Debbie McDonald reigned as the queen of the 5-star competition at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival–and she didn’t even get on a horse.
Her students dominated the action at the show, as Laura Graves won the Grand Prix for the freestyle and then the freestyle itself in a dramatic performance under the lights with Verdades. Meanwhile, Olivia Lagoy-Weltz took the Grand Prix for the Special on Lonoir and Debbie’s protégé, Adrienne Lyle, topped the Grand Prix Special on the ever-improving Salvino.
The toast of U.S. dressage with Brentina from the late 20th Century until well into the early 21st Century, Debbie made a seamless switch from riding to training. It’s not only her technical expertise, but the way she connects with riders and their horses that have made her teaching such an incredible success.
I joked with Debbie that she should be a country; then she could have her own Olympic team. Actually, she had half of the 2016 bronze medal squad in Rio, with Laura and another student, Kasey Perry-Glass (Dublet) riding there. And you may be well able to count on Laura, Adrienne and Olivia as three-quarters of the team for September’s FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon, N.C., though of course, we’re a long, long way from finalizing the selection and the process of accumulating ranking points is continuing. Kasey isn’t showing Dublet here, he’s resting, but she wouldn’t rule out a return to the ring for him, she told me.
The joy Debbie feels for her students’ triumphs (and the sympathy she has for their less stellar performances) always shows in her expressive face.
As Laura wrapped up her Friday night freestyle, keeping the music “Take Us Out” from the movie “Rudy” but adding new choreography in the canter tour, the packed stadium that was drenched in atmosphere erupted and Debbie joined the adulation. Click on this link to see a video of Laura talking about her ride.
“I love it,” she said, her eyes glittering.
“It was her first run-through, but I think it’s got huge potential for big scores. Every time I watch them, their absolute partnership is inspiring and makes me come to tears almost every time.”
Laura revised her Terry Gallo freestyle using software that determines the degree of difficulty for the floorplan. Eliminating doing the tempi changes on a curved line took away some of the risk, but she made it up in points by doubling-down on the pirouettes.
“It ended up being a little bit of a math equation,” she said, noting she is hoping to go to April’s FEI World Cup finals. Don’t forget, she was second to Isabell Werth of Germany last year at the finals in Omaha.
Laura has a special relationship with Verdades, known as Diddy, a Dutchbred bought as a weanling off a videotape 15 years ago by her mother, Freddie. Laura and Diddy sometimes seem to be in a world of their own, which also has embraced her partner, Curt Maes, who was grooming for her at this show. Laura swears her mount understands English.
“This horse and I have been through a lot together,” she said—that ranges from her broken back when he bucked her off to his mouth injury when he got hung up on a stall window, to name just a few incidents.
“He trusts me to do what I ask him,” said Laura. Her score of 84.375 percent, continuing her unbeaten streak in Florida, put runner-up Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven of Sweden in the shade, even with her impressive piaffe-passage procession ridden one-handed up the centerline. Her mark was 78.500.
In the Grand Prix for the Special, Olivia and Lonoir were spectacular. His extensions are breathtaking. I can remember the days when he was very green and would go around the arena whinnying, but no more. His mark for the Grand Prix was 71.957 and he rose to 72.851 for the Special, but that was only good enough for second.
“I left the ones (one-tempi changes) in the warm-up,” Olivia commented, saying she and her horse were “a bit over-heated. It was cooking out there.” Indeed it was; I can testify the 82-degree heat was blistering as the sun beat down.
So this was Adrienne’s day. She won with a total of 75.319 percent, though one of the five judges marked her as high as 78.085. It was a reversal from Thursday’s Grand Prix for the Special, where she and Vinny had a muddle in the second piaffe as he tried to canter and her score sank to 69.935, only good enough for sixth.
Adrienne blamed the mishap on “pilot error. I’ve been trying to ride the passage with more ground cover. I just came in too big and expected him to find his hind legs in the piaffe and then he came in with his hind legs out behind him. He panicked because he knew couldn’t do the movement. He’s really not a `no’ horse.”
“He needs to understand what you want or he’s not sure he can do it with his long legs. I haven’t shown him that many places, and no place consistently.” He’s been in two shows in the big arena at Global, so “the more familiar he gets, the more I have to make him wait and listen to me,” Adrienne explained.
Betsy Juliano, who bought out her partners in the horse five weeks ago, was thrilled at the reversal from the problem in the Grand Prix.
“I’m so proud of them,” she commented.
“You want to hold your breath a little bit and make sure everything goes well. We were all hoping this was the kind of ride she would have. We’re not at the end of the road by any means, there’s a lot more to come, but I’m really excited about the potential.”