Fancy Hoofwork : Bredahl, Meyers Direct Equine Maneuvers in Bid to to Make U. S. Olympic Dressage Team
August, 1984. The Olympic Games, Santa Anita Park
Charlotte Bredahl is with the Danish equestrian team, but not as a rider. Having spent the past five years in the United States, she has been recruited as a translator. She is an expert rider, one of the few Grand Prix-level dressage competitors in the Los Angeles area. But she is not about to bump any members off the Danish team, which is on its way to a silver medal. The United States’ team is not quite at that level yet, however, and a thought can’t help but enter her mind: “When I get my citizenship . . . “
Marie Meyers is a face in the crowd, one of many women in the audience who developed a fascination with horses while in her teens, then never let go of it. She and her husband are planning to start a family in the near future, but another thought comes to her as she watches the best in the world: “They make mistakes, too. I can do this . . . “
May 1, 1988. United States Equestrian Team Olympic dressage selection event, Los Angeles Equestrian Center, Burbank
Charlotte Bredahl, Marie Meyers and seven other riders warm up their horses in an adjacent field as the three judges mount their platforms around the competition ring. About 60 people are scattered in the grandstand on one side of the ring, while perhaps 75 others sit around tables under tents in the “VIP” area across the way. Also looking on are about a dozen dogs, some nuzzling each other, others snoozing in the shade of the tables, enjoying the escape from the midday sun.
It’s not quite the atmosphere one might expect for a national-level event, but this is no typical Olympic sport. Although practiced for centuries, dressage (rhymes with massage)--the art of training a horse and rider to perform highly disciplined, intricate maneuvers--remains the passion of a small minority of enthusiasts. It’s the Summer Olympics’ equivalent of ice skating’s compulsory figures--those complex patterns that the skaters trace in relative obscurity before they emerge before large crowds to perform their dance-like acrobatics. Except here it’s a horse that must perform pirouettes and neat circles, then execute moves such as the “piaffe,” a cadenced trot in place, or the “half-pass,” which entails going forward and sideways at once by putting hoof across hoof.
A whistle blows and the first competitor rides into the ring--actually a rectangular area 60 x 20 meters, two-thirds the size of a football field. Carole Hoffman of Palos Verdes, aboard a horse named Rembrandt, enters from one end of the rectangle and heads toward the other end, where two of the judges are seated, ready to dictate their scores for each move to assistants seated beside them. Hoffman stops in the middle of the ring, salutes, then begins a nearly 10-minute program that provides no choices--each maneuver, and the sequence, must be done as prescribed.
It’s nervous time.
Bredahl and her horse, Copenhagen, are scheduled to go fifth.
“He’s tired. It’s got to show,” she says. “They’re going to pick the horses that have the international potential, really good-moving horses. He’s a very nice horse, but he doesn’t have that potential.”
There are few secrets among competitors at this level. It takes years to train a carefully selected horse to perform the Grand Prix tests, and the horse then becomes part of a select society, much as are the riders.
Bredahl gives lessons and trains horses out of a stable adjoining Hidden Hills, the gated community of million-dollar homes and equestrian trails at the southwestern edge of the San Fernando Valley. Meyers gives lessons and trains just a few miles to the north, at Bell Canyon, another gated community where households are likely to include more horses than children.
“Marie has a good chance,” Bredahl says of Meyers, who will ride sixth.
Hoffman is halfway through her program and, to the uninitiated, she appears to be almost a mannequin in the saddle--it is impossible to detect the subtle pressures applied with the insides of the calves, tiny weight shifts and the slight pulls on the reins that signal the horse to go immediately from one move into another.
Rembrandt launches effortlessly into a “flying change,” a skipping motion across the ring in which the horse, at a canter, leads first with one leg, then the other.
Hoffman finishes in front of the judges to healthy applause from the spectators. After a couple of minutes, the whistle blows again and it’s time for a new rider.
Although all the riders’ performances look nearly flawless to anyone who is less than an expert, the judges note subtle differences as they assign scores of from 0 to 10 for each move. The marks then are totaled and converted into a percentage--a mark of at least 60% is needed to compete for a top spot. When the scores are announced, Hoffman has 705 points (57.317%), the second rider 746 points (60.65%), the third 600 (48.78%) and the fourth 693 (56.341%). Dressage, long popular in parts of Europe, likely will never appeal to the American taste for broad drama. Another equestrian event, jumping, although also a sport of a wealthy minority, comes much closer. The horse either makes it over the barrier or it doesn’t. The rider stays on or doesn’t. And, if there’s a tie for the lead after they all have tried it, they do it again while racing against the clock.
In dressage, the decision is left to the judges and the contest may turn on how the horse bends its neck as it rounds a corner. And no one falls off--indeed, the rider doesn’t even rise out of the small English saddle.
The jumpers compete for thousands of dollars in prize money on a far-ranging circuit. The dressage competitors tend to stay within a region and battle for ribbons.
In candid moments, the insiders do not even try to make a case for mass appeal. “Dressage is very boring,” Meyers confides. “It’s very boring to me and it’s my whole life.”
Meyers, a Canoga Park resident, started riding competitively 14 years ago when she was 17. At 20, she began working with a strong horse named Dimitrius, at the time an unbroken stallion from the Netherlands, and they eventually reached Grand Prix level--almost eight years later.
“If you like a challenge, it just gets into you,” she says.
In addition to the money she earns teaching at the stable, Meyers and her husband have used earnings from a Ventura lighting business to fund her drive to the top. She has received help in training the horse from one of the leading American riders, Robert Dover, and personal instruction from a German expert. She spent six months in concentrated training in Virginia and six weeks last year in Canada.
