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No Rest for the Weary in Normandy: Athletes Use Day Off to Gear Up for Competition

August 26, 2014 By: janwest Category: General

A crew member for the US Endurance Team tends to My Wild Irish Gold, owned by Team veteran Valerie Kanavy and ridden by Kelsey Russell.

US Endurance Team rider Kelsey Russell (in helmet) is all smiles as she and My Wild Irish Gold, owned by Valerie Kanavy, gear up for Thursday’s race.

By Darlene Ricker

Photos by Diana De Rosa, unless otherwise noted

In the old days, tradition held that Sunday was a day of rest, and that’s exactly what the organizers of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy had in mind when they created the schedule of events. For all disciplines at these Games, Sunday the 24th was designated an official “Rest Day” so that the athletes could take a deep breath before the competition began on Monday.

However, the word “rest” is not currently in the vocabulary of most of these competitors. After all, it’s hard to kick back when you’ve been on a treadmill the past year or more, revving up to hit your peak (and, more importantly, your horse’s peak) in Normandy.

For example, members of the U.S. Endurance Team spent Sunday the same way they spent the previous days: preparing for Thursday’s 100-mile race. They got up well before the daily meeting that takes place first thing in the morning with chef d’equipe Emmett Ross, the team vet and any other members of the group who may be needed. The meeting starts promptly at 8 a.m. “Not 8:01, not 8:05,” as Emmett told me. “Eight o’clock sharp.”

US Endurance Team crew members practice handing off jugs of water as riders keep their pace. This is done throughout the race to keep the horses cool. It's a lot harder than it looks!

US Endurance Team crew members practice handing off jugs of water as riders keep their pace. This is done throughout the race to keep the horses cool. It’s a lot harder than it looks!

This Sunday morning, the riders had had only a few hours of sleep. The previous evening they had marched in the Parade of Athletes in the Opening Ceremony at D’Ornano Stadium in Caen, a four-hour roundtrip bus ride from their base near Sartilly (where the endurance race will be held) on the English Channel. It was close to midnight when the ceremony ended, so they didn’t get to sleep until about 2:30 a.m.

You certainly couldn’t tell by their appearance, though. When I arrived Sunday morning at their stabling area about six miles from Sartilly, the team members and their handlers looked far more awake than I’m sure I did. After they brought their horses in from pasture and attended the morning meeting, they tacked their meticulously groomed mounts and made themselves available for the next couple hours for a private photo shoot. I’m sure they had plenty of other things that needed to be done, but they and Emmett were extremely gracious and patient. After the official team photos were taken, they gave us another “photo op,” this time at an exercise track a short walk from the stabling area.

The riders mounted up and hacked around the sand track, first warming up at the walk and trot. Then they eased into a canter. As each approached, maintaining the pace, members of the crew came dashing up from the sides of the track, carrying plastic jugs of water. As you can see in the photos that accompany this story, they ran up to the horses and handed off (more like tossed) the containers to the riders, who (if the handoff was successful) dumped the water on their horses’ necks to cool them down.

Jeremy Reynolds and Heather Reynolds of Dunellon, Florida. Heather just won the prestigious Tevis Cup in California.

Jeremy Reynolds and Heather Reynolds of Dunellon, Florida. Heather just won the prestigious Tevis Cup in California. Photo by Darlene Ricker.

And this was a day of rest?

Well, eventually, yes (sort of). Emmett gave the riders the remainder of the day to do whatever they wanted, which for most of them meant chatting with teammates and crew and tending to their horses. The horses are never left unattended, whether in their stalls or in pasture. At least one team rider or crew member keeps constant watch, taking turns with others. That was my parting vision of the US Endurance Team on Sunday. As my photography partner, Diana de Rosa, and I headed off to the train station to go back to Caen, the minder who had been sitting in a lawn chair for several hours, staring at the horses in the pasture, was still doing so. But now it had begun to rain, so he had moved his perch to the front seat of a car, maintaining his lonely but ever-important vigil. As one of the team riders had said to me earlier that day: “The horse first.” Always.

Chef d'equipe Emmett Ross keeps a close eye during Sunday's practice session. His mission is to "keep everyone relaxed and ready" for Thursday's Endurance race.

