Dressage in Latin America and the Caribbean

Thu, 11/19/2009 - 00:00
Eurodressage F.O.C.U.S.

One judge and three FEI-level riders share their stories

The globalisation of dressage has been a topic of interest to the FEI and a number of initiatives, including those of the Dressage Task Force, have focused on strategies to expand the sport in developing countries.

With the WEG coming up in 2010 the spotlight will be not only on the powerhouse nations in Europe and the United States, but we will be hearing more about riders from developing countries. What makes the achievements of these riders and horses interesting is that they often face obstacles most riders would never consider – such as complete lack of infrastructure to support a horse, including hay, grain, and veterinary care.

For this article, Eurodressage's Jennifer Koppy talked to several dressage professionals to explore the potential for the growth of dressage in their home countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including Maribel Alonso (Mexico, "O" judge), Marco Bernal (Colombia), Luis Reteguiz-Denizard (Puerto Rico) and Yvonne Losos de Muñiz (Dominican Republic).

These pros have been instrumental in introducing dressage to their countries. With the World Equestrian Games on the horizon for next year these riders are giving it their all, because achieving competitive success at the WEG in 2010 could determine their country’s willingness to support a trip to London for the Olympics in 2012. "I am, of course, very much looking forward to competing at these events for myself. But I also am very aware that my success or failure will have an impact on the growth of dressage in Puerto Rico" said Denizard. He noted that international success goes a long way to inspiring equestrians in developing regions to try out dressage and it also helps capture the attention of the local Olympic Committees, which is crucial for many who do not have the personal funds to cover all the costs of competition.

Being a great distance away from FEI-level dressage competitions, many riders have relocated themselves and their families, or spend significant amounts of time traveling to train and compete. The riders with whom we spoke all know the importance of spending time in the competition ring to stay relevant in this demanding sport.

The challenges that riders from developing countries (defined as geographies and countries that are developing their capabilities and infrastructure to support dressage) face are very different from those that riders in the powerhouse European nations and even those in the United States encounter. Proximity to competitions, availability of quality horses, and access to top trainers are common obstacles. Mexico's Maribel Alonso, "O" judge, has been instrumental in shaping the global expansion of the sport. She views access to quality horses as the real key to success. "In Europe many riders have their horses in their backyard and in Latin and South America, the contact to horses is not as easy and natural."

Alonso's efforts in promoting dressage in Mexico have included creating a database that helps her region as well as the FEI address issues and allocate resources, both human and material, that could eventually yield results. Her current mission is helping the FEI focus more on the children and youth as the future of the sport.

Specific to dressage in Latin America and the Caribbean, Alonso said, "the required discipline is not always easy for our mentality, nevertheless we have proven that we are capable of reaching the high-level standards of the sport." At the 1995 Pan American Games in Argentina, Mexico beat the Americans and Canadian, taking the Gold Team and Gold Individual in dressage. And in 1997, Mexico won the North American Championships at the Grand Prix level, again both the team and individual competitions. 
The mentality of which Alonso speaks? Perhaps this is the generalization that Latin Americans, a passionate and artistic culture, lack the discipline and focus to achieve success in such a highly focused and exact sport such as dressage.

Certainly many differences exist between cultures and geographies, but a common thread seems to be that "aha" inspirational moment that riders experience when they sit on a good horse and realize the magic in the connection. Bernal, Denizard, and Losos de Muñiz all can pinpoint the specific ride when they became interested in pursuing dressage, which led to them introducing dressage to riders in their home countries.

Mexico's Bernadette Pujals is a good example of success. At the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Pujals placed 10th in the Grand Prix Special and in the Freestyle competition. At the 2008 Hong Kong Olympic Games, Pujals placed 9th overall. Although dressage is still second to show jumping in Mexico (and in the majority of countries worldwide) the dressage federation has grown significantly. The Mexican Olympic Committee is especially proud of Pujals and will support her in the upcoming international competitions.

