When the U.S. show jumpers stood on the podium at the World Equestrian Games’ d’Ornano Stadium in Normandy, France, last September, and bowed their heads to receive their bronze medals, the feeling of “mission accomplished” was more than just for the prize, the cheers and the prospect of champagne. Their finish automatically assures the United States of having a berth at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The other two U.S. WEG teams seeking a spot at the next Olympics—dressage and eventing—didn’t do as well. The dressage team landed in fourth place and the eventing team failed to finish. Now the best hope to qualify for Rio Games is for each to earn a gold medal at next year’s Pan American Games in Toronto, Canada.
Though the Olympic qualifying drama for the three sports was a crucial element of WEG, France also welcomed five additional disciplines—driving, para-dressage, vaulting, endurance and reining—when it hosted the world championships, August 23–September 7. Despite questionable sanitary facilities, transportation snafus, traffic, long food lines and other inconveniences that were rampant (see Jim Wofford’s “WEG: A Victim of Its Own Success,” page 16), the actual competition was the bright spot—and it was fierce, especially for the U.S. teams.
“Dressage performed above our expectations,” said Jim Wolf, the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s WEG chef de mission and its former director of sport programs. “They did as well as they possibly could have done and they nearly had a medal podium performance.” The event team has “a very solid program,” he added, “but they are going to have to evaluate what happened here and make some adjustments.” And the show jumpers “had a great performance and a really strong season. It goes to show that when you have positive momentum, it really carries you.”
Lessons learned from the U.S. preparation for WEG and the competition there will play a big role in getting ready for the next series of challenges.
As the U.S. show jumpers received their WEG bronze medals, the smile on coach Robert Ridland’s face was broad. The placing was the result of a lot of planning and the work of a 10-member roster of candidates who competed in various combinations in European Nations’ Cups last summer.
“We came up with a strategy that was intended to win the gold medal,” he said. “We absolutely felt that we had one of the strongest teams that we’ve had in recent memory.”
In fact, the U.S. team came close to the gold and would have had it with one less knockdown. But they also finished just .10 penalties ahead of the Germans. The Dutch earned team gold and France took home silver.
A measure of U.S. strength came not only in the team medal but also in the fact that two Americans were in the top five individually. Beezie Madden qualified for the Final Four round, in which the top four riders compete over an abbreviated and lower course with their horse and each others, and earned an individual bronze medal. Her horse, Cortes C, earned the Best Horse title. McLain Ward was in 13th place with the feisty Rothchild going into the qualifying round for the Final Four and was understandably frustrated when his two perfect trips were not enough to make the cut; he wound up fifth by a mere .31 penalties. Dutch rider Jeroen Dubbeldam captured individual gold with Zenith SFN and France’s Patrice Delaveau and Orient Express HDC earned silver.
Beezie and McLain were teammates on the 2004 and 2008 Olympic gold medal squads during USA’s glory days. After the gold, however, there was a medal drought in global championships.
The U.S. team was not successful at either the 2010 WEG or the 2012 Olympics. Both Madden and Ward have different horses as their primary players since the London Games, but the partnerships they have developed over time paid off in France. Kent Farrington, riding on his first global championship team, did not have his best show with Voyeur and wound up in 32d place.
Team rookie Lucy Davis demonstrated persistence combined with cool. In the first round of the team competition, her Barron slammed into a wall obstacle set at the end of the ring. But she kept going, displacing just a single rail in each succeeding round. Finishing a credible 39th in the field of 149, she is someone who doubtless will be on future teams.
“A lot that happened this summer we’ll see the benefits from two years from now when we’re fielding the Olympic team because we’ve incorporated some unbelievable young talent that’s been able to ride side-by-side with our veterans,” said Robert, also giving a thumbs up to alternate Charlie Jayne, reprising his role from the London Olympics with Chill RZ.
The European shows in which the U.S. contingent competed before WEG were carefully plotted. “We said ahead of time, we’re not going to go to everything that’s on the map. We targeted a plan, there’s been great communication with the riders. They know what makes sense for the horses.”
The team medal “sends a huge message as to where we are,” Robert added. “We’re in a very strong position and we’re going to keep going ahead. I think it looks good for us in two years at the Olympics.”
He warned, however, that the other top countries won’t be relaxing either. “We had a pretty good week but ... the sport just keeps getting better and better The top teams are really, really good. There are way more teams at that level than there used to be.”
Few in the dressage world, with the notable exception of U.S. technical adviser/chef d’équipe Robert Dover, believed his squad could get close to the podium, dominated as expected by Germany (gold), Great Britain (silver) and the Netherlands (bronze).
U.S. dressage for the most part has been in a slump at global championship team competitions since the squad earned a bronze medal at the 2006 WEG. It will be a different story after Normandy, however.
“We’re fourth, and on the rise,” Robert said, noting many gave Spain, Sweden and Denmark a better chance than the U.S. at these world championships. But attitude played a big part in the country’s success at d’Ornano Stadium, he said. “We don’t go there to take part. We go there to win.”
He conceded, however, that “winning is a relative notion when you have countries as deep in 80 percentile horses as Germany, Holland and Great Britain. For me, fourth was, in a weird way, like winning a gold medal—for where we are relative to where we were. I’m very conscious of where we will be next year for the Pan American Games and in two years in Rio.”
A big part of the U.S. success was due to Laura Graves with Verdades. Ironically, the 27-year-old rider barely qualified to ride in June’s selection trials, but her second-place finish there put her on the team, along with Steffen Peters and Legolas, Adrienne Lyle and Wizard and Tina Konyot on her longtime partner Calecto V.
What also paid off for the team was its confidence. “We knew we had a chance again,” said Steffen. “We knew coming to London [the 2012 Olympics] that fourth place, even fifth place was difficult, but we still trained as if we could win a medal. But now there’s much more of a reality there, and that’s a wonderful feeling.”
