Americans get 1-2-3 magic in dressage

Steffen Peters is a world-class horseman, and that is an understatement. The man is a two-time Olympian. He won team bronze in dressage at the Atlanta Games in 1996. He was fourth in both the individual event in Beijing in 2008. He is  the 2009 World Cup champion and won two individual bronze medals at the 2010 world championships.

On a horse named Weltino's Magic, Peters has gone undefeated in 2011. Yet it took all his considerable skill, talent, experience, savvy, horsemanship -- all of it -- for him to prevail in one of the most interesting and engaging dressage competitions in recent memory at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Peters led an American sweep of the medals. His final score: 82.690. In second place: Heather Blitz, riding a horse named Paragon, with 81.917. Third: Marisa Festerling, on Big Tyme, with 77.545.

The American 1-2-3 in the individual event came after the U.S. team captured gold in the team event, its fourth consecutive team dressage medal at the Pan Ams. Canada took silver, Colombia bronze.

In the team event, Peters put up a mark of 80.132, a Pan Am Games record.

For those who are mystified by the nuances of dressage, indeed by equestrian in general, by the outfits and the hats -- let's put all that aside. There's plenty about the sport that makes perfect sense to anyone and everyone.

At its essence, the sport is about the ancient connection between a human being and a horse.

At its best, that connection is profound, indeed spiritual and perhaps even almost mystical.

Magic, the horse Peters rode, is now 9 years old.

Peters -- who was born in Germany but has been in the U.S. since 1985, an American citizen since 1992 and has lived and trained for years in the San Diego area -- has ridden another horse, Ravel, in most Grand Prix-level events over the past five years. Assuming Peters is on the U.S. team for London -- Ravel will still be the 2012 horse for him.

Which only tells you how huge Magic's upside can be.

Peters' wife, Shannon, trained Magic from the time they got him at 4 until the horse was 7, and then, as he said, she "very generously turned the reins over to me."

As anyone who has ever been around horses knows, every horse has a distinct personality. Magic is "one of those guys who wouldn't mind laying on the couch all day on Sunday and watching football," Peters said, laughing. "Even though he is laid-back, he is still a sensitive horse," and also pretty darn smart.

Peters played a lot of soccer growing up. His ankles crack. When he walks down to the barn, Magic can hear him coming. That means two things. One, the horse is "extremely food motivated," Peters said, so he knows something good is coming his way. Two, "he is not a horse you have to push to get motivated -- he offers it."

To go undefeated for an entire year -- that proves it.

Especially to beat a horse like Paragon and rider the caliber of Heather Blitz.

Paragon's story is phenomenal, really.

To begin, the horse stands 18 hands high. That's huge.

Paragon survived 2005's Hurricane Katrina, as a very young horse at a 2,000-acre ranch about 45 minutes north of New Orleans where the pine trees grew up to 100 feet tall and the tree damage proved catastrophic.

The horse is now 8. "He is definitely a people horse," Blitz, who is based now in Wellington, Fla., said. "And has been from the day he was born. He is really centered on people, more than other horses. He is very friendly and loves attention. But he is not spoiled and he's not annoying about it. He loves his life. He's happy. He's content. He tries really hard to do what I ask him to do."

In the individual event, she said, "I knew he'd be strong. He's always strong. I knew I'd be strong, too," Blitz said. "I knew I would not have to make a single mistake. Not one foot in the wrong place, not one second of tension. I would have to be perfect to move into the first spot.

"I had a couple things that didn't go perfectly," she said. But, she added, it's okay.

Equestrian is typically such an individualized pursuit that at the Pan Ams it was rewarding to compete together -- the Americans had labeled themselves a "dream team" -- and to then compete against each other in the individual event but root for each other, too.

"I am very satisfied with my placing," Blitz said. "Actually -- thrilled with it."

"I knew it was close," Peters said of the final individual scoring. "When I heard my score, the first thing I did was ask Heather, 'Are you okay?' Heather had a big smile and said, 'I'm okay.' I'm happy. That meant the world to me. It's nice to win. But it's not nice to beat your friend and teammate."