Postcard: Dressage at International Omaha

Dressage takes a bow at the International Omaha in preparation for next year's Reem Acra FEI Dressage World Cup™ finals,. The expectation is that the discipline will find a new audience in a different part of the country.
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Dressage takes a bow at the International Omaha in preparation for next year's Reem Acra FEI Dressage World Cup™ finals,. The expectation is that the discipline will find a new audience in a different part of the country.

May 7, 2016--Dressage was a work in progress this week in the CenturyLink center at the International Omaha show, where spectators were few but hopes were high that it will develop a fan base at a fixture that has been jumper-oriented.

The jumpers were certainly on hand in force, with 35 horses taking part in last night's $40,000 Mutual of Omaha Bank speed class. The International Omaha is a regular stop (albeit normally on an earlier date) for riders in that discipline, who are from the Midwest and Texas for the most part. But FEI-level dressage is new at the International.

The show this year was about getting ready for the Reem Acra FEI Dressage World Cup™ finals (and of course the Longines FEI Show Jumping World Cup™ finals) that will be held at CenturyLink in March 2017. You could call this a test event for those who will be involved in putting on the 2017 effort, with all hands on deck seeing how things will work and making notes for the time when the show truly is on the international stage.

Last year when I came to Omaha, the national-level dressage class I saw had only one competitor. There were nine riders this year, although the stars had another agenda; seven U.S. riders will be competing in Europe as a prelude to the Olympics. So they had an excuse not to be in Omaha.

For others, apparently, it just was not on their radar screen. A lot of people were at the new 3-star competition in Tryon, N.C., last month. If I were thinking of riding in the Cup finals next year (LOL), I might have wanted to test out the Omaha venue.

So despite the fact that the Omaha show was a 4-star with a total of $30,000 in prize money, there were few big names on the roster of nine performing in downtown Omaha. Those with the strongest records dominated the top of the standings.

Canada's Karen Pavicic, who is hoping to earn one of her country's two Olympic berths, won both the Grand Prix and the Freestyle with the reliable Don Daiquiri. I'm sure Jacqui Brooks, also Canadian and second in both classes, made converts with her longtime ride D Niro and his enthusiastic performance to Hallelujah and a vocal in French to an excerpt from the musical, Les Miserables. Click on the video below to see part of Jacqui’s ride at International Omaha.

Karen Pavicic of Canada won both the Grand Prix and the Freestyle at the International Omaha 4-star dressage competition. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

Karen Pavicic of Canada won both the Grand Prix and the Freestyle at the International Omaha 4-star dressage competition. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

I still get chills remembering how movingly that white horse performed under the spotlight in a darkened ring at the Royal Winter Fair in Toronto last November, when the ride was dedicated to the people of Paris after the terrorist attack that sent the city reeling.

Thomas Baur, director of dressage for this show and the World Cup (you may know him best in the same post for the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Fla.,) meticulously oversaw the operation at the state-of-the-art arena. I caught up with him after dressage ended to ask him what he thought going forward.

Click on this video to get his take on the show.

You can see that I had a moment's confusion grasping the idea that dressage will continue at the International Omaha after the World Cup is history. Once I realized what Thomas was saying, I enthusiastically endorsed the concept. This is an area of the country where there are plenty of horse lovers, but little exposure to dressage. I think there will be an explosion of growth in the discipline around this part of the country, as those coming to next year's show get an introduction to the best on the planet and want to participate themselves at some level.

Lauren Sprieser, third in the Freestyle with Ellegria (69.73 percent), noted that growing up outside of Chicago, she never had access to the caliber of riders and riding being showcased at CenturyLink.

Lauren Sprieser has a heartfelt hug for Ellegria after finishing third in the International Omaha Freestyle. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

Lauren Sprieser has a heartfelt hug for Ellegria after finishing third in the International Omaha Freestyle. | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

She put it beautifully when she spoke about the show's potential for dressage in the area: “I felt a little like the ambassador bringing our stuffy English sport with our tight pants and our lack of Stetsons to a part of the country that doesn't always get to see dressage like this. If we inspire one little girl to put on boots and breeches instead of chaps, I'd consider that a victory.”

Allyn Mann, director of the Animal Health Division at Luitpold Pharmaceuticals that produces the Adequan joint supplement, was on hand to watch. He's a very perceptive guy, the one who decided Adequan should be the named sponsor of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival back when the venue was nothing more than a large pile of dirt. So I was interested in his take on Omaha and the potential here. Click on the right-pointing arrow to find out what he had to say.

The riders, I'm happy to add, were equally enthusiastic. The production, the facility and the city got raves from everyone. I got together with Karen for a chat in the vast and wonderful trade fair after she won the $10,000 Borsheims Fine Jewelry and Gifts Grand Prix with a score of 67.80 percent. Watch this video to get her take on this show.

Karen went on to earn 73.11 percent to top the $20,000 Borsheims freestyle. (To see full freestyle results, click on www.longinestiming.com)

This show was important for another reason besides being the Cup test event. It marked the official debut of a new scoring system for the freestyle, in which riders have to reveal their floorplan to the judges. Those officiating previously found out what they were going to see only as it unfolded. The floorplan is converted into a computer program that automatically adds on a degree of difficulty, which means it is no longer so subjective--though the judges are able to change the degree of difficulty if they see fit.

Dressage Director Thomas Baur, Lauren Sprieser, Karen Pavicic, Jacqui Brooks and judge Gary Rockwell. | Photo copyright 2016 by Lawrence J. Nagy

Dressage Director Thomas Baur, Lauren Sprieser, Karen Pavicic, Jacqui Brooks and judge Gary Rockwell. | Photo copyright 2016 by Lawrence J. Nagy

The system also allows a ''joker line'' for the competitor to repeat a movement without saying beforehand what it is.

How did this work out in practice? I asked judge Janet Foy. Click on the right-pointing arrow to get her answer.

Jacqui's score of 71.20 percent for second place in the freestyle represents an improvement in the performance of her 17-year-old horse. Wait, he's improving at 17?

Jacqui Brooks and D Niro | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

Jacqui Brooks and D Niro | Photo copyright 2016 by Nancy Jaffer

“He really turned a corner in Florida in his confidence and his balance,” explained Jacqui. She said his progress, “shocks me every time. He comes out to work every day. He comes to horse shows and he gets better.”

D Niro just loves to show.

“He whinnies to the trailer when it pulls up,” Jacqui revealed.

“As long as that's his attitude, I'll show him until he doesn't want to do it anymore.”

Jacqui drove D Niro to Omaha herself, staying at “horse hotels” and bed-and-breakfast establishments. She loved the journey, which set her up for a special experience in the city.

“Everyone is so friendly, you can walk everywhere,” she said. “I'm in love with Omaha.” That's even more true because a vet in the city saved her Labradoodle, Tucker, after the dog “colicked” and had to be operated on just hours before her ride.

Jacqui's such a pro that even a situation as difficult as that didn't throw her off-track.

She's amazing and always has such a good rapport with her audience, giving them far more than just a cursory wave.

Dressage has wrapped up here, but the show goes on with the jumpers. For those of you who want to read more about the International Omaha, go to facebook.com/practicalhorseman tomorrow night to get a link to my next postcard.

Until then,

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