Canada topped the United States and Latin America in The Challenge of the Americas, March 12 at the Players’ Club and Palm Beach Polo, dazzling the huge crowd. Their polished performance and lively music thrilled the sold out audience at the Palm Beach Polo Club and Players Club Restaurant, and their red glittery leg wraps sparkled under the lights as they piaffed to the top of the placings.
photo by Susan Stickle
A Grand Prix Quadrille competition, the Challenge is the only event of its kind in the United States. This year was its inaugural performance, stemming from the past three years’ quadrille exhibitions organized by Mary Ross to benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The night after show jumping’s Nations Cup competition at the Winter Equestrian Festival, the Challenge was held on the polo field in front of the Players’ Club with three teams representing the United States, Latin America and Canada.
The evening opened with a demonstration by Silke Rembacz riding Highlife Farm’s Connecticut, who showed the crowd the Grand Prix movements as Kathy Connelly explained to the crowd what the horse was doing and what the judges would look for later.
Sponsors Joan and Kenny Simms of Highlife Farms said that it was that it was “absolutely awesome” to see their horse perform under the lights, and were delighted to help the fundraising cause. Rembacz also had a good time riding. “I hope that this event goes on for some time,” she said.
The competition started off with individual performances that counted for 25% each of the total score, then moved into the quadrilles. Latin America had four riders and the US and Canada each had six. Judges included Linda Zang, Lorraine Stubbs, Stephen Clarke and Marian Cunningham.
Michael Barisone and Neruda started off the competition with an enthusiastic performance to music by Queen. When the crowd didn’t cheer loud enough, Barisone waved and encouraged them to liven things up.
Canadians Evi Strasser, who placed third, and Jacquie Brooks, who placed second, both performed individual rides as well. The Canadian spectators really went all out cheering them on, with the kids dressed in homemade maple leaf hats.
Last to ride in the individual rounds, Leslie Morse and Tip Top performed to the song “Fever” and impressed an audience that has already gotten used to seeing Morse in the winner’s circle this season, and took no extra encouragement in applauding, even as she rode the test. Tip Top’s bold extensions and powerful piaffe and passage, as well as accurate pirouettes, earned a score of 77% for technical marks and a combined score (counting artistic points) of 88.5 per cent, giving them the overall highest individual score.
As Morse finished her freestyle, the US team was warming up in the background for their quadrille. As the crowd in the VIP area enjoyed drinks and hors d’oeuvres, the six horses began trotting around the arena, three in each direction.
Their Rock ‘n Roll themed compilation really brought the house down, with great big cheers from the home crowd. Huey Lewis, had them signing along, “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” got their feet tapping and hands clapping, and well rehearsed moves such as all of the horses piaffing on the centerline had spectators oohing and aahing. The judges awarded them a score of 93.37.
Bent Jensen said that it was a challenge to perform under the lights, in front of an audience. “There were a couple of tough spots in there; a couple of horses spooked, but it worked out. We had so much fun as a team, it was a really big thing for us.”
With only four riders the Latin American team had a little extra work to do to impress the judges. Their performance to Latin American themed music from Carlos Santana and Ricky Martin was entertaining, but less technically challenging than the US team’s performance had been, and earned them a 91.55 overall.
Last to go of the three teams, Canada really pulled out all the stops in their quadrille designed by Karen Robinson and choreographed by team coach Evie Pracht. Each horse wore sparkling red leg wraps and a flashy brow band, and they all had matching saddle pads. But these were only superficial touches: what really impressed was their performance. Reminding the audience of their country’s Canadian Mounties mounted police, who perform quadrille demonstrations worldwide, the six riders performed daring displays of timing and coordination, and the Grand Prix movements were executed precisely and correctly.
The piaffe pirouette performed simultaneously by Lisette Milner on Eminence and Ashley Holzer on Imperioso at “X”, as the other two pairs of riders came around the short ends of the arena and fell into line with them to all move in a circle like a wheel, was most impressive. And the music really kept the crowd dancing on the edge of their seats. The judges also appreciated this and awarded their performance with 96.25 overall. After the scores were tallied up and the quadrilles and individual scores combined, Canada still reigned supreme.
Ashley Holzer commented, “It was actually a lot of fun. Our coach, Evie Pracht, made sure that we came to practices, and it has really been beautiful in the last few days. It has been difficult to do this in the middle of the competition season but I think that it speaks volumes for our horses’ training.”
Holzer said that raising money for breast cancer research meant a lot to her personally. “My husband’s grandmother died of breast cancer, ten days before my daughter Emma was born,” she explained. “I was very close to her. I think that it strikes a chord with a lot of people, because the disease affects a lot of women. The Challenge is a really good thing.”
Jensen also said, “Breast Cancer was the main thing tonight. This is the first year that this was a competition and it changed the intensity for the riders. When it’s an exhibition you take it lighter, but I liked that the practices were more intense.”
Milner, who is a US Citizen but grew up partly in Canada because her mother was from there, said that it was a real treat for her to ride on the Canadian team. “It was really relaxed riding with them, and we all had so much fun,” she said. “The piaffe pirouette was really hard and we had to do it one and a half times, but it went so well. I was waving to the audience and giggling while I was riding, I was having so much fun, and the crowd was really in to it.”
Marcela Parra, whose husband Cesar performed an individual freestyle, has watched a lot of dressage tests in the past few years, including at the Athens Olympics where Cesar competed for Colombia last year. She enjoyed the dinner and party as she watched her husband and his teammates perform. She said, “It was a super nice evening, and the quadrille was pretty. It’s a very nice idea to see dressage in a different atmosphere.”
Attendance for the event was impressive, as VIP tables were sold out and field side seating well attended. US rider Susan Jaccoma said that she even had a couple of people stop her at intersections and ask about the Challenge as she transported her horse over to the Polo Club. “The turnout was huge,” she said.
Organizer Mary Ross, whose boundless energy and dedication made the Challenge happen, said that with all of her strategic planning, everything went off without a hitch. “I haven’t heard anyone say that they didn’t have a great time,” she said. “We started out a few months ago with everything donated: the lights, the stabling, the wine…gradually it all fell through, but in the end it worked out again. It was as if it was meant to happen.”
Ever enthusiastic and determined to make her event better and better, Ross said that next year she plans to add a European team. “We’ll get bigger every year,” she said. “Maybe someday it will be an unsanctioned Nations Cup for dressage riders!”