Postcard: Toronto 2015 Pan American Games Dressage Training Day - Expert advice on horse care and horse riding

Postcard: Toronto 2015 Pan American Games Dressage Training Day

The U.S. dressage team looked great on training day at the Pan American Games venue in Caledon, Ontario, Canada. They're gearing up for a must-win gold medal here to earn a berth in the Olympics next year.
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July 10, 2015--"Sorry for the confusion."

That came from a policeman in a golf cart who I had followed all around the OLG Caledon Pan Am Equestrian Games venue as I looked for a place to park.

He was flying blind. My parking permit said lot P6, but they had eliminated P6 (as we only found out after our tour of the grounds.) We finally settled on a spot, just hoping it was the right one.

His apology could well apply to all the snafus that are par for the course at most major Games being staged for the first -- and last -- time. It's what they call a one off, with thousands of athletes in attendance and more than 40 sports, including unusual ones, such as roller skate figure skating (it is summer, after all) and the better known competitions, among them athletics, wrestling and cycling.

The U.S. Pan Am dressage team riders, grooms and officials: (first row) Laura Graves, Sabine Schut-Kery, Eddie Garcia, Allison Meyer, Taylor Yamamoto.

The U.S. Pan Am dressage team riders, grooms and officials: (first row) Laura Graves, Sabine Schut-Kery, Eddie Garcia, Allison Meyer, Taylor Yamamoto.

Back row: Samantha Garfinkel, Steffen Peters, Olivia Lagoy-Weltz, Allison Brock, Kimberly Herslow, Jenny Van Wieren-Page, Robert Dover | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer The opportunities for confusion are endless, and most frequently encountered before things really get under way. Like today, when the formal kick-off is not until tonight's opening ceremonies. By the time everything is sorted out, the Games are over, and four years later, they go to a different country (In this case, Peru, in 2019.)

I got the parking permit (for $300!) as insurance in case the bus that runs from my hotel to the venue didn't come. And this morning, the first day I was going to the venue, it didn't come on schedule. I needed to be there on time to watch the U.S. dressage team training before tomorrow's Prix St. Georges/Grand Prix competition, so I went off on my own.

Flashback to yesterday, when I had to go into Toronto (the equestrian competitions, as you may imagine, are in a bucolic area far from downtown.) A trip to the main press center (or centre, as they say in Canada) was required for photographers to pick up the vests we all have to wear when on duty.

Why didn't I drive? With roads closed everywhere and parking lots full? Uh-uh.

My husband, who luckily is a master of logistics, mapped out a route for me to drive to a train station (don't forget, I don't know the area at all), where I took a bus to a trolley and hiked from its last stop to the centre. It was fun to meet the patient souls with whom I have been emailing for months with tons of questions.

Everyone I have met so far is incredibly nice. They try to be helpful, even if they're not quite sure of the drill themselves (that always happens with volunteers before they are fully indoctrinated).

After the press centre, I took a bus to the train, where several more nice people guided me as to where to go when I got off.

I should mention I loved the voice of Sean, who characterized himself as an "ambassador" of the railroad company. His announcements of station stops were crystal clear and so polite, unlike the garble one tries to decipher on much of the mass transit in the Northeast U.S.

So although the centre trip was a six-hour round-trip venture, at least I could say "mission accomplished" and get on to the reason I'm here: To cover the equestrian competition.

The Pan Ams are more important than usual for dressage because a gold medal will qualify the U.S. for the Olympics. The big competition is Canada, which also wants to go to Rio next year. On paper, the U.S. has the edge in the mixed Small Tour/Big Tour competition, because it has two top Grand Prix combos, Steffen Peters with Legolas and Laura Graves with Verdades. The Small Tour duo, Kim Herslow (Rosmarin) and Sabine Schut-Kery (Sanceo) are pretty darn good too, yet the Canadians have impressive Small Tour reps as well. But there is a bonus of 1.5 percent automatically given to Big Tour competitors, and Steffen and Laura are ranked number 7 and 8 in the world, so there’s some clout for you.

Laura Graves and Verdades on training day at the Pan American Games | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer

Laura Graves and Verdades on training day at the Pan American Games | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer

Despite the USA's advantage, the Canadians are far from conceding defeat.

I talked with Ashley Holzer, the Canadian Olympic medalist who is coaching two of her compatriots here, about her team's prospects. Listen to what she had to say.

The U.S. riders all wore radio headsets, so they could get pointers from coach Robert Dover and developing coach Debbie McDonald, who also trains Laura and Kim. Remember the days when the coaches had to shout from the rail? A little technology helps bring performances to the next level.

U.S. dressage coach Robert Dover and U.S. developing dressage coach Debbie McDonald talk thing over after the training session | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer

U.S. dressage coach Robert Dover and U.S. developing dressage coach Debbie McDonald talk thing over after the training session | Photo copyright 2015 by Nancy Jaffer

Riders had 10 minutes to walk around the arena and let their horses soak up the sights (empty stands). Then each team got 20 minutes in the ring. The U.S. decided that the riders should have five minutes alone in the arena, rather than going in as a group. I'll let Debbie explain it to you.

Oh, in case you're wondering about the Small Tour/Big Tour combo, that's to help the countries in this hemisphere gain experience. Only four teams (Mexico and Argentina are the others) here have any Grand Prix riders; the rest are all Small Tour (which is what the Pan Ams used to be limited to) which means they can't qualify for the Olympics.

The U.S. squad had a training camp at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's Gladstone, N.J., headquarters earlier this month. The team photo in this postcard was taken there. Training camp involved a lot of team building (including a barbeque and dinner at a sushi restaurant.)

The goal, Robert told me, "was to reaffirm they are all on their game, to be certain that everybody has the highest degree of confidence in themselves and their horses and that the team comes together and solidifies as a true team that supports each other, roots for each other and helps each other."

He observed that in all the years he's been involved with competing, "this ranks as a group right up with our Athens group (the 2004 Olympics), where we went knowing we were medaling (the U.S. got the bronze) and went in believing in our ability to win. This group I truly would call a dream team. I could not have a better group of riders and horses that you could interchangeably put into the team position and still have a winning combination."

He also proudly mentioned the Small Tour horses (including reserve Olivia Lagoy-Weltz's ride Rassing's Lonoir) are doing everything in Grand Prix but the one-tempi changes (wouldn't want to have a mistake in the Small Tour tests) and he sees them going right to Grand Prix after these Games.

That means the U.S. will have lots of depth when it comes to picking a team for the 2016 Olympics.

Robert does have one regret, though. He feels two teams should qualify for the Olympics at the Pan Ams, noting Canada was above 70 percent at last year's World Equestrian Games, where the U.S. finished fourth, just missing an Olympic spot.

"It was a big blunder by the FEI (international equestrian federation)," he contends.

Although he's hoping the U.S. sweeps all the medals possible (the team and three individual) he's not taking anything for granted, citing his respect for the Canadians.

"The riders for their team are superb, with some very good horses, and they're on their home turf," he pointed out.

"So we're not going to relax until our riders are all up on the highest podium."

I'll be sending another postcard tomorrow, the first day of team competition, which continues on Sunday. Be sure to come back to see what's going on (there's no streaming video available, as far as I know) and check out www.facebook.com/practicalhorseman and www.facebook.com/dressagetoday for more photos in the meantime.

Until then,

Nancy-Jaffer-Signature