Dressage is rarely associated with the word fun. Just look at the show “uniform.” The elegantly posh shadbellies and inappropriate-on-a-horse white breeches do nothing to portray a convivial atmosphere. The hush as riders seated with formal posture go down centerline, halt and salute the judges seems more well suited to stuffy Downton Abbey than South Florida fun-in-the-sun. To the untrained eye, the subtle connection and imperceptible nuances between horse and rider often go unappreciated. Thomas Baur, Director of Sport for the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (AGDF) in Wellington, Florida, is out to change that perception, and the Palm Beach Dressage Derby Sunday morning proved he’s on his way to achieving that goal.
The Derby was a staple of the iconic Palm Beach Dressage Derby for many years when a similar event was hosted on the Derby show grounds in nearby Loxahatchee, Florida, but now that the Derby is an integral part of the AGDF, Baur not only wants to set it apart from the rest of the 12-weeks of competition, he wants to make dressage fun. He introduced the new format Derby to test its success Sunday morning. His instincts were right.
"Last year, when I heard that the Palm Beach Dressage Derby would be held at our venue, I’d been told about the history of the Palm Beach Derby and I thought that a Derby needs a Derby,” Baur said. “That’s why I set this up this year to test how it works. We will work on something for next year to be a major part of the Derby. Maybe it’s something for Saturday night. I think that would be fun.”
The Derby included top dressage riders Christoph Koschel from Germany, Adrienne Lyle from the USA, Lars Petersen from Denmark and Karen Pavicic from Canada.
In Round One, Koschel and Pavicic each rode the Prix St. Georges test on an unfamiliar horse, Kelly Layne’s Von Primaire, a 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding. Petersen and Lyle rode Fame and Fortune, Melody Jackson’s 11-year-old Oldenburg gelding.
Each rider was allowed five minutes to become familiar with the horse and then rode the test. Lyle and Pavicic each faced stiff competition as both men were past winners of the Hamburg Derby in Germany.
The pros laughed, smiled, tried to breathe, and shook their heads as they maneuvered the PSG, just like every amateur who has the nerve to go down centerline.
The judges laughed, joked and made comments as the riders went past, a nice respite from their usual hard work. The riders fist pumped, waved, smiled and actually breathed a sigh of relief after each ride. They were highly competitive in a low-key way.
Koschel came out with a 71.421 percent over Pavicic’s 69.684 percent, while Lyle barely edged out Petersen with a 66.579 percent over his 66.184. The huge striding Fame and Fortune was a challenge for the two Olympic athletes.
“He’s a little bit of a finesse ride with the contact,” Lyle said. “You had to show him where to be, but then not hold him there.”
The showdown pitted Koschel against Lyle on a hot, hot, hot 11-year old PRE stallion, Leah Wilson’s Zango. The sensitive buckskin was anxious his first time in the atmosphere in the Stadium, the main arena on the show grounds at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, the home of the AGDF.
“Anyone who knows me knows all I want in life is to own a buckskin,” Lyle joked. “So, I was really, really excited I got to ride one. Once I got over that and started focusing, he is a really sweet horse and tries really hard.”
She must have recovered well, because she edged out Koschel with a 66.816 percent to his 64.053 percent.
Lyle loves riding new horses, a preference serving her well in the competition.
“Today I got two complete opposite types of horses: one huge, slower mover and one little firecracker of a horse,” she said. “I loved it. I think it’s a fun challenge.”
“When I was first invited to compete in the Derby, I was very excited,” she said. “I thought it was a blast. It’s just good fun. Everyone’s laughing and smiling and having a good time.”
The riders agreed that the class was enjoyable for everyone including the riders, judges and spectators.
"I think it’s a really nice competition,” Koschel said. “You get to see horses being ridden by different riders and, like Thomas said, a Derby needs a Derby. “ He added that options for the future could be a different day and time for the class. “I just had an idea while talking to Thomas: if set up again next year, it would also be cool if the final could be like a freestyle.”
The riders nodded their agreement and brainstormed the logistics of a future event.
"With more time I think we can really make this class an important piece of this competition,” Bauer said. “I think it could be really something special here.”
The riders laughed and walked away with some prize money and smiles on their faces. By golly, dressage CAN be fun!