October 2, 2011 -- Even a downpour couldn't dampen my enthusiasm for Dressage at Devon, though it seems as if I've spent an inordinate amount of time over the last few weeks photographing dressage horses in the Northeast's never-ending rain.
My husband asked me the other day, not altogether joking, "When did we move to Seattle?"
It was unfortunate that one of the strongest bouts of precipitation came during Adrienne Lyle's ride on Wizard in the Grand Prix Freestyle, the show's highlight, but this rising combination shone brightly anyway. They achieved a score of 74.275 percent (with judge Wim Ernes of the Netherlands marking them as high as 76.875 percent) to edge last year's winner, Catherine Haddad Staller on Winyamaro.
That white-faced chestnut who looks like a giant adorable pony earned 73.950 percent. The ride was highlighted by a one-tempi tour that Catherine performed using only one hand on the reins (so slippery from the showers that she had to use football players' stickum to keep holding them securely.)
I asked her how many bonus points judges give for such one-handed feats and she retorted with a smile, "Not enough." Her total was 73.950 percent.
Adrienne's win on the impressive Oldenburg known as Eddie had significance for me because I met him shortly after he had arrived at Peggy and Parry Thomas' River Grove Farm in Idaho as merely a prospect. I was there to work with Adrienne's mentor, Debbie McDonald, on her book, "Riding Through," but impressed by Adrienne's talent, I also wound up doing a story for Practical Horseman on the Washington State native, who started with Deb as a working student. Now she's the assistant trainer and with her second big show in a row (she also won the freestyle at Saugerties, N.Y., last month) looks like a hot contender for next year's Olympic team.
Debbie couldn't be here to assist because she had a clinic elsewhere, so Adrienne worked with U.S. Technical Advisor Anne Gribbons. It was a successful combination, as Adrienne also won the Grand Prix earlier in the show. She noted that Catherine also had been helpful, always checking and asking if she needed anything.
Adrienne is still developing her freestyle, which starts off with "Play that Funky Music" and includes "Dancing on the Ceiling" and "Soul Man." The driving beat throughout shows off Eddie's rhythmic piaffe and of course, his elegant extended trot draws oohs and aahs from spectators. The audience really got into this one, clapping in time to the music as Adrienne was wrapping up her performance.
Adrienne, who was making her Devon debut, said, "It was a wild experience. I've never ridden in an arena with that much atmosphere."
Despite the weather, the place was jammed, with ranks of umbrellas ringside amping the ambiance.
"I was told the crowd gets rowdy, but I had no idea they cheered during your ride," laughed Adrienne.
"It was really fun. It was his (Eddie's) first time under lights, so he had a lot of little nervous moments, but he tried to stay with me."
Even though she was soaked to the skin, she graciously gave me a few minutes of her time before going to change out of her wet clothes.
Catherine had planned to ride her other horse, Cadillac in the freestyle, but a cracked tooth is causing him problems and she's hoping it can be fixed before it leads to bigger trouble. (Luckily, she's married to a veterinarian.)
While Catherine also had hoped to be an Olympic candidate, she is on the verge of giving up that dream because she hasn't been able to get sponsorship, and can't afford to pursue it on her own. She may sell both horses, or perhaps just Winyamaro, though time is short for anyone seeking to buy a horse for the 2012 London Games. Horses competing have to be owned by someone from the rider's home nation before the end of this year.
Adrienne and Catherine were the odds-on favorites in the freestyle, which drew 11 starters. While entries in the breeding division were up this year, the performance division was down slightly. Things haven't been easy for D at D. Last year, it ran against the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, which thinned the ranks. This year, the national championships were held in September instead of June, and the Pan American Games trials were part of that package. As a result of the timing, a number of people felt they had done enough this season. Melissa Taylor, for instance, told me that she and partner Lars Petersen (a former D at D freestyle winner) would have loved to come, but had just been away from their Florida home too long. Others said the same thing. Tina Konyot noted during the championships that she is now based in Canada with her boyfriend, racehorse trainer Roger Attfield, and the trip would have just been too much for her Calecto V at this time.
