Competitors, officials, and volunteers braved icy temps to make the sixth annual US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® the best edition yet
Reprinted from the February 2019 Issue of USDF Connection
By Jennifer M. Keeler
Anyone living in central Kentucky knows that weather conditions can vary wildly—so much so that residents often joke: “If you don’t like the weather, wait an hour.” And for the first five years of the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, Mother Nature lived up to those expectations: Competitors experienced everything from sunny, 70-degree days to thunderstorms and sleet, sometimes all in the same week.
But for the 2018 Finals, held November 8-11 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, the weather report could be summed up in just one word: cold. Make that two words: very cold. Early November in Kentucky typically isn’t balmy, but the forecast for Finals week called for temperatures to plunge 15 to 20 degrees below normal and stay there.
The conditions created some trials for the organizing team.
“It definitely was a challenge and it wasn’t fun, but everyone got through it,” competition manager Debra Reinhardt said with a laugh. “And we had very few scratches. I was amazed. I thought people would drop like flies, but no. Plus, I think our vendors were happy because they sold a lot of extra clothing!”
Rising (and Riding) to the Challenge
The unusual and persistent cold led to frozen pipes in the outside barns and over some exterior areas of the climate-controlled indoor Alltech Arena.
“We saw the forecast and wanted to be proactive,” said Reinhardt, “so early in the week we contacted the Kentucky Horse Park in order to work together to handle it as well as possible. The first night wasn’t so bad, but then it never warmed up during the day. Combined with wind chill, at that point the pipes started to freeze. So we used faucets equipped with frost-free hydrants and also brought over water from other barns. But for a time, water had to be turned off completely to prevent pipes from bursting, so we had signs up and notified everyone as best we could. I thought we’d be inundated with complaints, but I was wrong; we didn’t have a single complaint. Everyone just stepped up and helped each other to make the best of the situation. That’s the spirit of the Finals in a nutshell.”
On Sunday, the final day of competition, the bitter cold almost got the best of the Kentucky Horse Park’s renowned synthetic footing. Reinhardt noted that, although it wasn’t perfect, competitor safety was never compromised.
“The staff here know the footing and how best to manage it,” she said. “They were out there in the middle of the night working on it. In the early mornings, it was frozen and a little hard but had a layer of fluff on the top, so I watched the rides and talked to the judges. They said they didn’t see anyone slipping and that everyone was getting through it. It wasn’t ideal, but it wasn’t a safety issue.”
The Ripple Effect
Why not just move up the Finals by a few weeks in hopes of having better weather? According to Reinhardt, changing a competition date isn’t that simple.
“We can’t come in to the Kentucky Horse Park a week earlier because the National Horse Show is already booked [during that time]; plus quite a bit of our infrastructure depends on piggybacking on that show,” she explained. “But if you’re just looking at dates, that means the Finals would have to move more than two weeks earlier, so then you start dramatically impacting other shows, including the Great American/USDF Regional Championships, which would also have to adjust accordingly. Some of them are heritage-type events, which can’t change dates; plus we have to allow enough time between Regionals and the Finals for exhibitors to prepare to come here.
“Sure, we’d all love to have perfect, dry, warm weather every year for the Finals,” Reinhardt continued. “But ultimately, all week we heard that, while people were cold, the horses were relatively unaffected and were still able to perform wonderfully. Just like every other Finals, what makes this event so special is that everyone is just so happy to be there, regardless of the conditions. I’m lucky to have such a phenomenal team, who all pulled together to make it happen despite the cold—and in reality, this is the first time it’s been like this.”
Long Days and Longer Nights
The cold couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of 387 open and adult-amateur Finals competitors from across the country, who represented a record-setting 42 states. All made the trip to Kentucky to vie for national titles and $100,000 in prize money across 30 divisions, from Training Level to Grand Prix.
Even though 2018 entry numbers reflected only a slight increase from 2017, the uptick necessitated the revival of a sixth competition ring.
“We had significantly more rides,” Reinhardt explained. “Last year we barely broke 900 rides; this year we had 1,037. People aren’t coming here for just one class any more; they’re entering multiple championship divisions and/or cross-entering into the open show, getting more bang for their buck.”
