Aviva Nebesky, co-host of the Dressage Today Podcast, shares her story of earning a team silver medal for the United States at the Maccabi Games in Israel.
BY AVIVA NEBESKY | AUGUST 5, 2022 | 10 MINUTES READ
In January I received an odd message on Facebook. Rebecca Cord said that she was a dressage trainer, and that we shared quite a few friends although we had never met. It went on to say that she was recruiting applicants to ride on the dressage team for the 2022 Maccabi Games in Israel and wondered if 1) I was Jewish and 2) if I might be interested in talking about the Games.
I checked her out and, indeed, Rebecca and I had a lot of friends in common and it was surprising that we had never actually met. I am Jewish, and I knew about the Maccabi Games but hadn’t realized that they had dressage as one of the sports. However, I assumed that one needed to be an FEI rider so I responded to Rebecca that I was honored by the invitation but probably didn’t meet the requirements. She immediately responded asking if we could chat that day.
The Maccabi Games were first held in 1932 and created because Jews were not permitted to compete in the Olympics. Over the decades, the Maccabi Games have become the third largest international sporting event behind the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. This year approximately 10,000 athletes from 80 countries participated in more than 40 sports! Dressage was included in the last Games and Show Jumping has been offered for longer. This year, President Biden attended the Opening Ceremony of the Games.
After almost two hours on the phone with Rebecca, I had made the decision. I did not need to be an FEI rider; rather I needed to be comfortable riding at Fourth Level. I wanted to ride in the Maccabi Games so I immediately started pulling together my application, which included videos of my riding, proof of show record through Fourth Level and a comprehensive written questionnaire. Once I submitted everything, the waiting began. Rebecca was great about keeping in touch about the process. As the weeks went by, I accepted that I would not be on the Team. Finally, the phone rang. When I answered, I told Rebecca that I appreciated the opportunity to apply and understood that I had not been selected. After a pause she said, “I was calling to invite you to join the Team!” I can’t type my response, but it was exuberant! I said YES.
In fact, the maximum level ridden at the Maccabi Games for dressage is Third/Fourth Level. There are two teams – Senior 1 which rides Second Level tests and Senior 2 which rides Third Level. The levels are determined by the horses and comfort of the riders, but each team must have a mix of both.
While I could transport a horse to Israel, the expense alone made it impractical. Instead, riders have two options for horses. Every Israeli who competes in the Games must provide a horse to a pool, and riders pick a name out of a hat and have two rides prior to competition. Pool horses arrive at the show grounds just before competition, and riders can change their draw only if there is a real issue with safety or complete lack of harmony. If a rider decides not to go with a pool horse, the other option is to lease a horse for the week before the Games and through the Games. While this is a much more expensive option, it allows riders eight or nine rides before making the trip down centerline. I decided to go with a lease horse.
Rebecca is a professional rider and trainer and has her own training business in New Jersey. She has worked as a trainer at both Hilltop Farm and Iron Spring Farm, is super talented and used to getting on strange horses. She was also planning to ride a leased horse. The third member of our Team was Lauren Sara, a USDF Bronze Medal amateur from Pennsylvania. Several others joined the team over the next few months, but circumstances intervened, and we ended with a team of only three.
Rebecca, Lauren and I talked regularly on the phone and even met for dinner one night in Pennsylvania after I judged a show there. Rebecca was working with her contacts in Israel and started sending videos of potential lease horses. Selecting a lease horse is not the same as looking at a horse to buy. There were some fancy movers, but they looked difficult to ride – not through the back, braced, etc.
There was one horse I really liked – a chestnut (I love chestnuts) who was a rather average mover but did “the things” correctly. He looked a little behind the leg, was inconsistent in the uphill balance and looked strong in the connection. But there was something about him I liked and my trainer, Cheryl Loane, liked him for me, too. Assuming we clicked, I had a horse for the Games! If not, we had four or five horses to ride and try and see which horses worked best for each of us.
Riding in the Games is expensive. The upfront cost includes airfare from New York, hotels, meals, ground transport and sightseeing. Leasing a horse adds considerably more to the total. Maccabi USA recommends that athletes fundraise to help pay expenses and to educate people about the Games.
As soon as I knew I was selected, I started telling people and the fundraising began. As exciting as the Games were, the process of raising money, and the incredible support I received from my dressage community overshadowed the thrill. Friends, students and family all gave generously to my fundraising page. I did an online auction, and the donations were overwhelming. They included semen from the stallion Ridley, lessons, business coaching, arena footing and a pair of custom DeNiro boots. To say I was overwhelmed by the support and generosity of my community is an understatement. I raised enough to defray most of my costs and was able to take a month off from work without breaking the bank. THANK YOU to everyone who participated (including listeners of the Dressage Today Podcast).
On July 5, I flew to JFK in New York, and the journey began. We arrived in Tel Aviv the next day and were taken to our first hotel, Shefayim, a kibbutz outside Tel Aviv on the Mediterranean. I had not expected Israel to be so lush. Everything was flowering. There was gorgeous green grass. Birds were everywhere including fabulous green parrots. The food was amazing, too. That is its own article!
