Scott and Kathi Dancer, from Woodside, California have been spending most of the past 6 months to Europe, where with their horses based in Holland with trainer Gerard Leijten, they have been training and competing in hopes of making the FEI World Pairs Team representing the USA. The couple, along with Belle Gray Farm’s Jacob Arnold realized their accomplishments and were selected for Team USA. In early September they packed up their 7 horses, carriages, equipment and grooms and headed deep into Eastern Europe, for the 2015 FEI World Pairs Driving Championships, Fabiansebestyen, Hungary.
Kathi shared their adventures and details of the trip with regular e-mails and photos, providing a glimpse of what it is like to be a part of a small, but courageous and extremely talented and experienced group of High Performance drivers, who have devoted most of the year, their lives, and supported mostly with their own funds, to represent the USA in the sport of Combined Driving.
September 1, 2015 - Getting Ready For the Trip From Holland
Last week we were doing the final preparations, harness adjustments, changing bits, practicing the dressage test to clean up the fine points, and even watching video footage of other competitors at the same shows this season to compare ground speed and technical driving style of our competitors! Kind of like they do it in the in the NFL studying the play-by-play.
On Thursday evening we had a BBQ party at our little house in Holland, we invited the neighbors and all the grooms and friends who are traveling to Hungary- a Team USA send off party.
TEAM SCOTT consists of:
bay KWPN gelding 13 years old 17 hands
Deniro aka Snuggles
bay KWPN gelding 7 years old 16.3
bay Oldenburg gelding 12 years 16.3
bay KWPN gelding 10 years old 16.3
TEAM KATHI consists of:
chestnut Hessen gelding, 16 years old 16.2
Wimbledon aka Willy
chestnut KWPN 10 years old 16.3
Joop van den Bruel
chestnut Belgian Warmbld 6 years old 16.2
Things are changing daily with the horses: Scott's best horse had a hot nail, which had us on pins and needles until the morning of our departure. In my team, my six year old has been having some balance issues at the extended trot. "Takt Fehler" as it is called in German. So I will probably be using my marathon horse for dressage. It was a risk pushing a six year old to this level. At the beginning of the season he was scoring well in dressage, but has been reminding us lately he's just not ready.
September 8, 2015 - Headed for Hungary
We spent the first night at a racetrack in Southern Germany outside of Passau, and the next night on the eastern outskirts of Vienna.
As soon as you are 30 minutes east of Vienna the influence of the east is apparent. Cross the border into Hungary and it is like a different world. We are deep in Eastern Hungary in Fabiansebestyen. It is poor beyond poor. Think "Borat" the movie. No wonder the refugees from Syria want to keep going to Germany, this is just a slight improvement from where they came.
The show grounds are like a little oasis. There is very tight security at the gates and security cameras everywhere.
We have nice barns for the horses, a great camping spot and the marathon obstacles are the best I've seen in a while. The Hungarians put a lot of effort into this competition. I think they even re paved the road from the neighboring town its for this occasion.
September 10, 2015 - Vet Check, Nations Night and Dressage
Vet check yesterday was the first official part of the competition. All the USA horses passed well. Only one horse was not accepted from all of the horses. It was from the Dutch driver Harry Verstappen (world champion in 2009). It was a huge disappointment for him, as he has been driving really well this season and is the current Dutch champion. A big loss to the Dutch team as well.
Later in the evening was "Nation's Night", what some consider being the highlight of the whole championships! Each country brings some food or drink that is their own specialty. There are 25+ countries competing here!
Steve Wilson our American friend from Kentucky, brought Bourbon Some countries go all-out. Sweden was serving Elk with lingo berries; the Swiss had Raclette and Toblerone. The Italians had mozzarella with tomatoes and never-ending Grappa and Limoncello, and of course the Hungarians made huge pots of Goulash.
Somehow over the last couple of World Championships Scott has become and honorary Polish citizen. They love him and love to make him drink!
