In Las Vegas, the FEI Reem Acra World Cup™ Dressage Final 2015 was purely a great show, a chance to see the best riders and horses in action. In Omaha this spring, the FEI World Cup™ Dressage Final 2017 will feature the same type of top-flight competition, but the Nebraska organizers have a more far-reaching mission. They hope to play a role in boosting the discipline’s future in the Midwest, where it has a lower profile than on the East and West coasts. To that end, the dressage part of the production at the CenturyLink Center March 29–April 1 will be a nonstop blend of athleticism, entertainment, education and just plain fun.
“We want to expose this sport to people who haven’t seen it before, in a way that makes them sit back and go, ‘Wow, that’s really cool, that’s really interesting and that’s really something I may want to try myself,’” said Lisa Roskens, who came up with the idea of bringing the finals to her hometown.
“This finals is about the fan,” said Mike West, CEO of the Omaha Equestrian Foundation, which is presenting the competition. “Of course, we have contracted the best in the business to run the sport side of the operations. But with that said, every other nonsport decision has been made with the equestrian fan in mind.”
A Reason to Come
Typically, at a joint finals like this one, where dressage shares the stage with the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping title meet (which ends April 2), dressage ticket holders have less to see than those coming to watch the show jumpers. That contingent can enjoy three days of competition as well as a stand-alone Saturday night Grand Prix that is not part of the final, with opening ceremonies featuring the new-age music group Mannheim Steamroller. In contrast, there are only two segments of the dressage final: the Grand Prix and the Freestyle. Those who are interested are also able to watch the ring familiarization, where riders acquaint their horses with the arena surroundings, but that doesn’t tend to be very exciting. So Omaha is adding attractions to heighten the enjoyment of those coming for the dressage. And the odds are that ticket holders will learn something as well as be entertained.
The dressage package includes Wednesday’s familiarization, Thursday’s Grand Prix competition, Saturday’s Freestyle with an educational session beforehand and a new attraction, a wide-ranging dressage showcase on Friday, a break day from dressage competition. This afternoon feature will present the different facets of dressage to make it approachable for people beyond dressage enthusiasts, said Roskens, an amateur-owner jumper rider who chairs the Omaha Equestrian Foundation. “The goal,” she said, “is to show off the skill and the art in a non-competitive fashion: to sort of let loose the chains of being judged, enabling people to let their hair down and have fun with it while being true to the sport without the weight of competition.”
It’s going to be done in high style. Germany’s Isabell Werth, who has more Olympic gold medals than any other equestrian, will offer a demonstration on the Training Scale. Werth, ranked at press time as the world’s number-one dressage rider, is going to show what a young horse at 5 or 6 years old can do, how that differs from an 8-year-old and, in turn, demonstrate what happens in training at a higher level with a Small Tour horse and another that’s starting Grand Prix.
Five fun freestyles (dubbed “funstyles”) will be performed to live music, adding another imaginative dimension. Quarter Horse trainer Lynn Palm is on the program, a clever way of roping in Western riders (of whom there are a lot in the region). Pan American Games U.S. team gold medalist Sabine Schut-Kerry, top Young Rider Bebe Davis, Canadian dressage favorite Olympian Jacquie Brooks and Omaha-area dressage trainer Missy Fladland will be the other performers. Para-Dressage riders also will present a quadrille. “We want to give people who really have a curiosity, but not a lot of knowledge, about dressage a fun place to come learn about the sport, where they can be entertained and maybe pique their curiosity, possibly [enough to] participate in the sport in some way,” explained Roskens, who is dedicated to growing dressage and show jumping in the region.
The arts also are a part of the daily programs, with the U.S. Air Force Heartland of America Band opening for the dressage Grand Prix on Thursday and the Rose Theater performing for the freestyle on Saturday. Will Connell, director of sport for the USEF, observed, “That’s another example of providing for Omaha, presenting dressage as an art form alongside dance or opera or whatever it might be. The harmony of music and horses will be very exciting. It should be more about the product than the individuals taking part.”
The program also will include Tristan Tucker, who demonstrates response training with humor as he takes horses through and around all sorts of obstacles that under other circumstances might have them saying, “No.” But Tucker knows how to change that to “Yes!” in amusing style. He’ll be back on Saturday morning, after the freestyle sound check. The riders don’t actually do their whole freestyle during the sound check, but it’s a “can’t miss” for real devotees. To make the morning before the freestyle more interesting, an educational clinic is being offered that can help fans watch the main event with a better-educated eye.
The clinic will start with Palm doing groundwork and traditional Western natural horsemanship training, and then move on to Tucker demonstrating his techniques. The last phase will feature Fladland and her husband, Kip, who bring together dressage and natural horsemanship in one combined effort. Kip is an assistant to legendary natural horsemanship trainer Buck Brannaman (who worked with Robert Redford in “The Horse Whisperer,” a movie from the book of the same name, for which Brannaman was the inspiration).
