getting instruction from George.
Later on, he worked with the U.S. riders. At every major show in Germany, George was a prominent presence. In Neumunster many years ago, he rode one of the most memorable freestyles I’ve ever watched. On a horse named Sunny Boy, he performed to one of Listz’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, without changing a single thing in the music, and the interpretation was incredible. George was as much an artist as he was a horseman, and he lived in the fullest sense of the word to the very end.
Another international event of interest was the Fédération Equestre Internationale’s publication of the new “Dressage Handbook, Guidelines for Judging.”
This publication is the creation of several members of the FEI Dressage Committee who worked tirelessly for years to come up with a concise and clear formula for judges to follow in order to standardize dressage judging to the greatest extent possible. One of the fire souls of this enterprise is Linda Zang, who faithfully shuttled to meetings with, among others, Volker Moritz and Stephen Clarke, to create, edit and polish every word in every sentence.
The reception of the book is mixed. I think most people agree that having clear, written guidelines, especially for judges in countries where the shows are few and far between, is a welcome source of information and security.
Some people have mentioned the danger of making the rules so specific that the appreciation of the qualities that cannot be measured by words alone—such as presence, brilliance and expression—may be lost.
Jaap Pot, definitely one of the most respected and intuitive dressage judges the world has seen, always finished his judge’s seminars by warning us against what he called “recipe judging,” i.e., getting hung up on the details rather than seeing the total picture.
Naturally, that’s not the intention of this book, sometimes nicknamed the “bible,” but the possibilities of becoming too pedantic is something each judge has to guard against. And for sure many people are welcoming the bible, especially those competitors who think it’s about time judges got religion.
Our representation at the Young Horse Championships continues, and although we didn’t harvest any top placings in Verden (Germany), we had some respectable 5- and 6-year-olds.
From what I observed at our fall Young Horse National Championships in Kentucky, this year could produce a crop of “real” home-bred U.S. horses among which we might find some good enough to send over to Europe.
This, of course, is our ultimate goal—to be able to send over and compete with horses who were actually bred in this country.
When looking back at the past year, we had several dressage highlights, such as another well-run and well-attended World Cup Dressage Finals in Las Vegas, where Steffen Peters finished third on Floriano. Not to speak of Charlotte Bredahl’s 50th birthday party, which was one of the greatest events ever!
In the Las Vegas Wax Museum, watched over by Jackie Onassis and Abraham Lincoln, an eclectic selection of characters from the dressage world sang, danced and performed in their own American Idol show.
Guenter Seidel, Steffen Peters, Debbie McDonald and I were the judges, and we were treated to some incredible performances. There are videos of all of this, but Charlotte has them locked up in her vault to be released only when we’re all beyond caring. I can reveal, however, that show business missed the boat when they lost Michael Barisone to dressage.
The very best feature brought by 2007 was that it was the breakthrough year of a whole new set of young American riders. In addition to our fresh and new Pan American team members who competed in Brazil, we’ve had the pleasure of seeing Courtney King going from one victory to another on several horses. Following not far behind is Liz Austin who, at age 23, is barely out of the Young Riders ranks and has won the Brentina Cup two consecutive years. Through the U.S. Equestrian Federation High Performance Grants, we’ve also offered five training stipends to deserving U.S. riders, enabling them to travel to Europe and train with our team coach Klaus Balkenhol, or a trainer of their choosing.
Jan Ebeling has a lovely couple of mares, especially the big bay Rafalca who got off to a great start when she was the guinea pig ride for the World Cup Grand Prix class and looked better than most of the horses in the competition.
The attractive combination of the snow white Andalusian Rociero and Kristina Harrison-Naness are on the training list, and so is the big boy “Felix,” who is partnered with Debbie McDonald and has already placed well in German competitions.
Sue Blinks has a new mount, a redhead full of fire and brimstone who goes by the name of Robin Hood. At the last show I judged him in, he wasn’t giving anything away to either rich or poor, but he’s talented, and once he channels his energy in the right direction, his great ability for collection and athleticism will shine through.
For a year that had such an ominous start, 2007 turned out pretty well for U.S. dressage and, as always, all is well that ends well.
Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained 11 horses to Grand Prix. She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and was a member of the 1995 silver-medal Pan American Games team in Argentina. An O-rated dressage judge, based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as co-vice chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.