Based on their placings in the team competition, Laura, Steffen and Adrienne qualified for the Special. Laura finished in eighth place and Steffen in 10th. Great Britain’s Charlotte Dujardin earned the Grand Prix Special gold with Valegro, while silver went to Germany’s Helen Langehanenberg and Damon Hill NRW and bronze to her teammate Kristina Sprehe and Desperados
Laura and Steffen qualified for the freestyle. Although Laura had only competed in Europe for the first time last summer, she continued to impress under the intense pressure of WEG when she earned 82.036 percent in the freestyle to finish in fifth.
That was a little more than 10 percentage points away from the freestyle’s individual winner, Charlotte, who scored 92.161 percent and has now swept the Olympic, European and world championship titles. Helen again captured silver and Dutch rider Adelinde Cornelissen earned bronze with Parzival. Steffen finished 10th.
Looking ahead, Robert Dover wants to see some refinement in the selection process. At nearly the last minute, Caroline Roffman and Her Highness O, who had edged Adrienne according to the numbers for a place on the team, was replaced by Adrienne, an Olympic veteran. Selectors felt that with only six months at Grand Prix, asking Caroline and her mount to cope with the WEG atmosphere was not fair. And atmosphere was a key element in the competition at the 21,000-seat soccer stadium in Caen, where noise carried in a big way and the tension was palpable during competition.
Robert noted that, “When you have many combinations that can be very good or can be still green enough and still have scores that go up and down, you want to make sure it is extremely clear that the person who is finally responsible for sending that team down the centerline at the World Games or an Olympics has an ability, along with the high-performance committee and the selection committee, to make judgments along the way that are subjective to a certain degree but are the wisest.”
He added, “We came fourth because we selected exactly the right combinations.”
The biggest U.S. disappointment among the three Olympic disciplines at WEG was eventing, where a team of four and two individuals appeared to have the strength necessary for medal contention. The team didn’t even finish the competition, however, as two riders dropped out on cross country.
Normandy marked the international championship debut with a U.S. team for technical adviser/chef d’equipe David O’Connor. After the London Olympics, he assumed the role from Capt. Mark Phillips, who held it for nearly two decades. A lot was expected of David, the individual Olympic gold medalist and former USEF president.
When he had the Canadian coaching job in 2010, he guided his underdog team to a silver medal at the Kentucky WEG, where the United States was fourth. While that was a stunner, David is quick to say that the Canadian effort was not an overnight success.
“My first world championships with Canada was at Aachen [the 2006 WEG] and we didn’t finish,” he pointed out, saying it was four years before the program “started to really hit. Everyone remembers that, but they don’t remember the four years it took us to get there. The same thing will happen here,” he contended.
Ironically, if the two U.S. riders who competed as individuals, Sinead Halpin and Kim Severson, had been on the team instead of Buck Davidson and Phillip Dutton, the squad would have finished sixth and qualified for the Olympics. The difference was that Halpin (38th individually) and Severson (23rd) finished the event. But no one would have dreamed that such strong riders as Buck and Phillip wouldn’t have galloped through the finish line.
Buck was in the unfortunate position of going first on a course that had been soaked by several days of rain. It was tough going for his mount, Ballynoe Castle RM, the horse he also rode in the 2010 WEG.
“I would like to stop drawing first,” sighed David about the U.S. position in the starting order. Since Buck hadn’t had an opportunity to watch anyone else go, he was guessing about his rate of speed, and in the end, the conditions just took too much out of his horse, who refused at the 30th and 31st of 35 fences before the rider called it a day.
The same happened with Phillip and Trading Aces, who stopped approximately two-thirds of the way through the course at Fence 25 and was retired.
“We always thought if we had a good weekend, we were looking for a bronze medal. [But] we had two horses very unusually who just stopped and that’s a big deal,” said David. “The horses were very fit [and] galloped as hard as you can gallop them.”
He noted it could have been a different story if the footing had been better, but as David put it, “It is what it is and you have to prepare for everything.” The technicality of Pierre Michelet’s course became over the top with the footing factor, and no riders made the optimum time.
Boyd Martin, who overcame a broken leg he sustained earlier in the season, was the top American with Shamwari 4 in eighth place—just as Boyd had been the best of his team at the 2010 WEG. The other team finisher, Lynn Symansky, had a valuable learning experience with Donner to wind up 47th.
In the end, Germany won its third team medal, Great Britain took home silver and the Dutch earned bronze.
So what needs to be done to the U.S. program to improve it?
“It’s a tweaking,” David mused, adding more horses always are necessary. “We will go back and go over every detail of how we prepared.”
The challenges will be different in the next few years. “The [Pan Ams] is a two-star and then the one after that [the Olympics] is really a 3-star,” said David, standing in the stadium at the WEG as the medals were presented to others.
But going abroad, the sport is quite different than it is in the United States. “We don’t run in the mud that often. The only one we do [can be] Fair Hill, a three-star. Usually at our four-star [Rolex Kentucky], we run on top of the ground,” he said.
After the 2012 Olympics, David wanted to see teams campaigning in Europe, rather than just England, and he thinks that has worked well, citing Pau (France), Aachen (Germany) and Luhmuhlen (Germany). The German events are particularly important, since they are at the top of the sport, accounting for individual gold with Sandra Auffarth and Opgun Louvo and individual silver with Michael Jung and Fischerrocana FST. Great Britain’s William Fox-Pitt and Chilli Morning earned bronze.
While David might be disappointed, he’s not discouraged. “We’re better than we showed. The riders believe in the program; the owners are still very much backing it. That part is good. We will grow, we will get better. We will bring back medals in the future.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.