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American Standardbred horses learn art of dressage for World Equestrian Games

WILDWOOD — In this part of Florida horse country, some unusual equine training is taking place at Olympus Sport Horses farm.

Standardbreds, the American breed that flourishes as harness racing trotters and pacers, are learning various gaits and movements that combine to produce horse dancing, or, in saddle jargon, dressage.

Two of the mares — one owned by a group from Hernando County — will be vying for attention this week at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky., the first time the quadrennial 16-day international event has been staged outside of Europe. The two are the only horses from Florida that will perform in the dressage discipline, beginning their performances today.

Heather Caudill, 29, of Wildwood will be aboard. A rider since her toddler years and a trainer for 16 years, Caudill teaches dressage at Olympus for the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization of Florida, which has its headquarters in Brooksville.

Caudill describes dressage as "a cross between ballet and body building." Technically speaking, it involves a horse's changing of gaits, speeds, ballet steps and expressions through strength, balance and tenacity, via barely perceptible movements of a rider's hands, legs and weight.

But for Standardbreds, dressage is an entirely new way of locomotion.

"Our horses are bred for the track," said Debra Sweger of Brooksville, president of the Standardbred Pleasure Horse Organization.

That means their entire training has been in harness, pulling a sulky and never at more than trotting speed. They've never carried a saddle or rider or experienced the faster canter or gallop.

"They're never bred for riding or dressage," Sweger explained.

Of course, not all harness horses trot to the winner's circle. Those that consistently do not become "throwaways," Sweger said. "They go to auction as 'grade' horses or are slaughtered."

Enter the saviors for some of those steeds, the Standardbred pleasure group. Some harness horse owners donate their racing lacklusters to the 12-year-old organization, taking advantage of a tax write-off. The organization will purchase at discounted prices other non-winner coursers.

The pleasure movement aims to toss away the traces and train the Standardbreds as saddle horses for casual or trail riding.

"They have to overcome all previous training only to trot," said Tina Bombardo of Fruitland Park, breeder and owner of the Lexington-bound Standardbred Whiz Bang. "They have to learn it's okay to canter."

First off, the roadsters must experience the wearing of a saddle, then bearing weight on it, followed by traveling at speedier gaits.

After attaining pleasure horse status, the most elite that show talent in action, exhibit sturdy build and respond readily to discipline can be singled out for the top performing level of dressage.

Florida's leading dancer in the international games will be Sea the Gray, a 13-year-old owned by the pleasure horse organization, studying dressage for four years. She was a gift from an owner in Wisconsin who suffered a back injury and couldn't ride her anymore.

"She's in her prime," Sweger said of Sea the Gray.

The mare is at Level 3 accomplishment, already declared a Level 2 and freestyle champion among levels that reach to 4, based on increasingly difficult maneuvers, according to standards established by the U.S. Dressage Association.

"She's our ambassador horse," Sweger declared.

Caudill applauds the mare's conformation for dressage performance. In particular, her shoulders are higher than her haunches.

"She has a light spring to her feet," Caudill added. "She's more the ballet dancer."

Bombardo's Whiz Bang is a 15-year-old, and the owner grins when she says she's owned the mare since 11 months before she was born. A foal gestates for 11 months.

"She has such elegance about her," the breeder said. "That made me think she'd do well at dressage. I just think it's so beautiful."

Whiz Bang has earned reserve championship in both Level 2 and freestyle.

Caudill said Whiz has good, heavy haunches and overall size, but she would like to see the mare built a little more uphill, meaning her shoulders slightly higher than her haunches.

Among the movements on which judges evaluate dressage performances are:

• Renver, meaning at a trot the horse's shoulders are toward the inside of the ring and the haunches toward the rail.

• Lead changing. While moving in a curve to the left, the left foreleg hits the ground before the right; the right foreleg leads.

• Leg yields, where the horse moves laterally while maintaining a forward movement.

• Turn on haunches. While in a nearly stationary position, the horse crosses its right foot over its left, both fore and hind, repeatedly, then turns to the other direction, crossing the left over the right.

The dressage horses train for 45 minute, four to six times a week.

Competitive winnings for Sea the Gray and Whiz Bang — from Wellington to Tampa, Orlando, Gainesville, Ocala and Jacksonville — earned them both regional qualifications from the U.S. Dressage Association. The local region includes Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina.

Demonstration and exhibition, rather than competition, will be the thrust of their performances at the world games, Sweger said.

"This is an American breed, so (many) people from other countries haven't seen them," she explained. The only other breed native to America is the quarter horse.

Most people who are acquainted with Standardbreds as harness horses aren't aware they can be trained as pleasure or dressage mounts.

Rider Denise Zimmerman of Brooksville will join Caudill on saddle when the two horses demonstrate a pas de deux.

To facilitate the trip to the World Equestrian Games, tax-deductible sponsorships for the certified nonprofit organization were sought from businesses and individuals who want national and international exposure, Sweger said. She noted that training alone costs $6,000 annually per horse. Bombardo, as an owner, pays Whiz Bang's training fees herself.

Among the audience of equine enthusiasts who will watch some 800 athletes from 57 countries competing or exhibiting in eight disciplines at the games are bound to be those from countries that have hosted the previous international events: Sweden, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Germany.

Programming for the games is available online at alltrechfeigames.com.

Beth Gray can be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net.

For information on the Standardbred Pleasure Organization of Florida, contact Debra Sweger at (352) 796-4842 or hoofprints@mpinenet.net.

American Standardbred horses learn art of dressage for World Equestrian Games 10/02/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 2, 2010 4:39pm]

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