Olympic Qualifying Set Too High Brings Hearbreak to New Zealand Rider

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Vaessa Way riding one of Carl hester's horses. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com


A New Zealand dressage rider’s dream of representing her nation by going halfway round the world to meet qualifying standards set too high to get to the Olympic Games has left her with a mountain of debt and being forced to sell  her horse as the only way to get home.

For Vanessa Way and her KH Arvan, the dream that was lauded when she was on a New Zealand team that became the first in history to qualify for an Olympics is left wondering how the high cost and the failure to fulfill the effort will affect a younger generation of dreamers in a country with a population of 4.4 million, about the same as Kentucky. New Zealand has a rich history in equestrian sports but it has not leached into dressage as only two CDI3* events are staged in the whole nation for the entire year.

The International Equestrian Federation (FEI) set a minimum standard of 64 per cent at two CDIs at 3* or above and, in the case of New Zealand, before ground juries requiring only two of five judges to be foreign.

But the N.Z. Olympic Committee imposed criteria much higher–four scores above 66 per cent with the top two averaging above 68 per cent in relevant FEI competitions–that it required traveling out of New Zealand to fulfill, at the cost of the rider.

Of the four-member team that last year qualified New Zealand for the Olympics, only Louisa Hill on Bates Antonello, a 10-year-old Hanoverian gelding (Anamour x Flair x Winnebago) made it to the Games that open in London on Friday.

Shiwon Green retired her Gosh after the qualifying competition because, she told dressage-news.com, she thought the N.Z. requirement “was a step too far for him. If we just had to met the minimum standard, I’d be still cracking on!” Nicky Pope also attempted to meet the qualifying level with her Fabarchie but fell short.

But Vanessa, aged 39, did not want to give up and followed up on an agreement Carl Hester made with her in 2010 that if she qualified for London he would take her in training.

So after successfully bugging–she calls it “stalking”–Carl to take her and Arvan at his base in Gloucestershire, England, she paid for herself and the 13-year-old Hanoverian gelding (Anamour x Demure x Dynamit) to come over in January.

“It was the icing on the cake,” she told dressage-news.com beside the outdoor training arena at Carl’s farm.

“Without him I wouldn’t be here. He has supported me by accommodating me and my horse, and trained me since January.”

Arvan was really good when he arrived in England, but then suffered the so-called “hemisphere crash,” travel sickness where the horse loses weight and conditioning. Before this, the horse she had bought in New Zealand for NZ$3,000 (US$2,400) as a youngster and rode bareback had never had a day off from sickness.

The N.Z. selectors were applying pressure to complete the qualifying requirements despite Vanessa’s pleas, backed up by Carl, for time. She felt the need to show although the horse had not recovered. It didn’t go well.

Then, with time running out, Vanessa’s father died.

“Dad’s dream was for us always to do the best you can,” she said. “The family was saying keep going. The day before dad’s funeral, the horse went lame.”

Vanessa figures it will take three months to get Arvan ready for sale. Meantime, her husband, Brooke, who owns a bar in New Zealand that he left for several months to support his wife, needs to return home to take care of his business. They have been together 21 years

She has some young horses at home that she will bring to Europe to sell because “I need the money to put back into the sport.

As difficult as it has been, she said of living in England, “even when it’s bad it’s still good. Everyone here is so supportive.”

Carl makes light of the circumstances.

“One of my best friends asked me to take on somebody with no money,” he said. “I said, ‘What do you think I am? A charity.’ I had no job, no accommodation but I found a way to put Vanessa in, gave her a bunch of horses to ride. She’s been hysterical. So I forgive my friend for giving me another child.

“She’s a happy person, so I feed her, booze her and let her ride.”

He may joke about it, but he has two of three horses that make up the team for Great Britain in Olympic dressage, a sport the nation has never won a medal in 100 years and needs to work long hours to make ends meet. Taking on Vanessa required a major commitment on his part.

The “wall I kept on hitting” in trying to fulfill the N.Z. requirements has not defeated her, but she has not received the same support, either verbally or financially from her national federation, as she has from equestrian around the world that makes her think about options.

Her story has struck a chord with riders everywhere. Dressage-news.com is asked frequently in the United States and Europe about her situation.

By happenstance she was born in the United States and, as she is entitled, holds a U.S. passport as well as one from New Zealand.

(This report corrects an earlier version which stated that Nicky Pope’s Faberchie was sold to Australia. The horse is still part of Nicky’s famiiy. Dressage-news.com regrets the error.)