Team USA Born Again & Looking for Medals

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Robert Dover at the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Robert Dover at the World Equestrian Festival in Aachen, Germany. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

By KENNETH J. BRADDICK

A virtual invasion of Europe by American dressage riders and horses has given renewed life and optimism to the United States high performance program that has its sights set on returning to championships medals podiums as soon as next year.

Led by the still developing partnership of Steffen Peters and Legolas, America is enthusiastically adding new prospects to a mix of veterans at a rate that has not been seen in years, if ever, and holds the hope of providing enough depth in horsepower beyond the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

About 14 American dressage horses and riders are in Europe this summer and fall–veteran riders and veteran horses, veteran riders with new horses, riders competing for the first time outside the U.S.

“What I really love is the old and new all coming together,” said Robert Dover, the six-time Olympian leading the United States dressage effort at the recent World Equestrian Festival CHIO in Aachen, Germany. It was his first overseas mission with a team of four in the CDIO5* Nations Cup, two small tour combinations and the first American rider and horse in the Under-25 division.

Within the next few months, he’ll be working with Americans and their trainers at several more top shows in Europe, including the Nations Cup at Hickstead, England in August.

Some riders are veterans of Olympics and championships–Steffen Peters, Günter Seidel, Lisa Wilcox, Jan Ebeling, Shelly Francis, Katherine Bateson-Chandler, Kathleen Raine, Tina Konyot, Todd Flettrich, Arlene “Tuny” Page, Susan Dutta, Catherine Haddad-Staller–and new kids in European arenas, Caroline Roffman and Brandi Roenick.

Steffen Peters and Legolas at the CDIO5* World Equestrian Festival performing their first Grand Prix Special outside California. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Steffen Peters and Legolas at the CDIO5* World Equestrian Festival performing their first Grand Prix Special outside California. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Perhaps more important than the ambitiousness of the program is the enthusiasm and seeming unity of purpose that was on display in Aachen among riders and both their American and European trainers.

The outsize American presence in Europe represents a new direction for dressage in the United States that was launched even before Robert finished drawing up with the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Dressage High Performance Committee a development program. It will be unveiled in a streamed Internet television presentation at the North American Junior & Young Rider Championships in Lexington, Kentucky July 17-21.

The U.S. team of Steffen Peters of San Diego, California and Legolas; the two Olympic combinations of Tina Konyotof Palm City, Florida and Calecto V and Jan ebeling of Moorpark, California and the celebrity mare Rafalca, and Shelly Francis of Loxahatchee, Florida and Doktor placed third out of nine teams.

And Caroline Roffman of Wellington and Sagacious HF were second in both the Under-25 Grand Prix and the Fresstyle, results that more than justified the invitation from the organizers of the Aachen show that is the world’s leading equestrian competition and about as close as it can be to a world championship.

Robert’s can-do attitude and unabashed enthusiasm is contagious and has reinvigorated the American dressage.

Steffen said that the Aachen Freestyle on Legolas was the best so since he began riding the Westfalen gelding 18 months ago and a “huge” improvement over the pair’s first European excursion, at Hagen, Germany in April.

“We’re not just making it through the test,” he said. “Now he is so much more reliable, so much more supple. I worried about his extended trot that I thought on his worst day would be 6.5 and at his best would be a 7. It’s amazing he got 8.5 for a couple of extensions. It’s nice to be wrong.

“I could not ask for more at this stae of his mental capacity.”

Jan Ebeling succeeded in his goal with Rafalca was to make it through the Grand Prix and the Special of the CDIO to the Freestyle to ride to Usher’s O.M.G. music for the first time outside California. His wife Amy and son Ben picked the music.

The results at Aachen, he said, “are a really good staring point” for the future of American dressage.

That future will include Rassolini, the 2010 champion of Germany’s Nürnberger Burgpokal, bought by a group led by the owners of Rafalca as a prospect for Jan for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The horse will be shipped to Jan’s California base this month.

Jan Ebelong on Rafalca enjoying applause from the crowd at Aachen, Germany. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Jan Ebelong on Rafalca enjoying applause from the crowd at Aachen, Germany. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

A few weeks later, Apassionata, a seven-year-old Oldenburg mare that has been successful in German young horse shows, was bought for Brandi Roenick, one of America’s top young riders who works with Steffen Peters, to compete with Olympics and championships as the long term goal. She is staying in Germany with the horse to work with Steffen’s long time coach, Jo Hinnemann at Voerde, Germany for a few months.

The acquisition of several new horses by top riders as well as younger horses being developed provide considerable depth for American dressage.

Robert, who lives in Wellington, Florida, home of the world famous Winter Equestrian Festival and its two-year-old companion Global Dressage Festival that has already become a premier international circuit, has spent several years working on his grand design.

He prepared a 50-page development program when he ran for the post of Techical Advisor/Chef d’Equipe four years ago and elements of his plan were implemented when he was passed over in favor of Anne Gribbons.

Even before getting the nod this time after a second straight Olympics the United States team was not a factor–eliminated in 2008 after a horse tested positive for a banned substance and placing seventh in 2012–he launched a campaign to raise funds to support Americans training and competing in Europe.

“I’m one of great optimists of all time,” he said. “If I was ever asked, I was always on the best horse I ever rode, even if I knew in my heart of hearts it wasn’t so.

“This is what I intend to do with our discipline.

“There will always be people who say, ‘you can’t do this.’

“Six weeks before we had an event in Wellington to raise funds to send more horses and riders to Europe I was told there might be too little time to organize it.

“‘Watch me,’ I said. We raised $160,000.

“This is how I’m going about being the Technical Advsor/Chef d’Equipe for American dressage.

“I may have to be as persuasuve as possible to make change. But I’m not afraid of that. I’m not afraid of having an opinon that’s different.

“We become like a machine even when things go a little bit awry as they always seem to at the big competitions. We all get together and get through it. That’s what Americans do, and that’s what they shine at.”

The goal is to build what Robert calls a “formidable” group to compete for places on the team that go to the World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France next year. It will be his first world championship as Technical Advisor.

“My goal is to create a squad in which we can field two medal-winning teams for Normandy if needed,” he told dressage-news.com.

“Horsepwer is on the way, but it’s more than just horsepower–it’s horsepower combined with great riding. We have great riders. Look what Steffen did at the hardest show in the world.

“We’re building right now our young people as well so we produce strong teams for all divisions.”

Asked about the atmosphere within the U.S. team, he replied: “If you speak to our riders you would find there is a great feeling of optimism within the ranks. They feel they are winners.

“This is something we need to know.

“We did not come to Aachen to take part. We came to win a medal. And we did it.

“This is how we will go to every single show.

“If there was a doubt before about our intention, it is to create a world class machine consisting of world class programs both for competition and training.

“Once that kind of machine is created people will see the positive force behind it and want to be a part of it.

“We’re not going to sit by and think mediocrity is good enough. We’re going to become the best nation in the world in our sport, just like we are in so many other things.”