Catherine Haddad is one of America’s top dressage competitors, but for many years she has lived abroad. She runs her training business, International Dressage, out of Vechta, Germany, which has kept her in the heart of the dressage world, but far from her home country. She returned to the U.S. this summer to compete in the selection trials for the 2010 Alltech/FEI World Equestrian Games that were held in Gladstone, New Jersey. Catherine made the list as a reserve rider for this year’s WEG team, as she had for the 2006 WEG in Aachen, and that gave her the opportunity to train with the team as it prepared for this year’s WEG. When the team headed to Kentucky, Catherine did too, but did not stay on the grounds at the Kentucky Horse Park. Instead she stabled her 10-year-old Hanoverian gelding Winyamaro at Reese Koffler Stanfield’s Maplecrest Farms just a few miles away. As soon as it was confirmed all horses had passed the veterinary inspection Catherine headed to Dressage at Devon where she nabbed two Grand Prix wins. In the interview below, Catherine talks about her experience being back in the U.S. and serving as a reserve rider for the U.S. WEG team.
Q: How did you feel about being back in the U.S. and competing?
I was very excited last July when I made the decision to leave my base in Germany and go to the U.S. Selection Trials. I had decided to bring Winyamaro with me who was, at the time, a Grand Prix horse in the making. He was ranked 13th in the United States when we got on the plane and, at the age of 10, I knew he would be a long shot for the team.
But I also knew that it was time for me to go home and show in my own country whether I made the team or not. So I wasn’t in any way disappointed when Winyamaro rose to the occasion and just missed making the U.S. Team by a hair. His first international Grand Prix start had been in May and he was pushing points on much more experienced horses by the time we competed at Gladstone in August.
Heading to the Selections Trials on a long-shot horse is risky business but I had counted on being fairly judged in the United States, at least in comparison to some shows in Europe. Here in Western Europe I am always on the outside trying to get in. All the riders from nations like Germany, Holland and Great Britain have the advantage of being able to show at home sometimes and I don’t ever get that. It was nice to be an American, showing in America, for America.
I placed all bets on Winyamaro. I hoped that he would not only continue to improve, but also morph into a top international competitor while I was in the USA. I am very pleased with his improvement over the summer as is evidenced both by our win at Devon CDI-W in October and by our current number one rank (shared with Isabell Werth) in the Western European League for World Cup.
Q:What were some of the benefits of being a reserve rider? For example, you did get to join the team training in Gladstone. What was that like and what benefits did you get from the team training?
Joining the team training was advantageous in that I got to concentrate on training just one horse for over two months while in the company of the other top American horse/rider combinations. Winyamaro and I made great strides over the summer as a competitive pair. I really appreciated the input we riders got from our American “O” judges during special training sessions. Videotaping rides and discussing them later from the judges’ point of view was very helpful.
Practically speaking, the greatest benefit to me, of being Reserve Rider for the US Team, was getting my return trip to Germany paid for by the US Federation! If I hadn’t made Reserve for the team I would have had to cover the expenses of returning to Europe by myself, so I was terribly relieved to land in the number four slot at Gladstone. The top end of this sport is very difficult without a sponsor to pick up these kinds of expenses.
To dispel with some illusions about what it takes to compete in this sport without financial backing—I borrowed $70,000 to cover the costs of staying in the USA for two and half months while continuing to pay bills for my training center in Germany during the same period. It was quite a relief to me to receive almost $20,000 from the USEF in grants and reimbursements due to my Reserve status for the Team.
Q: How will your experience as a reserve rider help you make a team in the future?
I don’t believe it will. More training, better scores and financial support would be helpful, however! This is the second time I have been Reserve Rider for a team, the first time being for the WEG at Aachen in 2006. I don’t believe that “almost getting there” is in any way a career boost, nor should it be. Team competitions occur every two years at the Olympic and World Equestrian Games level. A lot can happen in two years and a “near miss” should not ensure that any rider will be on the team on the next go round.
Our selectors have to take the best prepared talent for each team and that should not be judged on performances from the past but rather on what is likely to happen in the near future—namely, at the team competition they are selecting for. Thus, while getting close to the top is an honor and serving as Reserve Rider is a duty that should not be taken lightly, it is not very auspicious for future success unless you continue to train and improve your performance – which is of course what I do every day.
Q: So, now that you were here, do you miss competing in the U.S. and can we expect that you’ll spend more time here in the future?
I miss competing in the U.S. because I had a better chance to score well in dressage shows there as opposed to shows in Europe. For instance, I rode a much better Grand Prix in Lyon (FRA) a few weeks ago than I did at Devon (USA) in October, but the score was lower. While that came as no surprise to me, it was still disappointing.
On the other hand, I try not to compete with anyone but myself. So if I had to choose between being in the top 10 at a big show in Europe over winning in the USA, I would probably choose to stay in Europe because placing instead of winning inspires me to improve myself.
Thus, if you find me spending more time in the United States in the near future, which is a distinct possibility, it will be for private reasons, not competitive ones.
Q: Aside from training and showing during your time in the U.S., what else did you do while here?
Happily, between clinics, I had the opportunity to get back into fly fishing. As a kid growing up in Michigan, I had gotten to fish the tributaries of the Au Sable River every summer with my grandfather. I had no idea that New Jersey also has fabulous trout streams. Much to my delight I met a friend who showed me some great fishing on the Raritan River near Califon. And it appears that after 20 years without a fly rod in my hand, I haven’t completely lost my touch.
I made a lot of new friends now that I think about it! We spent many evenings cooking together and even more time philosophizing about life in general over good wine and good food. It was a warm and welcome time for me and I can’t remember laughing that much in many years.
Also, I got to spend some time in New York City—a night in the Meat Packing district, a great dinner at the Homestead Steakhouse and a short visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art definitely convinced me to go back for more.
All in all, I had a great summer in the USA with nearly 75 days of unbroken sunshine, a great horse to ride and new friends to thank for a really wonderful time.
You can visit Catherine Haddad's website internationaldressage.com