Axel Steiner, commenting for USEF Network.

Day two of competition dawned slightly overcast with a balmy temperature.  In other words, perfect riding weather!  The action at the USET Foundation Headquarters in Gladstone started with the FEI Olympic Grand Prix Special.

The judges presiding over the class have a big task in front of them, as they are charged with selecting the team that will represent the US at the London Olympics.  The panel included a Who’s Who of big name 4* and  5* judges: Uwe Mechlem (Retired 5*), Janet Foy (4*), Natalie Lamping (4*), Linda Zang (5*), and Hilda Gurney (4*).

Audience members who cared to purchase a wireless headset were treated to movement-by-movement analysis by renowned clinician and FEI 5* star judge Axel Steiner. Note to NBC Sports: Consider hiring this man for your Olympic dressage coverage.  His knowledge base is unimpeachable and his explanation of the movements, the rider’s strategy and the judges’ scores brings the competition alive to the audience.  Add to that the fact that his humor is delightful.  Many times during the day I’d find myself stifling laughter, only to look around to find my fellow headset-wearing audience members chuckling as well.  (Sidenote: I met Axel’s wife, Terri Miller, in the media tent. However, it wasn’t until after I left the show that I realized my new friend is the artist responsible for the painting of the great Roemer that hangs in the US Dressage Federation Hall of Fame.)

So, we’re halfway through the selection process and this is how the day shook out in terms of placings:

  1. Steffen Peters & Legolas 92     77.933
  2. Tina Konyot & Calecto V          76.667
  3. Todd Flettrich & Otto                73.067
  4. Jan Ebeling & Rafalca                72.044
  5. Adrienne Lyle & Wizard           71.578
  6. Gunter Seidel & Fandango       70.067

To give you an idea of where that stands relative to some of the world’s top pairs, consider the placings at the recent Grand Prix Special held at the CDI4* in Fritzens-Schindhof,  Austria:

Beatriz Ferrer-Salat &  Delgado (ESP)    75.76

Carl Hester & Uthopia (GBR)  74.36

Juan Manuel Munoz Diaz & Fuego de Cardenas (ESP) 73.98

Emile Faurie &  Elmegardens Marquis (GBR)  72.58

Emma Hindle &  Diamond Hit (GBR) 69.80

Yes, British phenom Charlotte Dujardin scored a World Record 88.022 at CDI Hagen, and Adelinde Cornelissen and Jerich Parzival scored a 78.024 at the Reem Acra FEI World Cup, but that being said, I think that judging by today’s numbers we’re in there with a chance.

Katherine Bateson-Chandler and Nartan – photo by Amy

The riders started in reverse order of placement from Day 1. Lauren Sammis and Sagacious HF came down the centerline first to start us off, looking a little more relaxed initially than they did yesterday.  Sagacious is known for his electric temperament, and they had a few areas where Lauren needed to manage that a bit. A sticky transition onto the centerline and loss of impulsion in the piaffe at X made the all important money line a costly one for the pair.

WEG team members Katherine Bateson-Chandler and Nartan rode a test that showed some difficulty in connection and a little balance issue in the extended trot along the long side from P to M, but the experienced pair managed to put together a solid test, scoring slightly higher than in the previous day’s Grand Prix.

Sydney Olympic team Bronze Medallist Sue Blinks showed her experience as she rode a very accurate test on her partner Robin Hood.  They performed a solid passage, demonstrated very nice “sit” in the piafffe, and a good transition out of the piaffe into the passage.

Shawna Harding and the impressive Come On III came down centerline next and showed very nice 1/2 passes and solid two times, but in general needed a little more impulsion.  It’s difficult to keep the engine in a big horse like this revving, and as Axel commented, “With a big boy like this, eight cylinders is recommended.  Six is not enough.”

Shawna Harding and Come On III – photo by Amy

Jim Koford and Rhett came down the line like a pair on a mission, entering with pizazz and halting nicely. They moved through the test with more energy than the day before. The veteran gelding had more “zing” in his extended trot and gave his rider a strong passage and two tempis with good jump.  A few small mistakes marred the otherwise very respectable test that left the happy Koford pumping his fist as he left the arena.

