Before the plane lands in Lexington, Kentucky, I'm reminded of the extreme of this equine paradise. From the clouds, white fence lines and double fence lines surround rolling paddocks until the earth curves away in the distance. Horses graze, tiny from above, unaware of their societal advantage. Imagine! They don't even know!
I'm traveling with Natacha Streiff, a promising young rider from my stable. You can read her perspective here.
Once we land, Iron Works Pike leads us to the Kentucky Horse Park where we stand in line behind horse transports ranging from two-horse tagalongs to giant 12-horse vans. Region by region, young people converge, some coming from extraordinary distances all over North America. No exact tallies are taken of the number of tires blown during long nights of travel, but parents have stories to tell. Some riders traveling with their horses are lacking food and all are lacking sleep, but adrenaline and the exuberance of youth are plentiful. This is the place where young people dream of riding. Years of training and months of qualifying competitions end with a spot on a regional team competing at these championships. Here, in the aura of greatness, in the stadium built for the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, they will each have a chance to excel--and they will have fun in the process.
On Tuesday, all riders get to warm up in the competition arena during scheduled time slots. I'm coaching Nicole Del Giorno on Lamborghini Dane owned by Katyhleen Faltz. They won individual and team Junior gold medals last year. And I have my eye on Rachel Chowanec, who rides at my stable and is coached by Lendon Gray, owner of Rachel's horse, Embrujado XI. Both are incredibly good students on wonderful horses.
Wonderful (hot) horses often come complete with management issues, which is the case with both. This is Rachel's first year as a Junior, and she has the misfortune of needing to ride in the arena next to a row of at least a dozen whipping flags. They never stop, and they set off something comparable in the horse's brain. It's Nicole's first year as a Young Rider, and the step up from Juniors has its challenges.
On the day of the team test, the atmosphere is hushed. Down to business. Both Juniors and Young Riders will perform in side-by-side arenas--each with its own set of five, high-level FEI judges. Back in the stabling area, the rituals begin. Riders take private time to review the test while teammates are quiet. The stock gets tied just so, sometimes by Mom. Then the pin, the hairnet and the scrunchie that suddenly won't go on even though it always has before. Baby wipes for the horse's nose, a final polish. The saddle, put on by the rider, is just so. Mom moves the bridle to the hook outside the stall door and knows just when to lift it and hand it to the rider. These motions have been repeated again and again at qualifiers throughout this competition season, but this time the results are more important than ever. It's the Finals.
The Junior tests (for 14- to 18-year-olds) are comparable to Third Level, but they demand more skill of the rider. For example, in the Team Test, the horse must turn left at P in collected canter, then he must be instantly in front of the new inside (right) leg and do a flying change on the centerline at L, turn right (not fall right) at V, and then, from E, half pass right (with bend, which can't happen if you are falling right just a second ago). This requires skill.
In moving up, the Team Test for Young Riders is the same as the Prix St. Georges, a significant jump of two levels. The horse must carry more weight with the hindquarters and prove it with canter pirouettes, four- and three-tempi changes and better overall balance.
When the time comes for Nicole and "Lammy," they have a fabulous warm-up. They both carry themselves beautifully, and I'm so impressed. The tempis are perfect and the pirouettes good enough. Ten minutes before her ride time, she is scheduled to go into the on-deck, warm-up arena. Suddenly, in the new arena, the horse is behind the leg and, at the same time, very hot, a difficult combination. He is wild, but lazy with his hind legs. Nicole does the best she can, and we can only hope he regains his physical and mental balance once he gets into the competition arena, but it was not to be. He was behind the leg, so the test didn't go smoothly.
Now we see what it means to be a good sport. Nicole is disappointed, but she carries on. "In hindsight," she says, "I should have gone back to leg yield to put him in front of my leg." This is what winners do. They have a bad day, shake it off, support their teammates and concentrate on tomorrow.
As it turned out, tomorrow, the day of the Individual Test, presented much the same problem. In his "I-used-to-be-a-stallion-and-still-feel-like-one" style, he just didn't stay in front of the leg. Rachel's horse gradually made peace with the flags, and her scores rose consistently throughout the week.
By the time this article comes out, the results and winners of the NAJYRC will have been celebrated (see Arena News, p. TK; find complete results at youngriders.org). But most of the competitors were not winners that weekend, and most of them were great sports. The good news is that "The Finals" are not the end of the story, but rather, the end of one chapter in a very long book with better chapters to come.
A Novice's Awe-Struck Perspective on the NAJYRC
By Natacha Streiff
A few months ago, I found an energetic Second Level Hanoverian named Don Greco, who is to help me master the science of dressage. What I thought was a small step to enhance my riding became a full-scale expedition into the dressage world. I received a taste of the vastness of this world when I started training at Beth Baumert's farm in Connecticut. After only a few weeks, I was watching clinics with Henk Van Bergen and meeting passionate professionals and amateurs. When I was invited to attend the 2010 Adequan FEI North American Junior/Young Riders' Championship, I jumped at the opportunity, and came out of the experience changed for the better as a rider.
As a recent dressage convert, I learned by helping as a groom and watching the preparations. One of the kids memorized her test with her ipod full volume, visualizing and feeling how her ride should go. From watching the training sessions, I could quickly discern the great riders from the average ones. Some were visibly rough, obviously anxious about the upcoming events, while the best riders were in calm control. I listened to trainers talking to their students and repeatedly heard comments that even I am told in my lessons: more engagement, relax his neck, keep the rhythm consistent. I learned that even though the movements grow more complicated, the basics remain the same for a successful ride. I also brought home some tips about rider positions. The best sit straight and never look down. They have soft seats and hands but a commanding presence in the saddle that is reflected in the obedient demeanor of their horses.
As an 18-year-old, I kept seeing myself in these riders. Could I do this? Every time a rider went down the ramp into the immense stadium, I felt nervous, imagining myself in that position. Some riders rode impeccable tests; others had a harder time because their horses were tense. I was in awe at the good sportsmanship of these young riders. Even those who received disappointing scores soon had a smile back on in support of their teammates. I admired their strength of spirit, because I am well aware of the hard work and finances required to compete at this level.
Overall, the experience did more for me than I expected. I had never aspired to competition, but here I am with the lofty dream of competing in the NAJYRC before I turn 21. Watching these riders for five days did so much for my riding. Confidence is contagious. I am more convincing in my expectations of Greco, which results in better understanding on his part. In the saddle, I sit straighter and my position is stronger. I remember to keep my shoulders back and chin up, which not only inspires confidence but maximizes effectiveness of my aids. I remember the individual gold medalist and imagine my smiling face on that podium. Although it is a huge and sometimes overwhelming goal for me, I am grateful because it has given me a new sense of direction in my everyday riding.