One of the setbacks Mexico has faced, however, is the impact of the dismal economy on the growth of the sport. Just when things were beginning to take off competitively, the financial collapse and ensuing recession slowed down investments in new horses, training, and sponsorships. " The good riders keep on working," Alonso explained. "We do hope that once this crisis begins to improve, we are going back to our normal programs. Nevertheless, our Federation and the Official Sports Organizations are supporting the teams that will be at the Central American and Pan American Games, and one or two individuals for the WEG."

Yvonne Losos de Muñiz – Dominican Republic

Yvonne Losos de Muñiz is well on her way preparing to compete at the WEG next year and Olympics in 2012. She has spent years developing from the ground up several potential mounts to take her there. A resident of the Dominican Republic for the past 20 years, she grew up riding jumpers. Her introduction to dressage was quite by chance - on a trip to Spain with her husband she had an opportunity to ride a friend’s bullfighting horse, and that was a pivotal experience. The feeling of a horse dancing underneath her inspired her to study dressage and she has not turned back since.

Her first major international dressage competition was the 2003 Pan American Games, which marked the first time the Dominican Republic won a medal in any equestrian sport. Losos de Muñiz won an Individual Bronze Medal and a fourth place team finish. She won the Individual Gold Medal and Team Bronze Medal at the 2002 Central American Games and in 2007 she again claimed the Individual Bronze Medal at the Pan American Games. Her secret to success? Have a strong basis that includes cross-training. “All my horses jump as well as train in dressage. If I have a jumper, that horse should be able to do third-level dressage work, and if I have a dressage horse, it should be able to jump smaller obstacles with ease.” In the Dominican Republic dressage was an unknown sport that is often considered boring, with the focus almost exclusively on the jumping disciplines. So for her own training and teaching business, Losos de Muñiz emphasizes the need for strong flatwork, and many of her jumper riders can also ride at a medium level in dressage. She also mentioned the knowledge she has gained from her past and present trainers, which include Jeff Moore, Diederik Wigmans, Harry Boldt, Jean Bemelmans, Carl Hester, and Juan Matute.

A big sacrifice that Losos de Muñiz has made is time with her family as she travels extensively to train and compete internationally to keep at the top of her game and know what the judges want. “For me to make it, I have to be on the international scene. I have to gain the experience and be known.” And with no international competitions on the island on which she lives, she trains in the nearest dressage mecca, which is in Florida, USA. In the past 10 years, she has spent two weeks at home and two weeks away training and competing. As a wife and the mother of two children (18 years and 9 years), it has been a tough road that she could only accomplish with the support of her family. “My husband is fantastic," she said. "Thank God he likes horses!”

Her local dressage federation has been very supportive and is currently fielding a team to compete at the Central American Games, which Puerto Rico will host in 2010, just two months before the WEG. Losos de Muñiz trains her own students in the Dominican Republic, but dressage certainly has not reached a large audience. Equestrian sports in general are considered a hobby, and Losos de Muñiz notes that the mentality of the general public is not the same as in Europe or the United States. “Riding is considered a past-time, and trainers are not considered to be professionals,” says Losos de Muñiz. The future of the sport in her country? “The island is currently in no position to produce more top riders.” Losos de Muñiz noted honestly that the infrastructure to support a horse is just not there. She flies her vet and farrier in from the United States for her horses’ routine care. All her horses’ food is imported. Anything they need must be shipped in and go through the quarantine process. And in the event of a medical emergency, there is no surgical clinic. Despite these challenges, Losos de Muñiz has made a go of it and has achieved success and recognition in the show ring. And thanks to her the Dominican Republic will be able to field a team for the CAG with horses that she has trained. Currently she has four horses that are at or nearly at the Grand Prix level and were purchased in Europe as 2 or 3 year olds.

Losos de Muñiz moved her horses back to the island recently, marking the first time in three years that her horses have been home in the Dominican Republic with her. But soon they will be back on the road again competing. “I have to go out and see where I stand relative to other competitors,” says Losos de Muñiz. "I can be the queen of dressage at home, but if I stay home I lose my perspective. I cannot sit at home and be the best.”

Marco Bernal - Colombia

Colombia’s Marco Bernal is an example of what can happen when a seed for dressage is planted and then nurtured with 20 years of consistent hard work and training. Because of Bernal dressage is now a growing sport in Colombia and Bernal is considered by many to be “the grandfather” of dressage for his native land.

