George Williams, USEF Dressage Youth Coach and president of the USDF, reflects on the 2015 Reem Acra FEI World Cup Final in this column sponsored by Taylor Harris Insurance Services
Without a doubt, the Reem Acra FEI World Cup Final is one of the premier dressage competitions in the world. As such, it is one that most international riders aspire to compete in. With it being such a prestigious competition, it is exciting when it is held within the United States, and even more so when it is in Las Vegas. After all, everyone knows: Las Vegas knows how to put on a show.
Dressage fans from all over the country and from all walks of life converged on the Thomas Mack Arena, eager to not just support the American riders but to watch many of the best European dressage combinations. The energy was absolutely electrifying. You’re up close. You can hear the horses and see the riders’ expressions; you can see the details. To be able to attend such a competition, surrounded by thousands of dressage enthusiasts, was an incredible experience. It seemed like everyone was there – I ran into people I hadn’t seen in years.
The first time the World Cup was in Las Vegas, I remember it seemed a surprise that dressage attracted so many spectators. The truth is, dressage fans could be described as “die-hard” fans. However, combine the thrill of the freestyle and the city of Las Vegas, and it provides the perfect amount of entertainment even for those who are new to spectating in the grandstands.
Over the years, I have witnessed the excitement surrounding dressage grow. The World Cup is an excellent opportunity for the U.S. to see the top international competitors in person. It has certainly been exciting to watch Laura Graves’ rise to the top. Last summer, she took Europe by storm at the World Equestrian Games, catching everybody off guard – except those of us who knew her from the handful of centerlines she and Verdades had gone down. As a newcomer to the world of high performance, Laura met our expectations, exceeded our expectations, and only continues to get better. In Las Vegas, it was the first chance the rest of the U.S. could see her go head to head with seasoned “big guns,” the likes of Edward Gal and Isabell Werth.
And then there’s Charlotte Dujardin. What she has done in creating a renewed interest for the sport is amazing. She continues to build on a legacy started by Reiner Klimke which he left to Isabell Werth, Anky van Grunsven and Edward Gal. Klimke, was in his time, a cult hero. Charlotte and Valegro form a modern day, larger-than-life combination. Heroes in the making, they are a team. When you see her ride, it’s spectacular. I think she had only one missed step in the freestyle. The overall picture was stunning and they earned the second-highest score in the history of the sport. Her ride was a combination of power, grace, elegance and correctness. It goes to show you that the connection between the horse and rider is crucial to getting those high scores.
As the USEF National Youth Coach for dressage, seeing the quality of athletes such as Charlotte and Valegro inspires me to forge that level of dedication in our younger dressage riders. If you look at the top riders, and Charlotte is a good example, they started very young and frequently on ponies. That allows these younger senior athletes to be as good as they are and as experienced as they are, at the age that they are.
We need to encourage our riders to start sooner. One of our first jobs is to improve the quality of dressage education and the riders’ access to education. If we don’t, we will always be playing catch-up with the European riders. With this in mind, there has been a joint effort to create different clinics for riders of all levels that will improve education and increase interest in the sport. Expanding the number of youths riding dressage will give us a broader base. The broader the base, the better chance we have of getting more and more talent.
I’m confident the future is bright for our sport. With over 10,000 dressage spectators at the World Cup, the proof is in the numbers. What can I say? The American dressage community is so committed and so supportive, I can say that I am proud to play a part in it.