But more rides mean longer competition days. On Friday and Saturday, performances in the Alltech Arena went late into the evening, even well after 11:00 p.m. On Sunday, the championship schedule extended almost two hours longer than in previous years, with some awards ceremonies having to be held after 6:00 p.m. and delaying many competitors’ departures. Such a full schedule limits organizers’ scheduling options; as much as some might wish to delay start times on frigid mornings, for instance, November’s short days present the risk of running out of daylight.
“Almost all of the championship classes were huge, so each one took up a large chunk of ring time every day,” Reinhardt said. “I agree it’s too long a day for everyone, but that’s just how it worked out this year.”
Music to Our Ears
According to Reinhart, explosive growth in freestyle entries played a key role in the long days of the 2018 Finals. Since the 2014 show, two competition arenas—the indoor Alltech and the outdoor Murphy—have been dedicated to Finals freestyles. But this year, 298 of the championship rides—nearly 30 percent of the total Finals rides—were freestyles.
The result was that “the non-freestyle rings would be done much earlier in the day, while the freestyle rings would go right up to sunset outside, and until after eleven p.m. in the Alltech,” Reinhardt said. “In the Murphy ring alone, we had almost eight hours of First Level freestyles on Sunday. At first thought, one might say, ‘Well, just add another ring.’ But logistically it’s more of a challenge than you’d think to add a third ring for freestyles. Not only is it expensive to hire another announcer and sound system, but the outdoor rings also aren’t far enough apart to prevent musical interference. So we’re looking to make some significant changes next year, perhaps starting those classes earlier in the week instead of just holding them on Saturday and Sunday.
“The bottom line is that we knew we had our hands full this year and drove ourselves crazy with the scheduling to do the best we could,” Reinhardt concluded. “These are all growing pains, and it’s a good problem to have. Next year we could see a different trend in entries and not have these same challenges. But for now we’ll analyze the situation: We’ll look at entry numbers for every division over the six years of the Finals and get an idea of how things are trending, and then make some adjustments for everyone’s benefit next year, making it better than ever.” s
Jennifer M. Keeler, the 2018 US Dressage Finals press officer, is a freelance writer and photographer and a three-time American Horse Publications Equine Media Award winner. She is the owner of Yellow Horse Marketing, Paris, Kentucky
It Takes a Village
US Dressage Finals volunteer coordinator Kathy Grisolia has been to every Finals since their inception in 2013. No matter the weather, her loyal army of volunteers is as dedicated as she is.
“Every single one of our volunteers wants to be here, so even though it’s awful outside, we all just put 19 layers of clothing on and go on with what needs to be done,” Grisolia said. “The volunteers who come here are so dedicated; there’s nowhere else like it. They come back year after year, even though they know that the weather can be sketchy. It was certainly rough this year with the constant cold, but everyone still had a smile on their faces.”
At the 2018 event, “I was fortunate to have even more volunteers than last year, so I had some extra people to move around,” Grisolia said. “This meant that for certain positions I had the luxury of switching people out to provide some breaks from the cold. It’s especially tough for the ring stewards and crossing guards, who stood out there in the cold for hours on end. We had volunteers starting at 6:00 a.m. and going until almost midnight. We tried to have cars parked in certain areas outside to give volunteers a brief respite from the wind and cold. Despite the weather, out of our almost 100 volunteers, I only had one who didn’t show up.”
“It’s hard for me to not get emotional talking about our volunteer team,” Grisolia said. “I’ve made so many friends, and I would not be able to do this job without them. I love this job and this show. The cold this year did nothing to dissuade anyone—even our newbies, who all said they’ll be right back here again next year. They’re all just the best.”
Meet the Champions
The US Dressage Finals media team unveiled a new press-conference format for the 2018 event, which added a social-media live stream to the customary in-person interviews and daily press releases. A total of 15 press conferences were streamed to the USDF Facebook page using Facebook Live, with well over 23,000 views and a reach of more than 52,000 as of November 19.
Did you miss the interviews? They’re archived on the USDF Facebook page (United States Dressage Federation Official Page). You can also read complete recaps of each day of competition on the US Dressage Finals website and watch on-demand archived competition video (with commentary from international dressage trainer and judge Kathy Connelly) on the USEF Network website.