August 24, 2014 -- The Olympic-caliber opening ceremonies for the seventh Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games started out with a bang last night, as French air force jets ripped across the sky above d'Ornano Stadium in Caen, leaving trails of red and blue (the colors of the French flag) in their wake.
The nicely paced program escalated from there, moving along gracefully with an exhibition by four breeds from the four corners of the earth: the hometown Normandy Cob, the American quarter horse, the Moroccan barb from North Africa and the Akhal Teke from Asia, the latter two complete with exotically costumed riders.
Then came the moment that the capacity crowd of 21,000 had been waiting for, the parade of teams. With 74 nations represented, the procession offered a record array of flags. Some contingents, most notably the Bahrain delegation, were in native dress. Others, such as Equador, wore attention-getting outfits -- bright yellow jackets with straw Panama-style hats.
The U.S., with dressage rider Steffen Peters and reiner Mandy McCutcheon carrying its banner, had a tastefully conservative look. It was blue blazers for all, light blue ties for the men and white shirts for the women.
The biggest cheers came last for the huge French group (blue blazers, red pants), and the stadium did several rounds of the wave to salute the most favored nation.
It was heartwarming to see the physically challenged athletes, some in wheelchairs, parading with the rest of their teams. The Paralympics are held after the Olympics, but at the WEG, para dressage is staged at the same time as the other seven disciplines.
FEI President Princess Haya, who announced recently she will not seek a third term, looked lovely in a simple black dress and spoke charmingly as she addressed the crowd. Was it my imagination, or did she have a wistful look in her eyes during one of her last major appearances in a role she cherished.
Politics will no doubt be discussed here, as several candidates already have announced they want her job. French Olympic show jumping gold medalist Pierre Durand is the latest to join the fray, along with Danish federation president Ulf Helgstrand and Swiss businessman Pierre Genecand.
Once they wrapped up the formalities of the speeches and the athletes' pledge, taken by French show jumper Kevin Staut, the excitement level really revved up as darkness fell.
The group Skerzo put on a show using 300 artists and about 100 horses. The theme of the performance, involving 3D projections that transformed the arena over and over, was that all roads lead to Normandy. The WEG disciplines were highlighted in unusual ways: Pictures of cattle appeared, and two reiners rode around them, with their easy lope and patented spins. Dressage was represented by France's famed Cadre Noir, this country's equivalent of the Spanish Riding School, and the crowd loved the airs above the ground as the beautifully trained horses kicked up their heels in exuberant fashion.
We had a vaulter and a display of horse ball, an exhibition sport for this WEG that is a favorite in France, with riders throwing a ball to each other as they galloped around. It vaguely reminded me of quidditch from Harry Potter; I'd never seen anything like it, so I had to compare it to something.
There was a battle involving knights, mounted and unmounted (not sure what discipline that was supposed to represent). Actually, I think it was supposed to represent William the conquerer, part of the tapestry of Norman history woven throughout the ceremonies. That being said, my favorite act was the showmanship of Lorenzo. Standing on two white horses, he commanded a herd of glowing creamy beauties that fanned out around him. Magic!
I've seen a lot of Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, and this is right in that ballpark. It was sensational, as I'm sure the performances in each discipline will be when things get serious as competition begins tomorrow.
I'll be back with you later today to bring you news of the dressage horse inspection. Lets hope we don't have any more dropouts; I am crestfallen that Totilas, who has a bone spur, will not be on hand to renew his rivalry with Olympic double gold medalist Valegro. But there will be plenty of other title contenders to watch, and I'll tell you all about them.
So be sure to look for my next postcard.