Thursday started grey with clouds ready to burst with rain.
Jacob Arnold drove a pretty decent test but was hit hard with scores. All day the judges’ scores were reflecting the weather, with at least 5-10 points harsher than deserved.
Even the dressage "masters" were not pleasing these tough judges.
Scott drove late this afternoon. Right before he went in to his test the hames (the metal bar on the horse's collar that pulls the weight of the carriage) popped off of the collar.
There was a desperate attempt in the holding area right before the main arena by the US coach Michael Freund, and assistant coach Thorston Zarembowicz, our trainer and two grooms to scramble to fix it.
As the bell rang for him to enter the arena and they were still struggling to fix the issue. They put longer pole straps through the whole collar instead of the hame's ring to take some pressure off. Scott went in just in time. Just a couple of maneuvers into the test the hames slipped off the collar and was on the horse's shoulder.
We were on the side-lines holding our breath! Luckily the judges didn't notice, otherwise they would have rung the bell. For sure it must have caused the horse great discomfort, but Dapper held his composure he best he could.
The mud was getting very deep making it almost impossible to ride a bike around.
My dressage is tomorrow at 12:10. We have decided to put the young horse in. The marathon horse is still too resentful and angry at the coaches' different style of driving than he is used to. There was too much picking on him last week and now he is agitated and very tense.
So little Joop is going to have to put on his big boy panties and try his best. I will have to play up my collections, bending, and good working trot and just be very careful to help him balance in the trot extensions.
Cross your fingers
Kathi Dancer finished Dressage with a score of 60. 28 out of 65 entries and the highest placed American.
September 12, 2015 - Marathon Day Brings Mud, Near Disaster and Disappointment
Marathon day started in a thick fog. The obstacles were very well built and marked. Each of the eight was distinctly different. It makes it a lot easier to remember and the obstacles each had there own technical flavor to them.
Some were all out speed, some tight and technical. We walked the course over and over, and then some more. Each of us drivers was advised on the routes by the coaches according to our driving strengths.
The parking lots were overflowing. It seemed like all of Hungary was here to watch. Bus loads of people!
It was by far the largest audience environment we had ever been in.
Scott went before me. His time slot was 12:10. I was about an hour after him.
I’m glad I didn’t see him drive.
In the first obstacle his left horse, Dapper, was on the outside of a right hand turn and the horse slipped in the footing and went COMPLETELY down on his side.
The audience gasped and people were ready to jump the fence and help. Scott’s navigator, Stan, said, “Just wait a second and he will get up.” Luckily he did, and they just kept going. He had some good obstacle times, but not his best. His other horse, Carumbus, gave him a tough time.
Jacob Arnold who is usually very good in marathon had his best horse slightly under the weather. He was on colic watch after that for the next 24 hours.
I met Scott on his way back from the finish just as I was heading out. He told me about the mishap, so needless to say I was very careful in #1. Some of our other times we posted were pretty decent, but by #8 my horses were tired!
Team USA did ok, but we weren’t happy with our performance because we all know we can do better.
Septeber 13, 2015 - Final Phase - Owning the Cones!
For cones we got up early to walk the course. The US coach, Michael Freund and assistant coach, Thorston Zarembowicz walked with us to study the routes we would take.
The course for cones is numbered 1-20, though some are multiples, so it is more like 28+ sets of cones to negotiate.
We have 20cm clearance with a penalty ball on each side.
It looked like a challenging very technical course and the dressage area where the course was located was still wet and muddy from the rains on Thursday and Friday.
Cones are driven in reverse order of standings.
Jacob went first for the USA. He hit a couple of balls and had a little for time.
Scott went next and his horses were being beastie and strong. He hit several and had some time penalties.
My turn was coming up. There were no clear rounds yet, and all drivers so far were exceeding the time allowed, so I knew it was a tough course.