Meanwhile, the Pan Am team went into quarantine and training camp today, which impacted their availability. However, team member Cesar Parra put on a couple of demonstrations with Grandioso, and alternate Heather Mason scored big victories in the Prix St. Georges and Intermediare I freestyle with Warsteiner.
Although some big names were missing, D at D was still a special experience. Spectators are both knowledgeable and appreciative, and the stands were filled despite the weather. New footing in the Gold Ring, to match the surface in the main Dixon Oval, was welcomed. When the schooling area gets the same type of ground and word gets around, that will be a big drawing card.
The freestyle's third-place finisher, James Koford on Pharaoh (72.775 percent), got an incredible reception for his ride to Spanish music, and the other participants also were warmly treated. Many played up to the crowd, as did D at D regular Canadian Jackie Brooks, sixth with Gran Gesto, who fist-pumped big time and really got into the applause she received.
"I've been doing this show for 20 years and this is by far the best success I've had," said Koford.
"Everybody stepped up to the plate the crowd was into it, the horses were into it the riders were into it. It was a great night."
My sentiments exactly. They really know how to put on a show at D at D, and make fabulous shopping (the best I've seen at this venue) and good food a part of the package, along with pure entertainment. I was completely wowed by the exhibition, Australian Guy McLean and his four perfectly obedient horses. His big trick is having one horse lie down and all the others stand over it. No one moves a muscle. Oh yeah, and this is while he's performing a handstand in the saddle. But that's not all he does. Last night, he was cantering in place and backwards, very impressive for those of us who too often have trouble doing it forwards!
I couldn't wait to talk to Guy (love that accent) and find out how he came to appear at D at D.
Part of the fun of being here is seeing the regulars, both people and horses. I was jazzed to watch Silver Label, who I'd written about several years ago when Michael Shondel was riding him, winning in the junior ranks with a new rider, Nicolas Torres Rodriguez of Colombia. Cesar, a native of Colombia (but now an American citizen) who is his trainer, talked about what's next.
Another regular is U.S. Dressage Federation President George Williams, who provided many thrilling moments here in the days when he was winning the freestyle with that darling black mare, Rochet.
After saying hi to him by one of the shops, I asked him for his view on why Devon is so special.
Earlier, I was speaking with Melanie Sloyer, the show's senior vice president, and made the mistake of saying "regular Devon" when talking about the May/June hunter/jumper show, which dates back to 1896.
She told me gently that those associated with D at D, founded in 1975, prefer the terms "Spring Devon" and "Fall Devon." I stand corrected.
She told me that for next year, post-Olympics, the committee will be "making a very aggressive effort to attract the top horses and riders in the country and Canada," while helping to improve the facility and making sure the prize money is all that it should be.
As for the breeding show, which has been growing in popularity, she considers Devon "the showcase for American breeders. We actually have spectators at the breed show, which is very unusual. I attend a lot of breed shows up and down the East Coast, and Devon really is the one where everyone wants to be. You have the opportunity to be judged by four different judges and the quality of the horses has increased in quantum leaps in the last 10 years."
Melanie pointed out, "The top horses in this year's breed show were American bred. I think what it means for the sport is that we no longer have to go to Europe to get the best horses. I think the best horses are here in this country."
I asked her to talk about the show from her perspective.
"Dressage at Devon is sort of the crown jewel of dressage competitions in this country. People come from all over. We have people who buy their tickets a year in advance to be here. We have sold-out crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, standing room only," she said.
"People get exposed to dressage here because they come not only for the show, but also for the atmosphere. We've had people come to us and say, `I'm a dressage rider because I was here in 1976 and saw Hilda Gurney on Keen come down the center line and I was hooked and here I am.'"
We'll have a D at D gallery up early this week, so come back then and next Sunday, when I'll be sending a postcard from the Platinum Performance/U.S. Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East.
For more photos from the show, go to the 2011 Dressage at Devon photo gallery.