Since the Olympic Games ended in London two years ago, the dream of top U.S. Grand Prix dressage riders switched focus and zeroed in on this summer’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Normandy, France. For Robert Dover, however, the view goes beyond the WEG to the 2015 Pan American Games (Pan Ams) in Canada and the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. The U.S. dressage team chef d’équipe/technical advisor sees it all as a continuum—especially since the U.S. has to be in the medals at the WEG or win at the Pan Ams in order to qualify a dressage team for the Olympic Games.
As Dover looks over his list of contenders for the WEG along with those who skipped June’s selection trials in Gladstone, New Jersey, he’s seeing not only who’s ready to be up at bat in France, but also who might be a team prospect for the Pan Ams and what is on the horizon talent-wise for the Olympic Games—the world’s highest profile competition for horse sports.
“The WEG is fantastic, but our eye is on the ball of the Olympics,” Dover points out. “In the meantime, the Pan Am Games will be one of the most important strategic competitions for America in the next year. Unless we win a medal in Normandy, it will require winning the Pan Am Games’ gold medal to acquire a spot.”
The odds are against a U.S. team on the podium in France, although certainly the Americans can’t just be counted out. Both the Germans and the Dutch, who have had their down times, are extremely strong going into the world championships. The British, dominant at the 2012 Olympic Games, have the world’s top horse in Valegro, ridden by Charlotte Dujardin, ranked as the number-one dressage rider in the world. (Interestingly, Britain also gained the distinction this spring of having the number-one-ranked show jumper, Scott Brash, and the number-one-ranked eventer, William Fox-Pitt.)
Dujardin is backed up by her mentor, Carl Hester. The question is, will he ride his 2012 Olympic team gold-medal mount, Uthopia, as he says selectors would like him to do, or will he be aboard the evolving Dances with Wolves? Dances, who keeps improving and was 33rd in the world rankings in May, is his preference. So he plans to make “a last-minute decision.”
Valegro’s strength as a world-record holder, with a mark of 87.129 percent in the Grand Prix at the World Cup Finals in France in April, is such that he could carry the team to a medal if everyone else on the squad just pitches in. Dujardin also holds the world record for the special (88.022 percent), and could win that individual medal. (There are two individual medal competitions at the WEG unlike the Olympic Games.)
Dujardin has an incentive for the WEG’s other individual medal competition in the freestyle. If she wins it (and she holds the freestyle world record too, at 93.975 percent), she will have swept all four major titles—the European Dressage Championship, the Olympic Games, the World Cup and the world championship, a lifetime achievement by the age of 29.
The Brits are lacking a key link to their 2012 gold-medal success since the retirement of Laura Bechtolsheimer Tomlinson’s Mistral Hojris. But they do have Michael Eilberg, 23rd in the world with Half Moon Delphi. The Brits were demoted to the bronze at last year’s European Dressage Championship without Tomlinson’s horse, yet they did finish within 1.111 percentage points of victorious Germany with the Netherlands second.
Meanwhile, there are other countries waiting for their shot at the podium, including Denmark and Sweden, so the U.S. faces formidable challenges. Still, Dover says, “Dressage is this funny thing. It only takes one thing to go wrong with most of these teams today, other than possibly Germany or the Netherlands … if they lose one horse, it changes everything.”
Making the cut for the Olympic Games is much harder than it was at the last WEG (2010 in Lexington, Kentucky). “It used to be the top four from the WEG [which is how the U.S. qualified for London without getting a WEG medal] and the top two from the Pan Am Games,” recalls Dover. Now, however, he points out, “It’s quite complicated for North American countries.”
As Dover points out, if it comes down to the Pan Ams, with the U.S. or Canada the likely winner there, one or the other won’t get a team slot in the Olympic Games. The only fallback at that point is a composite team, based on the world rankings of riders from a country seeking to make the cut for Rio. The change, Dover says, was designed “to make the Olympics a place where only the top, top countries took part. But that being said, it shows us a Eurocentric attitude when you have European championships happening every two years, and we have nothing to compare other than the Pan American Games,” which is held once every quadrennium.
“It used to be a silly segue into the Olympics because it was done at a lower level [Prix St. Georges/Intermediaire I],” says Dover. “At least this time, the Pan Ams will be a composite of Grand Prix and small-tour horses. It’s still not logical, but at least it’s better than it was before.”
While Dover has an enormous responsibility as a result of the pressure to qualify, he looked on the bright side after a winter in which riders demonstrated increasing progress, both on the California circuit and at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (AGDF) in Florida.
“I’m very thrilled that we’re showing an upward tendency within the country now with our scores and our riders. We’re definitely seeing more people getting personal bests,” he notes.
The U.S. naturally will continue to rely on Californian Steffen Peters and the 12-year-old Legolas, who succeeded Ravel as the country’s number-one mount. Peters, ranked 16th in the world prior to the trials, is as vital to the U.S. team with his national champion as Dujardin and Valegro are to Britain. He received 76.540 percent earlier this year in an FEI Grand Prix.
