Postcard from the Dressage Championships

Debbie McDonald captures the first U.S. Dressage Freestyle Championship.
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Debbie McDonald captures the first U.S. Dressage Freestyle Championship.

February 24, 2002 -- wBrentina and Debbie McDonald continue their winning streak by capturing the first U.S. Dressage Freestyle Championship in Los Angeles on Feb. 24, 2002.

Freestyles--Grand Prix dressage movements set to music --are becoming more sophisticated as riders become more competitive and savvy about putting the movements to music. It's colorful and delightful to watch.

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Not only must a rider and horse interpret the music; the music must suit the horse's type. For example, McDonald uses brassy, stripper-like music that suits her muscular chestnut mare. Peggy and Parry Thomas of Sun Valley, Idaho, own Brentina, and McDonald has taken eight years to train her to this level.

Similar to ice skating, five international-level judges score each horse's quality of movement--horses must keep a rhythmical pace while performing smooth transitions and showing brilliance. Also, there are required movements such as piaffe, passage and one-tempi flying changes that must be included in each ride.

Second place went to Steffen Peters of Escondido, California, riding Lila Kommerstad's Grandeur. He also won the opportunity to represent the United States at the Dressage World Cup in the Netherlands in March. Terry Ciotti-Gallo designed his freestyle as well as McDonald's and third-place finisher Guenter Seidel on Nikolaus 7. "I work the hardest I can for all my clients," said Gallo when asked if she had a favorite. "When they get into the arena, it's in their hands and on any given day, [first place] can go to anybody. It's like coaching gymnastics, when they go into competition, it's up to them."

"The music is electrifying," says fourth place finisher Cherri Reiber who rides her Dressage at Devon champion G Tudor. "My horse seems to enjoy the music and goes better in a freestyle. My freestyle is not super difficult, but he can't really do super difficult yet because he's still green at it."

Kamila DuPont, an American living and training in Germany uses classical music "with a beat and rhythm," said after winning the fifth place.

"Sometimes its nice just to have a horse go in and listen to you," says Susan Dutta who rode her Gumshoes DC to sixth place in the nine-horse field. "He piaffed better today. I did choreography, and Marlene Whittaker did the music--I love it. But it was a hard freestyle for him because he's not so experienced. We only got it two weeks ago. But I came into today with just that bit more determined to ride better and train a little different this morning. That's really what try to make a better horse for the future."

Leone "Button" Baker did her own music and choreography. Baker is the professional from Thousand Oaks, California, and a longtime member of the California dressage community.

"The music keeps you going and on the rhythm," says Tami Crawford of College Grove, Tennessee. "Marlene Whittaker and I picked out the music but Marlene designed the ride and put it all together." She says her horse Dakota's best thing is that he's always there for her. "It's unusual for him to shut down. He's got a big heart."

As head judge Mary Seefried of Australia commented, "the United States has a strong group of riders." Next stop for many of these top dressage riders is the selection trials at U.S. Equestrian Team headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey, next June, hoping to make it onto the team for the World Equestrian Games. The competition will be fierce and will hinge on their freestyle performances.