On July 6 we went to meet and ride our horses for the first time. Horsekeeping in Israel is very different from here in the Mid Atlantic. There is no pasture, and it is HOT. Horses stay in their stalls with fans unless they are being ridden. On their days off, they go in a small dirt paddock for a few hours to stretch their legs. The hay looks more like straw as it is yellow and flat but is rich in nutrients, and the horses we saw throughout our time in Israel were in good flesh and healthy.
The first ride on my horse was not great. Dan Dan is a 20-year-old “Israeli mutt.” He has been competing at Third Level this year and has done well if not exceptionally well. He is what I saw on the video with a dash of the bully! According to his regular rider, he is a very hard ride and only performs if he connects with his rider. That first time we were both testing and trying to get the measure of the other.
After the ride, I went back to the hotel and thought about things. I also called Cheryl in the US. Together we devised a plan for ride 2. And it worked! Dan Dan and I clicked the next day and I felt confident and secure and excited to work with this special horse.
Unfortunately, the next day both Rebecca and I were diagnosed with COVID-19 and were placed in quarantine. Our plan to ride throughout the week was over. If you are going to get sick in a foreign country and be in isolation, doing it the way we did is the way to go! Our meals were brought to us, and we sat outside on the patio and ate together. We took long walks to the cliffs that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea and watched the waves. If it wasn’t for the facts that we were not able to ride and prepare for competition and were not permitted to do any of the sightseeing tours and felt sick, it would have been a great vacation.
A week after diagnosis, we were approved to travel, and we followed all of the other equestrians, dressage and show jumpers, to Tiberius. The hotel was right on the Sea of Galilee, and the weather was hot with a strong wind. The show venue was in the mountains about 40 minutes from our hotel. Temperatures were above 100 degrees, but the windy conditions made it less uncomfortable. Riding took place in the late afternoon and evening to protect the horses, and we hosed them several times a day and used fans in the open fronted stalls.
I rode on Saturday evening after a week of COVID-19 and no riding. It was not my finest riding. I only lasted 25 minutes and was shaking so badly when I dismounted that I had to use Dan Dan to keep me standing! But I was able to do enough to make me think I would be okay to compete. It was hard to breathe, and my core had a tendency to collapse in on itself rather than grow strong. I felt lucky that Dan Dan was working with me.
Sunday was the jog – my first! Dan Dan passed easily but it was a good thing I wasn’t being evaluated. I lost so much fitness and started to worry about riding again. That night we rode in the competition arena under the lights. It was magical. There was music playing in the background, the lights lit up the arena and cast the seating into shadows, dozens of flags whipped in the wind, and Dan Dan danced as if we had a royal audience. We were ready.
The first day of competition was finally here. I was the last rider of the night. It was a good ride. One judge placed us third of four and the other placed us 1% point behind the third-place rider, Rebecca. Our final score was a 64%. Of course, the playing field is not level. There were only nine dressage riders. Our three Americans on leased horses, a team of three Israelis riding their own horses (Champion and Reserve Champion of their respective levels for the year) and three Israelis riding as individuals for France, Germany and The Netherlands.
We were never going to beat the Israelis on their horses but that didn’t mean we weren’t going to try. In some ways knowing that we were riding for fun and not gold made the job easier. I left the arena proud of the ride and knowing where I had left points. I believed I could improve for Tuesday’s ride.
Unfortunately, Tuesday was not good. At that point Dan Dan had been at the venue for over a week. He was tired and cranky. He spent the day with his butt to the gate and didn’t want me around.
My warm-up was good despite Dan Dan’s grumpiness, and I had high hopes when they called me to enter the arena. Dan Dan had other ideas. He knows his job, and he knew the minute I dropped my whip. He tucked his nose behind the vertical and put on the brakes.
The bell rang, and I was on my own trying to get around Third Level Test 3 with no gas. Needless to say, it was not a good ride. I rode the whole test. I did all the things. The judges were not impressed, and we were last with a combined score of 59.6%. The score from Monday was worth 40%, score from Tuesday was 60% for the Team medals. The Israelis won Gold and our American Team was Silver. Maybe not the showing we wanted, but we were legitimately in it.
Wednesday was a day off, and I used it to hose Dan Dan and hand walk him. On Thursday, the individual competition day, we rode the FEI Junior Team Test which is a tough test with elements of both Third and Fourth Level.
We were the first pair in the level. We had a great ride! Of the four flying changes, two were beautiful, one was late behind and one was behind my aids. Our medium and extended trots were modest but clear. I was so proud and felt that we had represented our Team well. The judges were not as happy. We scored a 62% behind Rebecca again by 1%. I was so thrilled to see my Team member stand on the podium for an Individual Bronze Medal!
Overall, what an amazing experience. I had the opportunity to ride internationally at an FEI event representing the USA! How does it get any better? There were so many bumps in our road between COVID-19 and not getting the time we had hoped for to work with our horses, but we kept showing up and riding and doing our best. I am honored to have been selected to ride and proud to have performed respectably. Every time I threw my leg over the saddle, I felt the support of my friends back home lifting me up and encouraging me to be my best. Thanks to all of you, to Maccabi USA for the opportunity and to Rebecca for believing in me. Go USA Dressage!