Olympic dressage horses primed and ready

British dressage team member Carl Hester and Uthopia.
British dressage team member Carl Hester and Uthopia.

With the Olympic eventing competition reaching its dramatic conclusion on Tuesday, the equestrian world now turns its attention to the discipline of dressage, which gets under way on Thursday morning at Greenwich Park.

The first inspection of the dressage horses took place on Tuesday night, and all 50 were given the thumbs up to start. On Thursday morning dressage action gets under way at 11am local time, when Denmark’s Anne van Olst and Clearwater will be first into the arena in the Grand Prix.

In a change to the previous format, the team medals will be decided by the combined scores of the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special. The top 18 horse-and-rider combinations, and those tied for 18th place, will then qualify for the Freestyle Final which is a stand-alone competition from which the individual Olympic champion will emerge.

The Grand Prix will run over two days, Thursday 2 and Friday 3 August and the top seven of the 10 competing nations will qualify for the Grand Prix Special team medal-decider on August 7. The Freestyle Final will bring the equestrian events at London 2012 to a close on Thursday August 9.

The British were just pipped for gold as eventing drew to a close, so as Carl Hester, Laura Bechtolsheimer and Charlotte Dujardin fly the home flag in dressage over the next few days they will want to go one better. And they have every chance.

The USA's Steffen Peters and Ravel.
The USA’s Steffen Peters and Ravel. © Shannon Brinkman/USEF

But Germany’s Olympic dressage record tells the tale of a formidable force. They have taken 12 team and seven individual titles, and with double eventing gold already in the bag at London 2012 they will be starting out with all systems firing.

Their Olympic dressage selection saga was a fascinating affair, with Dorothee Schneider earning her place alongside Kristina Sprehe and Helen Langehanenberg at the 11th hour as the premier German fixture at Aachen drew to a close less than four weeks ago.

Even the appointment of first reserve was drama-filled, as first choice, Isabell Werth who has more Olympic titles than most people could fit in their trophy cabinet, had an injury scare with Don Johnson before deciding that, as a nine-year-old, the horse was too young for the Olympic challenge anyway.

So Monica Theordorescu, whose Olympic history goes right back to Seoul in 1988 where she took team gold with Ganimedes, got the call-up with Whisper, who subsequently came down with a fever which removed him from the Olympic panel. In the end it was Fabienne Lutkemeier and D’Agostino who made the trip to London, but after all team-members sailed through the first horse inspection, they will not be starting.

The scale of Germany’s strength and historical connection with Olympic competition is, however, further reinforced by their individual respresentative, Anabel Balkenhol whose father Klaus, is a man of legendary status in the dressage world as both a trainer and former Olympic champion.

Denmark has been drawn first to go, followed by Canada, Australia, Spain, Great Britain, USA, Sweden, Poland, Netherlands and Germany. As a result, Helen Langehanenberg and Damon Hill, hotly tipped for a medal, and a golden one at that, will be last into the arena. It’s going to be serious business once the action begins, but there’s one rider who isn’t going to let the pressure get to her.

Tina Konyot and Calecto V
Tina Konyot and Calecto V.

At a US dressage team press conference this morning, Tina Konyot had journalists and officials holding their sides with laughter as she revealed details of her Olympic preparations. Asked what steps she had taken in terms of physical fitness she replied: “I’m 50 and I’m looking pretty good, aren’t I? Every time I think of working out I go and have a lie down until that thought passes …”

Konyot comes from a seventh-generation family with a circus background that has been involved with horses for a very long time. Her father, Alex Konyot, emigrated to the USA from Hungary in 1939 where he joined the military to earn citizenship before linking up with the Ringling Circus, and he trained Tina during her early career when there were few dressage coaches working in the USA. Her Czechoslovakian mother was a high-wire walker who came to the World Fair in New York in 1939, and remains famous for being the only woman to walk the high-wire without a net. She performed her last high-wire act in 1961, the year before her daughter was born, so Konyot has performance blood coursing through her veins. And her sense of humour is a breath of fresh air.

She said she discussed embarking on an Olympic training programme with her boyfriend, but his answer reflected her own feelings on the matter. “You see I like shopping, that’s when I get my exercise, and he was very much on the same wave-length. He said, Tina you just do what you do best and go shop, shop, shop!”

