November 7, 2015--Most competitors dread having to be the first rider to enter the arena in any class, let alone the first rider down the centerline on Day One of national championship competition at the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, a unique national head-to-head competition being for exhibitors of all levels held November 5-8, 2015 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. But Rachael Hicks of nearby Prospect, Ky. (Region 2) and her black Westfalen gelding Fabio Bellini (Fuerst Heinrich x Dakota by Davignon I) refused to let an unfortunate draw or the impressive atmosphere of the lavish Alltech Arena stand in the way of their claiming another victory. The 2014 Fourth Level Adult Amateur Champions made the jump up to the Intermediate I Adult Amateur division look easy, setting the standard for the rest of the class with a score of 68.553% that could not be topped by any of the other 12 competitors. “I didn’t let the ride time bother me - I had a great warm-up ride yesterday, and I figured if I could just repeat what I did yesterday I‘d be in good shape, even though I admit I’m not a morning person,” Hicks laughed. “I know some horses were a little overwhelmed in the Alltech Arena, but my guy was on task and felt great, and he handled the atmosphere really well. The progression to the FEI levels is a challenge for Fabio because he’s not naturally expressive in his gaits, but he keeps rising to the occasion and is becoming prouder in the way he carries himself. I’m so happy with him.” Even as the class progressed and Hicks’ score continued to stand atop the leaderboard, the next to last competitor gave her a run for her money. Alexandra Krossen of Basking Ridge, N.J. (Region 8) had a lovely test with Heather Mason’s Hanoverian cross mare Damani (Duvall x Gqdiva by Gesandt, bred in the U.S. by Virginia Godfrey), but had to settle for second with 68.158%. “I did check a couple of scores but I didn’t keep looking because I wanted to stay focused,” said Krossen. “I’ve only been riding Damani since December and she’s always the same whether we’re at home or at a show. I’m lucky enough to get the chance to ride her.”
But for Hicks, a mother of three who stays busy managing her family’s horse farm from mowing fields to emptying manure spreaders, her winning streak in the saddle was far from over. She returned to the ring in the afternoon with Don Cartier (Don Schufro x Carmina by Cartier) and earned 72.185% to once again run away with the Fourth Level Adult Amateur Championship. In a role reversal from her win earlier in the day, Hicks and her Rheinlander stallion had to enter the arena as the last combination in the class. “I always feel pressure whether I’m first or last in the ring - I think you just want to do the best you can and present your horse in a way that you’re proud of,” she explained. “Don Cartier is super fun to ride and he’s like Gumby in that he’s super supple, but he can also be a little spooky. I think last year he looked at every flower around the arena, but he was very solid today.” For Reserve, former eventer and avid foxhunter Carden Burdette (Columbus, Ga., Region 3) won a tie-break on a score of 67.815% with her Hanoverian gelding Sir Frederico (Sandro Hit x Donnerfee by Don Frederico) who she found at the Verden auction in Germany. “This is my third year here at the Finals and we look forward to it every year,” said Burdette.
For her last ride of the day, Hicks claimed one more title in the Grand Prix Adult Amateur Reserve Championship on a score of 67.133% with Apollo, who counts on an intensive equine fitness regimen of “trail riding Olympics” to keep the 18-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Gribaldi x Finckenburgh by Winckenburgh) fresh and fit. But this time Hicks could not get past the defending Grand Prix Adult Amateur Champion Alice Tarjan of Frenchtown, N.J. (Region 8) aboard her elegant eight-year-old Oldenburg mare Elfenfeuer (Florencio x Elfensonne by Sion), earning the unanimous victory under all three judges with a top score of 69.000%. The pair will return for a freestyle performance on Saturday and then head to Florida for the USEF Festival of Champions. “I’m really happy with our ride and feel like we’re definitely making progress,” said Tarjan. “I think we’re both more confident in the work this year and the balance is better, so I don’t feel like I have to ride the test so conservatively.”
After coaching students at the inaugural Finals in 2013, Nancy Hinz of Montgomery, Texas hoped to someday come back to Kentucky to trot down centerline herself. Today her patience was rewarded as she claimed the Third Level Open title with an impressive score of 73.761% aboard her eight-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Carzanola (Tuchinski x Lanola by Wellington), who she’s raised since he was just two. “The Finals are a wonderful event and the excitement is infectious,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how my horse would do with the morning wind and rain, and even though he tends to be very consistent and I was confident in him, I didn’t know how it would stack up against everyone else because there’s a lot of nice horses here. But he went around like the sun was shining and I’m so happy with him.” Hinz is part of a “Texas Invasion” this year as the Lone Star State has 32 competitors in attendance at the Finals – second only to Florida with 38. “We’re taking over!” laughed Hinz. “But seriously, we have a very active group of dressage riders in Region 9, with a lot of interest and activity from both open and adult amateurs as well as a strong junior and young rider program.” Finals veteran and past champion Emily Miles of Overland Park, Kansas (Region 4) added another title to her resume by riding Leslie Waterman’s six-year-old Oldenburg gelding Floretienne (Florestan I x Tamarinde by Jazz, bred in the U.S. by Judy Yancey) to earn the Reserve Championship with 70.171%. “Interestingly, Floretienne was champion at Training Level with Debbie Hill in 2013, and he’s matured incredibly since then. He was a little tight in the warmup today but then he went in the ring and stayed right with me,” said Miles, who was delighted to be back at the Finals for the third time. “You ride around that Alltech ring and you feel like a million bucks. That’s what it’s all about.”