Chef d’equipe Emmett Ross keeps a close eye during Sunday’s practice session. His mission is to “keep everyone relaxed and ready” for Thursday’s Endurance race.

Sidelines Blog from WEG #2: Lights, camera, action! Games Opening Ceremony a Sensory Tour de Force

August 25, 2014 By: janwest Category: General

"Chess piece" (horse) being directed to its next move on the "chessboard" that was created on the arena floor with grid lighting

“Chess piece” (horse) being directed to its next move on the “chessboard” that was created on the arena floor with grid lighting

By Darlene Ricker

Photo by Diana De Rosa

Who else but the French can turn the floor of a soccer stadium into a magical mystery tour? That’s the only way to describe Saturday night’s Opening Ceremony for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy. From the first horse that swept into the arena to the final cadre of performers, D’Ornano Stadium became a cavalcade of lights and imagery.

With 21,000 spectators, the stands were packed and the energy high for hours as the theme, “Around the World in 80 Horses,” played out. More than 100 horses and 300 people performed while special effects and lighting techniques turned the arena floor into incredibly lifelike backdrops. As one scene morphed into another, you couldn’t help but wonder: Am I really seeing what I think I’m seeing? (Truth be told, it was one of those things you had to witness in person to fully appreciate. The photos that accompany this story can only give a hint of how spectacular the Opening Ceremony really was.)

At first glance the arena looked like a barren desert, and then, before you could blink your eyes, the makeshift “sands” shifted and a village of what looked like white tents appeared to pop up. While I was trying to figure out whether they were real or an illusion, they suddenly turned into shimmering, multicolored structures, each with a unique pattern and design. It looked as though the “tents” were woven of fabrics of different textures – but of course, there were no fabrics because there were no tents. There was only a gateway to the imagination.

Nomadic riders circle around what appeared to be multicolored "tents" but were an optical illusion

Nomadic riders circle around what appeared to be multicolored “tents” but were an optical illusion

Set against a backdrop of inky black sky, the spectacle in D’Ornano Stadium spun a web of wonder as it played with our senses. At times the arena floor seemed to turn liquid and become an ocean, its waves building and advancing toward the bleachers. If you didn’t know better, you’d have sworn you were about to be swallowed up.

These and other effects kept spectators engaged during the program, which showcased the magnificence of the horse and its role in the advancement of civilization. Performances took us on a tapestry of historical turns, from the prehistoric era of nomads and Przewalski’s horse to the Vikings (who ruled the seas from the year 800 to 1066) and on to the story of William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (when the Normans seized the English crown). Then the Renaissance arrived, illustrated by a dance of classical horses at a lightshow-created Palace of Versailles – the fabled abode of King Louis XIV (who also built the French National Stud at Le Pin, where the dressage and cross-country phases of three-day eventing will be held later this week).

The Battle of Hastings in 1066

The Battle of Hastings in 1066

But the Opening Ceremony wasn’t just a pretext for a history lesson. As time marched on (that concept illustrated by a moving “clock” that appeared on the arena floor, with riders weaving in and out of “time”), the performances took on a modernistic flair, depicting a fantasy world of particle acceleration and time and space travel. There were also some whimsical and intellectual touches, such as a lighting grid that turned the arena floor into a giant black-and-white chessboard. Black and white horses slowly changed positions in the manner that chess pieces would strategically be moved from one square to another.

The ceremony closed with crowd favorite Lorenzo (the “Flying Frenchman”) and his band of Lusitanos, which performed at liberty, completely without tack. The herd galloped into the arena, followed by Lorenzo standing atop two others, each of his feet planted on one of the horse’s backs. From his moving perch, he guided the herd through synchronized moves, looking all the while like he was conducting a symphony orchestra. How he could influence those horses to do exactly as he wanted from afar, without so much as speaking to them, epitomized the magic of the entire evening.

Lorenzo, "the Flying Frenchman," reacts to a standing ovation as he closes the Opening Ceremony

Lorenzo, “the Flying Frenchman,” reacts to a standing ovation as he closes the Opening Ceremony

Sidelines Blog from WEG #1: Let the Games Begin!

