Six riders and their horses enter the arena in flamboyant costumes or more traditional dressage attire; pink is the predominant color. The 12 athletes line-up in close formation and the music begins. It’s the Challenge of Americas (COTA) and, this year, five teams of Grand Prix riders and their well-trained horses will go head-to-head in precisely choreographed team quadrilles set to themed music all to raise funds for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation through Play for P.I.N.K.
The colorfully festive event involves hundreds of volunteer hours and key to the event’s success are the quadrille teams whose riders, coaches, choreographers, music creators, grooms and support staff donate their expertise and time to help COTA achieve its goal to find a cure for breast cancer in our lifetime.
Team BioStar’s choreographer Tigger Montague is a one-woman show. She creates the theme, music and pattern, and coaches during the team’s weekly practices. Ideas for the coming year’s event start brewing about a month after the previous Challenge with the theme and the musical playlist created before the choreography is planned, and her theatrical background puts a unique spin on her team’s workflow. She brainstormed the 2020 idea in July of 2019.
“I’m a dictator from start to finish,” she laughed. “Dictator in terms of this is the music, this is the theme, these are the costumes and these are your characters and choreography.”
She starts her team practices, a minimum of one-a-week, with team members walking the pattern on horseback in a dressage arena.
Montague said she participates in the Challenge of the Americas because she likes events that are unifying, especially in today’s divisive era. “I like the spirit of how everybody works together because we’re all working toward raising money and awareness to fight this terrible disease.”
Team Gardy Bloemers/Merrill Lynch Wealth Management
Team Gardy Bloemers/Merrill Lynch Wealth Management’s coach and choreographer Alex Rozboril donates her time and talent to show appreciation for her blessings.
“Every day I wake up healthy and I can be with my family, friends and fur family is a blessing,” she said. “I want to give back and the Challenge is a way of paying it forward. I am so lucky. I can give back doing something I love: working with horses and their amazing riders/trainers.”
She agrees that a tremendous amount of time is required to put together a Challenge quadrille.
“A theme is chosen, then developed through music, costume and choreography,” she said. “The complexity of this is magnified by six rider/horse teams. The riders transport their horses to an arena weekly, then bi-weekly for practice and each practice may take up to two hours. It’s difficult riding in harmony in such close proximity. The riders and their horses are amazing!”
The music for her team is being provided by Carlos Aguera, a professional movie and TV series musical score composer. Aguera, who was born in Bogotá, Colombia, started riding horses and jumping when he was 8. Two years ago he started riding again, this time in dressage, and discovered he could create music for freestyles, thus joining his two passions in his business, CA Dressage Music. In 2019, he composed the music for two Columbian Pan American Games riders as well as 16 of the 24 competitors of the Colombian National games. He got involved with COTA through Shannon Dueck, the Colombian Team Trainer for the 2019 Pan Am Games in Lima, Peru, as well as Bogotá’sleague trainer. Dueck, a member of rival competitors Team Winged Foot, has also trained Aquera’s wife in two clinics. Dueck suggested asking him to help and when COTA organizer Mary Ross approached him, he agreed.
“I started working as soon as I knew what my team riders wanted,” he said. “We have been working on the concept of the kürandfinding the right music for each gait and each part. We’ll spend around 15 days in the preproduction and five days recording every track and every musician.
“I think breast cancer is probably one of the most important causes one can support,” he said. “We have to do whatever is in our hands to help prevent it.”
Team Winged Foot
Team Winged Foot’s coach/choreographer/musical designer Ruth Hogan-Poulsen has been leading a team since the Challenge was a luncheon where two teams performed a demonstration. “It’s my favorite event because my mom is a breast cancer survivor,” she said. “I love the musical aspect of it and I do freestyles for a lot of people [through Ruth Hogan-Poulsen’s Freestyles from A to C]. Most of the time our sport is an individual one in which you’re competing to better yourself, but I really, really love the team camaraderie that this particular event draws out. And I’ve gotten to know so many of my colleagues in such a different way over the years.”
She thinks the audience not only enjoys the spectacular of the Challenge but they also enjoy seeing some of the top riders let loose and have some fun while they donate their time and talent for a great cause. “Riders and coaches and choreographers and music editors and the horses’ owners and the grooms, we do it for the event and for Play for P.I.N.K. and we want to draw a crowd and we are happy to do it because of the cause.”
She said one year she kept track of the time spent creating the music and it added up to about 60 hours. She figures by the time she’s chosen a theme, devised the pattern and drawn it out for each of the riders in their own freestyle journals, mixed the music, organized practices, and made costumes, she’s logged in about 100 hours.
Terry Ciotti Gallo, choreographer and musical arranger for Team Purina and long-time volunteer for COTA, starts thinking about the theme and the music for the Challenge of the Americas early. “I’m always on the lookout for brilliant ideas but they don’t always come,” she said. “I knew more than a year in advance that I would do a 50th anniversary of the moon landing and Woodstock in 2019, but the 2020’s theme didn’t hit me until December. Then it was smooth sailing—well, at least musically. It took about four hours to get that all together. Editing and revamps will take another few hours.”
A freestyle creator for some of the top U.S. riders through her company Klassic Kür, she had to work around her commitments. “I had given some thought to choreography, but when I looked at my schedule, which was really pressing in on me, I knew it had to wait until the third week in January—only one week before our first meeting. I was on a cross-country red-eye flight when I sketched out some patterns on airline napkins at 3:00 in the morning. It took about another two hours to pound it all out and write it up, however, when I was in a more lucid state, I had a suspicion that one maneuver might not work. And it didn’t. So, back to the drawing board. After seeing it in practice, there is one more tweak to be made.”
Since she lives three hours from Wellington, she drives down on a Tuesday for team practice, stays a week until the next Tuesday’s practice, and leaves on Wednesday to drive back home. “The following week, I do it all again,” she said.
“I think we sometimes get very absorbed in our work and day-to-day lives. Volunteering for a good cause like the Challenge gives us – me, in particular – a chance to give back to our society. And, shhh, don’t tell anyone, but it’s a lot of fun too! It is so outside our normal daily horse routine.”
Melissa MacLaren Velix, the choreographer for Team Hylofit, said it’s hard to know how much time she spends on COTA because it’s not done all at once.
“What I usually do is, I’ll lay out the movements that I think would look cool and then figure out how to piece them all together so that it flows nicely,” she said. “And then I’ll get somebody else to ride through it with me so there are at least two horses to see if the pattern is actually going to work because what works for just one horse doesn’t work for six horses. And then I find out the strengths and weaknesses of each horse on the team by talking among ourselves in a group chat while trying to figure out what we can showcase on some horses. It’s a lot of cut and paste kind of stuff and then figuring out what will work after that.”
MacLaren Velix said it’s important to support research to help end breast cancer, a disease that has affected everyone is some way. And she also appreciates getting to spend more time with her peers. “You don’t get to really work with other professionals in this capacity, so it’s nice to take the stress and anxiety of showing off and be able to have fun and enjoy your colleagues.”