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Ole South Dressage Show:


Karen Raber on Sylvester. Photo courtesy of ALR Dressage.

Junior rider Kelsey Jarrett on Danter

Cathy Zappe, photo courtesy of
Prelude, Classic, and Tennessee State Dressage Championships
Article & photos by Allison A. Rehnborg

From the lowest-level introductory test to the most complex Grand Prix-level ride, the art of dressage commands a sense of tradition and profound respect from riders, judges, and spectators alike. Sandy Donovan, show chairman of the Ole South Dressage Classic explains. “It’s about training the horse and rider to respond to each other and make the most of their athleticism and ability.”

This year’s Ole South Dressage Classic, held August 22-24, 2014 at the Tennessee Miller Coliseum, saw rides ranging from introductory level to FEI Grand Prix, including United States Dressage Federation gold medal accomplishments, and a prestigious Century Ride, the first ever for Tennessee and Alabama. With close to 100 horses and riders entered, the Ole South Dressage Show encompassed three events in one: the Ole South Dressage Prelude on Friday; the Ole South Dressage Classic; and the Tennessee State Dressage Championships.

Judges for the weekend included Dinah Babcock and Fran Kehr. With two S-level judges working two rings, the Ole South Dressage Show provided a great opportunity for many dressage riders to complete qualifying rides for upcoming regional competitions.

“For many amateurs and professionals, this show is an opportunity to qualify for regional competitions and to gauge their progress,” Donovan says. “As the year goes on, people set goals for themselves to reach first or second level or to get those qualifying scores. The purpose of having these back-to-back shows is that it creates two different events, but people only have to pay for transportation once. It’s really an economy for the competitors, so they can compete in two different shows in one weekend.”

USDF instructor Cathy Zappe of Harvest, Alabama, earned her USDF gold medal at the show on Friday when she and Roodeport II, a 17-year-old Bavarian Warmblood, completed their final required ride at the FEI Grand Prix level.

“The USDF Gold Medal is the highest rider qualification,” Zappe, who is also a bronze and silver medalist, explains. “You need two Grand Prix scores above 60 and two Intermediate I or Intermediate II scores, also above 60.”

Zappe borrowed Roodeport from a friend about a year ago, and has spent the past several months working with the seasoned dark bay gelding.

“I spent a year building him up, getting to know him, and him getting to know me,” Zappe says. “I started out showing him at Intermediate I, and then I showed him at an Intermediate II test, and then, last week we showed Grand Prix for the first time. Today was the second time. It’s been a lifelong dream to ride at the Grand Prix level. I think it always is, for a dressage rider. You want to go down the center line and say, ‘I’ve ridden Grand Prix!’”

Zappe, who originally hails from South Africa, has been riding for more than four decades, and has been concentrating exclusively on dressage for the past 26 years. As a USDF instructor, certified to teach through fourth level dressage, she travels around the southeast, teaching clinics and lessons. Zappe has lived in the Huntsville, Alabama, area for about 15 years, and stands witness to her sport’s increasing popularity over the years.

“When I got [to Huntsville], the highest level horses we had were at the third and fourth levels,” Zappe remembers. “Now, we have several people with their gold medals, and quite a few silver medals. I think the whole level of quality of horse and rider has gone up over the last 15 years because dressage is becoming more popular, and the trainers from Europe are becoming more accessible to people.”

Though the physical and mental fitness of horse and rider are paramount to a successful dressage test, Zappe also attests to the importance of at least three other important qualities in a good dressage rider.

“I think feel, timing, and confidence are the three things that really make good riders,” she says. “Being able to feel when the horse is doing the correct thing – it’s crucial, and it’s very difficult to teach feel to someone who doesn’t have it. [A good rider also] learns how to time corrections, so that the ride looks seamless and the corrections have been done before the horse has even changed something. And finally, having the confidence to take that horse into the ring and say, ‘Hey, I’m good enough to do this,’ and not get caught in a mental down-spiral.”

Karen Raber and Sylvester earned her USDF gold medal with a score of 61.8 at Grand Prix. Karen is a board member of Delta Dressage Association and a former eventer for whom “dressage was her worst skill,” she said. With the help of her trainer Ally Rogers, Karen found Sylvester as a 9-year-old and brought him along from Third Level. Now at 15, Sylvester is an old hand at showing, but still perfecting his Grand Prix movements. On Sunday, Karen won the Tennessee State Championship in Grand Prix with a score of 65%.

Feel, timing, and confidence are just three of the many things that Judith Fiorentino of Madison, Alabama, and her horse, Goliath, have learned over the one hundred years of experience they share. On the second day of the Ole South Dressage Show, Fiorentino and her 26-year-old Dutch Warmblood became the first horse and rider pair in Tennessee and Alabama to perform a Century Ride.

“All that’s required is that you and the horse equal 100 years,” Fiorentino explains. “I said to Goliath, ‘You’re the 70 and I’m the 30!’ And he laughed, like, ‘OK, if that’s what you want, you go for it, girl!’”

Sponsored by the Dressage Foundation, the Century Club was founded in 1996 and has gathered over 160 members so far, which means that Fiorentino and Goliath are now members of a very select group of talented horses and riders. Century Riders can perform a Dressage test of any level during their ride, as long as it is held at a dressage show or event and judged by a dressage professional. After the test is completed and the Foundation has received the score sheet and papers verifying the ages of the horse and rider, Century Riders receive a black-and-gold ribbon and a personalized award.

The Century Ride is just the latest in a series of accolades that Fioretino has earned over her dressage career. Like Zappe, Fiorentino is a bronze, silver, and gold medalist, as well as a dressage instructor. Although Fiorentino “was born riding,” and spent most of her youth riding at friends’ stables and taking lessons, she didn’t acquire her first horse until she was an adult.

“I purchased a Thoroughbred-Percheron cross named Steeler, when my husband, Bill, was stationed at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas,” Fiorentino remembers. “Bill thought when we left Fort Leavenworth that Steeler would stay behind. But Steeler went from Fort Leavenworth to Washington, D.C., and then to Montgomery.”

Ultimately, Steeler inspired the name of the Fiorentinos’ home establishment, Steel Prize Stables, located in Madison, Alabama. Today, Bill Fiorentino is a retired brigadier-general, and continues to support his wife in all of her horse habits – including farm repairs and “holding down the fort” when she’s away at horse shows.

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