Masters of the Dressage World

Leueen Willoughby reports on the movers and shakers, theatre and magic at the World Dressage Masters, Palm Beach 2013!

The sun was shining and bling was bling was all around...

The trot-up for the World Dressage Masters Palm Beach took place on Thursday, January 24th. The sun was shining, horses’ coats were gleaming and the bling was blinging. After all, this is South Florida and among those pursuing equestrian pursuits bling is an essential. Well, not so much for the gentlemen perhaps but for the ladies it is de rigeur. Bling on browbands, bling on boots, helmets, hats, belts and last but not least bling on spurs! You can get matching bling earrings, stock tie pin and browband, so even if the balance or harmony is absent in your ride your accessories are harmonious. Among the many shops at the World Dressage Master Palm Beach there were acres of bling available.

All horses passed the trot-up without problems apart from Hans Peter Minderhoud’s Whitney van't Genthof. He was inspected by the vet, there was a discussion of the vet’s finding with the ground jury and then Hans Peter had to trot again. This time the horse was accepted.


The Grand Prix took place on Friday. New for 2013 in FEI competition, is the absence of any kind of running score visible to the audience or the judges. So we had to wait until the ride was finished and then the score would be on the leaderboard and the scores from each judge announced. While this may not be so exciting for the audience (who can forget the gasps in London as Charlotte and Valegro got 10’s for the extended trot), it is better for the fairness of the judging.


Before the start of the competition the announcer gave us the sad news that Edward Gal and Next One would not be competing. The horse was fine but Edward had succumbed to the nasty flu that is circulating this winter and was too ill to ride. There was audible disappointment from the audience. I thought it was sad to have come all the way from the Netherlands and then not be able to compete.
We did see his partner, Hans Peter Minderhoud and Whitney van't Genthof, though. I had watched the warm-up for this horse and rider. He started in a very low frame and then about 15 minutes before his ride time, he just picked the horse up into the show ring frame. It was a nice test with a few mistakes. In the warm-up, I had seen a pirouette left and from behind me came a comment from an international trainer and coach "now that is a pirouette". I had to agree. However, in the test the pirouette left was good but not as good as the one in the warm-up. Even the international professionals can have those fabulous warm-up moments that do not repeat in the show ring. His score was 69.72% and there was a murmur of disappointment from the audience.

The next horse in the ring was Donnerbube 2 and his Italian rider Silvia Rizzo. This stallion is a very big fellow with a huge neck. He has some sparkles in his mane and just at the top of his tail. Nothing to qualify as bling, mind you, just a little sparkle!They scored 65.25%.

Mikala Gundersen of Denmark and the very attractive mare, My Lady, made their World Dressage Masters (WDM)debut and scored 68.447%. The test went well but if I was to nit-pick, I could say there was some resistance in the rein back and although the passage was nice the piaffe was a bit on a pedestal. Mikala’s smile at the end of the test showed she was very happy with the ride though. The first combination to score above 70% was Lars Petersen on Mariett with 71.809%. This was Lars and Mariett’s first time at the WDM, as well.


David Marcus from Canada was the 8th rider to go. There were many good points in this ride and after the difficult time he had in the Olympics with Chrevi’s Capitol having a meltdown in the rain and being eliminated, thus eliminating his entire team, rides such as this must be a relief and a pleasure. He scored 70.75%.

Freak of nature?

The tenth rider in, was Heather Blitz on the remarkable Paragon. This horse has his diehard fans and also his detractors. Is he a phenom or a freak? I watched him in the warm-up and he is certainly extraordinary. He is said to be 17.3hh but to my eye this is a conservative understatement. He is rather like a runway model with the longest ever legs. It has been said he is like Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps in that his proportions are all wrong but when put together they allow him to excel at his sport. The extended trot is something else. But is it spectacular, or an arm-waving spectacle where something might fly off?

Heather Blitz was present at Paragon’s birth and has looked after him, trained and ridden him since then. It is a testament to Heather’s care and training that she has brought this horse along so well and had such success with him. The pair was on the gold medal team at the Pan Am Games and was reserve for the US Team at the London Olympics in what was Paragon’s first year at Grand Prix.

As she rode the test, I wondered how difficult it must be to guide such a large moving horse around the intricate movements of the test. The two’s must be difficult to fit in with such a large stride and still get the required nine changes. Paragon lost some energy in the piaffe and the pirouette left looked a bit laboured but the extended trot and passage did not disappoint his fans and he scored 74.064%.