“Steffen is our flagship rider,” says Dover. “He is the most proven top Olympian we have in America and he and his horse have continued to be consistent in their excellence. Luckily, he has a fabulous mare [Rosamunde] coming along who could be easily prepared and ready for the 2016 Olympics.”
America unfortunately doesn’t have the depth in horses that a number of other nations enjoy, which means some top riders either are undermounted or horseless. Several combinations that might have been considered key players were not even in contention for the team. Olympic veteran Guenter Seidel, for instance, looked as if he had a great shot at the WEG when he got the ride on Coral Reef Wylea and was ranked second to Peters. But an injury to the horse has left him without a mount for WEG since he had no backup.
Paragon, the 2012 Olympic reserve horse, skipped the selection trials because owner/rider Heather Blitz didn’t think he’d be ready for them, pointing instead toward Dressage at Devon in Pennsylvania and the Saugerties, New York, show, with Pan Ams or the Olympic Games as an ultimate goal.
Still, the U.S. doesn’t lack experience among contenders for a trip to France. Three older horses who are 2012 Olympic veterans also are in play. Adrienne Lyle, 23rd in the world, rode in London as an individual rather than as part of the three-member team. She was a star at the AGDF with the 15-year-old Wizard under the watchful eye of her mentor, Debbie McDonald, the U.S. developing coach, who works in close coordination with Dover. Lyle was the lead rider for a U.S. victory in the Florida Nations’ Cup as well as winning two freestyles and the 5-star special, scoring a personal best for that test with a 75.588. She had seven victories in 11 starts during her stay in Florida.
Dover assessed her progress this way: “Adrienne has elevated herself to that place in riding where you say she is a true master of her situation at all times. The horse and she have come to this harmonious place that is the place where Steffen Peters is with his horse, the place where … our greats … and those who are great around the world have been. I believe her score will go up from here to close, if not to, the 80th percentile.”
Tina Konyot, who rode in her first Reem Acra World Cup Finals in April, has a special bond with her 16-year-old Danish stallion, Calecto V. It showed in her 5-star freestyle victory in Florida, where she won with a stratospheric 79.250 percent, and also achieved 72.720 percent in the 5-star Grand Prix.
“Tina has the experience of having been in an Olympics—that is always a plus,” comments Dover. “She’s a strong, strong woman and an extremely gifted rider. So when she gets her mind set on how she’s going to train and how she’s going to make a difference that is necessary, she will go ahead and do it.”
Another older London Games horse, Rafalca, 17, is going better this season than she ever has before, and with Jan Ebeling, she has an able rider who knows her well after their seven years together. After watching them compete in California, Dover says he had never seen Ebeling ride better and the mare “went the best that I had ever seen her go. I was extremely proud of that,” he says, noting he also was impressed by others he followed in California.
“I’m seeing the evolution forward of riders and horses. The more experienced riders are showing why they are who they are, and I like that,” says Dover.
Newer faces, meanwhile, are making the game even more exciting, and looking ahead, they will be front and center as the older horses retire. Shelley Francis, Dover’s teammate at the inaugural WEG in 1990, is a contender on Doktor, who passed the 70-percent mark several times in the Florida Grand Prix and special in Florida. That combination has European mileage as well. “She’s another person with a lot of experience, a great degree of cool and a very, very awesome horse,” says Dover of Francis.
From the West Coast, Kathleen Raine, also a WEG veteran, is mastering the complexities of Breanna, a talented mare. “Breanna has had some excellent rides and a couple of rides where it showed [Kathleen] was still finding her way into what she wants to have from her,” says Dover. He mentioned that Breanna had not shown in a while and got out of the routine, something that can be fixed. He watched Raine in a couple of training sessions and said, “my gut feeling is that Kathleen is such a good rider, so strong and so centered in her head” that she can solve situations in which she finds herself.
Catherine Haddad Staller’s horse, Mane Stream Hotmail, kept improving in Florida and earned over 70 percent there before going on a tour of Europe afterward as the two-time WEG alternate, who was based in Germany for years, honed her mount’s skills. “He’s a lovely horse,” Dover says.
Other interesting combinations include Cesar Parra and Van the Man, who also have gotten more than 70 percent in both Grand Prix and specials and gained extra experience with a trip to the World Cup finals in France, while Tuny Page scored over 70 percent with Alina in Hagen, Germany, to show her mettle. Michael Barisone is working on syndication with Ellegria, who had good outings in Florida. He was expecting to show Victor in the trials as well.
Laura Graves, who rides Verdades, “is another one who has gotten quickly better,” says Dover. “It’s a very interesting, challenging, powerful horse. She got some help from Debbie [McDonald] from one show to the next and improved a huge amount. She’s a very cool young rider coming into that level.”
