After years of wishing and planning, the US Dressage Finals become a reality
By Jennifer M. Keeler
This article is from the February 2014 issue of USDF Connection
Perhaps the butterflies started when they crossed the state line, and rolling green fields dotted with horses began to fan out from either side of the highway. Possibly it was when they caught sight of the miles of white four-board fencing surrounding the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. Maybe it wasn’t until they got their first glimpse of the lavishly decorated Alltech Arena that they were struck by the scope of the event. Whenever it happened, dressage competitors from across the nation knew they had arrived at something big—really big.
The long-awaited dream of a national head-to-head US dressage championships for all levels finally became a reality November 7-10, 2013. After years of (sometimes heated) discussion, the USDF Board of Governors in 2011 approved the establishment of a national championships, with the ambitious goal of instituting the event less than two years later. Designed to be an extension of the popular Great American/USDF Regional Championships, the inaugural US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan would showcase riders and horses from around the country from training Level to Grand Prix, in adult-amateur and open divisions.
Building an event of this magnitude from scratch was a daunting task: every detail, from the qualification system to the awards ceremonies, had to be planned. An organizing committee was formed to bring together leaders in competition management and logistics. Headed by then USDF secretary Janine Malone, the committee also consisted of fellow USDF executive Board members George Williams, Lloyd Landkamer, Debra Reinhardt, and Kevin Bradbury; experienced show secretary Monica Fitzgerald; and USDF staffers, led by executive director Stephan Hienzsch and senior director of member programs Cindy Vimont.
Using an innovative online system designed specifically for the US Dressage Finals, USDF members submitted more than 2,000 online declarations of interest across 24 divisions as the first step toward qualification. “Declared” horse/rider combinations then attended one of the nine Great American/USDF Regional Championships. Their goal: earn an invitation to the Finals either by placing in the top five in their championship classes or by earning scores high enough to garner a “wild card.”
Those who achieved a top-five placing or a wild-card score at the Regionals were then asked to “nominate” for the Finals, thereby expressing their definite intention to attend the Finals; the final phase was the submission of actual entries. Ultimately, the inaugural US Dressage Finals drew 304 entries (136 adult amateur and 168 open) representing all nine USDF regions, with Region 3 having the highest number of entries (71) and Region 6 being the lowest, with a single entry. By state, Florida (36), Texas (20), and Illinois (18) sent the most competitors.
“For the first year, I’m very pleased with the representation from across the country,” said USDF president George Williams. “to me, one of the loudest messages coming out of the Finals is that it definitely was time to have this, especially for adult amateurs. There’s been so much enthusiasm, and I think it provides motivation and excitement for riders to achieve new goals. The phrase I’ve heard people saying the most is that they are ‘realizing their dreams,’ and for me that’s been very moving. I’m so pleased that USDF was able to provide this opportunity for our members.”
Region 9 competitor Eva Oldenbroek Tabor was the first US Dressage Finals exhibitor to canter down center line of the Alltech Arena, for her Intermediate II test aboard Uberlinus.
“When I first walked in, I said, ‘Oh my God look at all this!’” said Tabor, of Medina, TX. “It looks like a European World Cup venue. The footing is fantastic, and the whole setup is just beautiful. From the moment we arrived, everything has been super well organized, just like a top-class event.”
“I rode in the then-American Horse Shows Association [AHSA] national championships in 1984 in Kansas City, and I’ve been waiting for them to come back ever since,” said fellow Finals competitor Heather Mason, of Tewksbury, NJ. “I think the organizers here have done an excellent job making this feel like a national championship. It feels like a really big deal to be here.”
The four days of Finals action and the related “USDF Dressage in the Bluegrass” USEF-licensed/USDF-recognized dressage competitions featured classes held in four arenas before a roster of ten Fei and USEF judges. riders could track their scores through their smartphones, thanks to Kevin Bradbury’s HorseShowofce.com database-management and electronic judging/scoring system.
Following each Finals awards ceremony, champions at all levels met the equestrian media at press conferences— a frst for many competitors, particularly the amateurs. All the while, friends and family members back home as well as dressage fans from around the world followed the action through online streaming of select performances on the popular USeF network.
