A Horse Gazette Exclusive from Southern California

2008 Dressage Festival of Champions & US Olympic Trials

Article & photos by Laurie Virkstis ©2008

Ravel - Your future looks bright
Ravel... Your Future Looks Bright!

The privately owned Oaks Blenheim Equestrian facility in San Juan Capistrano, California was the chosen picturesque site for the 2008 Collecting Gaits Farm / USEF Dressage Festival of Champions held two weekends in June. The festival weekend of June 27-29 was extremely popular and a complete sellout with standing room only. The weather was California perfect: warm sun and breezy cool air, with US flags proudly waving over the grandstands.

National Grand Prix Championship & Olympic Trials

The beautiful rolling hills of San Juan Capistrano offered a unique up close and personal opportunity to witness our nation’s top dressage riders such as Steffen Peters, Debbie McDonald, Courtney King-Dye, Lisa Wilcox, Leslie Morse, George Williams, Kristina Harrison-Naness, Sue Blinks, Michelle Gibson, and Shawna Harding among many others.  The famed Ground Jury included Uwe Mechlem (O) of Germany, Anne Gribbons (O), Axel Steiner (O), Janet Foy (I), Jessica Ransehousen (I) all of the United States.

The National Grand Prix Dressage Championship weekend standings paved the way for the USEF Selection of the 2008 U.S. Olympic Team in Dressage and “The Road to Hong Kong.”  Beijing is where the 2008 Summer Olympics will be held, Hong Kong is where the equestrian events will be held mid-August in all new equestrian facilities. John Long of the United States Equestrian Federation urges everyone to contact NBC to televise more dressage and equestrian events, especially for the 2008 Olympics.

Media coverage was evident during the weekend, but by mid-day Sunday the frenzy escalated. Massive photo camera’s entered the Press Box looking more like weapons than cameras. Newspapers and television stations did their part, sending out AP and local reporters. USEF had videographers too, capturing dressage video to create “cinema quality” promotional clips for the upcoming WEG – FEI World Equestrian Games in Lexington, KY Summer 2010.

When the show announcer, Brian O’Connor, wasn’t entertaining and making the spectators laugh, some of us clicked on our private dressage judge.  Our Queen of Dressage, Hilda Gurney, served as a USEF commentator for three days via purchased radio headsets for $30.00. The fans loved her style, and felt as though they were sitting next to their best friend throughout the performances. Hilda has judged many of the riders previously on the East coast and it made for good listening dialog. When Hilda wanted the audience to see the fluid like dancing of horse and rider, she would comment on the cadence and the “centaur effect,” of ½ horse and ½ human in harmony.

Sunday’s Olympic Grand Prix Musical Freestyle climax had everyone in goose bumps after watching moving, emotional freestyles performed with heart and soul.  The extensions, the half passes, the pirouettes, the tempi changes, the piaffes, and the passages are all made more beautiful when performed to music.

The fans did their part to show enthusiasm and rider support; rider Steffen Peters had his own fan club cheering section and he was clearly pleased to see such overwhelming support for his perfectly choreographed musical kir.  Even his wife said, “Look honey!” pointing to the grandstands of cheering fans with Steffen poster boards and American flags.

Debbie McDonald and her 16’ 2 hand mare, Brentina, did not disappoint and rode to a Motown medley with the crowd breaking the dressage “code of silence” by clapping to Aretha Franklin’s RESPECT finale.  Fans not able to get in to the sold-out event climbed the fence to sneak a peak at all the excitement of Debbie’s ride.  Brentina looks better than ever and will appropriately return to the (Parry) Thomas - Mack Center for the FEI World Cup Las Vegas in April 2009 for her final retirement performance before changing her maiden mare status.