Just an aside but since fashion does seem to be part of the Florida scene…… Heather Blitz was dressed in a brown tailcoat, brown and grey helmet with some sparkles in the grey center of the helmet and brown tack (brown rolled bridle and brown saddle) – the first time I’ve seen this in dressage competition. Brown does look good on a chestnut horse but the bridle made me feel I was in the hunter jumping ring instead of the dressage ring! There is always room for something new as long as there is a line drawn before riders with revolving, blinged out bow ties start coming down the center line!


Tina Konyot went after Heather. At the end of the ride I could see Tina was not pleased. She was given a score of 68.681%. However, later she was eliminated due to blood on the side of the horse. This comes under the new FEI blood rule for international competition. As of this writing the internet is buzzing with controversy about this. It seems to be unclear as to who made the decision to eliminate her. Was it the judge at C or the Technical Delegate who did the tack check at the end of the ride. I was sitting behind the judge at C, Gary Rockwell and did not see him make any comments to Tina. There are reports that IDRC has asked the show organizers for clarification on how the decision was made and other reports that say the IDRC feels it is not within their purview to intervene. No doubt we will hear more on this.
Unfortunately for Steffen Peters, his horse, Legolas, had an ill-timed call of nature in the zig zag and missed a change, did a few steps of half pass in counter canter and threw in a few ones to make up for his mistake! Not even Steffen Peters can overcome something like that but he did recover quickly and they scored 75.149% which took them to the top of the leaderboard much to the delight of all the American fans.

Another horse and rider making their debut at the World Dressage Masters here was Sweden’s Patrik Kittel and Watermill Scandic. As I watched their test I realized I had stopped taking notes and I was just enjoying the ride. They made it look so easy! I know it is not easy and every five seconds the rider has to make an adjustment, a preparation, a balancing but when it all comes together very little of that is visible, which is the beauty. The piaffe was lovely, the zig zag correct, the pirouettes very neat and well done. Yes, it just looked easy. Patrik was elated. I’m sure he was happy with his score of 77.681% which put him in first place.

Another Swedish rider, Tinne Wilhelmsen-Silfven was the last to go. Would she be able to get ahead of her compatriot? There were many nice moments in the test, good walk, good piaffe passage work, though the zig-zag a little bit rushed but good. They looked like they knew what they were doing and none of it was a huge effort. Was it enough to take her to first place? Not quite. Her score of 76.851% put her into second place behind Patrik.


At the press conference, Patrik talked about the progress his has been making with his horse and was elated with his result. "Before you are just glad you make everything happen in the test. That changed after the Olympics. Now, he is more uphill and I can work on the small things. The big things are all there. This was a Personal Best score for me. I heard one judge gave me 80% and I said ‘that’s cool’. This is the best ride I’ve had on this horse so far."

Asked if he liked the weather in Florida as the weather was "crap" in Sweden, Patrik replied "Well, I live in Germany but it’s crap there too. The people here are friendly and the judges give you good points". He laughed. Tinne commented that "If I have to be beaten I’m happy to be beaten by Patrik".


Steffen told us, "It was unfortunate that a call of nature upset the zig-zag" "I have to be patient with this horse and relaxation is key." When asked how he felt to be beaten as he is usually winning, he replied: "It’s nice to be the underdog again."


Faux pas!

On Saturday, the Grand Prix Special got off to a frustrating start for Canada’s Diane Creech who was the first rider to go. She began the test but in less than a minute was rung off course. The judge at C, Isabel Judet, spoke with Diane and then conferred with Stephen Clarke who was at E. It seems Diane was riding the Olympic Grand Prix Special and now they are back to the "old" Grand Prix Special. Diane could not ride the old test as she had memorized the "Olympic" test and so she retired.


The next Canadian rider had a much better time. Jackie Brooks horse D-Niro is not a ‘wow!’ horse but he is a solid worker and that is worth something. He came out and did his job: two’s and one’s clean and straight, one’s on centerline clean and straight, half passes good and covering ground with his not overly big stride. I really felt he was doing his absolute best for his rider and at the end she rewarded him with big pats. They scored 66.833%.

James Kofford’s Rhett has some of the biggest and most expressive changes I’ve seen. After a clean set of one’s James gave him a pat. If I rode those changes I’d be airborne. Knowing that James had a serious injury last year, breaking his pelvis in a riding accident, made me appreciate even more his skill in keeping a quiet seat on this big moving horse. They scored 67.167%.

