Inaugural USA Dressage Finals Start With Riders from Across Nation–Stories of Three Adult Amateurs
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
From a rider who took out a second mortgage on her home to save her horse from life-threatening cancer, a mother winning a wild card entry to fulfill her dream of competing at the Kentucky Horse Park and the owner of an Olympic superstar in the unusual position of being in the championship spotlight are among 300 riders and horses to have made their way to Lexington for the inaugural United States Dressage Finals.
The three women are adult amateurs and, like most of their fellow competitors, have come from across the country to share a passion for horses and sheer joy and amazement at fulfilling their dreams of riding in an American championship.
Mindy Elgart of Stockton, New Jersey; Akiko Yamazaki of Woodside, California and Krista Nordgren of South Portland, Maine talked to dressage-news.com about what it means to them to participate in the U.S. Dressage Finals presented by Adequan.
To be sure, professionals and veterans of international competition, even a world championship rider and a Pan American Games medalist, are among the combinations that will compete for 24 national titles at all levels of dressage at the same show grounds that hosted the World Equestrian Games in 2010.
And while most riders will be mounted on warmbloods with recognizeable lineage typical of high performance dressage the world over, many are in Lexington with horses of breeds, pure and mixed, uncommon at top sport and some of unknown parents. Unlike the Festival of Champions of elite national combinations and to select U.S. teams for Olympics, world and regional Games, the horses and riders showing for the next four days have earned their place through championships of the nine geographic regions established by the U.S. Dressage Federation. Their rides will be scrutinized by judges that include several at FEI 5*, 4* and 3* level led by Gary Rockwell who was on the panel at the 2012 London Olympics.
Some of the their stories:
Mindy Elgart of Stockton, New Jersey and Gladiator, a 15-year-old Argentine-bred Warmblood.
Mindy was working in New York when she bought Gladiator, who had been a jumper in Argentina, from a videotape as she couldn’t afford to go try the horse who was five years old at the time. Mindy got hooked on dressage 20 years ago after riding hunters and Gladiator was bought as a successor to a horse ready for retirement.
A few months after buying the horse, she discovered a bump that turned out to be cancer on the nose of the horse she nicknamed “Max,” short for Maximus. Treatment in the U.S. wasn’t working so she took out a second mortgage on her home, did a fundraiser and took Max to England. She had become so attached to Max she rode in the trailer from the airport in England to the surgery.
The treatment in England was successful and the pair returned home. Since the initial competition at Training Level, and dealing with a recurrence of the cancerous growth that responded to treatment, the partnership moved through the national and FEI levels over 10 years, along the way winning the regional championship at First Level, reserve title at Prix St. Georges, champion at Intermediate 1.
The pair reached Grand Prix this year, but Mindy had to take the horse out of fulltime training with her longtime coach Silke Rembacz when she lost her job in a corporate downsizing and focused on building a consulting business.
“Max is very special,” said the 46-year-old Mindy. “I love him. He’s my pet. He’s kind of committed to me, too. He’s the horse of a lifetime. I have my dream horse.”
She trail rides Max, rides him bareback and jumps him a little.
Mindy said she talks to Max every day about how well she wants them to perform this week, “how important it is because he’s a cancer survivor and some people are really rooting for him. This is his moment to shine. He’s a miracle horse.”
The Finals, she said, are “an amazing goal. Up to now it’s been just the regionals. I’ve shown in CDIs at small tour and at Devon, but not really anything like this.
“I’m thrilled. It’s an honor. if nothing else it’s an accomplishment to be invited to be in the first ever national championships. It’s somewhat historic.
“I’ve never been to Kentucky. My boyfriend who’s never been to a horse show is flying in to see us. It’s very historic all around. We’re going to have a fun time…”
Akiko Yamazaki of Woodside, California and Matrix, a 15-year-old Danish Warmblood stallion.
Akiko bought Matrix in 2010 and competed the horse at Grand Prix a year later before the black stallion was sidelined for two years with an injury. The pair returned to the show ring at Prix St. Georges six months ago and won a spot in the Finals.
Although Akiko, aged 45, is known around the world as the owner of Ravel, she is not one to sit on the sidelines. Matrix is the seventh horse she has competed in dressage since the late 1990s.
She admits to being less nervous than watching Ravel, a KWPN gelding, ridden by Steffen Peters to only the second World Cup title for the United States and to come within a fraction of a point of an individual medal at the 2008 Olympic Games as well as two individual medals at the World Equestrian Games at these same show grounds in 2010. Akiko also owns Legolas, successor to Ravel, an 11-year-old Westfalen gelding ranked 13th in the world and likely to be the anchor of the U.S. team at the WEG in Normandy, France in 2014.
“With Steffen and my horses that he rides, we are expected to do well, so I get a little nervous when I watch them,” she said. “For me, I am just happy I get to compete!
“Obviously I want to do well, but with this particular horse, it really feels that making it there is already a big achievement.
“However, Jerry (Yang), my husband, was trying to put a little pressure on me this morning by reminding me that the last time a family member competed in the same arena, she came back with the National Champion title. Our daughter competed last year in the Alltech arena for her vaulting nationals and became Women Trot Champion. So both Steffen and Miki have set a high bar for me.”
Akiko believes the Finals have created a great opportunity for everyone to set higher goals and experience what it is like to compete in a world-class facility.
“I think it provides a lot of inspiration and energy. It will also be great to see and meet riders from other regions.”
She has been very impressed with the organization of the show and receiving information from the show office.
“I have a very good feeling going into it,” she said. “I hope we will all come back with a positive experience.”
Krista Nordgren of South Portland, Maine and Schando, a 17-year-old Danish Warmblood
Krista will be “living the dream” when she rides Schando down the centerline in the Intermediate 1 after claiming her start at the regional championships in New England.
The 41-year-old mother of a boy, Soren, 5, tried out Schando two years ago. The horse was being rehabilitated from colic and tendon problems so she could afford to buy him as a replacement for the mount she was retiring.
“As a bumbling Third Level rider I got on him and in the first five minutes knew I’d found a partner,” she recalled. “I think he felt the same way.”
The pair started out at Fourth Level then moved up to Prix St. Georges/Intermediate 1 and had an “excellent season” last year.
“I heard about the Dressage Finals,” she said, “and just kind of haphazardly on a whim declared without knowing a whole lot about it.”
She rode at the regionals but didn’t realize until driving home and talking on the phone to her physician husband, John, that she had qualified for the Finals.
“Well you know you have to go,” John said.
“You’re crazy, you’re out of your mind, I can’t make the trip from Maine to Kentucky,” she replied thinking of the 1,000-mile (1,600km) journey.
“I have no expectations, but for me it’s not about winning, anyway. My joy will be in fulfilling a dream of competing at the Horse Park, and competing on a championship stage that few amateur athletes will be as fortunate as me to experience.”
The occasion will be a “big family affair” with her hsband, son and parents traveling to Kentucky as well as her father-in-law who has never before been to a dressage show.