In the run-up to South America’s first-ever Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, equestrian leaders within Team USA were determined not to let history repeat itself. After the crushing disappointment of the 2012 London Olympics, where the United States failed to medal in any equestrian discipline, all three sports returned to their respective drawing boards to put stronger plans in place.
And what a difference four years make. By the time the United States arrived in Rio last August, it was with a full contingent of teams mounted on a depth of international-caliber horses who were ready to take on the world. By medaling in eventing, dressage and jumping, the U.S. team proved that it had recovered from the failure of London. While the gold medal remained elusive, U.S. riders proudly brought home team silver in jumping, team bronze in dressage and individual bronze in eventing
More so than perhaps any other recent Olympics, these Games were plagued by problems that ran the gamut from health concerns to crime and ill-preparedness. But for all the negative press going into Rio, Brazil was a stellar host. “Contrary to the American press that we all heard about prior to Rio, they put on a magnificent Olympic Games against all odds,” said Chef d’Équipe Robert Ridland.
At this level—when so many have their sights firmly focused on gold—plenty of riders left Rio with regrets over costly mistakes or frustrated by bad luck. What was done right? What could have been done better? Hindsight is 20/20, and in the wake of these dramatic and sometimes dangerous Games, there is much to reflect upon.
Proud of Jumping Silver
With two Olympic first-timers and two decorated veterans on the jumping squad, Team USA came to these Games among 15 strong nations as one of the favorites to medal. Easily, nine of those nations were medal contenders themselves, making competition stiff through up to seven rounds of jumping for team and individual medals.
U.S. riders Kent Farrington, Lucy Davis, Beezie Madden and McLain Ward were as focused as a group as you could find at these Games. At the precompetition press conference, they shared the same buttoned-down, type A professionalism: They were in Rio to medal, and they achieved that goal when they captured Olympic team silver Aug.17, despite an unexpected hardship.
“Having a gold medal was certainly what we wanted and we came close,” said Robert. “We had a little misfortune, and you never can time misfortune, but I doubt if you look back on history you certainly can’t find many teams who lost their anchor rider on the final day and still medaled.”
Beezie Madden has served as the team’s anchor rider for a dozen years, but after Round 2 in Rio, when she picked up an uncharacteristic 12 faults, it was revealed that her horse Cortes ‘C’ had been diagnosed with a minor, but Games-ending tendon injury. Team USA jumped the team final with their remaining three riders and no luxury of a drop score, and their five faults over the two rounds earned them the team silver medal.
The U.S. finished just two faults behind the French, who persevered over many hardships of their own to win Olympic team gold. McLain had the tough assignment of jumping directly after the French rider who secured team gold, but knowing that the U.S. was still fighting for silver and a clear round was required to stay in the running, he kept his focus and delivered exactly that with Azur.
“It just shows the character of our team,” Robert added. “To lose Beezie on the final day when it really counts was an adversity that the other riders had to deal with, and they dealt with it very well. There are going to be ups and downs and things that go on, but whether you weather the storm is based on how many boxes are checked off before you get there.”
In his first Olympics, Kent had a near- flawless week at the reins of the 14-year-old KWPN gelding Voyeur. Robert selected him as the lead-off rider in each round of team jumping, and he more than fulfilled his role as pathfinder. Over five rounds of jumping, Voyeur never hit a rail and Kent qualified with five other pairs to jump off for individual medals. He finished in fifth as the top-placing American rider.
“With Kent it made a whole lot of sense. He knows that horse, he’s battle-tested with that horse. We all decided it would be a good way to go,” Robert explained.
Lucy and her horse Barron pulled their weight for the team as well. The 23-year-old was by far the youngest rider on Team USA, but she demonstrated her capacity for keeping her focus, and when Barron unexpectedly swerved left in the approach to a fence during the critical team final, she rode through it.
While Lucy may not have been targeting an individual medal, McLain was. The 40-year-old two-time Olympic gold medalist (Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008) made no secret of the fact that he was sitting on a horse with the rare ability to go the distance to capture the individual Olympic medal that had long-eluded his grasp. Azur has been touted as a phenomenon ever since McLain paired with the 10-year-old mare in early 2015. And with an incredible spring season that included victory in the CSIO***** Grand Prix of Rome in mid-May, McLain and Azur were favorites to medal.