Lisa Wilcox, a 2004 Olympian, is still working things out with Denzello, who did score more than 70 percent in a special during the Florida circuit. At some point, she is someone who could soar to prominence again.
“She has been ranked second in the world,” Dover says. “She’s the rider you can never count out. She has been a proven contender again and again and is as elegant now as she was when she was living in Germany at the top of her game. She needs a fleet of great horses, and I’m always hopeful someone will see that and come to her with the thought of wanting her to have those horses and be on an adventure with her.”
Young Rider veteran Caroline Roffman and Her Highness O, who did their first CDI Grand Prix in Florida, “have amazing potential,” says Dover. “It remains to be seen whether it’s too soon. My gut feeling is it’s not too soon. But like the others, she has to be quick on the uptake. It takes awhile with a new horse in a Grand Prix. You don’t have the courage to say, ‘I’m going to gallop really forward here, even though I’m not 100 percent sure of what I’m going to have.’ The experienced rider, like a Steffen, will go into Aachen [Germany] on Legolas and you’ll think, Uh-oh, I wonder how this is going to go? And then he just lays it down and knows he’s got to ride on the edge. The edge doesn’t scare great athletes in any sport. They live on the edge.”
There is a distinct possibility that the U.S. team will be composed of very experienced horses with very experienced riders, but things rarely wrap up that neatly. Even after the selection trials, the candidates chosen to go to Europe for further experience, training and sifting still have something to prove before the final squad of four and one alternate head for France and the soccer stadium where the drama will be played out.
Rankings from the selection trials will be weighted, with the Grand Prix counting 45 percent, the special 40 percent and the freestyle 15 percent. Most on the short list of horse/rider combinations named after the selection trials must have two CDI competitions as “mandatory outings” in Europe between June 20 and August 13. The top two, however, will only have to demonstrate their “continued preparation, soundness and ability” by competing at one mandatory outing. The others will be ranked by an average of the FEI Grand Prix test scores from the selection trials and from the mandatory outings.
While the U.S. has an uphill climb to stand on the podium, Dover knows what it takes to be ready when opportunity presents itself, and there’s always the possibility that it may. “Everything has to go with all guns loaded and ready to strike,” he says. “Every point has to be made.”
Times Have Changed
There was a time when having the number of horses that we have … going over 70 percent would mean a definite medal, if not a super medal,” says U.S. dressage team chef d’équipe/technical advisor Robert Dover.
The game definitely has changed over the last few decades. Former U.S. Equestrian Team veterinarian Danny Marks, honored this spring with induction into the Show Jumping Hall of Fame, noted that Rembrandt—the gold-medal dressage horse in the 1988 and 1992 Olympic Games—would not be a competitive entry today. For one thing, “He could not sit in piaffe,” Marks says. “Dressage has gone in a different direction,” he says explaining that the horses themselves “have changed radically in the last 20 years,” as breeders go for more muscle in the animals they produce. “It’s a different look.”
The sport itself has become more refined since 1984, when Ahlerich created a sensation at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, where he was solid gold. Marks and Dover, however, agree that he would not be in the medals today.
In that era, “There were just not countries that had seven, eight or nine horses doing over 70 percent,” says Dover, who rode in the 1984 Olympic Games himself. “Yet now the bar has gone so high that you have these relatively few that can do 75 to 85 percent. It has changed the nature of the sport again and makes it more difficult to win those medals and create a berth in the Olympic Games. Although we were out of the medals in the last two Olympic Games, I think America generally is very strong in quality trainers and riders. What we’re missing is still enough engagement of everyone to make sure our top athletes are paired with top animals.”
Dover hopes that through the Dressage Owners Task Force and the FEI Owners Club, avenues will be created “to insure our flagship riders are mounted with world-class animals underneath them. That will be a very fast way of ensuring we are on the medal podium and ensuring all our programs are world class as well. That’s my goal.”
The difference between standing on the medal podium or not being there, he contends, is having generous people who would like to be part of the experience get behind top U.S. riders with horses who can do the job. “It’s about saying, ‘I’m ready to ante up and let’s get them mounted.’” If that happens, Dover says, “I will tell you we would have a medal for sure in Rio.”
He has a message: “I just want to make sure our community knows that I am not 100 percent committed—I am 1,000 percent committed to creating a world-class machine for our high performance sport, meaning everything that has an FEI in front of it, whether it’s an FEI Pony Division to Juniors and Young Riders and Young Horses and Developing Horses and our international elite. My effort to bring us back to the medal podium is not just about that international elite group, although that is definitely something I consider every single day, but also to ensure we have a future of medal-winning teams that will go on indefinitely. That means we have to have sustainable excellence all the way from the bottom part of the pyramid. I’m determined to create that machine that our jumping team has done so beautifully and that works so well in some European countries. That is my job as I see it and I’m not going to rest until it’s completed.”