June 12, 2014 -- The next generation of U.S. dressage stars is on the rise.
They didn't win the Grand Prix today at the USEF's Dressage Festival of Champions, but they definitely served notice that they are riders to watch at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, N.J.
The 2012 Olympic team, which isn't giving up its domination quite yet, took first through third places. Steffen Peters won, though not on his Games horse but rather, on Ravel's successor, Legolas. Jan Ebeling was second with Rafalca and Tina Konyot third on Calecto.
It wasn't the best test ever for Legolas or Calecto. Steffen's horse had trouble in the first piaffe when he manured during the transition ("Nature always wins," Steffen said philosophically). "That was a tricky spot to start from," he noted.
Trouble in the two-tempis also marred the ride, but he still wound up with a not-too-shabby score of 75.160, producing better piaffes as he went, along with good half-passes and "pirouettes that felt wonderful."
Tina said Calecto was "a little behind my leg" and tired after lots of travel that included a trip to France for the World Cup finals, where the stallion got sick. Her mark was 72.260.
Jan understandably reveled in his score of 73.320. His wife, Amy, had asked when I saw her what I thought. I told her that when I watched Rafalca in the horse inspection yesterday, I took immediate notice because she looked so good. And that carried over into her performance today.
Jan has been with the 17-year-old mare for nine years, and that degree of familiarity means a lot, as he told me.
Rafalca, you'll remember, gained notoriety in 2012 because her triumvirate of owners included not only Amy and Beth Meyer, but famously, Ann Romney, wife of presidential candidate Mitt Romney. There was lots of media attention that came with that, and Jan handled it beautifully. I was impressed. And I'm sure you recall the hubub that Stephen Colbert created over dressage because of the Romney connection, and the USEF response that got national attention and turned an insult around.
Fourth-place was a three-way tie among newcomer Laura Graves with Verdades, Adrienne Lyle on Wizard (she was the individual rider at the 2012 Olympics) and Caroline Roffman with Her Highness O. All scored 72.540.
I was curious what the senior riders thought about the three young women, all under 30, serving notice that they are ready to rise to the top.
"We want to see the new ones coming up," said Jan, who hadn't observed Laura's horse before and called her performance "a wonderful ride."
Said Steffen, " I thought it was so exciting to see our youngsters in the Grand Prix." Citing Laura, he commented, "I was so impressed the way that girl rode. This is really what we want in the sport, the depth and the quality."
The national championships, presented by the Dutta Corp, also are serving as selection trials for this summer's Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games at the Grand Prix level. Eight riders will be selected to go to Europe for more competition before the final team is named.
Selection trials cause a lot of stress, there's no way around it. So I wondered how necessary they are--couldn't you just use qualifying scores from other competitions? --and got a very direct answer from U.S. dressage coach Robert Dover.
When Steffen wasn't busy dominating the Grand Prix, he was dominating the Prix St. Georges in an even bigger way. He took first place on the promising Rosamunde, a sweetheart of a horse marked at 75.974 percent for her graceful and gracious way of going. Steffen also was second on Apassionata (72.921 percent), another mare, with a coal black coat and a limber appearance.
Asked about the difference between Rosie and Pia, Steffen said, "Rosie's such an amazing horse. Nothing fazed her today." Though she can be "spicy," as an equine with a lot of energy, that didn't surface this morning.
"Needless to say, I love this horse," he said of the mount who likely will be Legolas' successor.
He mentioned both mares were so rideable that going forward, he could make any adjustments suggested by judges' comments or by insights from trainer Jo Hinnemann.
Pia, on the other hand, is less of a "going horse" than Rosie. "Once in awhile, we have to motivate her a little bit," he said of Pia. That wasn't necessary today, though. They both, he said, "are equally supple in the bridle."
The class was a challenge for last year's I-1 national champ, Kimberly Herslow, and her calm and collected Rosmarin, better known as Reno. She wasn't up against Steffen and Rosie (or Steffen and Pia, for that matter,) last year when the competition was held in Kentucky. But she felt as if she were her own biggest competition today.
In September, look for a story featuring Kim in Practical Horseman.
On a lighter note, I was fascinated (as was one of my close friends) by a very unusual looking horse. She was so captivated that she hiked up to the auxiliary stables far from the main ring for an up-close and personal pilgrimage. I contented myself by watching him in action and having a talk with his rider, Alix Szepesi, a Connecticut trainer.
Majco Thunders Hattrick is a Danish Knabstrupper. Alix said the origins of the breed are a cross between Danish horses and Spanish spotted horses who came to Scandinavia in the 18th Century. He's very unusual, creamy white with nearly transparent black spots. Some people, Alix said, think he's an odd Appaloosa. Here what she had to say about him when we talked.
He is as good on the trail as he is in the ring, said Alix, who owns 50 percent with her partner, Gregor McQueen, and Michelle Doucette, his original owner.
And he has yet another attribute.
"He's so soft, his fur is fuzzy, like a puppy," said Gregor.
The horse who was 12th in the Prix St. Georges, is schooling the Grand Prix and Alix hopes to move up to that division by the fall.
UPDATE: The Grand Prix horses took a break Friday, when the feature was supposed to be the Intermediare I. But a thunderstorm cut the day short and the I-1 horses got an unscheduled break, so we’ll have to wait until Saturday to find out the answer to these questions: Will Steffen continue his domination of the division? Can Kim make a comeback? I'll tell you all about it in my postcard Saturday evening.