It wasn’t to be, however. Proving that the smallest tick of a rail can have monumental consequences, McLain and Azur got too close to the A element of the triple combination during Round A of the individual final. When that pole fell, it took their chances of medaling individually with it. Great Britain’s Nick Skelton and Big Star claimed individual gold after a rare six horse jump-off.
“The course was very repetitively testing a big-strided horse because everything was short, short, short,” McLain said. “That was certainly a bit of a challenge for us and it was just one mistake too many.”
However, the U.S. team can now point to a significant record of recent success. During three championships in the last three years—the 2014 World Equestrian Games, 2015 Pan American Games (equal to its counterpart, the European Championships) and the 2016 Olympics—the United States is the only nation that has medaled in all three. With that milestone to point to, Robert comes away from Rio proud of his team and looking toward the future with renewed vigor.
Eventing’s Uplifting Individual Bronze
Germany’s Michael Jung aside, you could rightly trace much of this year’s Olympic eventing success back to the nation of Australia. That said, for the United States, who has long embraced two Australian-born riders as its own, earning a step on the individual medal podium was a well-earned victory for the stars and stripes. Australia, in team-gold position after the cross-country phase, slipped a little during stadium jumping to claim team bronze. Four men under 30 years old were best to win team gold for France, and the German team won silver.
Phillip Dutton won the first individual Olympic medal of his career by expertly navigating Mighty Nice through a spectacular dressage test, a smooth cross-country track and a strong day of stadium jumping over two separate rounds.
“Phillip’s dressage has come on miles. He rode beautifully and his show jumping—with Richard [Picken’s] help—had a great composure and calmness to it,” said Chef d’Équipe David O’Connor. “That was what helped him keep climbing up, and no one deserves it more. No one has worked harder for it than he has.”
At 52 years old, Phillip was the U.S. team’s oldest equestrian competitor and was also the top-finishing American over all three disciplines. His teammate and fellow Aussie expat Boyd Martin finished individually in 16th aboard the off-the-track Thoroughbred Blackfoot Mystery.
Phillip had previously medaled in the Olympics for Australia but never individually and never for the U.S. His individual bronze was a needed boost for Team USA after a disappointing cross-country phase cut the team down by half. Neither Clark Montgomery nor Lauren Kieffer completed cross country, ending the USA’s chance to medal as a team.
With 14 eliminations on course and riders openly expressing that the cross country was a legitimate four-star track, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in an Olympics since Sydney in 2000, horses tired over the technical track with Boyd in particular counting his lucky stars that he was aboard a Thoroughbred with enough gas in the tank to gallop the 43-obstacle course.
On a personal-best dressage score of 43.60, Phillip and Mighty Nice moved up to individual fifth place after cross country, adding just 3 time penalties to their score.
“Basically, I think they were all competitive at the level. We haven’t had two finish the cross country in the top 10 in an Olympic Games for years,” said David. “But we’ve got to be able to close it. The younger guys need to meet the more experienced ones in
“Phillip was so good, his experience really helped throughout, and I thought Mighty Nice went the best he’s ever gone,” David added. “Both Boyd and Phillip had a personal best in dressage. So that’s the big thing. The team was really close. We missed by inches.”
For Clark and Loughan Glen, who were coming off a stellar pre-Rio season with a second place at Bramham CIC*** and a win at Great Meadows CICO***–NC, retiring on cross country in Brazil was a big letdown. He pulled up and retired after refusals on course. Shortly after the Games, Loughan Glen underwent surgery for a bone chip in his knee.
And Lauren popped off Veronica at a tall upright gate at Fence 24 after attempting the direct option from a solid cabin fence at 23. “She just kind of hit that gate with her right front,” Lauren explained. “My job was to get a clean round, so it’s pretty disappointing to let the team down.”
“Lauren’s cross-country ride was almost immaculate, but she got the inside of a line and paid a big price for it,” David said. “You can look back on a decision about that right, left and center [of the fence] 100 times, and those are the ones that will stay with you for awhile. But I don’t second-guess her decision there.”
In the stadium jumping, Blackfoot Mystery tired and had three fences down in Round B. But he was the greenest horse on Team USA, and Boyd was proud of his effort. In the stadium jumping, Blackfoot Mystery tired and had three fences down in Round B. But he was the greenest horse on Team USA, and Boyd was proud of his effort.