Adrienne Lyle and Wizard – photo by Amy

Adrienne Lyle and Wizard confirmed why they are considered a pair for the future, with very nice piaffes and passages. Lyle did a wonderful job half halting and setting the horse up for the first pirouette, and as a result had what was arguably one of the best of the day. Wizard must have been going to the gym, as he clearly had enough energy to show impulsion through the piaffes and passages down the difficult last line.

Fitness was a bit of an issue for the next  pair in the ring, Pan Am team members Heather Blitz and her enormous Paragon.  Again the chestnut gelding showed spectacular movement in general and a few areas where a little bit more strength will help him, such as the piaffes and the pirouettes.  As Paragon is a nine year-old, as long as he stays sound it seems reasonable to assume he will gain the necessary strength. As Axel said, there’s nowhere to go but up with this combination as long as Paragon “goes to the gym and gets a little bit of a six-pack.”

Jan Ebeling and the lovely Rafalca demonstrated what good crossing behind in the half passes looks like.  The mare is very willing, and perhaps gave her rider a touch too much extension in the trot from P to M, making the downward transition at M a bit stiff.  One of the difficulties in the new Olympic Grand Prix Special test is that the test is extremely difficult and unforgiving, and the level of difficulty means that a small mistake in one element often carries over into another.  One area that caused problems for other combinations proved a cakewalk for Rafalca. She executed a smooth transition from the passage to the right lead canter at I that earned her a pat from her rider.

Thanks Legs!

Steffen Peters and Legolas 92 entered the arena next and showcased the gelding’s forté, piaffe and passage.   Axel was moved to comment, “This is eye candy, ladies and gentlemen!”  “Legs” was privately owned and very lightly shown, but you’d never know it by the gelding’s calm acceptance of the atmosphere in Gladstone.  Peters and the 10 year-old Westfalian displayed the smooth transitions Peters’ horses are known for.

Legolas’ canter work is not quite up to the level of his piaffe and passage, but as Steffen noted in the press conference, it is improving every time he shows.  As the pair exited the ring, announcer Brian O’Connor provoked laughter from the gallery by saying, “Steffen I just got a text from Ravel.  He said to tell Legolas “Good job!”  Steffen was clearly pleased with the test, and commented later that with Legolas, a horse he says is very similar to Ravel, he has to concentrate on not letting the gelding do too much and to remind himself not to get on the throttle too much yet.

Todd Flettrich and Otto, who represented the USA at the World Equestrian Games in 2010, put in a very solid round.  Otto and Todd have been working on their fitness, and it showed in the gelding’s energy, the activity in his hind legs, and especially in the piaffe and passage down the final centerline.  Their efforts paid off in what Todd said was probably his highest score in this test yet.  Todd mentioned some management changes that have clearly been manifested in their scores: Shortening the gelding’s warm-up time in deference to his age, changing his diet, bedding him on straw to assuage his allergies, and adding the aqua treadmill to the gelding’s exercise regime. The big gelding gives the impression that he takes his job very seriously and clearly tries to do his utmost to please his rider.

Todd Flettrich and Otto – photo by Amy

A few videos found on YouTube – via Dressage in Motion…

Steffen Peters and Legolas – Grand Prix Special

Todd Flettrich and Otto – Grand Prix Special

The final pair of the day were Tina Konyot and the delectable Calecto V.  As they prepared to enter the ring, Axel told the crowd, “Let’s see what she does with her buddy, because these two are truly buddies.”  Their special bond is very apparent, as it seems as if the stallion sometimes tries too hard to please his rider.  Tina and Calecto presented a series of supple movements and transitions, nice “sitting” in the piaffes, nice two times and a very nice second pirouette.  They lost a little rhythm in the first pirouette and got a little sticky coming out of the piaffe at X, but all in all demonstrated a very secure test.  Tina commented on their bond in the press conference, calling him her “pet horse”, and saying the stallion is probably the only FEI dressage horse that goes trail riding, swimming, and jumping (although she’s promised USA Dressage Technical Advisor Anne Gribbons to hold off on that until after the Olympic season is over.)

Tina Konyot and her buddy, Calecto V – photo by Amy

Tina Konyot and Calecto – Grand Prix Special

During the press conference Steffen commented on what he’s learned about preparing for an Olympic season over the years.  He said, and Tina and Todd concurred, that it’s important to stick to one’s routine and one’s system.  He stressed the importance of knowing how to best prepare mentally and how to prepared for each class.  He laughed, acknowledging it helps when one has reliable horses and a great support team in place.

Thanks for reading!