“The competitors have been terrific; everyone is so positive and happy to be here. I think we were truly able to provide the type of championship experience that we hoped and dreamed it would be,” said Williams. “One of the most poignant experiences for me was standing in the awards ceremonies and seeing the riders’ reactions. Many of them became so overwhelmed they couldn’t even speak. I think that says it all.”
But the Finals weren’t just about competing for national honors, prizes, and more than $50,000 in prize money. USDF staffers in roving golf carts delivered free coffee to the barns on brisk mornings. Festivities were held every evening, from welcome receptions on Wednesday and Thursday to a unique “Taste of the Bluegrass” dinner on Friday and special performances on Saturday. The main concourse of the Alltech Arena featured equestrian vendors, eateries, souvenir shops, and the sold-out VIP seating area. Some competitors took advantage of the visit to Lexington to tour the expansive Kentucky Horse Park displays and museums, local bourbon distilleries, legendary Thoroughbred breeding farms, and the world-famous Hagyard Equine Medical Institute.
“There’s a certain magic to this place,” said Krista Nordgren, of South Portland, ME, who earned the Prix St. Georges Adult Amateur reserve championship aboard her gelding, Schando. “I loved the fact that here the amateur competitor has been embraced; we’ve never had this sort of stage for us other than our Regional Championships. We’ve all been treated like true champions just for making it here to the Finals, and because of that there’s a tremendous sense of pride and camaraderie.”
“It’s been a long journey, literally and figuratively, to be here,” said Menlo Park, CA, competitor Sheryl ross, who is a cancer survivor. Ross’s long trip home would be a happy one, as she took home the Intermediate I Adult Amateur reserve championship with her Danish Warmblood gelding, Lancaster. “But it’s been a wonderful experience. I would make the trip again in a heartbeat.”
One new tradition instituted at the US Dressage Finals was the presentation of the Janine Westmoreland Malone Perpetual trophy, named for the longtime former Region 1 director and USDF secretary, to the winner of the Prix St. Georges Adult Amateur Championship. The inaugural trophy went to Akiko Yamazaki, Woodside, CA, who is best known as the owner of US dressage team horses Ravel and Legolas for Olympian Steffen Peters. Yamazaki’s partner in Lexington was her Danish Warmblood gelding Matrix, who had successfully returned to competition after being out of action for two years as the result of an injury.
“I think this show exceeded all of my expectations, right from the get-go,” said Yamazaki. “All the information was provided in such a timely and organized manner, so I already felt well taken care of before I even arrived. And then once I was here, everything ran so smoothly and was just great. Congratulations to the show organizers; I think this has exceeded everyone’s expectations, and I’ll be returning home and spreading the word in California that we have to come back en masse.”
Where Do We Go from Here?
Although riders competing at the US Dressage Finals represented all nine USDF regions, there were noticeably low numbers from the western states: regions 5, 6, and 7 combined had only seventeen entries. The investments of time and money required to travel to Kentucky were considered the key reasons for the low turnout from these regions.
“To be realistic, the country is very large. There’s no way to have it in a location that can support the scope of this event and be easily accessible for everyone,” said Williams. “So our first goal is to make it the best event we can and provide a rewarding experience for competitors so that they feel like it was worth the trip. I envision it becoming a ‘destination’ type of event like many other breeds and disciplines currently have.”
The Finals will remain in Kentucky for the next two years, but with an eye toward moving the location in the future, according to Williams. “From the beginning, what was presented to the Board of Governors was that we would try to rotate the event every three years from east to west, and that goal is still in mind,” he said.
In the meantime, Williams is already thinking about making the second edition of the Finals even better.
“We’d love to see it continue to grow while maintaining the outstanding quality of competition we saw here,” he noted. “We’re already talking about improvements for next year and how we can reach more people and perhaps nurture even more regional pride. I hope that the Finals will also help grow the regional Championships: Hopefully more people will now try to qualify for the regionals in order to possibly make it to the Finals in the future. So it reaches a broader audience and provides them with another goal, and I think that this will have a trickle-down effect and draw more of a base of support for our sport.