Just ahead of Phillip in individual silver position, Astier Nicolas on Piaf De B’Neville became a double Olympic medalist; his efforts helped the young team from France claim team gold.
For Michael Jung of Germany, the stadium jumping looked to be merely a warm-up. He jumped two clean rounds with Sam FBW to claim his second consecutive individual Olympic gold medal, adding to his unmatched record in the sport of eventing. Michael was the only rider at these Olympics to finish on his dressage score, and during the medal ceremony, a fresh and hyper Sam appeared ready to do it all over again.
Team Bonding for Dressage Bronze
Team USA’s Dressage Chef d’Équipe Robert Dover spent the last three years pointing his riders toward success in South America. In previous championships, without strong horsepower or a dedicated focus on competing in Europe, American dressage riders had fallen far behind their international counterparts. In Rio, Robert was determined to end the drought in dressage medals that had stretched over the last two Olympic Games.
It worked. Perhaps even more than winning the team bronze medal, the American dressage riders will be remembered for their team spirit. They took “all for one, one for all” to a new level, beginning mornings with a group hug and running arm in arm to meet anchor rider Laura Graves at the in-gate after she finished her medal-winning test.
“I have been on a lot of teams, probably 11, and I would say that this team rivals the camaraderie of the very best teams I’ve been on,” Robert said. “They are like a family. They live together, eat together and care about each other so much. They care about the success of each other and they take care of each other when things aren’t good. That’s what’s so wonderful about them.”
Laura, Allison Brock, Kasey Perry-Glass and Steffen Peters moved as a unit throughout the summer, when for three months they based themselves in Europe during a pre-Olympics boot camp. Their strong performances at Rotterdam CDIO***** and Roosendal CDI**** served as the perfect lead-up to Rio. Not to mention, there was also Team USA’s win of the inaugural FEI Nations Cup Dressage Series in July.
While it was never going to be the year that any nation broke through the stronger-than-ever German grasp on Olympic team gold, the United States put in definitive tests to claim team bronze behind Great Britain’s team silver. And it saw Allison, Steffen and Laura all qualify for the medal-deciding Individual Grand Prix Freestyle.
In his fourth Olympic Games, Steffen was the veteran of the group and somewhat of a pathfinder. He drew first in the order of go in the Individual Freestyle on the final day of competition and came out of the arena smiling after a successful week. Steffen and Legolas finished 12th individually. Allison and Rosevelt finished their first Olympics inside the top 15.
“I wish I could put into words how much winning the team bronze medal means to me and also how much it means to me how well Legolas did here,” Steffen said. “We delivered for the team. That was my goal, and that’s what we did.”
For Laura, star of the U.S. dressage team with Verdades, these first Olympics were an unforgettable success. As the United States’ highest-performing rider, she earned three, career-best scores during the week. She finished fourth individually, just barely off the individual medal podium.
The degree of difficulty in her Freestyle included two-tempis on a half circle in both directions that led straight into one-tempi changes. They were risky moves, but she was comfortable to make them: “Verdades is really honest, so the degree of difficulty is something I can play with,” she said. “We did [the two-tempis] twice to show that it’s not just luck.”
The four-day Olympic dressage competition had its fair share of elements to contend with. Despite it being winter in Brazil, temperatures soared into the 90s on the last day of competition. And during the opening day’s Grand Prix and following the Grand Prix Special, constant gunfire from military live-fire exercises could be heard outside the arena (similar gunfire was heard during the show-jumping individual final). Equestrian sports were held within the Deodoro military complex, and while the sound of gunfire was unsettling to some horses, the show went on unimpeded.
While the medals were still hanging around his riders’ necks, Robert was quick to look toward the future of U.S. dressage. Building more depth on the lower end of the pyramid looms large on his plan, and while he wouldn’t say if he’d remain at the helm as chef during the next Olympic rotation, there’s no doubt that his commitment to U.S. dressage is unwavering.
“I believe, honestly, that in the next two years you will see America take another higher podium,” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what will happen in the years to come because of the depth of great up-and-coming Grand Prix horses that are just starting out right now. In the next four years, I think they will give any country in the world a very strong fight for the gold.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.