Bernal was a jumper rider in his early career. During an international competition he met a member of the German Equestrian Federation through his German-born wife. This connection led to Bernal applying and being accepted into the German Riding School. The couple moved to Germany and began a program that would turn into a life-changing experience. Coping with a new language, culture, and climate was difficult. Coming from a tropical climate living in and working outdoors in four seasons was a challenge, especially in the first year. Though he initially struggled with the language barrier Bernal is now fluent in German, English, and Spanish, and these skills have served him well as a teacher and trainer. During his time at the German Riding School Bernal absorbed not only the knowledge of dressage and jumping, but saw the dedication to a strict training regimen for which the Germans are famous. He was the first Latin American to graduate from this program.

The German Riding School requires a well-rounded riding education that includes skills in jumping, dressage, and three-day eventing. He remembers his first time on a mare that knew the upper-level movements. “I had an opportunity to ride the most beautiful, well-trained mare. When I sat on that horse, she was really something.” That ride changed his initial perception of dressage, which was that it was passive. Although he planned to continue as a jumper rider a clinic in Germany changed all that. In the audience was Christoph Hess, who saw him riding and recognized Bernal's talent and feel in the saddle. This encouraged Bernal to continue with dressage. Thus the seed was planted back in the late 1980s. Years later Hess saw Bernal again in the Grand Prix ring and instantly recognized him, conveying his happiness that he had pursued his training in dressage and was doing so well.

After graduating Bernal and his wife moved back to Colombia and he began importing high-quality horses to the country. Bernal started with a small group of students and began promoting dressage and the sport has continued to grow over the past two decades. From 1990 to 1997 Bernal brought two Colombian dressage teams to the Pan American Games and three teams to the Central American Games. Bernal is very optimistic about Colombia’s future prospects for dressage, noting that he is now working with a number of talented and sensitive young riders. In dressage Bernal believes the biggest mistake an aspiring professional can make is to begin teaching too early. “We need to know as much as we can before teaching others,” said Bernal. He tries to instill a strong work ethic and emphasizes the need for continual education.

A major win for Bernal was in 1991 when he won the Samsung International Dressage Show, which welcomed 35 countries at PSG/Intermediare I level competition. This win was crucial to Colombia as a developing country for dressage because it brought national attention to the sport. Since then Bernal has qualified for and competed in the 2009 Rolex FEI World Cup in Las Vegas, where he finished in 11th place. He has been training a number of horses with the hopes of competing at the World Equestrian Games next year and Olympic Games in 2012. In addition to his Diamore and Halgbott, Bernal is bringing along several good prospects.

For many years Bernal continued to import good horses into Colombia and train students there year-round. To compete he had to travel from Colombia to Wellington, Florida to the winter dressage circuit. But as a husband and father of three children the traveling became burdensome after a while and the Bernals decided to work full time out of their farm in Wellington, where they now reside year round. “It was a big risk to move to a new country with my wife and three children. My family is very important to me,” said Bernal. But they are glad they did. “We are very happy here. The United States is a great country with the opportunity for everybody to move up.” And the proximity to international competition enables him to stay at the top of his game without the extreme financial burden of transporting horses across continents.

Bernal has an enviable record of finding and training horses to the top levels of dressage. His secret? He says he was fortunate to be born with an ability to look into a horse and have an imagination as to his capacity and skills. But beyond having a good eye, Bernal says that good, consistent training is his “secret,” noting that he has been preparing himself for 25 years to be a good rider and trainer. “Sometimes you can get lucky,” says Bernal of achieving success in the competition ring, “But in order to stay at the top you have to have the education and work hard every day.”

Luis Reteguiz-Denizard – Puerto Rico

Another rider that shares Bernal’s belief in solid education and daily hard work is Puerto Rico’s Luis Reteguiz-Denizard. Like Bernal and Losos de Muñiz, Denizard has trained in Europe and brought back with him a disciplined training system based on classical dressage principles. Dressage is still largely unknown in the country, but since Denizard entered the international competition scene in 2007 at the Pan American Games, he has caught the attention of the Federacion Ecuestre de Puerto Rico, which is dominated by jumping sports.