We warmed up well but I felt like my boys were still a little too strong. As I entered the arena everything but the course disappeared. I drove it exactly as I walked it and kept my speed up even in the multiples.
Since my horses were a little strong I really had to drive each element. There were some cones I felt I drove close to, but I never look down (some drivers do and this makes you drop your shoulder and sometimes hit a cone).
I drove it like I stole it - I had nothing to lose. My horses were really up in the bridle and attacking the course. I came out of the arena and my whole crew seemed happy. I asked how many did I hit? They said none! And just a little over the time. I really have noticed in Riesenbeck and Hungary how critical dressage is to the cones. The horses have to bend well, be on their haunches and good contact in the bridle. If my boys had been on their forehand they would fall in and I'd hit lots of balls!
At that point I was in first place out of 65 drivers.
Well this was fun! I watched as driver after driver succumbed to the course. Only 4 drivers out of nearly 65 hit no balls. Sebastian Warneck of Germany, Zoltan Lazar and Vilmos Lazar and ME! Villas Lazar won the competition and is World Champion with his brother is Reserve Champion.
There were no double clears. Everyone had time faults or penalty balls down. I ended up in 5th in cones and 18th overall.
I finally had a dream come true of driving into the arena to get an award and then drive in a victory round.
We drank the champagne I had bought in France (when that show fell flat because my horse was injured), packed the trailers, and in the morning we drive back to Germany and then onto Holland.
Hopefully the borders are open and we don’t have any stowaways.
September 14, 2015- Heading Home From Hungary When Reality Hits Hard
After the celebrating and then packing until 9pm, we left Hungary at 5 am Monday headed for Straubing, Germany to stay the night.
Along the way we saw the Syrian refugees making the trek along the highways, families with small children. At the Hungarian / Austrian border we could see the refugee camps. They were contained in a tight area with Red Cross tents behind a tall fence and guarded by police. The crisis becomes a lot more real when you see it for yourself. You can't help think of 1940's Germany, the unwanted masses, just in reverse.
In Austria we started hearing reports about traffic delays along our route of up to 25 miles and three + hours stopped cars because the borders are closed to open travel. All cars and especially large trucks are being searched.
We quickly started searching for alternate country roads. Having 7 tired cranky hungry horses in the trucks wouldn't work well in stopped traffic for hours.
We ended up leaving the highway at Linz and driving along the Danube River so we could keep moving. It was actually quite beautiful. The huge river is really blue with castles overlooking the cruise ships on the river below. It was very tight for the trucks in the old city of Passau, but we made it through.
We are hearing from our friends and fellow competitors who got stuck in the traffic jams. The French and Dutch drivers ahead of us said it was very bad.
We made it to our over night stop in Straubing safe and sound.
Our detour was "adventurous" and scenic! The German rouladen and red cabbage at the little brewery restaurant in town never tasted so good. The horses are happily bedded in deep straw for the night ad we are exhausted and can't wait to get home!
September 15, 2015 - "Home" in Holland
We arrived home in Holland exhausted. Even the horses were happy to see their "own beds". We have made many good friends here here. They have been so supportive and helpful.
When I walked in the barn to see balloons and a banner welcoming us home I started to cry in appreciation for what I have. This has been an amazing experience. I've been so lucky and blessed. My horses that have given me 110%, and my husband and children who not only support this crazy sport, but are a part of it. Nicole has been our "manager" and groom extraordinaire, and Patrick has been Scott's navigator.
In a couple of days we will be back in California. This time has flown by. It seems not that long ago that we were preparing for the season, and training in the snow and ice in Holland.
Despite the fact that Scott and I are both very competitive people, we managed to not only compete against each other, but also to be team mates together. As far as I know we are the first USEF husband and wife team members, and definitely in Combined Driving.
We are grateful to the USEF, and all they have done to be here to support us.
We hope in sharing our experiences this will give driving the US more exposure and makes people take notice of this amazing, yet little known and often overlooked sport and the people and horses who are a part of it all.