Over the weekend, I was invited to compete in my first-ever true derby competition.
It was held during the Palm Beach Derby CDI, which has a long and important history. It started in 1984, based in the White Fences section of Loxahatchee, Florida, when it was the only dressage event in the area.
One of the country’s best-known competitions, it grew into a CDI and in 2014, it was moved to the Adequan Global Dressage Festival show grounds in Wellington, about a half-hour from White Fences.
This year, for the first time, the show organizers decided they wanted to keep the tradition of the show’s name, and host a true Derby competition.
In a dressage derby, you have a very short time to get familiarized with a new horse before riding a test. For this derby, they invited four top Grand Prix riders from different countries: I represented the U.S. and Lars Petersen was there for Denmark, with Karen Pavicic (Canada) and Christoph Koschel (Germany) getting the other slots.
The derby was run in a bracket format, with paired riders competing on the same horse in back-to-back tests. For the initial round, Lars and I shared one horse, while Christoph and Karen shared another. The rider with the highest score on each horse moved forward to the final round on another borrowed horse. These were horses we had never ridden before, and we were given only five minutes of warm-up before going in to ride a Prix St. Georges test.
For the first round, I had a tall and extravagant moving gelding, Melody Jackson’s Fortune and Fame. My biggest challenge on this boy was that he was very laid back and wanted to go slowly.
With his big movement, that made it hard to pull off the collected work. The extensions were big and powerful, but the collected work required a bit of finesse in the contact, as I could tell he didn’t like it if you held him too strongly. We totally ran out of gas in one canter pirouette, but other than that, we managed to handle most of the test fairly well.
It was a lot of fun to sit on such a huge-moving horse. I could barely fit the tempi changes in on the diagonal line, his stride was so big. We managed to come out ahead after the first round, which meant I moved on to the final against Christoph (who had edged Karen in their initial round).
For the final derby round, we got a horse who was a polar opposite to Fortune and Fame. This guy was an adorable little Lusitano, Leah Wilson’s Zango, who was incredibly hot and sensitive. The owner said he had never been in a ring like the stadium at Global, and I could tell he was a bit nervous.
So I spent my five-minute warm-up just trying to give him confidence and make him trust my aids and relax. He was a super boy when we did our test, and tried really hard. The changes and canter pirouettes were still a bit green on him, but we had many lovely parts as well. After the final round, I ended up with a score of 66.816 percent, coming in just ahead of Christoph, who was marked at 64.053 percent
The competition was great fun, and everyone was smiling and laughing throughout the whole thing. I think it is a really great concept and an interesting, different way to test a rider’s skills. It was incredibly generous of the owners to let their horses be used for the derby competition, so my first and foremost priority was making sure the horses had a positive experience in the ring.
I thought having only five minutes of warm-up to assess an unfamiliar horse was a fun challenge. You have to be able to read the horse and quickly target what you think the major issues will be. I hope they continue to host a derby competition like this in the future, as I believe its popularity will continue to grow as word gets out. I really think the audience enjoyed watching the derby as much as I enjoyed riding in it.