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An Olympian Overcomes Dressage Show Adversity

Adversity in the dressage show ring taught this top rider how to be a better dressage athlete, dressage trainer and dressage competitor.

Sometimes, no matter what you do, you can't seem to get ahead at a dressage show. You think your dressage horse is going really well at home, and then at a dressage show your plans fall apart. It's a hard nut to swallow and it's not fun, but it's part of competing at a dressage show—not just in dressage but in any sport. We must accept defeat because defeat teaches us many things. An example of this was my ride on my dressage horse, Rafalca, at the 2009 FEI World Cup Final in Las Vegas. After entering the dressage arena, she became frightened and refused to perform her dressage test. Each time she got close to the dressage judge, she would not go forward. As a pupil of the German riding system, I know that going forward is fundamental, but at that moment it was all I could do to complete the test. It was the ride—in front of thousands—that no one wants to have, and it was one of the biggest disappointments of my career.

I should mention that my journey with Rafalca has been long and emotional with ups and downs and more than a few bumps along the way. This is typical in the career of an international dressage horse, and many of my colleagues have experienced similar frustrations, but I will tell you my story.

In 2007, Klaus Balkenhol [former U.S. dressage chef d'équipe] had dedicated much of his time to working with some of the top riders in the country, focusing on the developing horses. I'd spent a lot of time working with Klaus, and I was encouraged and proud that he thought it fitting that Rafalca and I do the test ride at the 2007 World Cup in Las Vegas. At the end of our ride, we received a standing ovation. I could not have had a more exciting time, as we were not really expecting to wow the crowd. Rafalca wasn't bothered by the people, the proximity of the seats, the clicking of the cameras or even the occasional burst of applause. Klaus and I had wanted her to get some valuable experience, and now we knew she had the ability to be a top contender internationally.

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After that performance, I obtained a U.S. Equestrian Team (USET) training grant to train with Klaus in Germany and compete in Europe. Our goal was for Rafalca to be a top contender for the 2008 Olympic Games. Unfortunately, the trip started in disaster. On her third day at Klaus's, Rafalca took a bad step and sustained an injury, and it took 60 days before she could be worked again. That set her training back about a year. Although we were able to compete in 2008 at Grand Prix, Rafalca was ranked 13th and just missed the cut to compete in the dressage national championships, which also served as the Olympic selection trials. Rafalca's owners—Beth Meyer, Ann Romney and my wife, Amy—were very disappointed. Nevertheless, I stuck to my schedule and set as my next goal qualifying for the 2009 World Cup. I was excited when Gil Merrick, then the USEF director of dressage, called to say that I'd received a wild card to compete in Las Vegas at the Final. I felt that my hard work was paying off and that, finally, Rafalca could show the world the brilliance I experienced every day at home.

At the Final, when we came down the chute into the Thomas & Mack Arena, I thought we were going to have a super ride. She was forward and went in nicely, but when she hit X, all of a sudden, it was over. And that happens—either your horse loses it or you as a rider lose it. People said later they thought it was the smoke in the air or the judge in the white outfit or the noise or the photographers or the lighting—everybody had a reason for her refusal. I never knew what it was and I don't really care. My horse shied and refused to go—end of story.

I received a lot of positive press for finishing my ride and smiling. That's part of who I am. I don't quit. I got a lot of support afterward from rider friends like Robert Dover, who was there when I came out of the arena. He said, "Do you remember at the Los Angeles Olympics when I could not get my horse out of the piaffe? Stuff like that happens to all of us. Be done with it, and get on with life." My coach, Wolfram Wittig, told me, "That's horses. Today there was nothing you could do."

The 2009 World Cup was a very dramatic event for my wife, Amy, because she's so supportive of what I do and puts so much effort into it herself. I think she almost took it harder than I did. I was certainly upset, mostly with myself, but I would never blame the horse. The horse is an animal, and she was afraid of something, and it's my job to train her so that she is not afraid even of something that's really scary. It was my failure. I went back and thought, What can I do so this doesn't happen again? Of course, you're never really covered 100 percent. Your horse can always shy or make a mistake. But after reflecting on the previous few years, I saw a trend: I'd get close to reaching a goal, but I wasn't able to finish. I had to take a hard look at my program and make some important changes.

I believe in every rider's life there comes a moment when you have to be brutally honest about the structure of your program. If there's a problem, you have to probe deeper instead of just chalking it up to bad luck. You make transformations that make a difference.

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