Alpha mare

Mikala Gundersen and My Lady had a small mistake in the passage but the test was good and the mare looked like she enjoyed being in the ring. They earned 69.479%. At the press conference Mikala said: "She has presence. At the end on the centreline, I could just get off and go home, she would do it herself. She’s so proud of herself. She is an ‘alpha mare’ and there are lots of discussions between us but she has an amazing personality."

James Kofford said that his accident had changed things between him and his horse. "That changed the balance between me and Rhett. Before, I was the leader and the trainer and now he’s my buddy. Now he takes care of me. For me today it was a win- win. Rhett was so with me today. He came out with a grin and I came out with a grin."

Jackie said D-Niro was ‘amazing’. "I got a 70% from Stephen Clarke and I feel that’s what he did today." She will now concentrate on CDIW’s for the World Cup.


Saturday evening brought the Freestyle. It is on this evening that the full transformation of the arena from simply a covered arena in the Jim Brandon Center to a glamorous ‘indoor’ arena with the open sides draped with colourful screens, tables with lights for those dining and tents for food and drinks in the corners of the arena area.

Bad news

I had known from earlier in the day when the running list was given out that Hans Peters horse had "vetted out". It seems that the issue that had been noticed in the trot-up had worsened and for the good of the horse the vet allowed him to be withdrawn. How disappointing, not only for the audience but for both Edward and Hans Peter to have come from the Netherlands and have bad luck!

This isn’t great for the show organizers either. Since South Florida is a magnet for all the top riders from the US and Canada, it is possible to see top quality horses and riders for free almost every weekend. The bonus offered by the WDM is the presence of European riders that are seldom seen in North America. Of course the WDM is a big event and there are more shops, more food stands and a whole different ambiance in the arena but the European competitors are a big draw and part of the selling value of the expensive tickets for this show.

Also of importance is the chance for the North American riders to compete against their European counterparts. Since the London Olympics there has been much discussion in the US and Canada about the disappointing dressage results of both countries. One of the causes mentioned frequently is the lack of competition time in Europe against the European riders. The WDM gives an opportunity for that competition. But now, with both Edward and Hans Peter out of the completion there was only one competitor, Patrik Kittel from Europe and only two riders, Patrik and Steffen, who did not regularly compete in Florida. Tinne Wilhelmsen Silfven competes there for the winter season each year.

I thought what a pity it Hans Peter could not ride Edward’s horse and no sooner had I thought this than I heard that we were going to be given a demonstration by Hans Peter on Next One, at the start of the evening, with Edward commentating. So out came Hans Peter mounted on Next One. Edward (who had several coughing interruptions) apologized for not being able to ride and said he had been given lots of medication. He then went on to talk about the movement Hans Peter was doing on Next One and would make suggestions about what Hans Peter should work on.

Quickly it became apparent Hans Peter was not paying any attention to what Edward was saying. "You can see he’s not listening to me. But all the movements are good because the horse has been so well trained." We all had to laugh - it was a short but entertaining demonstration.

High voltage

Then the Freestyles began. The atmosphere was high voltage and for some horses that was just too much. Adrienne Lyle’s Wizard was absolutely wired! Adrienne’s music was funky Motown and the audience was in the mood to go along with it, so when Wizard crossed the diagonal with an extraordinarily expansive extended trot they began to whoop and holler. It was clear to me that Adrienne was having a real struggle to keep him with her. The walk was impossible for the very tense horse. As she came down the final center line the trot again brought a whoop from the audience. This was the straw that broke poor Wizard. He bolted forward to C and I would not have been surprised to see Stephen Clarke in the judges’ box there, duck down as it looked like Wizard was going to go right over the top of him. Adrienne managed to turn him at the last moment. Her score was 68.575%

When interviewed at the end of her ride she was in a good humour about the excitement. "My dancing partner was just a little too enthusiastic," she said. "I still love him and he’s a fantastic horse. I’m so happy to compete here."

Lars Petersen’s horse may have been calmer than Wizard, but Lars’ music was a frenetic mix of circus and show biz. I was exhausted just listening to it. I appreciated the humor and fun in the music but I felt that Mariett could hardly keep up. His score…..73.925%

Talent of a different type...

During the break, we had a polo demonstration. Polo is a big part of the equestrian scene in Wellington and Palm Beach. According to some of the young women I know here, it also provides all the best looking young men in the nightclubs. But I wouldn’t know anything about that!

Tinne and Don Aurelio came after the break. But I’m not going to talk about them until later. First I’d like to address the problem of tension and the atmosphere in the arena. All the horses had to come in while we waited for the results from the previous rider. The previous rider would dismount and then be interviewed about their ride. I have to say that this year, the interviewer was pretty lame though it did fill in the time.

