World Cup Freestyle–My Personal Experience, by Ilse Schwarz
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April 8, 2023
By ILSE SCHWARZ
Wow, I know that is a very non-journalistic way to start a report but I am going to say it again. Wow!!! What a tremendous night for the sport of dressage and possibly the best World Cup Final that I have seen in person. I literally don’t even know where to start. The last four rides, which were also the top four placings were not only great sport, they were also entertainment, inspiration and, to quote Betsy Juliano, title sponsor of this event, great enlightenment.
It’s so hard to try to put into words the feeling and emotion that truly great dressage creates. The sheer beauty and elegance of TSF Dalera BB and Jessica von Bredow-Werndl had the crowd transfixed, and I had goosebumps and tears. At the end of her ride, it was almost as if they didn’t want to applaud and break the spell she had woven. After the ride of Isabell Werth and Quantaz the crowd was enjoying the sheer athleticism and skill of their partnership so much, they clearly didn’t want it to finish and started clapping and cheering in rhythm way before the final centerline. Steffen Peters and Suppenkasper? Well this was a party that we all enjoyed and never wanted to end. Nanna Skodberg Merrald and Blue Hors Zeptor, the last to go kept us entranced and captivated to the very end, with, I am certain, every member of the of the audience not sure whether she had finished 4th or 2nd. The top performances were seriously that close and each and everyone memorable.
Returning to a moment of reality, there has been a lot of talk on social media about the reduced number of competitors for one reason or another, the fact that Omaha is not a “destination” location and that perhaps not the best combinations actually put their horses on the plane to cross the Atlantic to America. Apart from the current world champion, of course. I think Friday night proved all the doubters wrong. Ultimately, the freestyle needs to involve the audience, invite them to participate in the journey of the ride and I would say that the majority of the rides did just that. The stands may not have been packed but what an audience! They applauded each and every ride like it was the possible winner, and those that they truly loved? It certainly sounded like there was a full house.
This started early in the event, with the second rider, Justina Vanagaite on the 10-year-old gelding, Nabab (Sir Donavan x Krack C). Justina is from Lithuania and has enjoyed every moment of her journey here. In arena familiarization sessions she has stopped and talked to the spectators, let children pat her horse and smiled the entire time. It is her first start at a World Cup Final and she wore a ribbon for Ukraine, neighbors of Lithuania, on her shadbelly. The crowd already gasps as she enters to Stars Wars music, the Darth Vader theme, for her piaffe and passage. At this point, we are all involved. The music then leaps, somewhat unexpectedly, to a theme from the movie Indiana Jones…but it works. With the excepton of the very abrupt transitions between the music for the movements, it works very well for this combination. The work is all basically correct, some movements clearly playing to the extra marks available for the degree of difficulty. But at the end she grabs each and every one of the spectators with a line of one-handed passage to what is clearly very Eastern European/Russian/Ukrainian music. The crowd absolutely erupts when she finishes, something that is essentially unheard of for a ride so early in the draw, and emotions are running high. Justina is waving to the crowd, putting her hand over her heart, hugging her horse, crying, the works. Believe me when I say there was unlikely a dry eye in the house as she left the arena… at least there was a lot of sniffing and eye wiping in those around me.
For those who thought the first few rides weren’t worth watching, they missed something very special.
The next few rides were entertaining, nice scores, fun to watch but not too much of significance to report.
Fifth to ride was Alice Tarjan and Serenade MF (Sir Donnerhall x Don Principe). A 10-year-old mare bred in the USA by Maryanne Harmon of Tryon, North Carolina. The crowd was very appreciative as she entered the arena, and then the judging panel was taking some time to get all the scores for the previous ride in place. So Alice had quite a lot of time in the arena walking around before she could start. That would be quite unsettling, I imagine. Her freestyle had a super high degree of difficulty and was littered with what are defined as “difficult transitions.” When you have the chance to get a judge to explain how the scoring works for World Cup freestyles, you will completely appreciate why it sometimes take a while for scores to come in.
In order for difficult transitions to actually count toward the degree of difficulty I believe the movements have to be connected by three strides or less, and be executed with an overall score of 7.0. Bill Warren explained this so succinctly in his commentary of the 5* freestyle in Wellington early March. By the time he had explained all the rules that enabled movements to be counted, movements to get the scores and so on, I understood just how difficult and important the choreograhy and execution of these exercises are to get maximum points.
Alice had transitions from a double pirouette right directly into two tempis then one tempis without missing a beat. Then she did a double pirouette left directly into one tempis then two tempis. Pretty sure she got all the points on both lines, or maybe she missed some ones in the first execution. I was watching from behind. The musical score was a bit no-nothing but I certainly remember their final piaffe/pirouette sequence. She did a full fan to the left and then without missing a single footfall simply reversed and came back to the right. Extraordinary.
Going into the break, Simone Pearce, riding for Australia, on the Oldenburg stallion Fiderdance (Fidertanz x Don Schufro) snuck into the lead, just ahead of Alice. Simone is a consummate competitor and used her choreography to truly help her horse. The frame was steady and uphill throughout and she managed to get the crowd murmuring in appreciation when she did super steep canter half passes in both directions with double pirouettes over the centerline. I assure you that she executed them beautifully and received every possible score for degree of difficulty.