Even earning a big score wasn’t guaranteeing anyone in the Training Level Open Championship a top ribbon as the top eight finishers all scored above 70%. But Debbie Hill of Huntsville, Ala. (Region 3) is no stranger to the pressure of the Finals, and she successfully piloted Heartsong (Hohenstein x Fuerst Heinrich) to an impressive winning score of 75.833% for owner Leslie Waterman. “She’s always a good worker at home, but sometimes the atmosphere at shows can make her spooky,” said Hill of the four-year-old Oldenburg mare. “So there we were in an outside ring early this morning in the rain, and she pleasantly surprised me – she was all business today and stayed on task. She’s growing up and trusting me more, and I was really proud of her.” Fellow Region 3 competitor Kayla Mckay’s long drive from DeLeon Springs, Fla. also proved worthwhile as she rode her six-year-old Westfalen mare Rapunzel (Rousseau x Flair by Florestan I bred in the U.S. by Pineland Farms) to earn 73.333% for Reserve in only their third competition together. “My barn has gone to the Finals the last two years and I had to stay home, but this year I qualified and finally got to come!” said McKay. “It’s funny because at home Rapunzel is a princess and she likes things done her way, but in the arena she’s all business. I’m thrilled.”
In the popular and hard-fought Second Level Adult Amateur Championship, Kristen Ortt of North East, Md. rode her six-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding E. Felix (Ferro x Bissextile by Norquestor, bred in the U.S. by Caroline Stearns) to top 24 other competitors from across the country on a winning score of 71.138% from FEI judges Axel Steiner, Janet Foy, and Natalie Lamping. But last year’s Training Level Adult Amateur champions Amy Gimbel and the six-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare Eye Candy (UB40 x Wednesday by Weltmeyer, bred in the U.S. by Judy Barrett) returned to the Kentucky Horse Park from their home in Oldwick, N.J. (Region 8) to claim Reserve Championship honors with 70.610%. “When I came to the Finals last year, I never thought I’d love the show as much as I did, but after I got home I immediately put in a time off request at work for 2015 so that I could be sure to come back if I qualified,” laughed Gimbel. “There’s something special about this mare and she’s been great for me – we really seem to ‘click’ with each other and I feel lucky that she picked me.”
An impressive field of 24 competitors vied for the Intermediate I Open Championship, and emerging on top with 70.132% was Rebecca Knollman of Maineville, Ohio (qualified in Region 4) who earned a narrow victory over Region 8’s Heather Mason (Lebanon, N.J.) and her Hanoverian gelding Romantico SF (Romancero H x Wesermelodie by Wenzel I, bred in the U.S. by Somerset Farms) with 70.044%. Knollman rode to the win with Rocky Lane (Rock Forever by Rica), a Westfalen mare she purchased as a re-sale project after catching her eye as a five-year-old in Germany, but then decided to keep for herself. “I look for horses that are special and will stand out here to sell, but there was something about her that made me hang onto her and I’m glad I did,” said Knollman. “Rocky Lane loves to show herself and she thinks she’s spectacular. It’s a fine line with her between keeping her relaxed yet brilliant, but I feel like we were successful in that today. There were so many nice horses in this class and riders that I have tremendous respect for.”
A sold-out crowd gathered at the Alltech Arena Friday evening for the popular "Taste of the Bluegrass" dinner, official welcome ceremony and evening festivities. The highlight of the night was the Grand Prix Open Championship, where the father-daughter team of Michael and Gwen Poulin kept the top honors all in the family. Olympian Michael Poulin of DeLeon Springs, Fla. posted what at first appeared might be the winning score of the night with 68.400% aboard Pineland Farms, Inc.’s Dutch Warmblood gelding Thor M (Mirakel x Debora by Westvoorn). But the pair’s time atop the leaderboard was short-lived as Poulin’s daughter Gwen promptly rode into the ring and surpassed her father’s mark aboard William, a Dutch Warmblood gelding (Sir Sinclair x Kennedy) owned by Belinda Nairn-Wertman. For their efforts, the pair earned 68.533% and were presented with the newly-dedicated Veronica Holt Perpetual Trophy, presented by USDF Region 5 and Friends. Holt’s daughter Sally Hayes was on hand to award the trophy to Gwen. “He was on fire, it was just awesome,” said Gwen of her mount. “About two and a half years ago Belinda called me and asked if I’d take the horse on. I never turn down an opportunity because you never know how it can turn out and what you can learn from it. We really clicked – he’s very sensitive and emotional, so I’ve taken my time with him so that he wouldn’t feel too much pressure. And now he offers everything to me, and it makes my heart so happy that I can’t help but grin from ear to ear.” Despite being a fierce competitor, her father was gracious in defeat. “I’m so proud of her, she hung in there and fought for it. It was beautiful, and it means more to me for her to win,” said Michael, who noted that he has been fighting a battle with Lyme disease. He also spoke highly of his mount. “Thor is a kind horse, but at the same time he’s really hot, so it’s a big feat for this horse to even be here doing this. I really like him and I like riding him. You’ve got to have something to keep your motor going.”
Competition resumes Saturday at 8:00am ET with 12 additional championship divisions. Follow the action through updates on the USDF Facebook page and the US Dressage Finals website, as well as watch live online streaming on the popular USEF Network. To learn more about the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, download competition information, review day sheets and results, and read daily news releases, visit the official event website at http://www.usdressagefinals.com.