Steffen Peters Prepares Legolas’s Own Freestyle, Wades into Debate on USA National Coach – Part 2 of 3

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Steffen Peters and Legolas performing one of two CDI Grand Prix Freestyles in the past year, to hand-me-down music from Ravel. © 2012 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

When Steffen Peters rides Legolas into the arena for the debut of their musical Freestyle at the World Dressage Masters in Florida next month the specially created performance will include piano played by a new talent–Miki, the eight-year-old daughter of Akiko Yamazaki and Jerry Yang, owners of the 2012 United States Grand Prix championship horse.

The new freestyle that Steffen is working hard to complete the choreography to create “something fun with a good sense of humor” replaces the kür that was a hand-me-down from Ravel, now retired after two Olympic appearances that in 2008 came within a whisker of capturing the first individual medal for the United States in 76 years.

There is no doubt as to Steffen’s status on the world stage–he, superstar Isabell Werth of Germany and Sweden’s Patrik Kittel are the only riders with two horses in the top 25 on the International Equestrian Federation’s World Individual rankings–at No. 17 with Ravel and No. 21 with Legolas.

As with the music for Ravel, the Freestyle for Legolas is being crafted by Terry Ciotto Gallo, whose 30-year career in sports, dance and music has made her company, Klassic Kür, based in Oviedo near Orlando, Florida, a favorite among top American dressage riders.

“I wanteds to do something fun with a good sense of humor,” Steffen told dressage-news.com of the Freestyle for the Westfalen gelding (Laomedon x Furstin x Florstan II) that will turn 11 years old in 2013.

He came up with “Under Pressure,” the original version by Queen featuring David Bowie that Vanilla Ice reworked and renamed “Ice, Ice Baby” for an even more popular version. Steffen had it mixed with other popular music with some.of the Vanilla Ice lyrics changed to dressage terms to “give it a real sense of humor.”

“It just works beautifully,” he said of the practice at his barn in San Diego, California to get the timing and choreography worked out.

When the “real voices, strings and guitars” are recorded, Miki, Akiko and Jerry’s daughter, will provide some of the piano section.

“She is totally excited to be a part of the Freestyle,” he said.

Coincidentally, Vanilla Ice lives in Wellington, Florida, the biggest winter equestrian show in the world.

Completion of the Freestyle is one of the final pieces in preparing for the CDI5* in Florida in January to kick off a campaign of five tests that Steffen and Legolas will perform on both sides of the Atlantic the first half of 2013 aimed at measuring how far the pair have progressed in the year since Legolas arrived in California. Since then, the pair have started eight times for eight victories in four CDIs in California and several national shows, including the U.S. Grand Prix Championship.

The most intensive stage of the campaign starts with the Global Dressage Festival CDI5* in Wellington in early April then on to the Holiday & Horses CDI4* later the same month at Hagen, Germany, essentially a return home for Legolas where he was trained to Grand Prix by Ullrich Kasselmann of Performance Sales International who also organizes the show.

A month later will come Wiesbaden in Germany and then the toughest competition of all, the World Equestrian Festival at Aachen, the world’s premier horse show where Steffen and Ravel in 2009 became the only American combination ever to win the CDIO title by winning the Grand Prix, the Special and the Freestyle.

Steffen Peters and Ravel at World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany in 2009. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Legolas has, in Steffen’s view, what it takes.

“I look at a horse in the real big picture,” he said, “and beside the movement it’s their willingness, do they go in to the ring willing to do their best every single time.

“That’s the neat thing about Legolas. He never changes from the warmup to the show arena.”

It’s too soon to see whether campaigning Legolas is “another adventure as big as that with Ravel,” but Steffen admits, “I’m certainly dreaming about it.”

“Once you have a taste of it you are just as hungry and determined to see how you can support your team to win a medal. That hasn’t changed.” And he laughs, “neither has my sense of being realistic changed.”

Being realistic about today’s world championship level dressage means that teams “need two scores over 75 per cent, not like it used to be to have two scores over 70 per cent to have a chance at a medal.”

If Legolas turns out to have that capability, he’s excited about America’s prospects for the next championships, the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, in late 2014.

He confesses to being “a big fan” of Paragon, the giant Danish Warmblood chestnut gelding that Heather Blitz helped deliver in Louisana nine years ago and has since trained and competed. Heather and Paragon (Blue Hors Don Schufro x Pari Lord x Loran) were team mates with Steffen and Weltino’s Magic on the U.S. gold medal team and also collected individual silver at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2011. That was at small tour. Less than a year later, Heather, who is based in Wellington, won the trip to England with Paragon to be the reserve for the U.S. team at this summer’s Olympics.

Steffen Peters on Weltino's Magic and Heather Blitz on Paragon at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2011. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

“Paragon is a hell of a horse,” he said, “Heather has done an amazing job, and she’s done it her way. I can’t help but feel the horse can score in the mid 70s. I’m excited to see him at the World Dressage Masters in January.”

World championship and Olympic preparation leads to one of the thorniest issues in American high performance dressage–intense, days long team clinics with the national coach–officially named the Technical Advisor because of funding by the U.S. Olympic Committee in a nation where there is no government or lottery funding for sports, but is totally dependent on individual and corporation contributions.

Steffen was enlisted to become what amounted to a player/coach helping train prospective team combinations for the summer Games in London, a situation that was unusual and created some ill will. Steffen doesn’t talk about it as he felt he was contributing what he could, but is adamant about wanting in the future to be a competitor on his own horses. He’s happy to coach riders who opt for one of his clinics.

He was one of several team athletes invited to Houston, Texas, in late November to offer their opinions as to the future role of the Technical Advisor, though he is not a member of the Dressage High Performance Committee that listened to the riders and will recommend to the U.S. Equestrian Federation the description of the job to be filled by the replacement for Anne Gribbons. She held the post for three years. German Olympian Klaus Balkenhol held the position for eight years before Anne’s selection.

From Steffen’s perspective, riders are individuals who choose coaches that best suit themselves and their horses, as happens in Germany and some other top dressage nations.

Support for high performance teams, he believes, should be Eva Salomon, USEF dressage managing director and chef d’equipe; Jenny van Wieren-Page, director of high performance dressage, and a still to be appointed manager filling a role similar to some European teams.

Top international judges at major international competitions such as Anne Gribbons, Gary Rockwell, Linda Zang and Axel Steiner should be brought in to critique rides, study videos of their own rides and of combinations scoring above 80 per cent.

“Competing in Europe,” he said, “is very important. The judges say it, our trainers say it, our competitors say it. We have to be seen in Europe. We will be at the major competitions such as the World Games and the Olympics, therefore we need to be there ahead of time.

“We need to start next year ahead of Normandy in 2014.”

Next: Building for the Future – Part 3