Imagine an Olympic Games without swimming, volleyball, boxing or cycling; an Olympic Games that is nothing but horses. The 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG), to be held in Normandy, France, Aug. 23–Sept. 7, will fill that bill with world championships in eight disciplines: dressage, show jumping, eventing, vaulting, four-in-hand driving, reining, endurance and Para-Equestrian dressage.
WEG will attract 1,000 horses and riders from more than 60 countries and will have quite an audience between television viewers and those lucky souls who are there in person. Since it debuted in Stockholm 24 years ago, WEG has always been Eurocentric and held in Europe with the exception of the 2010 edition that was held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Lexington is vying for the 2018 Games as are Wellington, Florida, and Bromont, Quebec, Canada. This time, though, it’s in Europe again, at a venue that enchants.
Normandy is best known as the location of the Allied landings of World War II. The beaches, museums and final resting places of those who lost their lives in the historic initiative are tourist must-sees. But beyond the rugged shoreline, Normandy is a destination for the well-heeled who frequent such wealth-conjuring names as Deauville and neighboring Trouville. Aside from that, it’s wonderfully green: heavily agricultural, known for its cheese, meat, calvados brandy, produce and horses. It’s the country’s prime equine region.
“It’s a beautiful part of the world,” says international dressage judge Gary Rockwell, who earned a bronze medal for the U.S. team at the 1994 WEG.
Eventing’s dressage and cross-country phases will be held at the French National Stud, Haras du Pin, worth a visit even if this sport isn’t your thing. Haras is about a two-hour drive from Caen, the city that will host most of the Games’ action.
The focal point of the Games is D’Ornano Stadium, within walking distance from the heart of the city. The view is good from every angle. The stadium will host the show-jumping portion of eventing, Grand Prix jumping and dressage. It seats only 20,000, so tickets are hard to come by for the most exciting items on the schedule, such as show jumping’s final four and the dressage freestyle.
“Dressage gets two major opportunities every four-year cycle—one at WEG, one at the Olympics,” says Jim Wolf, who will serve as the USEF’s chef de mission for the Games. “I think they’re going to get a lot of people watching dressage, which is great. I expect a big crowd at the freestyle. For those who want to come, there’s a range of prices and a lot of interesting places to stay.”
Of the Normandy planners, Rockwell says, “It’s a really sharp organizing committee, and they’ve involved a lot of people. I think it will be extremely well done.”
Catherine Haddad Staller, a candidate for the U.S. dressage team with Mane Stream Hotmail, recalled that when she was an alternate for the WEG squad in 2006, 50,000 people filled the main stadium at Aachen, Germany, while another 5,000 crowded into the neighboring Deutsche Bank Stadium to watch the competition transmitted live on a big screen.
There won’t be quite that demand in Normandy; the French team is unlikely to be in dressage-medal territory, and it’s not the country’s number-one horse sport, but the smaller amount of seating makes tickets scarce. They can be bought on the WEG website (normandy2014.com), where the best shot at securing space might be the nonmedal days.
If you’re in Caen the first week for the dressage competitions, think beyond the stadium: Reining and Para-Equestrian dressage are being held at the Prairie Racecourse in Caen’s city center. You also might want to stay past the first week, when the show jumpers move in for the second week.
After all, the original idea of WEG—envisioned as a one-off event rather than being held every four years—was to give people a chance to escape from the insularity of their chosen discipline and experience the best of some of the other horse sports. Equestrian-oriented entertainment is the theme of the Exhibition Centre, with concerts and amusements for children, all geared toward public involvement and highlighting the equestrian culture.
While it’s wonderful to go to WEG and be among the 560,000 expected to attend, U.S. residents might prefer to enjoy the Normandy action electronically. Everything involved in the trip to France can be expensive, from the airfare to the housing, which is rather scarce. Organizers are counting on many of the spectators coming from their homes within driving distance.
Where To Stay
Organizers are touting the bed-and-breakfast and private-home options as alternatives to hotels. Both have the bonus of enabling visitors to meet locals and feel more a part of the unfolding scene, and they are generally less expensive than reputable hotels.
Caen is more than a two-hour drive from Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. There is a train connection, though it’s not easy to handle with luggage. A costly alternative is flying to London and then taking a plane out of City Airport there to Caen.
Those who do come would be well advised to rent a car if they want to easily travel further afield at their leisure. Mont Saint-Michel, the island fortress that will be the backdrop for endurance, is worth a visit for those who enjoy scenic venues, and Haras is a must for its historic stables. Exhibitions of polo will be held in the seaside resort of Deauville, and horseball (similar to basketball on horseback) will be in Saint-Lô.
As the official U.S. ticketing agent, Equestrian Tours (equestriantours.com) offers packages for WEG. It’s the easiest choice for those from the United States who want to attend. The housing is out of town, but not far from Caen, and costs about $3,500 for a double or shared hotel room for the duration of the Games.
