Friday, September 26, 2014

Double the Pleasure | 9/26/2014

Performing the Pas de Deux

By Pam Gleason, Photography By Gary Knoll

On a hot Thursday evening in May, Catherine Respess and Laura Klecker, both dressage trainers, have trailered to the dressage ring at Three Runs Plantation in Aiken. They have brought with them two jet black Friesian horses, Victor ISF and Waverly ISF. A small entourage of people has gathered under a tree near the ring: Nancy Wurtz, who owns Victor, and Carol Pexa, who owns Waverly, along with some friends and family. Laura's car, which will serve as the sound system, is parked at the end of the arena with the doors open.

There are other people using the ring for a lesson at first, and so Catherine on Victor and Laura on Waverly ride around the outside to warm their horses up. When the lesson is over, Catherine and Laura warm their horses are black, and the footing in the Three Runs arena is bright white. The contrast is striking, and the two horses are even more so. They carry their heads proudly with their ears pricked and they move with animation, power and grace. The ample feathers on their fetlocks accentuate their movement, and their long black manes, done up in French braids, draw attention their striking, high-set necks.

Catherine and Laura have come to practice for a Undtied States Dressage Federation Pas de Deux, which is a musical freestyle dressage test for two horses performing together. The Pas de Deux is fairly uncommon at United Sates dressage shows. It is more regularly seen in dressage exhibitions, and in shows such as those put on by the Lipizzans in the Spanish Riding School, or by P.R.E. horses at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. The class is being offered at the Mayday Dressage Show at Highfields in Aiken at the end of May: Catherine and Laura have entered and they are practicing for the test.

When the horses are thoroughly armed up, it is time to start the music and run through the routine. The horses seem to like the theme, and they clearly enjoy performing together. They are not identical: Victor is taller and Waverly is more short-coupled, but when they are performing together, they seem to be mirror images and any differences between them dissolve. After they have run through the whole routine with the music twice, it is time to take the horses home. They look hot, happy and relaxed, and Laura and Catherine are both and smiling.

The two trainers are good friends, and the idea to take part in the Pas de Deux came to them because they thought it would be good for their horses.

"I was training Victor, and Laura was training Waverly, and we just thought it would be great to do it," says Catherine.

Although the horses are not closely related, both were bred at Iron Springs Farm in Pennsylvania, which is one of the preeminent warmblood breeding farms in America, Nancy Wurtz and Carol Pexa, who did not know one another before, had both seen Victor on the Iron Springs website, and they both wanted to buy him. Nancy, who is from Atlanta, got there on e day before Carol arrived from Minnesota, so the horse became hers. Iron Springs trains its horses in dressage and puts some show miles on them before they are available for sale. Waverly, who is a year younger than Victor, was on the developing horse list, which means he was not yet ready to be sold. As soon as he was moved from the developing horse list to the roster of horses for sale, Carol bought him.

By coincidence, both horses ended up in Aiken. Neither has a great deal of show experience, and Catherine says that one reason that she and Laura thought the Pas de Deux would be beneficial is that they hoped it would give the horses confidence. The two practiced their routine once a week for about six weeks before the show. Right away they knew there was chemistry between the two horses.

"We did our first practice at Hopeland Farms, and they seemed enamored of one another," says Catherine. "We think they might have remembered each other from Iron Springs since they were both raised there. Then the next time we got together, Victor was just elated to see Waverly."

Catherine says that a lot of work went into creating the performance. First they had to design and choreograph their routine. The test would be a Training Level, which means that it needed to include certain complusory movements from above Training Level. Once they had the routine, they needed to set it to music. They chose a theme from The Game of Thrones. but the music still had to be edited to suit the choreography and then professionally remixed.

"I have a friend in Pittsburgh who has a recording studio," says Laura. "His wife events, and she stays with me in Aiken in the winter. So once we figured out the timing, he did the music for us."

Ten days after their Three Runs practice, the pair perform their test at Highfields in front of an unusually large crowd. The routine goes off without a hitch, and when they are done, everyone applauds. Their score, 75.25%, is more than respectable: it is the sixth highest in the whole show. If you go by the book, scores in the 70s are considered "fairly good," but in practice, a 75 is excellent.

"It was a wonderful experience overall; the score is icing on the cake," says Catherine. "The end result was exactly what you are aiming for when you are training a horse in dressage. The horses enjoyed it, and they matured from it. The problem we both have had with the boys is they are young and distractible. A lack of matuirty was something we both struggled with. Being together bolstered their confidence, and they were so much better as a result. After the Pas de Deux, I did a qualifying test on my own that was Victor's best performance yet - he was so focused."

Catherine and Laura both plan to train the Friesians up to the higher levels. Can we expect to see more Pas de Deux performances from them? Maybe even, some day in the future, a Grand Prix Pas de Deux?

Catherine laughs. "I would love to! And Laura and I are so close I could even see that happening."

In the meantime, there is a chance that Catherine will adapt their Game of Thrones theme for a musical freestyle she can perform on Victor by himself. Perhaps next year, the two horses will execute the same routine while ridden by their owners.

Catherine says that one thing that made the experience so special was the enhanced sense of teamwork it engendered. "So many people wanted to be apart of it, it was almost like it was a little party every practice. It gave us more energy, a kind of energy you don't alwasy get when you are training by yourself in the arena. Riding is not always a team sport, but is can be so much fun when it is."

What would she say to someone who asked her advice about putting together a Pas De Deux?

"It's totally worth it. It might be a good deal of work, but it's worth every bit of it. When we were performing at Highfields, I had goosebumps the entire ride. It felt so meaningful. It was just us, but it felt amazing to be a part of it."

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.