Who will be competing in the final itself is a question that may not be answered for most competitors until shortly before the horses have to leave for Omaha. One sure starter is defending champion Hans Peter Minderhoud of the Netherlands, the 2016 winner on Glock’s Flirt. The winner of the Central European League, Inessa Merkulova on the charismatic Mister X, is qualified, as is the runner-up in that league, Hanna Karasiova of Belarus.
North America gets only two representatives. The early betting line would have made them Laura Graves and Verdades, fourth in the world rankings, and Steffen Peters, winner of the 2009 final when he rode the now-retired Ravel.
But Graves did not do any qualifiers in 2016 (though she can make up the ground with more qualifying opportunities to go before the final) and Peters surprised everyone by handing Legolas over to his assistant, Dawn White O’Connor, while he focused on Rosamunde. That mare made an impressive showing in the January Las Vegas qualifier, winning the freestyle with a score of 78.425 percent. (Scores are important because in the North American League, the best two scores are averaged to yield the representatives from the continent. That’s unlike the case in Europe, where points decide who gets a ticket to the final.)
O’Connor wouldn’t have even been mentioned in a 2016 conversation about possible final qualifiers, but her Vegas freestyle score of 75.275 percent (one of the five judges actually had her tying for first with Peters) could make her a contender. While Legolas can be tricky, don’t forget he was on U.S. medal-winning teams at the Olympics and Pan Am Games, where he took the individual gold.
The only other U.S. rider in the world’s top 25 as the year began was Kasey Perry-Glass with Goerklintgaard’s Dublet, at number 22, but she did not participate in Las Vegas. However, a third North American rider will be able to compete in the final if someone who qualified drops out and the rider who aspires to take that spot is high enough on the world-ranking list (and has competed in two qualifiers) to take that person’s place. It could happen if the only people ahead of that candidate on the world-ranking list already are qualified or choose not to participate.
As for the other 10 starters, Werth is always a good bet along with Judy Reynolds of Ireland, who was leading the Western European League after the autumn shows, winning Dressage at Devon’s qualifier with Vancouver K. German-based Kristy Oatley of Australia was second at the beginning of the year by a mere one point. But it’s likely we’ll also see Great Britain’s Carl Hester, the mastermind of Valegro’s success and Charlotte Dujardin’s mentor. He won the qualifier in grand style at December’s Gala Olympia show in England with Nip Tuck and was sixth in the standings going into 2017.
It needs to be the best of the best, because as Connell said, “65 percent in dressage [tests] doesn’t sell tickets [to the World Cup].” Which is why anyone who hopes to qualify must achieve at least 68 percent in their qualifier.
Omaha will be the first championships where the new dressage freestyle judging system will be used. The riders’ freestyle is converted into a computer program that adds a degree of difficulty, and the officials will judge according to the floor plan of each freestyle, instead of wondering what comes next. The system does, however, permit a “joker line,” where the competitor can repeat something without saying beforehand what it is if he or she runs into a problem.
While individual tickets for various features and performances are available for spectators, it’s also possible to do up the finals in a big way. The VIP Hospitality Lounge will have full meals, an open bar, live music, concierge service and other amenities, all included with each VIP ticket. For groups, hospitality suites in the arena enable showgoers to eat and drink while watching the action, and those packages also include access to the VIP lounge.
For people just interested in the show itself, there are all-session tickets available. They also afford access to the spacious vendor and warm-up areas, where it’s possible to shop and watch the horses go through their paces before heading for the arena. Everything is under one roof at the CenturyLink Center, which makes it easy to enjoy all that is being offered. And it isn’t all happening in the main ring.
“Backstage” offers access to the Horse Discovery Zone, which is an attraction that will appeal to children as well as adults. The hands-on learning area includes the Runza Gallery of Breeds and entries from the Durham Museum, the Omaha Children’s Museum and the famous Henry Doorly Zoo, all major attractions in the city.
The demonstration arena will stage educational offerings throughout the day with presentations on styles of riding, a parade of breeds, vaulting, Pony Club Games, long-lining, grooming and driving. Equimania! includes youth education stations and interactive displays. The Horse Discovery Zone Theater will screen presentations of domestic and international short films and documentaries from the 2016 EQUUS Film Festival as well as a selection of horse-related programs. (You can read more about the film festival on p. 54.)
Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, the end of the competition won’t mean the end of the fun. The Horse Expo area will be open until 11 p.m. for “tailgating,” (after all, the event does involve creatures with tails) with plenty of food and drink as well as live bands and shopping opportunities from the more than 140 vendors.
To read about the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Final, visit practicalhorsemanmag.com.