Aachen, Germany, August 20, 2006 -- Horsepower in all its glory was on parade as the World Equestrian Games (WEG) officially opened this afternoon, celebrating the beauty, grace and diversity of the animals we so admire--as well as the people who ride and drive them.
There were 37,500 enthusiastic fans packing the stands, clapping in time to the music and doing the wave, so happy (like me) to be at the world's biggest horse show.
The WEG's breadth was epitomized by the moment when reining horses were spinning, a vaulter was leaping off the back of her mount, four-in-hand drivers toured the ring, show jumper Christian Ahlmann cleared a fence, endurance riders trotted around, world champion dressage rider Nadine Capellmann put her horse through its paces and eventers tore around the turf. Now I've mentioned all of the seven disciplines that will be showcased here for the next two weeks, and if today's kick-off was any indication, it will be a time of excitement and drama that goes by far too fast.
Germany is known for the excellence of its horseflesh, and as you can imagine, this fabulous opportunity to parade its four-legged treasures before the world wasn't missed.
The most impressive display during a series of "ooh" and "aah" exhibitions was the quadrille performed by 64 stallions from the 10 state studs. The riders were all in different but stunning uniforms, some wearing cocked hats, others in fawn and green livery neatly tucked up at the thigh, others in red and shades of blue trimmed with glittering gold. I alternated between trying to decide which uniform was the snazziest and which horse I'd most like to take home with me. (Note to hubby: It's okay. I'm really not buying a horse!)
I couldn't make up my mind about the uniforms, they were all so neat, and as for the horses, I'd take any one of them. They were breathtaking, performing patterns that included the wagon wheel and carousel circles.
But there was so much more!
A herd of ponies, mares and foals running loose set the tone for the show, as the pure elegance of horses doing their own thing reminded us of their basic nature. It was a nice contrast to the well-trained creatures we saw later in the program. This reminded everyone about what the horse is at heart.
There was a retrospective of all four previous WEGs through video with a team of riders carrying each host nation's flag. The Andalusians (or PRE, as the Spanish call their horses) representing the WEG at Jerez in 2002 were particularly impressive.
The historic angle was thoroughly explored with costumed side-saddle riders and vintage vehicles, including an old horse-drawn Aachen street car. But they went a whole lot further back too, as Charlemagne (gee, I thought he was dead) returned to his former seat of government so he could throw a lance that started fountains spouting.
One of my seatmates wondered how the dressage would turn out if the fountains, which are next to that discipline's ring, began spraying during the Grand Prix. We decided it would add some extra interest!
The ceremonies began in the rain but ended in sunshine with the parade of athletes. I think how much equestrian sport has expanded in the last few years, as I watched teams from Bahrain, Belarus and the Philippines marching with the usual suspects, Britain, Germany, the U.S., France, etc.
One symbol of the change is the fact that Princess Haya of Jordan, rather than a European, is the president of the FEI (international equestrian federation.)
The Princess, a former athlete herself, made a great speech in which she said, "If you are part of the world of horses, then you are part of a global family which spans all boundaries and all generations... Whatever the outcome of your endeavors during the competition, they will always be rewarded with the memory of your time here. And we will be richer as humans for having the privilege of watching you."
Different uniforms and native costumes made the athletes' procession a delight to watch. The U.S. team was busy waving American flags -- dressage rider Debbie McDonald flourished two of them at one point -- and they looked overjoyed in their red and blue jackets that had real sporty style.
Afterwards, I ran into U.S. Equestrian Federation President David O'Connor, who contributed to a team gold in eventing four years ago on his last trip to the WEG. He was impressed by what he had seen.
"It was fantastic," he told me. "The great thing about the WEG is the scope of its importance. It has a true international, pure Games feel to it. We knew it was going to be done well here, and from everything we've seen so far, it's going to be a fantastic two weeks."
Some people don't like the concept of the WEG, preferring individual world championships for each discipline held in various corners of the globe, the way it was done until the first WEG in 1990.
But there's a lot to be said for the idea of getting everyone together in one place. As Princess Haya observed, it's sort of like a big family reunion. It just includes some relatives you don't know very well. The dressage and eventing people, for instance, are only at the same venue during the Olympics, but they're mingling here now, too, with the vaulters and endurance contingents.
Unfortunately, with space being a consideration, the jumping, reining and driving folks who compete during the second week of the WEG can't bring their horses in until the others leave, so that somewhat dilutes the impact of showcasing seven disciplines.
But you do run into a lot of people from all the disciplines, one way or another. Show jumper Beezie Madden was on my plane from New Jersey with Authentic's groom, Clark Shipley. Meanwhile, Beezie's husband, John, was flying with Authentic and getting him to the farm in the Netherlands where chef d'equipe George Morris is having a boot camp for riders this week. I asked Beezie if she could make the opening ceremonies, and she pointed out Aachen was a long drive from where they were staying, so I guess that was a "no."
Then wandering through the quaint streets of Maastricht, the Netherlands, where I'm staying (it's about a 35-minute drive from Aachen) I came upon driving enthusiast Jack Wetzel with eventing owner Bruce Duchoissois. They were having dinner in one of the many inviting sidewalk cafes that line the streets downtown, where French fries with mayo seems to be a favorite offering. Bruce's horse, Connaught, is being ridden here by Australian Phillip Dutton.
"I'll wave two flags," chuckled Bruce, who is also a big supporter of the U.S. Equestrian Team.
In my hotel, I met the parents of eventer Heidi White (who were very excited to be attending the WEG) and her brother, Cameron. Now that I've made contact, I'm sure I'll be seeing a lot more of them.
It's very cool to be in a foreign city and realize that as you go around any corner, it's possible to meet someone you know, or someone who shares your love of horses and may become a new friend. That adds so much to the whole travel experience, which isn't always fun (they lost my luggage).
Tomorrow, the competition starts with endurance at 6 a.m. We're figuring no one will finish before 5 p.m. Hey, they have to go through three countries--Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands--before they finish in the main stadium.
There was a last-minute change to the U.S. endurance squad, with Steve Rojek and Finch coming off after the horse had a soundness problem, and Jennifer Niehaus riding Cheyenne XII, a 14-year-old Arabian being added. I just heard that the Belgians should figure in the standings because they know the territory in this neighborhood, so some folks are touting them as medal material along with Australia, France, the United Arab Emirates and the U.S.
The endurance roster wasn't the only change for the Americans. The final eventing team was announced, and it's the expected line-up of Kim Severson (Winsome Adante), Amy Tryon (Poggio), Heidi White (Northern Spy) and ta-da, Will Faudree (Antigua), who was the reserve rider for the Olympics.
Jan Byyny (Task Force) will be going as an individual, although originally it seemed she would be part of the team. And Karen O'Connor kept on kicking, as she always does, to ride as the other U.S. individual competitor with Upstage.
It seemed to be all over for her with a series of refusals at the final outing in the States and an elimination at Gatcombe, when Upstage bumped a horse statue on a fence there and fell. It really wasn't his fault, from what I've heard; other horses banked the jump and knocked over the statue, so someone decided to bolt it on (without asking the course designer) which made conditions different when Karen approached the obstacle. She subsequently did go around Hartpury's cross-country without jumping faults, so she got the nod. I hope after all that Upstage won't be too tired here, but he's a tough little guy.
So the stage is set and everything's ready to go. Stay with me and EquiSearch's special WEG section, and I'll tell you all about it in my daily articles!