Back in the USA, September 7, 2006 -- There are those who think the World Equestrian Games (WEG) are too big and too long; that it would be better to go back to separate world championships in each discipline, the way it was before the first WEG in 1990.
I must say I was leaning in that direction myself after two weeks of rushing around writing and photographing seven disciplines on deadline at what for me was the World Exhaustion Games.
I thought a bit wistfully about 1986, when I covered the World Show Jumping Championships in Aachen; the World Eventing Championships in Australia; the World Dressage Championships in Canada and the World Four-in-Hand Championships in England. True, that involved a lot of traveling, but none of these championships were consecutive, so I had recovery time between each competition.
Yet since I've finally caught up on my sleep, I have to say that the WEG is a good idea. It makes a marketing and media impact that could not be duplicated by separate world championships. Another benefit is its united front for horse sports, which too often have gone their separate ways and not optimized their strengths as a result.
For every person who's a specialist--a show jumper, an eventer, a reiner--and interested in nothing else, there are many more people who just enjoy horses and have learned to appreciate them in all their sizes, shapes and "professions." The WEG gives them a chance to indulge their passion and at the same time, learn about new equestrian sports with which they may not be familiar. The Aachen organizers also did a great job of providing equestrian exhibitions, the most memorable of which was the 64-stallion quadrille during opening ceremonies.
To be a true horse lover, you have to be able to see the beauty in every breed and discipline. And the WEG offers a chance to encounter the best everywhere you look. As FEI President Princess Haya put it, during the WEG we were "indulged with equestrian excellence," and believe me, it was appreciated.
What will I remember most about the 2006 WEG?
In reining, it was meeting Matt Mills, that personable young man who just missed an individual medal but had the opportunity to ride on the American gold medal team during his first foreign show. The way he handled himself was impressive. Matt is someone whose star quality should be showcased for the future as an ambassador of equestrian sport. And he looks fantastic in action, a rider with natural grace.
I also loved seeing how other countries got into being part of "the cowboy way". On a horse, wearing a 10-gallon hat and cowboy boots, you couldn't tell them from someone who grew up in Montana. Sure, the Germans had their national colors of red, black and yellow striped on their cowboy boots, and those gals from Switzerland wore the western shirts that fascinated me with their sparkle-outlined Swiss crosses (see photo below), but from a distance, all you see is the sportsman or woman, an identity that erases national boundaries.
In show jumping, it was the way Beezie Madden of the USA handled being in the lead on Authentic throughout the competition, until the very last fence of the WEG, and then how graciously she adjusted to accepting a silver medal that everyone thought should have been gold.
I loved the white stallions of show jumpers Gerco Schroeder and Jos Lansink, Eurocommerce Berlin and Cavalor Cumano, whose beauty played to the romance that most of us have with horses.
But let's dump the Final Four catch-riding concept. It's too much for the horses, and the thrill is gone when the riders are all so good (as they have to be nowadays to reach the top) that the whole thing lacks the interest it once had when different nations each had their own style of riding.
In endurance, I was impressed by the way winner Manuel Vila Ubach of Spain came toward the finish line, dropping the reins and doing a little airplane thing with his arms outstretched (some soccer, excuse me, football player in Europe apparently does that too, I guess that's where he picked it up). But then after he crossed the finish, the rider turned emotional, crying and kissing his horse, Hungares. He ran the gamut of emotions in front of all of us. I just wish it hadn't been raining so more people could have seen this little drama.
It was very neat to have an unexpected winner, and I also liked the way the two French riders came through the finish together wanting to share the silver medal, rather than putting one ahead of the other on the podium.
In eventing, I appreciated the continued emergence of Zara Phillips as a force. She won the European championship last year and then aced the WEG this year. As teammate William Fox-Pitt pointed out with a smile, the WEG team silver may have been a disappointment to someone so used to getting gold!
It was great that the WEG cross-country phase was virtually injury-free. The sport needed that, especially after the death of Zara's friend, Irish rider Sherrelle Duke, in an event the previous week.
In dressage, it was so exciting to see the birth of a star, Blue Hors Matine, under the guidance of Denmark's Andreas Helgstrand. Yeah, yeah, we all admire Isabell Werth and Anky van Grunsven (who reportedly is pregnant with a second child) but what a joy to see a new face on the scene. Matine injected some excitement into the dressage from the moment she stepped onto the stage with her rhythmic passage and piaffe.
Oh, and by the way, the idea of giving medals for the Special AND the freestyle? Ridiculous and confusing, just as it was at the 1994 WEG when they first tried it. Let the individual medals be a reward for excellence throughout the competition. And just give one set.
I was so sorry not to see Brentina go on to the Grand Prix Special and freestyle, but felt glad she could contribute to the U.S. team bronze medal. Her freestyle in Las Vegas at last year's World Cup finals was one of the best and most inspiring performances I have seen at any show, anywhere. We'll certainly have lots to remember her by if she doesn't return to the arena.
In driving, I will never forget how cool Felix Brasseur was in snatching the 2006 world championship from another former world titleist, Ysbrand Chardon. Felix played every second of his cones drive perfectly, which is what it should take to be crowned as the best.
I hope the U.S. drivers will improve their marathon performance and be in a position to get another medal to accompany their landmark 2002 silver at the next world championships. To go from first in dressage to nowhere really hurts.
In vaulting, I loved the team spirit exhibited by the U.S. squad, whose members obviously enjoy one another and translated that into a historic silver medal. The drama and beauty of their freestyle demonstrated the joys of artistic cooperation.
And speaking of history, Megan Benjamin scored a big one for the record books with her individual gold medal, implanting America even more firmly in the new world order of vaulting. She also appeared on the team, but look for her to continue being an achiever in the individual ranks going forward.
I have to admire the girls on the team who stayed in a German army barracks (complete with soldiers). These good sports thought it was an adventure! Maybe in Kentucky 2010 they'll be promoted to a real hotel.
Overall, I was impressed by the crowds for every event, showing that there is enormous interest in the sports we love. There was something very uplifting about being in the middle of a group who appreciated the same things I did. Though some of us were American, and others German, French, Dutch, Italian, Argentine and what-have-you, when it comes to horses, it's obvious we all speak the same language.
So WEG 2006 is in the record books, though I guess as per recent history that we'll have to wait for the results of the drug tests before we know whether the medals will stay where they were when the show ended.
Now let's look forward to WEG 2010, the first outside of Europe, where Kentucky has a tough act to follow. But I have a feeling it will do the USA proud and redefine the World Equestrian Games in a very special, and very American, way.
Visit EquiSearch's WEG section for complete coverage, audio clips, blogs and online diaries, and chat about the 2010 WEG with fellow fans in the EquiSearch Forum. Plus, visit Nancy's photo gallery for more images from Aachen.