Party time!

Meanwhile the next horse and rider were going around the arena, an arena where the audience is very close. There were people at the tables who had just finished a nice meal and had a glass of wine, others seated in the stands but may have also had a nice meal and been to the beer garden. So there was something of a party atmosphere. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this and certainly the audience was very respectful but for many horses the lights and the action are a lot to handle without anything else.

Then, up came the scores for the previous rider along with an explosion of applause. Seconds later the bell rings for the next competitor to start. For Paragon this was a tall order but he trusted Heather and did a good job with only a few mistakes. The pirouettes were a bit like spins but he did the two’s on a circle very well and the ones down the centerline to a halt. Heather said in her interview that there were "some good things and some tricky places. The crowd got to him at the start". She scored 74.9%.

When Steffen Peters entered the arena he had Legolas on a loose rein. Remembering how he had said that relaxation was key with this horse, I felt he was trying to keep him as relaxed as possible as they went around the ring waiting to start. Once underway, I thought his music was well suited to the horse. I particularly liked the piaffe to walk to a Coldplay theme played on the piano. At the end, Steffen said that it was "exciting tonight. I had a lot of horse. I had fun and I can guarantee that he had fun as well." They broke the 80% barrier with 80.25%

Scandic was not immune to the atmosphere either. His rock music suited the pair well and the "Hot in the City" tempo was perfect for the trot and passage. Despite the fact that Patrik looked like he had to keep the lid on Scandic, he went for it with the extended canter to pirouette. The piaffe was very exprWhodunitessive with Scandic’s legs snapping up in time to the music. Afterwards Patrik said the horse felt "really good. he was bit hot for ‘hot in the city’ tonight but I was really happy." His score inched above Steffan, at 82.525%

Simply brilliant!

Now I will tell you about Tinne and Don Aurelio. If Don Aurelio was tense I did not see it. They gave us a performance. Their music is a Cees Slings arrangement from the Who’s rock opera Tommy. This is quite simply a brilliant arrangement. Brilliant! On Saturday night, Tinne and Don Aurelio hit the tempo of the music beat for beat. Every transition was seamless and well timed. The ones to a pirouette….. lovely! The extended canter, accompanied by quieter guitar music instead of the usual crescendo that is given to the extended canter was excellent. Guitar accompaniment in the two’s beautifully timed. The ones….perfect! The halt! The crowd was on its feet for a standing ovation. Tinne said in her interview "I had a great feeling, a perfect feeling." This was the winning score, 84.075%

What made her Freestyle so special? Was it the horse and rider? Was it the music? Was it just lucky? Well, it certainly was not just luck. The musical arrangement will have taken a long time, months and months of work. The choreography will have been worked on and changed and reworked and refined over months as well, while the horse improved and changed. All of those things are important but for me the key ingredient is that they gave us a ‘performance’.

Performance art

The Freestyle is ‘performance art’ not just sport. Music can be highly subjective. Some people like one thing and others like another. But music is a universal language. It has been said that music is the purest form of human expression there is. Music is subliminal in the sense that it can touch us in a way that goes deeper than the rational or conscious mind. So, choosing the music for a Freestyle is far more than just picking a few tunes you like or you think your horse will like. It has to be music that will suit the horse and the rider, and the occasion!

Then the music has to be arranged and orchestrated to fit the choreography and to carry the audience along with it. If the audience is involved and engaged with the horse and rider’s performance it creates a powerful atmosphere and I defy any judge to not join in. When you have the right music and you have the two athletes who can give you the performance, not just excellent technical execution, but a performance then you have a winner! Even the best horses and riders and the best music cannot always come together to produce a winning performance. But when it happens it is an experience that no one in the audience will forget. That is what we had from Tinne and Don Aurelio, that Saturday night.

(Photos by Leueen Willboughby)

Editorial first seen at:

Leueen Willoughby

Leueen was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and began riding at the age of six. She began as a Western rider and at the age of 12 switched to English riding. She rode and competed in jumpers and eventing in Vancouver and also California initially. Then she did not ride actively, other than occasional hacking, for the next thirty years. At the age of 49, accompanying her young daughter who was passionate about horses, she took it up again. This time she pursued the discipline of dressage. Leueen also attributes her love of horses and her passion for riding to having helped her survive a battle with cancer. She lives in Stouffville, Ontario, Canada with her husband David. Leueen’s much loved horse is Tommie, a 10 year old KWPN gelding that she imported from Holland four and a half years ago. 


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