Let’s Hear it for the Course!

Beezie Madden and Cortes C. Photo by Diana DeRosa
Beezie Madden and Cortes C. Photo by Diana DeRosa

So far the U.S. Show Jumpers are giving us some real hope that we may have a chance for a medal at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy. Gold medalists Beezie Madden and McLain Ward were stellar with their clear rounds and Lucy Davis and Kent Farrington each only had one rail down on a course that took its toll on many of the riders.

Kent felt his four fault round was because Voyeur “did not take enough time to make sure he would clear the fence.” Kent has his own way of doing things and in fact was a little late entering the ring and explained, “I like to do it (his warmup) at my speeds, so the public had to wait a little bit.”

Lucy felt her horse jumped great on the second day but credited the downed rail to the fact that she was a little bit tense. Perhaps that was because of an incident that happened on the first day when she nearly got catapulted from the saddle after her horse literally jumped through the wall rather than over it. But somehow she managed to stay on and finished the course.

The four U.S. team members were part of a record setting Games field. Some 153 braved the course on the first day of competition and 150 for the first round of the team competition. While there was so much talent in the arena it was nice to hear the cheer of the crowd for certain competitors. These superstars have given the young and old alike a reason to applaud them.

Cheers went up for Canadians Ian Millar and Eric Lamaze, US Show Jumpers McLain and Beezie, Brazilian Rodrigo Pessoa, British rider Michael Whitaker and of course every French rider that entered the arena. These are all legends who deserve the recognition they’ve earned. All have claimed medals at a World Equestrian Games, Pan Am Games or Olympic Games.

What was different about this year’s field was that more nations were represented, which created a challenge for designing a course that would not over challenge the less talented riders but still ensure that the top riders ended up at the top. If it’s a World Championship then the course needs to be set to that standard.

Ian Miller and Dixson. Photo by Diana DeRosa
Ian Miller and Dixson. Photo by Diana DeRosa

At an event of this calibre after completing their rounds the riders need to go through what is called a “Mix Zone.” It’s an area where the press wait patiently for them so that they have a chance to ask them a few questions. Obviously if they do well the riders are delighted to be vocal in their thoughts but no matter how they do it’s required that they pass through the “Mix Zone” so that the media has a chance to especially talk to riders from their own country, which isn’t always easy to do.

When you are preparing for a competition of this calibre you are focused on the competition and being asked to do interviews isn’t always welcome. However, by having this area it kind of alleviates that issue. For many, this will eliminate media from wanting to interview them at other times. In fact, it truly is a great thing and a perfect chance to learn about the course and hear it at a time when it’s fresh in the riders’ minds.

Most of the comments are quick. For Whitaker and Viking it was a “solid start … good for the team.” That was what he said on the first day but on day two he was “frustrated because I rode good, but my horse was distracted by the atmosphere.” That made Viking a bit spooky and tense and caused rails to drop.

Some liked the course and others found it difficult. There were many technical questions asked within the course and horses needed to be able to lengthen and shorten their strides consistently in order to get to the fence at the right spot.

For some they are using this event as a stepping stone to the Olympic Games which will take place in Brazil in 2016. A S Al Emadi Khalid Mohammed from Qatar was riding Tamira IV and was honest when he said, “I did not come with big expectations here, but I am quite happy with what I did. I have been training for 2 years mainly to get to the Olympic Games.”

This was his first time in the Games and only the second time that his country (Qatar) was represented. He, like many of the other riders who come from countries where the show jumping is not as strong, has reached out to top riders to help him improve.

“I came two months ago to Bonn to train with Mark Fuchs,” he explained.

McLain Ward and Rothchild. Photo by Diana DeRosa
McLain Ward and Rothchild. Photo by Diana DeRosa

For the team competition a country is allowed four competitors with only the top three scores to count. Choosing the order of those competitors becomes a joint effort of both the Chef and the riders. Some prefer going early and others are best left as the anchor rider for the end.

For the U.S. team McLain was not only the first rider to go for the team but the very first rider to go for the first of two days of Team competition and he was fine with that.

“When you ride first you have all the possibilities,” he commented. “I know Rothchild and he knows me and we can adjust easily.” In fact, it was the horses that could quickly adjust their strides that had the most luck on this course.

Yann Candele from Canada rode immediately after McLain and saw a difference from the first course and the team course one noting, “It is a step up from yesterday. It is bigger, wider, lighter, but all in all fair at that level.”

One point that Yann made was that as much as the French cheer for their own, they also cheer for the riders from all the other teams, especially legends like those mentioned earlier. Yann applauded that adding, “I really appreciate that the French also cheer for me.”

Egypt’s Sameh El Dahan agreed with the increased difficulty in the course noting, “There are more tracks and technical lines than yesterday.”

Frenchman Simon Delestre was aboard Qlassic Bois Margot and they had a tough time on the course and he explained why. “It is a very subtle course. The fences are beautiful, the course is very well built and the time is tight. You have to ride each fence very carefully since they are all very light and there are also quite a few verticals at the end of the lines.”

Riders like Sweden’s Peder Fredricson riding H&M Sibon talked about how losing his rhythm made the course more difficult. We talk about the fences and the distance but getting into a rhythm is also important. “I lost the rhythm on the second fence,” he explained which made it difficult for him to find that rhythm and relaxation needed to complete a good course.

Part of the pressure put on the riders is that those teams that medal get an automatic entry into the Olympics. So, of course every team wants that assurance.

Perhaps Ian Millar did the best at describing the difficulties posed by the course noting, “The course is difficult, even visually speaking. Years ago, courses used to have a lot of material, you could be one course today with the material of just one of our old fences. So, now I also test the eyes of the horse I try. The horse needs to have a good look at things, right from the start; he needs to read the course rapidly and to go faster. My first trainer used to say, ‘a horse’s stride is 12 foot, so any course that does not base it on that is a bad course.’ Now it is just the opposite. They build the courses with shorter/longer strides, so riding now really is a mixture of speed, balance, ability and strength. Some horses just can’t do it. And it is also a matter of heart and spirit. And for all these reasons, I’m very proud of my own horse.”

And so there you have it. Thursday the final team competition takes place. The huge field is narrowed down to the top 50 individual riders, many who are competing both as team members and individuals. In a press conference following the first round of team competition where Beezie stood in the second position she was clearly pleased with the fact that the U.S. team is now standing in the Silver medal spot. But Beezie was quick to add, “But anything can happen.” In fact, no one can predict the outcome of the Team competition, but here’s hoping our U.S. team ends up on the podium.