"One day, you realize you've been saying you want to try out for the Team for the last four Olympics," Grand Prix dressage rider George Williams says of his decision to leave the security of his position with Tempel Farm for the ups and downs of competition in 2000. He had been inspired by participation in USET Developing Rider clinics for which he'd qualified a couple of years earlier. "You have to make things happen."
Then a job offer from Chuck and Joann Smith of Gypsy Woods Farm in Richwood, Ohio, set the wheels in motion. They had a breeding program and competition horses, and were looking for someone to ride and manage the farm. George took the job, and almost immediately the Smiths began discussing purchasing an international-caliber horse for him to compete.
"It didn't necessarily have to be competing Grand Prix, but we knew realistically that I needed a Grand Prix horse because of time, of my age," says George. Bringing a young horse along would further delay the experience and education to be gained riding at Grand Prix. George knew exactly what he wanted. Breed wasn't important, but a base of quality training was. It also, he knew, "had to be a horse who, when you watched it go, drew you in or made your heart stop."
After two unsuccessful trips to Europe, he found that horse. On his third trip, George visited the DOKR, the German Olympic Training Center, to try three horses recommended by top trainer (now coach of the USET dressage squad) Klaus Balkenhol. One of those prospects was Rocher, a 17.1-hand Westphalian mare.
"Of the three, I was uncertain at first that she was really the best one," George admits. She could be strong in hand and tough through her neck, and she was greener than the other horses, particularly at piaffe and passage. But when Klaus rode her, George saw "glimmers of what she could really do-the amount she could carry herself and still have the engagement--she looked like a world-class horse."
Unsure, George decided to stay for three days and ride each of the horses. By the end of day two, he knew Rocher was the one.
"The chemistry was quite good," he says. "Even though she was green and she needed more suppleness and more throughness, she had a willingness to work with the rider and really try." After his years of riding only stallions at Tempel, it was a pleasant surprise to find the mare acted like one of the boys--inquisitive, level-headed, consistent, sure of herself, and not at all "mare-ish."
Making an Entrance
After Rocher arrived in Florida in February 2001, George spent the next several months working with Robert Dover, whom he credits with helping him make the transition to riding a horse of her quality.
"There's a sense of intimidation that suddenly I'm sitting on a super quality horse, and I don't want to screw this up," George admits. "He was a tremendous help in making me feel comfortable with it. He taught me that less truly is more--on a horse of that quality, every movement you make means something so you can't have inadvertent movements; you have to be absolutely still with your riding."
In their first competition together and Rocher's second-ever Grand Prix, Dressage at Lamplight in Wayne, Ill., the pair finished second in the Grand Prix and won the Grand Prix special. Following that with a strong finish at Tempel qualified the pair for the Bayer/USET Festival of Champions in Gladstone, N.J., where they finished fifth.
"I knew she was very good, and I knew if I rode her well we'd do OK, but I didn't expect those results because we hadn't really had the time to establish a relationship," he says.
Their spring performances earned George and Rocher a two-month training grant to work with Klaus in Germany. Between the language barrier and the coach's sheer skill as a horseman, George knew he'd spend a lot of time watching and learning while Klaus worked Rocher. He didn't know whether he'd get the chance to wear the show clothes he'd packed; Rocher wouldn't show until, or unless, Klaus pronounced her ready.
"Watching Klaus ride, I learned to appreciate the importance of an immediate correction," George says. "If a hind leg slows for an instant, he fixes it so quickly that it's mind-boggling. It's about feel and seeing the importance and effect a correction that doesn't look strong has when it's done correctly. One of the toughest things for us as Americans is that we aren't exposed to that level of riding on a daily basis. Watching and learning in Germany, it becomes the standard by which you judge things. Then, the challenge is to come home and maintain that standard."
Klaus worked with George on Rocher's throughness and focused on her weak points, the piaffe and passage.
"Working on piaffe one day, she suddenly figured out how to use her body and lift her back," George says. "It was almost a sense of relief, as if she was saying 'Oooooh, this is what I'm supposed to do!' A few weeks later, the same thing happened with the passage, but to a lesser extent."
The pair made enough progress that, three weeks into their two-month stay, Klaus pronounced them ready to compete in the Oldenburg CDI. With fellow American Debbie McDonald guiding them through European-show protocol, they made their head-turning international Grand Prix debut. At their next show, the Munich Indoors, they finished fifth in the Grand Prix and fourth in the Special.
In the June 2002 World Equestrian Games selection trials, Rocher's strong extended trot and canter pirouettes combined with a much-improved piaffe to earn scores in the mid-60s. At Dressage at Devon 2002, she and George won the Grand Prix freestyle with a resounding 75.37 percent and they also won the ABIC/USDF Region 2 Grand Prix championship. While George has gone from classical-riding exhibitions to the top of the American Grand Prix ranks in just two years, his success is built on a lifetime of learning.
"Although I went for years and years without any coaching at this level, what I did get was a strong enough foundation that I could build from it when I had the opportunity. Good riding is good riding--it's simply staying true to certain principles, the respect for the horse and love of the horse," George says. "Thinking back, I wonder, what if I'd had this horse, this opportunity, as a young man? I would have done the best I could, but I probably couldn't have developed to this level because I didn't have the skills I have now."
"When you sit down and think about what is possible, what is the ideal, best-case scenario, you still end up hedging everything. For us to be so fortunate, to be on that best-case track," he adds with feeling, "it's been an unbelievable ride."
George and Rocher have become one of the most popular and successful combinations on the U.S. dressage scene. They made the record books in 2005--the same year in which they had competed as part of the U.S. dressage team at Aachen, Germany--by winning the Grand Prix Freestyle at Dressage at Devon for a third time.
Excerpted and updated from "An Unbelievable Ride" in the October 2002 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Read about George Williams' system for accurate, consistent trot-canter transitions in the August 2006 issue of Practical Horseman.