By Louise Parkes
They’re going to be dancing and prancing, jogging and spinning, jumping, galloping and giving it everything they’ve got when the horses and athletes in the first four disciplines take centre stage at the much-anticipated FEI World Equestrian Games™ Tryon 2018 in North Carolina, USA next week.
A total of 349 athletes from 54 countries will be chasing down the first-week medals in Dressage, Endurance, Eventing and Reining, and it’s going to be fast and furious from the outset.
The definite entry list for the first week is now complete, so here’s what we can expect once the action gets underway on 12 September.
Endurance will be first off, with 124 athletes from 40 countries tackling the 160-kilometre course, which has been designed to be technically demanding, with twists and turns and plenty of hills. Entries include defending individual champion HH Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum from the UAE and Jaume Punti Dachs who led the Spanish team to victory on French soil in Normandy four years ago.
It was Becky Hart of the United States with her Arabian R.O. Grand Sultan who won the individual title at the inaugural Games 28 years ago, when 81 horse-and-rider partnerships from 19 countries competed and Great Britain topped the team podium. America holds the record for the most individual Endurance titles having posted three-in-a-row in 1990, 1994 and 1998. However France has claimed the most medals with 10 in total including three gold, four silver and five bronze.
Dressage also begins on 12 September and the big question here will be whether Germany’s Isabell Werth can add to the seven gold medals she has previously taken. There are three separate competitions: the Team event, the Grand Prix Special and the Grand Prix Freestyle. Werth won her first gold in the Special in 1994 on the road to becoming the most medalled athlete in the history of equestrian sport today. A total of 61 riders from 23 countries participated that year, and this time there will be 78 representing 31 nations.
The fairytale success of Charlotte Dujardin (GBR) and her brilliant gelding Valegro who, at the height of their career together, collected both the Special and Freestyle titles in Normandy (FRA) four years ago, has been largely responsible for a massive surge in the popularity of modern Dressage. The British rider will defend her titles, but this time around with the relatively untried Mount St John Freestyle while Werth has decided to swap her world number one ride, Weihegold, for her personal favourite Bella Rose whose march to the podium in Caen was abruptly halted by injury.
Germany claimed team gold for the 11th time in 2014, and holds the record for most medals, 22 in total, at the WEG. However the hosts from the USA are tipped to turn the tide, led by the world number three combination of Laura Graves and Verdades who have been showing fantastic recent form.
North America has completely dominated the Reining medal podium since joining the WEG programme back in 1992, with the USA claiming seven titles and Canada’s Duane Latimer coming out on top at Aachen in 2006. This sport was hugely popular from the outset, with spectators enjoying every moment of the razzmatazz, hootin’ and hollerin’ that accompanies the “run down”, “roll back” and “sliding stop” manoeuvres performed by the world’s top partnerships. Mandy McCutcheon (USA, bronze in 2014) and Shawna Sapergia (CAN, bronze in 2002) are the only female athletes to have won a medal in the individual event.
With six gold medals, America’s Shawn Flarida is the most successful Reining competitor in WEG history, but he’s not coming back to defend the title he won once more last time around. However the McCutcheon name is likely to be prominent as Mandy’s husband Tom, who claimed team gold and individual silver in 2002 and double-gold on home ground in Kentucky eight years later will be joined in the US side by son Cade. A total of 64 horse-and-rider combinations from 20 countries will do battle for the team and individual Reining titles.
When it comes to Eventing, which begins on Thursday 13 September, all eyes will be on the New Zealand husband-and-wife duo of Tim and Jonelle Price because the pair of them are on fire right now, Jonelle bagging the big prize at Badminton in May and Tim topping the line-up at Burghley last weekend. And Jonelle will be saddling up her brilliant Badminton winner, Classic Moet.
Remarkably the Kiwi team will also include both Blyth Tait who claimed double-gold at the first WEG in Stockholm 1990 and his team-mate, the legendary Mark Todd, who was already a double-Olympic champion. The New Zealand record at the WEG is highly impressive, Vaughn Jefferis taking all the individual glory in 1994 and Tait pipping Todd for the individual honours in 1998 when they again topped the team table.
The phenomenal Michael Jung gave Germany its first taste of individual success in 2010 and was just pipped by team-mate Sandra Auffarth last time around in France. Auffarth comes back to defend her title and even in Jung’s absence the German side looks more than formidable as 83 riders from 23 countries set off in their quest for that coveted top step of the Eventing medal podium.
Tryon 2018 is the eighth edition of the eight-discipline Games which are held on a four-year cycle and which previously visited Stockholm (SWE) in 1990, The Hague (NED) in 1994, Rome (ITA) in 1998, Jerez (ESP) in 2002, Aachen (GER) in 1996, Kentucky (USA) in 2010 and Normandy (FRA) in 2014.