What Competitors Can Expect
For the riders, understandably, Normandy is a plum destination—and not just for the chance at a medal. This WEG will have plenty of style, as Haddad Staller knows well. Based in Europe for two decades, she competed many times in France. She thinks this WEG will be a very special experience.
“It’s a beautiful part of France,” she notes, echoing Rockwell’s assessment, and her experience at other shows in France, including Lyon (home of the 2014 FEI World Cup finals) and Vidauban, made her familiar with the country’s assets as an equestrian showplace. She acknowledges the great food served at the shows (champagne, oysters on the half shell, fresh baguettes and jambon, French ham) while noting, “The atmosphere is fantastic. The French have incredible taste in creating atmosphere at a venue.
“I’m looking forward to it, whether I go as a rider or a spectator. The French add a lot of flair. They have a way of bringing their culture into every event they organize. People will not be disappointed if they come to WEG in Normandy,” Haddad Staller observes.
Her view is amplified by an interview with Didier Ferrer, the dressage discipline manager for Normandy who also has managed shows in Biarritz and Vidauban. Asked how the discipline will be different for spectators and riders from the way it played out at other WEGs, Ferrer says, “The very appropriate dimension of D’Ornano Stadium, a genuine sports and show venue with four cliff-like grandstands that create a cauldron which I hope will boil. Added to that, we mustn’t forget the sizeable challenge between what are now three nations which are vying for the medals after London [the 2012 Olympic Games] and Herning [the 2013 European Championships in Denmark]: Germany, the Netherlands and Great Britain.”
Asked about the popularity of dressage in France, Ferrer concedes, “As a sport, dressage certainly attracts a much smaller audience than the show-jumping competition, yet a great many spectators attend all the dressage spectacles, including the Les 4 Écoles in Bercy.
“As such, it would seem that art is appreciated more than the sporting discipline, and it’s up to us to show that this high level gathers together both the sport and art qualities,” Ferrer continues. “Naturally, I’m hoping that the competitions will be a sellout, and I believe that will be the case for the team Grand Prix with the presence of fans of the European teams. And, of course, I naturally believe this will be the case for the musical finale [freestyle] too.”
Interestingly, the freestyle is not going to be held at night as it was at both Aachen and Lexington. As Ferrer explains, “The TV broadcast imperatives are such that we have been brought to schedule it in on Friday afternoon.”
There’s always extra excitement if the home team has a shot at the honors, but again, the French are unlikely to be on the podium. They are not among the dressage powers that include the United States, Denmark and Sweden as well as the frontrunners Ferrer mentioned.
“The French teams and individuals are constantly progressing,” Ferrer says, “and I wish them the very best of luck, as they’re my friends. However, the objectives are certainly a minimum of two [coming through to] the Grand Prix Special and … one in the freestyle. I think that for France, WEG is a step on the road to Brazil [the 2016 Olympic Games].”
U.S. Chances in France
The United States seems certain to be in medal contention at Normandy. Robert Dover, who took over as technical adviser/chef d’équipe and all-around cheerleader/morale booster after the 2012 Olympic Games, is expecting a good showing.
“With every day that passes, I’m feeling more and more confident that we can be in contention for a medal,” says Dover. “You’re going to see some new and fresh faces in the U.S. lineup.”
He understandably declines to name any hot prospects who could bolster the squad. National champion Steffen Peters seems a lock to make the team with Legolas 92, but beyond that, there are lots of known possibilities without venturing too far into the realm of speculation. Obvious choices to keep an eye on include those who have claimed headlines last year and this winter at the major CDIs.
“I’m going to let them all speak for themselves in the show ring,” says Dover. “We’re pulling out all the stops to ensure our riders and horses have all the resources as well as the experience and exposure before the Games to give us the best possible outcome.”
Meanwhile, he points out, “Great Britain lost one of its horses—it aged out. It weakened them. From now until WEG, if you’re in the top five teams, which we are, anything can happen. It’s really a matter of achieving a formula: One horse that can do an 85 with another horse that can do a 75 percent or higher and another that can do a 73 percent or higher. That’s one medal, or two 80 percents and one that can do 73 percent or higher. I’m working on one or both. I’m extremely confident we will have one or more horses that can achieve that threshold.”
There is a certain standardization to dressage that comes in handy when looking toward a big competition.
“For our purposes, unlike the three-day, which has a very different kind of course, we have the same dressage arena mostly built with the same thought behind it as all the others,” Dover observes.
“Stabling is going to be up to the standard necessary for WEG. When you really think about it, you might have a bit of difference in infrastructure or proximity to hotels, but the actual structure of the dressage arena is common whether you’re in Wellington, New York, Europe or Asia. We still have A and we still have B and the footing is going to be up to the standard of other top international competitions.”
Dover calls WEG, “a great competition, when we get to see all of our FEI sports being played at the same time. So it’s a wonderful thing.”