Impressions of the U.S. Dressage Olympic Games Observation Event

Dressage Today's Content Manager Stephanie Ruff shares her experience of attending her first big dressage event.
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One of the best parts of my life in the horse industry has been the incredible opportunities that have presented themselves that I otherwise would never have had. I have had the good fortune of not only traveling the U.S., but the world because of horses. This week brought the latest in amazing opportunities when I spent times at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center attending the U.S. Dressage Olympic Games Observation Event to decide the members of the U.S. dressage team. This was, by far, the largest (both in scale and importance) dressage event I’ve ever attended in person. And, while I fully understood the job I had to do, as a little girl who has loved horses her entire life, I couldn’t help but just be excited to be there. As a teenager, I dreamed of being on an Olympic team (albeit at the time it was show jumping), but even at my current age of over 50, I still have my own dressage dream of competing at Grand Prix, though my Olympic dreams disappeared long, long ago.

So, while I was there to report on the events, interview the players, and report for our sponsor, honestly, I was mostly having a fan girl moment. How could I not? These, then, are somewhat random musings of a small-time dressage rider and big-time fan as she took in her first major event in the enviable position of having a media pass that allowed her all-access.

Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Florida was the location of the U.S. Dressage Olympic Games Observation Event. Photo by Stephanie J. Ruff.

Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Florida was the location of the U.S. Dressage Olympic Games Observation Event. Photo by Stephanie J. Ruff.

Wednesday’s Thoughts

You know, first of all, we were in fabulous Wellington, Florida. For those who have been here before, you know. And if you haven’t been here…well…you must come just once in your life to experience it. Words, and even pictures for that matter, simply can’t do it justice.

Of course, I’ve seen many of these horse and rider combinations on video or live stream, but it’s something different entirely to be there in person. As a good friend mentioned “You are watching history.” And being so close to the horses, the riders, the grooms, the owners, the trainers and supporters, you got a real feeling for them.

It’s great that spectators were allowed. After we’ve all spent so much alone time and seeing empty or near empty stands during all types of sporting events, having people present and engaged was refreshing. Unfortunately, the Olympic games will not have spectators, which made people here so much more important. They really added to the atmosphere.

For most of the riders, this is their Olympics since only three of them will actually represent our country on the team. But they should all be so proud of making it to this point, and they obviously were. They gave it their all. Unfortunately, some horses did not have a great night, and we all know that happens, but you hate to see it when they have a tough ride on a night like this.

How big of a competition was this? I looked at the grooms. They were riding every step, watching every movement and feeling every score. These people are often the first ones at the barn and the last ones to leave. They eat, sleep and breathe these horses and love them probably as much as anyone.

Harmony's Duval getting last minute attention from his groom before going in the ring. Photo by Stephanie J. Ruff.

Harmony's Duval getting last minute attention from his groom before going in the ring. Photo by Stephanie J. Ruff.

All things considered, the weather really wasn’t bad Wednesday evening – especially for Florida in June. We expect it to be hot and humid, but there was a solid breeze and no storms, so we consided those pluses.

At the end of the night, it was little surprise that Adrienne Lyle and Salvino secured the top spot with an 82.413% in the FEI Grand Prix Test. Sabine Schut-Kery and Sanceo scored a personal best of 78.978% to finish second. Steffen Peters and Suppenkasper placed third with a 77.696%, making it the first time in over 20 rides that Steffen and “Mopsie” weren’t the winner.

Thurday Media Day

Thursday was media day, and I took the opportunity to interview several of the riders. Again…fan girl moments because these were people I felt like I knew because I’ve audited their clinics, or watched their videos on our subscription site, or read their articles or watched other interviews. But chatting with them one-on-one was a different story. I must say everyone was kind, humble, gracious, upbeat and seemed genuinely excited to be participating in the event. And there was one word I heard from every rider, and that was “fun.” They were having fun. Now…I was nervous for them Wednesday evening, so maybe they didn’t need to be, but how great was it that they enjoyed an event such as this. I mean, they were all aware of the situation and obviously took the competition very seriously but being able to enjoy and appreciate the moment was wonderful to see. I had a good time speaking with all of them, and suddenly I wished I would’ve interviewed every rider just so I could enjoy the conversations.

Friday Finale

Friday night’s competition was the Grand Prix Special to music. This was a new format where the riders select music to ride the test to, but the music isn’t judged. It’s more like background music made to entertain the audience. For many of the riders, this would be the first time they were competing this way, and they were all looking forward to it. This will basically be the deciding moment as far as the Olympic team is concerned, but hopefully the riders will continue to enjoy their rides.

Adrienne Lyle and Salvino finished first in both the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special. Photo by Stephanie J. Ruff.

Adrienne Lyle and Salvino finished first in both the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special. Photo by Stephanie J. Ruff.

It was definitely warmer and more humid that night. And the nice breeze that helped so much on Wednesday was nowhere to be seen. Mission accomplished on duplicating the expected hot and humid conditions in Tokyo. Once again, everyone brought their A-game, and you could tell the riders put it all out there. The sold-out crowd was right there with them. For example, Alice Tarjan was having an excellent ride on Candescent. Near the end, there was an audible “Awww” from the crowd when her black mare broke to canter from the extended trot.

Steffen Peters waves to the crowd after scoring nearly 80% with Suppenkasper Friday night in the Grand Prix Special to finish second. Photo by Stephanie J. Ruff..

Steffen Peters waves to the crowd after scoring nearly 80% with Suppenkasper Friday night in the Grand Prix Special to finish second. Photo by Stephanie J. Ruff..

The last set of horses were the top finishers from Wednesday night. As I stood ringside taking photos, I had to stop several times to watch for a few moments and appreciate how lucky I was to be standing right there watching these rides. It was most certainly memorable. And again, it was Adrienne Lyle and Salvino who took the top spot, this time with an 81.830%. They also had a bobble coming out of the first canter pirouette but recovered quickly for the tempi changes. For those of us mere mortals, it reminds us that these horses and riders do occasionally make mistakes too. We’re all human (or equine). Steffen Peters and Suppenkasper improved on their Wednesday score to finish second with a 79.532%, just a hair off the coveted 80%. Sabine Schut-Kery rode another stellar test to finish third with 78.298%.

Sabine Schut-Kery tells Sanceo job well done after finishing third in the Grand Prix Special Friday night. Photo by Stephanie J. Ruff.

Sabine Schut-Kery tells Sanceo job well done after finishing third in the Grand Prix Special Friday night. Photo by Stephanie J. Ruff.

Needless to say, I had a great time. I know I was extremely lucky to be where I was, to see what I saw and to talk to wonderful people. It was both inspiring and humbling at the same time. And now we wait to see what happens and who is officially named to the dressage team. No matter who goes, I know they will do dressage and our country proud. I can tell you this horse girl will be rooting for them, and I echo coach Debbie McDonald’s comment – “Go USA!”

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