Based in Florida, Denizard travels to Puerto Rico to give clinics and demonstrations several times a year. “If I could change perceptions, it would be to inspire the sport in Puerto Rico,” said Denizard.

Denizard has spent more than two decades studying dressage and began by spending six months training in southern Germany with Gerd Reuter on a college internship. “Watching good rider after good rider every day and being exposed to that caliber of riders really elevated my own level of riding for the first time that I can remember,” said Denizard. Like Losos de Muniz and Bernal, he started out in jumping and eventing but was inspired to pursue dressage after riding some good horses. What he learned from the Germans was that although they have a strong structure and belief in their approach to dressage, there is also structure to relaxation and a good balance in their routine. Denizard observed that the Germans knew when to stop and do other things, unlike Americans, who seem to be always on the go.

In 2004 Denizard returned to Europe for further training, first with Robert Zandvoort and Suzy Dunkley, then with Henk van Bergen in Holland. He cited this experience as key to exposing him to the finer points of riding. “I came back with more of a vengeance knowing what I was intending to do.” And after that, he began seriously looking for a dressage partner.

In the fall of 2005 he found Nalando, a Dutch warmblood gelding (by Caritas x Appollonios xx) that knew many of the PSG movements and piaffe, but had never been in the show ring. That was part of the attraction for Denizard -- to bring an unknown horse to success. In the fall of 2006, the pair won the USDF Region 8 PSG Championships, and that started the quest for international competition. In 2007 the pair became the first to represent Puerto Rico in an FEI-level dressage competition at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janiero. Nalando came down with severe pneumonia after coming home from Rio and was out of work for a year. At the time his veterinarians did not know whether he would return to that level of competition, but the horse’s huge heart came through. He not only returned, but made his Grand Prix debut this fall. This winter, Denizard’s goal is to earn the scores necessary to compete at the WEG.

Of the riders from Latin American and Caribbean nations, Denizard is likely to be the less known one of all, but he hopes that will change at the World Equestrian Games. When asked what he wants the judges to see as he comes down the centerline, he replied, “I want them to see a someone who is riding in harmony with his horse. I may not have the horse with the most expressive gaits, or the horse with most breathtaking piaffe. But I want the judges to see that with training and discipline, we have reached our highest potential."

Success for Developing Countries

As a judge Alonso looks for concentration, discipline, consistency, and hard work. For any rider coming down centerline, "I like to be positively surprised and I never consider the name. Riders and horses have a present; the past is gone and the future is yet to come. So known or unknown, it’s the performance of that particular moment that counts.”

Her view is that developing countries, specifically Latin America and the Caribbean, do not yet have a strong program to develop young riders. In her view, two points are crucial to future success. Firstly, better trainers that are capable to create strong basis and teach horsemanship from the bottom up and, secondly, better horses through better national breeding national programs. Alonso noted that with the recession, the training programs and acquisition of horses from abroad are diminishing. But she is hopeful that dressage will continue to grow. "Latin and South America have very good and experienced riders," said Alonso. Although she focuses on her group in Mexico, she has visibility into other regions and notes Brazil's leading role in the development of the sport and the country's allocation of resources fueling this growth. She notes that Brazil has a young and promising group of Grand Prix level horses and riders coming up. When asked what she would tell a group of young riders, Alonso replied, "keep on trying and do not give up. No matter how far away your goal may seem now, there is always a future." Sage advice from a wise woman.

Bernal, Denizard, and Losos de Muniz clearly are not the "giving up" type. They have made many personal sacrifices to pursue the sport to the highest levels. They will be remembered by future generations as the patriarchs or matriarchs of dressage in their homelands and by sheer virtue of being the first to compete, they will have earned a spot in their country's history. These riders' successes have the potential to shape and determine any future growth of dressage in their developing country. For some regions, this will not happen because of the lack of basic infrastructure to support equine care. But for other countries, establishing the sport and producing strong dressage competitors are quite possible.

Article by Jennifer Koppy © Eurodressage.com

Photos courtesy: Silvia Milano - Astrid Appels - Mary Phelps - Cealy Tetley

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