Even more exciting was Sunday afternoon’s announcement of the overall final scores for the 2008 Olympic US Dressage Team.  Steffen Peters with “Ravel” # 1 and #5 with “Lombardi II”, Debbie McDonald with “Brentina” #2, Courtney King-Dye with “Harmony’s Mythilus” #3 and #4 with “Idocus”, Leslie Morse with “Kingston” #6, Michael Barisone with “Neruda” #7 , Sue Blinks with “Mark” #8, Lisa Wilcox with “Naomi” #9, George Williams with “Rocher” #10, and Kristina Harrison-Naness with “Rociero XV”  #11.   This is the first time the United States has had their top five horses and three riders all over the 70% mark heading to the Olympics, with scores ranging from 70.0% to 75.8%.  This creates a delicate situation of deciding exactly how many horses to bring to Hong Kong, since the US now has Steffen and Courtney with multiple horses and unforeseen, possible injuries. All horses must be quarantined in Acchen, Germany in mid-July for a period before going on to Hong Kong; it would be impossible to bring a replacement horse to the Olympics at the last minute.

National Intermediaire I Dressage Championship

Michelle Gibson on “Don Angelo” and Steffen Peters on “Montango” take the Champion at 72.898% and Reserve Champion 70.950% spots for the 2008 Festival of Champions - National Intermediaire I Dressage Championship. 

Hilda Gurney says Michelle Gibson has that special talent to work with young Stallions, to get them to do what you want and she did. “Don Angelo” is an eight – year old Oldenburg stallion owned by Terri Kane of Diamante Farms in Wellington, FL.  (Dick, Terri, and Young Rider Devon Kane are formerly of San Antonio, Texas.)  This year “Don Angelo” won the USEF National Developing Horse Dressage Championship for 7-9 year olds in Lexington, KY.  Michelle made that stallion work and was clearly showing the judges all his stuff. Michelle says she didn’t feel that she could let him go as much earlier in the week, but poured it on by the weekend and it showed in his extensions.

Coming in third was Michelle’s friend and competitor, Shawna Harding on “Come On III” with a 70.545% Hilda Gurney often complimented that Shawna Harding and “Come on III” were the picture of harmony, having the “centaur effect” with her horse. This harmony is what judges are looking to see in the riding. 

Harding and Gibson coached each other throughout the entire competition. "We've had a lot of fun together in Florida," Harding said. "We help each other and we're both good competitors and good friends, so it's good fun."

Asked if either of them hold back coaching help in the warm-up when they are neck-and-neck for the top placings, Harding responded, "No - that's never a question because you're on your own when you get in the ring. So what happens outside the ring - she's a fantastic support and gives me little tips that keep me focused."

Michelle concurred with Harding. "It's great that we have a friendship and that we can support each other," Gibson said. "What makes us such good competitors, is that we can compete and we can be serious and we can be really driven about it, and then be like 'You know what, there was a mistake or there wasn't a mistake and today was his day or it wasn't his day, and let's go have a glass of wine' - and it's all good."

National Young Adult “Brentina Cup” Dressage Championship

The Brentina Cup, generously sponsored by “Brentina’s” owner Mr. and Mrs., Parry Thomas is a transition program for US Young Riders between the age of 20 and 25. This program helps transition Young Riders to Senior Grand Prix competitor. This year’s 2008 Brentina Cup winner is Adrienne Lyle on “Wizard”.  Taking 2nd is Kelly Casey on “Luzifer”, 3rd is Lindsey Anderson-O’Kee on “Intrepid”, and 4th is Endel Ots on “Picasso.”  Adrienne started working with Debbie McDonald as a working student in the summer 2005, and soon became a full time member of the Thomas’s River Grove Farm Team in Idaho.  Adrienne encourages all young riders to be dedicated to hard work and their sport.  When asked about lack of finances for a Grand Prix horse, she suggested YR’s use their creative resources to seek out horse owners who may offer an opportunity to be a working student, learn, or lease a Grand Prix horse to help the United States create a more successful Junior / Young Rider /Young Adult Program.

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