The first day of the 2008 USEF Mandatory outing began this humid, drizzly morning at the idyllic Fork Farm in Norwood North Carolina. Nine horse and rider combinations were making their final run for a spot on the 2008 United States Olympic Eventing team. There was an air of great importance to the day, but with a very quiet backdrop as this outing is closed to the public. A small crowd of supportive family members and close associates of the riders were on hand to cheer for each and every horse and rider in attendance.
It was obvious that every rider was here to achieve their own personal best and secure a coveted ticket to Hong Kong. However, the auspicious nature of the occasion was combined with an overwhelming sense of camaraderie and collaboration. Every person present openly supported all of the competitors. There were riders warming up riders, family members helping with prep, and as time allowed competitors stood by to cheer for each other.
The Dressage phase began at 8:00 am sharp with a lovely test from the very reliable Phillip Dutton and Connaught. The test was quite smooth, with excellent examples of the half-pass and improved flying changes (if you recall Rolex?). At the end of every ride, the dressage judge (the legendary Jessica Ransehousen) reviewed the scores and comments that she gave to each movement with every rider, making positive suggestions for improvement. She was frank, honest and to the point regarding issues such as straightness, precision, timely transitions and balance.
Kim Severson followed Phillip and Connaught on her lovely Irish Sport Horse Tipperary Liadhnan. Their test appeared relaxed and uphill, with a promising self- carriage. His dressage has come quite a long way in the relatively short time that he has been working at it, and he builds more strength every day. Jessica spent quite a long time providing comments and allowed Kim to re-ride a portion of the test.
Will Faudree and Antigua exhibited excellent trot work, but Antigua came a touch unraveled in the canter. Will was able to recover well, and finish out the test on a positive note. Jessica also spent quite a bit of time making suggestions to Will, which seemed to be well received.
Bonnie Mosser and the absolutely adorable Merloch had a wonderful ride. Merloch carries a lovely expression and they presented a very pleasing picture to all in attendance. Jessica commented that they could have been slightly more straight, balanced and uphill, but their flying changes were spot on. If scores were being given she would have been towards the top of the leader board in the author's opinion.
Buck Davidson on the talented Ballynoe Castle RM came into the ring in a supple but very business-like manner. They appeared precise with nice medium and extended trot sets, and scored well on their serpentines and flying changes. Jessica commented that they need to work on staying steadier in the counter canter. The test was again, positive and well ridden.
Jennifer Wooten and the attractive Good Witch, at their first Olympic trials, had some very nice moments to their test and just a few things that Jessica felt could be improved upon. There were moments where the Good Witch hurried a tad and became unbalanced, but her counter canter work was in fact nicely balanced. Look to this pair for great moments in the future!
Becky Holder and the expressive Courageous Comet are such a crowd favorite in the dressage. Overall, the test was very pleasing, but not the pinnacle of what we know they can do. Jessica commented that Becky needs to follow Comet's movement more easily, and that he should stretch more over his top line from his withers to his nose during the extended walk. Comet's changes were lovely and scored well with the judge.
When Heidi White and Northern Spy entered the ring their experience was certainly evident. Northern Spy does his job in workmanlike manner, while displaying fluid, supple, movement. Their flying changes were super - in fact they received very positive comments from Jessica for their canter work overall. This was a lovely test.
On a side note, to see Courageous Comet and Northern Spy warming up at the same time is quite a moving experience. Both are such wonderful movers, they simply light up the arena with their presence!
Last but definitely not least was the rapidly up-and-coming Woodburn, ridden by Phillip Dutton. This test was well executed and received quite a few very positive remarks from the judge. She did give Phillip a few items to practice, such as setting up for flying changes more clearly and allowing for more defined changes of pace; and on a humorous note, made him agree to do so. As with ALL of the horses in attendance we hope to see lots more of them in the future.
Many of the riders jokingly commented that they felt as if they were up in front of the judges on American Idol. In a few cases, nerves did get the best of a rider or two, which resulted in some slightly higher scores than what these combinations might usually achieve. Overall, the tests rode well, and all of the combinations executed lovely rides.
The cross country phase with an optimum time of approximately six and a half minutes was indeed a real test. Most of the fences appeared to be at maximum height and width, coupled with some very sharp angles. The footing was excellent, with thick cushiony grass and aerated soil with just the right amount of give. The verdant fields were resplendent in their summer growth which provided a lush setting for the challenging course.
Overall there were 24 fences. The most notable being: a series of skinnies and corners at fence #4ab and 6ab, a very sharply angled set of stone walls with three strides between at #7 and #8 (which incidentally rode very well for every horse and rider ), a skinny barn into the water to a seven stride bank up and bounce out at #11 ab and #12, a large trakener at #13, a one stride into a sunken road, then a one stride out to a very skinny bounce at #18, a set of large corners at #19 ab , back around to the water for a bounce in to the water at #22 ab on three strides to a skinny brush at #22c. The galloping lanes were well organized and there was room enough to allow the horses to maintain steady rhythmical paces. There were no negative incidents, and the entire group sighed with relief as each horse and rider safely crossed the finish line.
Anxious family members and close friends watched in anticipation as the each horse and rider combination rode the course extremely well, and dare I say made it look easy. Only the sounds of the resident birds and the selectors golf carts buzzing madly around the course to observe every fence broke the silence (The cheers of the small group could also be heard as horses successfully navigated the second water complex!). The scene was in direct opposition to the chaotic crowds at the big three and four star events.
After completing the course each horse was immediately un-tacked and thoroughly examined by the veterinary staff. They were given a cooling bath and a drink on site and were then taken back to the barn for a well deserved night of rest.
The selectors have some very tough decisions on their hands. Every horse and rider that we saw today would represent our country extremely well! On to show jumping in the morning…