Even the birth of a child two years ago did not stop the singular effort that earned Meyers a place on the “long list” of 18 riders under consideration for the Olympic team. The Los Angeles event will help determine which competitors from the West Coast will be selected for the national “short list” of perhaps 10 riders who will go to New Jersey next month for the final Olympic trials. Only four make the team.
Charlotte Bredahl became eligible for the competition two years ago when she became an American citizen.
A tall, athletic woman who might have been a volleyball player had she been born in California, the Calabasas resident does not have the resources Meyers enjoys--she has personally conducted all the training for Copenhagen and does not own the horse herself. The animal belongs to director/writer Hugh Wilson (“WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Police Academy”) and his wife, who likes to ride.
“She’s been pregnant for the last five years. Three kids,” Bredahl explains. “So I’ve had the horse in training. They come to all the shows.”
It’s a good arrangement, but there’s always the danger a benefactor will want to take the horse back, or sell it for a profit after the training, when it becomes very valuable. “I’m just getting into real estate around Hidden Hills,” she notes, “so I can afford to buy the horses myself.”
In the standard equestrian white shirt, dark blazer and small top hat, Bredahl is a statuesque figure as she enters the ring on Copenhagen. Two days earlier, the pair had dazzled the crowd at an evening exhibition that opened the weekend horse show. That was in a new, unofficial event, “Musical Freestyle,” which is becoming the sport’s equivalent of ice skating’s dance programs. It’s more of a crowd-pleaser and even offers prize money--Bredahl picked up $500 after recording the evening’s highest score, 69%.
But the dressage event, which included one round Saturday and the final round Sunday, are confirming Bredahl’s worry that her mount is not quite up to the competition. While their riding is clean and their moves on schedule, the expert eyes are noting subtleties in the horse’s extension and other physical qualities.
After Bredahl rides from the ring and dismounts, someone walks up and compliments the performance.
“No, no,” she says as a groom takes the horse. “It’s not good enough. He just doesn’t have the really big movement they’re looking for.”
There’s a break in the action to smooth the dirt in the ring and Bredahl rushes off to freshen up. Soon after she returns and takes a seat under the tent, joined by her German shepherd puppy, the score is announced: 656 points, translated to 53.333%.
She’s going to finish in the lower half of the field.
“I know they’re very tough in this competition, but I’ve never gotten these scores,” she says matter-of-factly. “One of these same judges, he gave me a 59 last weekend.”
The whistle blows for the next rider to begin and eyes look up into the ring.
“She’s having a very good ride,” Bredahl says after awhile.
In fact, the rider seems to have drawn everyone’s attention. It’s Meyers.
In Phoenix last week, Meyers came within 5/10ths of a percentage point of the favorite in the West Coast competition, Bernie Traurig of San Diego. An experienced competitor whose horse, Azurit, previously reached top international levels under a Swiss rider, Traurig again edged ahead by 5/10ths of a point in Saturday’s first round here. Intent on making the Olympic team after just missing four years ago, he’s scheduled to be the last competitor today.
In the ring, Meyers is a confident rider. Dimitrius seems powerful, yet controlled, moving smoothly from one maneuver to another.
The experts look carefully for any break in the routine. They don’t see any.
When she finishes, the applause is by far the loudest of the day.
Meyers rides to the practice area, dismounts and accepts the plaudits of her groom and others. “Beautiful, beautiful transitions,” someone says.
“We did good,” Meyers confirms.
When her score is announced, no one is surprised it’s the highest of the day, 61.707%. But the leader is still to come.
Twenty minutes later, it’s his turn.
“That horse does move, but it looks really labored to me,” Bredahl comments while Traurig is in the ring. There also is a slight problem with his flying changes, but no one is counting out the proven horse and rider.
“It’s going to be tough,” Bredahl says. “The judges really like him.”
As the crowd awaits the outcome, Bredahl turns her thoughts to future competitions. She talks with enthusiasm about a new horse she’s starting to train, Monsieur, owned by Stuart Miller, who operates one of the area’s largest networks of Christmas tree lots.
“It takes years to train them, but this horse is as good athletically as anything here,” Bredahl says. “I’ll just have to convince Stuart to keep him for four years.”
She suddenly realizes that the other competitors have gathered in the practice area with their horses so they can ride back into the ring and pick up their ribbons when their names are called.
“It looks like everyone else is going in,” she says. “I’m going to act like I don’t exist.”
Meyers, however, is ready by her horse. Later, she would admit that she was not very confident about the outcome, despite all the pats on the back. She tells herself that she and Traurig are “not really competing against each other,” but “against the East,” where dressage is more established and where riders at similar preliminary trials also are trying to qualify for the finals.
Yet when did it ever hurt to win?
“In all honesty, I thought we had won the day before,” she says, the “we” meaning she and her horse. “But we didn’t. So when they were about to announce the scores, I thought, ‘He’s going to beat me by five-tenths of a point again.’
“I told Bernie, ‘OK, mount up and collect your winner.’ ”
But the loud speaker had the final say. The voice announced that thevictor in Sunday’s Grand Prix Special also had received the highest two-day total, and it beckoned forward to receive the blue ribbon . . . “Marie Meyers on Dimitrius.”
The determined horsewoman rode back into the ring to pick up the blue ribbon, trotting steps closer to a trip to to New Jersey next month--and closer to being more than a spectator when the Olympians convene this summer in Seoul.