After two solid days of grey and rainy weather, there was the unique opportunity to photograph the Grand Prix Freestyle not only in the daytime, but in the brilliant sunshine. I had found my spot, by the entrance of the arena and when it worked captured images with the brilliant Alltech logo as the back drop. In addition to having a wonderful location to shoot the arena, I was also in front of the "Kiss and Cry" location, where trainers, grooms and family stood in front of the merciless television cameras capturing their reactions of jubilation or disappointment as every move of horse and rider and every reaction to it was recorded. What is always the great privilege and honor of being credentialed media, and to have a 300 mm lens zeroing in on the horse, is that you get a glimpse into their soul. As they enter the ring to the roar of the crowd, and begin their work, my lens is so big that sometimes I just see part of their head, and always their eye. Not a worried eye was seen in the top 15 horses, experienced and also pumped by the crowd. I am often glad for auto focus as my eyes sometimes well with tears as my heart and love for these noble, one of a kind equine souls give not only their riders, but also those of us who share the passion all they have to give. For five long days and nights, they have lived in the barn stabling, worked under whatever conditions they are presented, sometimes during their normal feed time, sometimes very early, sometimes very late. But when you have the best of the best, their spirits soar to the occasion. I am truly blessed to have the privilege of being allowed so close.
Enjoy the Grand Prix Freestyle Highlights article by Louisa Parkes, and the Image Gallery by Mary Phelps. If you are looking for Valegro and Charlotte DuJardin, they are worthy of their own page, coming next. - Mary
The Top 14 Dressage Horses in the World Set the Pace for a Record Breaking Finish - Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games™ 2014 in Normandy – Dressage Freestyle by Louise Parkes
Morgan Barbancon was first to go of the 15 qualified for today’s Freestyle, and the 22-year-old produced a lovely test to set the pace with Painted Black, one of three 17-year-old horses in the field. The black stallion, formerly competed by Dutch superstar Anky van Grunsven, has established a really nice partnership with the young Spanish rider, and the pair looked relaxed and happy as they racked up the first target mark of 74.393.
Hans Peter Minderhoud bettered that when posting 75.554, but the Dutch rider wasn’t so happy. “The horse was confused and thought the test was finished halfway through!” he said afterwards. “It was hard to get him to concentrate but he is still young and needs to develop more power and gain more experience. And we mustn’t forget he made it into the final 15.”
Carl Hester was next in with Nip Tuck, and once again the British veteran produced some wonderful work from the 10-year-old bay gelding who is clearly still on an upward learning curve. "There are still a few technical things that need adjusting, obviously, but he is going to grow up and he is such a big hope!” Hester said after his test. “He doesn't really mind the different situations, the noise and all that. I have a confident horse now. The three extended trots were great, even though they are not his usual highlights. We'll have a tip top programme for next year!” said the horseman extraordinaire after temporarily taking the lead on 76.589.
But his silver medal winning team-mate, Michael Eilberg, quickly took over at the top of the leaderboard when posting 79.696 with Half Moon Delphi. The charming grey mare showed lovely, rhythmical work and increased in confidence every time she entered the arena this week.
Second Half Evolved
The lead continued to change hands and the scores continued to rocket upwards as the second half of the competition evolved. Austria’s Victoria Max-Theurer and Augustin posted the first score over 80 per cent at 81.036 only for that to be improved upon by one of the most exciting new partnerships in action at these Dressage Championships.
America’s Laura Graves has appeared almost out of nowhere to place herself amongst the elite of the sport this summer, and her success is all the more heart-warming for the fact that she is riding a horse that cost her just €1,000. Hers is a story of deep dedication and a lot of hard work, and once again today the 27-year-old rider and her 12-year-old Dutch gelding were completely at one when throwing down a great mark of 82.036 in just the third Freestyle of their career.
That would prove good enough for fifth place amongst a field of champions. Graves said this evening that her recipe for success is to keep things methodical, and that her result proves “that just being patient and doing what you know is right can get you to where you want to go!”
Grand Prix Special bronze medallist, Germany’s Kristina Sprehe, followed with a superb performance from Desperados FRH who simply sparkled to bring the target mark to 83.125. But two horses later, and with just three left to go, Helen Langehanenberg and Damon Hill NRW raised the stakes even higher with a test that was smooth as silk.
After Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, the target was now standing at 88.286, but that was never going to faze Dujardin and Valegro, who arrived into the arena to yet another primeval roar from the crowd before setting off to weave their magical spell once more and put the result beyond doubt when posting 92.196.
It wasn’t easy for The Netherlands’ Adelinde Cornelissen and Jerich Parzival to follow. But as the Dutch rider said afterwards her wonderful chestnut horse “feels like he’s seven years old, not 17. He’s amazing and he just keeps doing his best over and over again”. Posting 85.714 the pair easily slotted into bronze behind Langehanenberg, and Cornelissen was filled with emotion because her gelding has returned from ill-health to place himself amongst the best of the best once again at this late stage in his career.
“A lot of people said his best days were over, but a bronze medal in the World Championships proves that they were wrong!” said Cornelissen this evening. “It's not easy to ride after Charlotte, there was a lot of noise but I thought ‘take it easy and just do your own thing’. Now it is just about keeping him fit and happy and he will still be there for the Olympics (Rio 2016). As long as he still loves the games, we won’t be stopping,” the Dutch rider said tonight.
And Langehanenberg was also delighted with her result. “This is my first world championships and I’m going home with team gold and two individual silver medals. I’m so proud of Dami, I enjoy him every time I go in the arena and he always does his very best for me. Dami can speak and read. He’s more than any other horse. He’s just perfect. He had the best character you could have.”