August 22, 2014 By: janwest Category: General

Darlene Arrives at WEG! Photo by Diana De Rosa

Darlene Arrives at WEG!
Photo by Diana De Rosa

This is the first of Darlene Ricker’s exclusive blog posts for Sidelines from the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy. One of the few journalists to arrive in Caen several days before the Games open, her initial report gives our readers a unique insider’s preview of what’s in store. 

The tunnel from which the horses will enter the arena.

The tunnel from which the horses will enter the arena.

By Darlene Ricker

Photos by Darlene Ricker, unless noted otherwise

Tomorrow the curtain goes up on the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy, in what is sure to be the most amazing Opening Ceremony in Games history. As the suspense builds, the Normandy Organizing Committee (which everyone here refers to as the “NOC”) is keeping a tight lid on the program. At tonight’s rehearsal, I will be among the few to get a preview of what’s in store. But not to be a spoiler, I’ll only be able to share with you my general impressions until after the actual ceremony.

The equestrian marching band practicing for the opening ceremony.

The equestrian marching band practicing for the opening ceremony.

However, this much I can say now: I had a chat with Games CEO Fabien Grobon, who told me there will be numerous surprises for the senses. He alluded in particular to special effects and animation, some of which will make spectators feel as though they are standing onstage with the performers, actually experiencing the action, not just observing it from the stands. “I guarantee, you have never seen anything like this!” he said. On that you can rely; I have known Fabien for five years, and he is a man of his word. Given that he was for many years in charge of marketing and entertainment for the top tennis tournament in the world – the French Open – one can’t even begin to imagine how impressive this Opening Ceremony will be.

Stabling area at main arena (D'Ornano) is the white tents at left. It is about 20 feet from the sidewalk in the center of the city of Caen. You can hear horses whinneying from the sidewalk cafes & bistros.

Stabling area at main arena (D’Ornano) is the white tents at left. It is about 20 feet from the sidewalk in the center of the city of Caen. You can hear horses whinneying from the sidewalk cafes & bistros.

Meanwhile, the city of Caen (where most of the competition venues are), along with the rest of Normandy, is revving up for a 15-day extravaganza. Yesterday, I spotted U.S. dressage chef d’equipe Robert Dover strolling around town, just outside d’Ornano Stadium, a magnificent venue that will host the Opening Ceremony and the competitions for two of the most popular disciplines (dressage and show jumping), as well as the show jumping phase of eventing. D’Ornano was originally a soccer stadium and has been completely revamped for the Games. I walked through it and was amazed – and it takes a lot to amaze me after several decades covering international equestrian events. There literally is not a bad seat in the house (no posts to obstruct your view anywhere). The spectator seating ay d’Ornano completely surrounds the arena and is stacked low, so that you feel very close to the action. What a spectacular setting!

I also checked out the stabling area (which I won’t be able to do again after the horses arrive, as FEI stabling is strictly off limits to everyone except athletes, grooms and officials; this is for security and equine health reasons). The stalls are lovely, light and airy, with fresh bales of shavings waiting to be broken open when the horses arrive. There is additional stabling just like this at each of the venues, which is a great convenience for competitors.

The Alltech Media Lounge - where Darlene will spend lots of time updating Sidelines!

The Alltech Media Lounge – where Darlene will spend lots of time updating Sidelines!

Speaking of convenience, the organizers even decided to build a temporary hotel for the three-day event competitors and their teams at Haras du Pin (the venue for the dressage and cross-country phases of eventing), so that they can be close to their horses at all times of day and night. Haras du Pin is normally an hour’s drive (without Games traffic) from d’Ornano Stadium, where the show jumping phase of eventing will be held. Eventing discipline manager Jean-Marc Varillon told me how pleased he was that the Games organizers went to such lengths to ensure the comfort, safety and convenience of the horses and riders.

That is the case across the board for each discipline in these World Championships, with every luxury a competitor could imagine being provided. After all, as Fabien puts it, “These athletes are not coming to compete; they’re coming to make a place in history.”

Let the Games begin!

The stadium - soon to be filled!

The stadium – soon to be filled!