During the break we had a brief tribute to Carol Lavell… perhaps a little too brief… and a performance of some native Indian style music using something like a wooden bass recorder which was beautiful but tricky to hear over the tractor doing the arena drag. Unfortunate, because it was quite emotive.
Hexagons Ich Weiss (Hexagon’s Rubiquil x Negro), the big chunky gray stallion was first after the break with Thamar Zweistra coming down the centerline to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” So of course the audience was immediately interested. The music was dynamic throughout and well suited to this stallion. It was an orchestral arrangement of many of the themes from Queen. The highlight was a centerline of dead straight one tempis, aiming directly for head of the ground jury at C, Janet Foy, before veering off onto a diagonal line without missing a single change. If I was to look at the judges scores, which I am not right now, I would hope that he had a very high artistic score
The second American to ride was Anna Buffini of California on the 16yo mare Davinia la Douce (Don Frederico x A Jungle Prince). The musical score is just magnificent. She has taken themes from the movie Top Gun Maverick and implemented them in a way that the audience is literally captivated. The work is clean, perhaps a little behind the vertical in the canter. Beautiful emotive vocals over the walk tour and rousing “good guy triumphs over evil” music for her final centerline of huge passage, piaffe pirouette and more huge passage.
Now we enter the final four. Isabell Werth and the 13-year-old gelding Quantaz (Quarterback x Hohenstein). To be honest, no-one expects her to beat Jessica and Dalera, but all wonder how close she can get. She halts and goes straight into a piaffe pirouette of the highest quality, passage and then steep amazing half pass in the trot to sweeping strings. Isabell has a really well orchestrated medley of popular hits of the 80’s (I think…I should do research, but I am just a bit too tired!). Songs such as “I Need a Hero,” “Turn Around”…pretty sure that’s not the name of the song, but you all know what I mean. So music of that era. OK, moving on…Quantaz is so perfect in the connection, a soft uphill frame that just never wavers. They totally rock a transition from walk to piaffe pirouette to canter pirouette and make it look like it is a normal daily exercise. And that is the difference with this group of riders. With the less experienced group it was obvious that they were using the degree of difficulty to gather marks. In this last four, they challenge and scoff at the degree of difficulty, make it look so normal and expected, that we don’t even realize it has happened. She throws in two of her trademark full blast extended canters to canter pirouettes but then adds a curved line of two tempis out of it. Finally she does a canter pirouette into a piaffe pirouette, an exact mirror of how the canter tour started. The crowd gasps in appreciation and Isabell smiles, mid piaffe. What a beautiful moment. Of course it is executed to perfection.
Isabell leaves NOTHING on the table and the entire stadium is clapping with her toward the end. She gets a standing ovation and is applauded the whole way as she exits the arena.
Now comes Dalera (Easy Game x Handryk) a 16-year-old Trakhener mare, and Jessica von Bredow-Werndl, reigning world champion. The picture couldn’t be more different from Isabell. Both of complete excellence but Dalera and Jessica are delicate, elegant, ethereal and the music is Edith Piaf. The crowd is breathless and holding its breath with anticipation. Did they “enjoy” it as much as Isabell’s ride? I have no idea. For me this was dressage at it’s highest level. But somehow so was Isabell. And this is where the sport is fascinating. So many different styles that work. Jessica received over 90%. There was no catching her Friday night. This combination is extraordinary in technical execution. Transitions for “10” everywhere. Not just her piaffe/passage but also canter extension to pirouette, pirouette to tempi changes. She gets the highest scores in the degree of difficulty with it literally looking like a canter in the woods. It is that special.
Steffen Peters makes the wise decision to wait to enter the arena until after the scores for Jessica and Dalera are up. Understandably, a score of 90+% kind of sent us wild. However, as he enters the arena they look fantastic. So confident and assured. Steffen and Mopsie have reached that place in their partnership where they literally support each other, and it shows. Steffen starts in canter after the halt goes into crazy steep half passes and then super tight pirouettes. The work is probably the best I have seen of this combination but what I will remember is the musical score. This music completely involves the crowd and has a little fun also. Steffen wanted to add to the Tokyo experience without going over the top and he nailed it. Suppenkasper is regular in his work, powerful, responsive and attentive. They receive a standing ovation and it is, without doubt, the best performance I have seen from this pair. I truly don’t even know how to adequately put it into words… but I have done my best.
The final combination is Nanna Skodborg Merrald and Blue Hors Zepter, a 15-year-old gelding that she has only been partnered with for four months. She starts with the most perfect halt followed by a superb passage, piaffe and trot tour. Everything is so correct and expressive. The musical score matches this big chestnut gelding with a theme that has a clear beat and melody but it doesn’t overwhelm him. There are lows and highsin both volume and intensity, matching his performance and such technical brilliance and no weaknesses. This 29-year-old rider shows such maturity and assuredness. The choreography doesn’t appear complicated, although it definitely is, and is so fluid. This is a stunning ride. One, again, their ride didn’t have the crowd clapping on the final centerline, but on sheer technical scores, should probably score above Steffen.
The judges made us wait for some minutes before the scores came up. Nanna just won her first silver medal at a world Cup final.
What an amazing night!