Since 2004, U.S. eventers haven’t won a team medal in a global championships (an Olympics or World Equestrian Games, WEG, as opposed to the Western Hemisphere’s Pan American Games). That may be about to change, however.
The 2016 Olympic eventing squad discouragingly didn’t finish as a team in Rio. But Boyd Martin, who has been a part of American eventing efforts at WEGs and Olympics since 2010, said that while looking back over the past eight years, he believes, “this has been the year where as a country, we’ve looked the strongest. The last couple of teams, I don’t think the selectors had to do anything except pick whoever’s left. And now, this year, there’s a number of horses and riders who are in great form, have had good results.”
While Boyd and his friend, 2016 individual Olympic medalist Phillip Dutton (each of whom have several equine prospects for WEG) are longtime pillars of U.S. teams, there are others on the rise who will be more than just members of the squad.
Marilyn Little became the U.S. spring 4-star champion with RF Scandalous, finishing third at Land Rover Kentucky as the highest-placed American after winning the dressage phase. She was plagued by bad publicity because her mare had traces of blood in her mouth on cross-country after biting her lip, but officials had given her the go-ahead to ride after she sought their permission.
Lauren Kieffer learned a valuable lesson from a mishap at the 2016 Olympics and has a steady mount in Vermiculus. She finished fifth at Kentucky with that horse, right behind Phillip and the emerging star, Z. Sixth was the reliable Donner and Lynn Symansky, veterans with a habit of going double-clear cross-country.
Others with promise for team potential include Buck Davidson (Copper Beech) and Sharon White (Cooley on Show), as well as veteran and 2004 Olympic individual medalist Kim Severson (Cooley Cross Border). The short list won’t be named, though, until the end of June, with changes possible until Aug. 2.
Boyd cited yet another factor when discussing the prospects for U.S. eventers at the WEG on home turf in Tryon, N.C., calling eventing performance director Erik Duvander “a wicked asset.
“I’ve worked under a lot of chefs d’equipe in Australia and America, and this man’s hungry. He wakes up well before me, he gets to the barn before me; it’s hard to get rid of him. He’s bubbling with passion and I think the American riders are responding really, really well. It’s exciting times for the sport of eventing in America. He doesn’t have anything else to do except worry about the elite end of our sport.”
Erik, a Swedish Olympian who had success coaching the New Zealand team, came on board late last year and has been a constant presence at events since. He seems to be everywhere at a venue, encouraging, offering suggestions, keeping things pointed in the right direction.
Whatever happens, the over-riding goal for eventing is to qualify for the 2020 Olympics without having to make the cut in clutch fashion at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima. That was the scenario in 2105 at the Toronto Pan Ams, where the team came happily through with gold to stamp its ticket to Rio.
While U.S. eventing appears to be on the rise as Boyd observed, dressage and show jumping can boast even stronger, more proven, assets, than the eventers. U.S. dressage is ready to build on its 2016 Olympic bronze achievement and perhaps move up to silver. It has eight competitors on the Dutta team shortlist, with riders heading to Europe to prepare for the WEG.
Laura Graves, who with her Verdades twice defeated Germany’s dressage queen Isabell Werth and Weiheigold OLD, has been ranked as world number 2 and could be an upset candidate for Olympic individual gold as she leads the U.S. team in Tryon. The question of who will make up the rest of the squad is a happy embarrassment of riches. There’s Kasey Perry-Glass, Laura’s 2016 Olympic bronze teammate, with Dublet, recently returned after a long vacation. Salvino is a 2018 sensation with 2012 Olympic and 2014 WEG veteran Adrienne Lyle, the protégé of Debbie McDonald who has done so much to build American dressage and is on board for Tryon with chef d’equipe Robert Dover. Olivia Lagoy-Weltz and Lonoir also are realizing their potential this year, while Sanceo and Sabine Schut-Kerry are making an impression as well.
Longtime team member Steffen Peters is more of a question mark, in that he and his new ride, Suppenkasper, are not yet proven as a pair in the toughest competition, and his other mount, Rosamunde, still needs to be out and about more since a sabbatical after the 2017 FEI World Cup finals. Shelly Francis (Danilo) and Ashley Holzer (Havanna 145) also are in the mix.
For show jumping, all you have to do is mention Longines FEI World Cup Champion Beezie Madden with Breitling, former Longines ranking world number one Kent Farrington with several horses, former World Cup champion McLain Ward (HH Azur) and Laura Kraut, and it’s obvious what the potential is on the NetJets show jumping team short list.
That veteran of veterans, Margie Engle, is also on the roster, along with stalwart Lauren Hough and World Cup runner-up Devin Ryan, who has the fantastic Eddie Blue. Adrienne Sternlicht, who recently won her first grand prix but has risen on the ranking list, also got a nod. For discretionary choices, coach Robert Ridlandd – who likes to give younger riders a chance on teams, as he did with Lucy Davis at the 2014 WEG and 2016 Olympics – will be working with Jamie Barge and Lillie Keenan, who is substituting for Jessica Springsteen, the rider originally named to the list. She and her team felt WEG wasn’t an ideal destination for her mount, RF Swimmy du Parc, at this time, and she will be working toward gaining further experience for the mare.
Asked for his thoughts on U.S. WEG prospects in the Olympic disciplines, U.S. Equestrian Federation Director of Sport Will Connell said, “There’s a long way to go, but there are some great combinations at the moment. If the next 100 days go well, it could be exciting.”
~ Nancy Jaffer