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October 25, 2011

A Rollercoaster Ride Of Highs And Lows At The Pan American Games

Frankie Liauw joined her groom, Manuel, her mother, Gisela Rivera, and her coach, Verena Sonstenes-Mahin, outside GB Marko's stall for a photo.

It was the day of the Prix St. Georges, and, for some lucky few, a chance for a team medal.

You could cut the tension with a knife as we piled into a cab to head to the show grounds. Today was the day we’d been training for during the past year. We’d envisioned this moment, obsessed about 8-meter circles, stressed angles in the shoulder-ins...

This was the biggest and the final CDI of the year. The moment was what we made it.

First rider up was Ursula Lange riding Toftegardens Lobbi. We chatted as we headed for the ring, walking down that long windy path amongst the trees that had been such a river the first few days. Ursula seemed calm and collected as we discussed last minute things to remember in the test. “Ride it clean and try to make is look effortless,” I told her.

“Take your time where you need to, like in the walk pirouettes, and center your flying changes.”

The warm-up went smoothly and just according to plan. As Lobbi usually doesn’t require a long warm-up, we took lots of walk breaks to save as much energy as possible.

The countdown had begun, and we watched the clock. With three minutes to go, we headed down the hill to wait outside the arena for the rider before to finish.

I said a few final words of encouragement as she got the green light to head into the arena, disappearing out of sight to the sounds of the crowd cheering her in.

I climbed the stairs to the “kiss and cry” booth overlooking the stunning arena. This booth is for trainers, coaches, owners, family and fellow teammates.

She rode a super test. She took her time in the walk, kept a beautiful rhythm throughout, and, most importantly, she made no mistakes. I watched so proudly as all the work we had done for the past months unfolded before my eyes. As a coach you develop, teach, encourage and support your riders each moment until they go into the ring. The second they step into that arena, it is up to them to make it come to life. To connect all the pieces, override the nerves, execute the movements, win the crowd, etc. As a coach you have to give them the reins.

Frankie’s ride was one of those rides that every professional experiences in their career. A moment when devastation reaches an all time high.

Frankie is a remarkable person with an amazing capacity to learn, and to learn fast.

She only started riding Marco at the beginning of this year. She rode in all the CDIs and developed a very strong partnership with him. Especially in the last month, things had really come together. With the pressure of the games so close, the training had intensified and the demands heightened.

Her warm-up was dynamite. They looked better than I had ever seen. I had tears in my eyes as I watched her in those precious minutes before going in the ring. This talented girl, who I had mentored and taught throughout the whole year, looked like one of the pros out there.

Juan Matute and I were very excited as we sent her into the ring. Frankie had also trained with the three-time Olympian throughout the year, and it was through him that we found Marco.

The bell rang, and I held my breath as she headed up the centerline.

Her trot work was flawless, in the top of her class for such a young combination. I had goose bumps as I watched her pick up the collected walk in preparation for the canter.

The canter zigzag showed problems, and suddenly I saw that he had gotten his tongue over the bit. I gasped.

She continued the test and made no mistakes as Marco battled with his tongue. The poor darling.

But just like that, she went from a potential 66/67 percent to a 58 percent.

This can happen to anyone at any time. It’s just really, really bad luck. This had never happened to them before, never in training or any other show. We were all in shock. One year of brutal hard work and preparation, and then just like that it was over.

You can’t prepare someone for that. It was the last possible thing we thought could happen. Maybe a spook, or a mistake in one of the movements or something else, but the tongue over the bit never even crossed our mind. We were all speechless.

Frankie is a strong competitor, and I have no doubt this is the beginning of a long and successful career for her.

Both riders are a strong asset to the Puerto Rican dressage team, and I look forward to their many accomplishments in the future.

I rode every step with each of them, knowing the horses, knowing the riders, knowing the test and knowing the judges and politics of the sport.

Disappointment is never an easy thing to coach. You want so badly for every one of your students to succeed and do well. And even when they have ridden a solid and respectable test with no mistakes and an overall great presentation, it’s still about climbing your way to the top. The politics, the country you ride for, the identity of your name, these are all factors on the journey to the top. That’s why you need passion. You need to desire to win, the drive to push past the disappointments and to enjoy the journey on your way to the destination.

VS Dressage