It’s some achievement to find herself in the US dressage team competing alongside Jan Ebeling and Steffen Peters at London 2011. So, when asked what message she would send back to young hopefuls in the US who have their own Olympic ambitions, Tina replied: “I’ve been competing since I was 15 years old and I’m now 50, so I would just say follow your dreams and never, ever give up!” This will be one lady to watch with interest when she is first into the arena on Friday morning with Calecto V.

Ebeling’s mount Rafalca has caused quite a media stir as one of her co-owners happens to be Ann Romney, wife of Mitt, in conjunction with Beth Meyers and her rider Jan Ebeling’s wife Amy. The 15-year-old Oldenburg mare was third at the USEF National Dressage Championships and has been a consistent performer for Ebeling over the last several years. They have been to FEI World Cup Finals together and have found their best form as of late.

The veteran duo of Ravel and Steffen Peters represented the US in a team and individual fourth place effort at the 2008 Olympic Games. Now 14, the Dutch gelding has two Bronze Medals from the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, an FEI World Cup title, and a sweep of CDIO Aachen to his name, he comes to the Olympics looking to add to his honors.

Canada's Ashley Holzer and Breaking Dawn at the first horse inspection.
Canada’s Ashley Holzer and Breaking Dawn at the first horse inspection. © Sue Stickle www.susanjstickle.com

The USA also qualified an individual and Adrienne Lyle and Wizard scored that spot with a fourth place finish at the Selection Trials in June. Rueben Palomera, who groomed for Lyle’s mentor Debbie McDonald at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, is in London to groom for Wizard. The 13-year-old Oldenburg gelding looked exceptionally well at the jog, gleaming with dapples.

Canada did not have a happy time in the eventing competition, and its dressage team of Jacqueline Brooks (D Niro), Ashley Holzer (Breaking Dawn) and David Marcus (Capital) will be hoping for better luck.

“The team looks strong going in,” said Gina Smith, Chef d’Equipe of the Canadian Olympic Team for Dressage.  “We have two former Olympians with Ashley and Jacquie, although they are on their younger or ‘greener’ horses.  We are looking for personal best scores from everybody.  If we can all do that, we will all be very, very happy.”

2008 Beijing Olympian Brooks will be the lead-off rider for Canada, followed by Marcus in his Olympic debut.  Holzer, who was a member of Canada’s 1988 Olympic bronze medal team, will ride in the anchor position.

Alternate Diane Creech also presented her mount, Devon L, at the horse inspection as substitutions are allowed until one hour prior to the start of official competition.

“We have our reserve horse and rider here as well, Diane Creech with an up and coming super young horse,” Smith said.  “It is great to have her here as well, so that she can also get a feel for what it’s like to be at the Olympic Games.”

Ireland is represented by Anna Merveldt and her 16 year-old Bavarian Warmblood gelding Coryolano.

A veteran of top-level championships events, Merveldt broke through in the Barcelona Olympics of 1992 when she qualified for the top 16 with Rapallo and went on to place 11th in the individual rankings. The following year she was 9th individually at the European Championships in Lipica and then took 6th place in the individual rankings in World Equestrian Games in The Hague.

She placed 13th in the European Championships in Verden in 1997 and 14th at the same venue in the Europeans in 2001. On the international circuit Anna has had many wins, including Arnhem, Frauenfeld, Munich, Milan, Rotterdam and Spangenberg and on no less than eight occasions was a recipient of the Irish Field (newspaper) Dressage Rider of the Year Award. She is one of only two Irish riders to be awarded the German NF Deutsche Goldenes Reitabzeichen (Golden Riders’ Medal).

She is drawn 14th to compete at the opening Grand Prix, and will be in the arena at 13.25.

Facts and Figures – Dressage

23 nations
10 teams
5 countries represented by a team and one individual
13 countries represented by an individual only
50 riders in total
The Netherlands’ Anky van Grunsven will be setting a new record when becoming the first dressage rider to compete at 7 Olympic Games.
Van Grunsven already shares the record for most Olympic medals in Dressage. Along with Germany’s Isabell Werth and Reiner Klimke, she has won 8 to date, so she will be out on her own if she picks up her 9th in London.
She is defending individual champion, and the only dressage rider ever to take three back-to-back Olympic titles – at Sydney (AUS) in 2000, Athens (GRE) in 2004 and Beijing (CHN) in 2008.
There will be 3 separate competitions – FEI Grand Prix, FEI Grand Prix Special and FEI Freestyle to Music.
The team medals will be decided after the first two competitions when the scores are combined.
The Freestyle will decide the fate of the individual medals.
The Judges Supervisory Panel will be in operation for the first time at an Olympic Games.




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