World Equestrian Games 2018 report by Francesca Sternberg
The World Equestrian Games is held every four years, in order to bring together all the disciplines that are recognized by the FEI, in one event. There are 8 equestrian sports that are held under the FEI umbrella; 3 Olympic, Show Jumping, Eventing and Dressage, one Para Olympic, Para Dressage. There are 4 NOD (Non-Olympic Disciplines) comprising of Reining, Vaulting, Driving and Endurance. Each one of these disciplines compete to award the coveted FEI World Champion titles to their teams and to their individuals, as well as the top 5 nations in the Olympic Disciplines gaining qualification for the next Olympic Games, that will be held two years later. It is the one time every four years, that all the disciplines are on the same site vying for the same podium positions, and the very best equine athletes in the world (both two legged and four) are there, representing their country. There just isn’t another equestrian event like it and the atmosphere is amazing!
The 2018 WEG was originally to have been held in Canada, but 18 months ago due to financial issues, Canada pulled out - leaving the future of the WEG hanging. The horse park in Tryon, North Carolina offered to take the event and overnight it changed countries and venues. This event is absolutely massive, and although Tryon was already an established show venue, it was a monumental job to be ready in such a short time. The week before the start, there was still no turf on the Eventing Cross Country course, grooms accommodation had not been built, there were no seats in the main arena, and a myriad of other fixtures and fittings were either not fixed or fitted! The Reining arena was however finished, although the surface only arrived the day before we did!
Alison Bucknall and Jac Barbee Dream had qualified in France, and so Jac had to make the big trip across the pond. It was the largest airlift of horses in history, with 500 Equines flying in to a quarantine station, before transferring to the show ground. The quarantine was hot and humid, and the horses could not leave for 3 days, but Jac being of a laid back disposition took it all in his stride. My horse, Spook N Sparkle (aka Charlie), only had to get there from Texas…I say “only “ but that was a good 16 hour road trip for him. However, he arrived bright eyed and bushy tailed on the Friday morning, after Jac had been let out of quarantine a couple of days before.
The weather in NC at this time of the year is unbelievably hot and humid. It took quite a toll on the horses, and then there was the arena……a Gobi desert sized sand pit, and I know because I have crossed the Gobi Desert!! It was a case of getting the horses used to the ground, the arena, and ready to show without exhausting both them and us.
Trot up day was Tuesday, and dressed in our BEF finest, both Jac and Charlie sailed through. This for me is the most nerve wracking part, as if you don’t pass you don’t get to play, but wonderfully all 63 horses went through. That evening, was the opening ceremony, and to my immense honour and delight, I was asked to carry the British Flag. That will be a memory I shall cherish forever more!
Wednesday was show day! Our Chef D’Equipe, Doug Allen had drawn for us, and as individuals we would have places in the draw between the teams. Unbelievably, he drew us back to back, draw 51 and 52! I was to go first. I was really worried that Charlie was going to struggle, as he is a small rotund gelding who doesn’t have a lot of get up and go. His main interest, up to this point, was eating the gargantuan carrots we had been supplied with! I had been told to aim for a 71.5 to 72 run, as that is where he is most comfortable, so with that in mind we entered the enormous arena. By the time we reached the centre, Charlie had grown several hands in stature and informed me he was ready to go – so we did! After 4½ minutes we exited the arena with a 218.5, way more than anticipated and I had discovered that Charlie could plus 1 his right turns! Alison followed and put down a precise quality run, earning her a 209.5. We both felt that we looked good in our outfits (it is ALL about the outfits), and that we could not have asked more of our wonderful horses who had really given their all.
The score of 218.5 took Charlie and me back to the second round, where the next 15 scores below the top 15 scores, can fight for a place in the individual finals. In previous WEG’s, a score of 216 took you directly to the finals, so it was an indication of the level of competition and illustrating the standard of the runs. In the seeded rounds, Charlie and I were 10th to go, out of the 19 trying to get to finals (more than the usual amount, due to ties). The first few scores were all above the 218 that Charlie and I had originally scored, but I had a plan…. When I was a child in show jumping, we had a lethargic pony which we used to feed glucose to, in order to give him more energy and jump. I had tried one of those official carrots myself and found it to be incredibly sweet, and an idea had popped in to my head. Between my two runs I fed Charlie a LOT of carrots, to the point where Tabitha, who was grooming for me, became quite perturbed. “Stop giving him so many” she said, but I had a reason. It might just help his energy levels out in that massive arena. Round two and Charlie and I launched…carrot power to the fore. 4½ minutes later, we exited with a 220.5 personnel WEG best for me and way more than Charlie was expected to do! We sat in the tied 5th slot until the last horse, but it was not to be and we were bumped out. I was so proud of this little horse, who had given more than he was truly capable of, and it would have been wonderful to go to the finals but we missed by the smallest margin of ½ a point. You would think, over 8 manoeuvers and 5 Judges, I could have found that somewhere!! However, every cloud has a silver lining and that afternoon, I was asked if I would like to join Philip Ghazala in the commentary box!! Answer: Absolutely yes!!
So on Saturday afternoon, I watched the best Reiners in our industry, from the best seat in the house and also got to chat about them. Anyone who knows me knows how I love to talk, so I was in hog heaven. The oncoming Hurricane had caused the Dressage to be cancelled, and after a disaster in the Endurance that was also off, so the whole world and their TV crews had their eyes trained on the Reining, and what a ‘finals’ it was! In the end, the gold medal went to Bernard Fonck, with a foot perfect and inspiring run, on the incredible NRHA Multiple World Champion ‘What a Wave’ beating Dan Huss from the USA on Ms Dreamy, by just ½ a point. There was a run off for the Bronze medal between Cade Mc Cutcheon, the youngest rider in the competition on Custom Made Gun, and the Brazilian João Felipe Lacerda on Gunner Dun it again. In the first go, they had both marked a 225 and then they came back to mark a 228 and 227 respectively, scores that would have captured first and second place had they done that the first time round! In a truly international field - tied 5th place went to Martin Muhlstatter from Austria and Manuel Cortesi from Italy. There was drama with held scores, with reviews for Jordan Larson whose horse’s hip touched the ground in the stop, and Anne Fonck who had a break of gait. In the end, it was those pesky ½ points that split the top places, and gave such a nail biting finish.
I have competed at 4 previous WEGS, and this was without a doubt, the best and the toughest. At the 2016 WEG in France, a 218 went directly to the finals, in this one it just made the consolation round, and it took a 221 to go to the finals from there! It took a brave fit horse and a rider who made no mistakes to get it done. I was incredibly proud of Charlie and thankful to my sister Rosanne, for lending him to me for this. My back up crew of Tabitha and George were the best support I could have and Chef/Husband Doug kept us on course. I was incredibly proud and honored to ride in such an esteemed group of horses and riders. It is said that “you only ride as well as the company you ride with” and it was certainly true for me, as my scores went up in a hurry!! It is yet to be decided who will host the next WEG in 2020, but I am already hugely looking forward to it!