Seventy-four nations will be represented at the 2014 Alltech World Equestrian Games.

Photo: Christa Lesté-Lasserre, MA

Saturday night at d’Ornano Stadium in Caen, France, the World Equestrian Games (WEG) officially opened with welcoming messages from local and international leaders, honored breed presentations, the parade of nations, and a military aviation salute. But by far the greatest half of the evening was the laser-light equestrian show, designed by the French creative agency Skertzò. Rich in art and cultural heritage, and deep-rooted in professional equestrian shows, the host country of France certainly knows how to impress. With laser-light technology that absolutely transforms surfaces into an ultramodern trompe-l’oeil, you find yourself doubting your senses, wondering how it’s possible that something can seem so real.

The horse, of course, in all its glory, throughout the ages, throughout cultures, throughout science and art, was mis à l’honneur of this extraordinary event. The lights, the choreography, the design, the scenic development, the music, the props, and the ambiance made for an unforgettable show that will certainly set the bars high for the next WEG organizers. The French set out to impress, and they definitely succeeded above and beyond our expectations.

After such a show, it’s only natural to want to hand out a few "Critical Observer Spectator Awards." I’ve got a handful of award-winning moments, from my seat in the press tribunes, that deserve special mention. For good and for bad, here’s my list of the top award-winning moments of the opening ceremony of the 2014 Alltech World Equestrian Games:

1. The Making-of-History Moment: Seventy-four nations parading through the arena at the opening ceremony. Seventy-four nations represented at this international equestrian event. That’s a 15% increase compared to any other WEG event in history. Watching these national teams parade to the beat of patriotic music, their country names announced in pride and glory over the loud speaker in French and then English, filing one after another for more than an hour, gave a sense of great honor to be present at such a historical event.
 

2. The Just-Too-Cute Moments: [image imageid="3848" includeTitle="false" includeSummary="false"][/image] There were actually three just-too-cute moments. One was when WEG’s youngest competitor, 9-year-old Russian vaulter Ksenia Ermolaeva, came through the parade of nations, proudly representing her team and grabbing the crowd’s hearts with her precious smile displayed on the big overhead screens. The second was when the lovely flag-bearing big-draft white Percheron kept pawing with excitement every time he had to give up one country’s flag to go pick up another. (He seemed to think he was Zenyatta!) And the third was when the two adorable little girls from Team USA stood for nearly an hour holding their country’s flag, not missing a second of the excitement and thrill of being where they were. At one moment they even got out their cell phones and started taking pictures themselves. Too cute! 


3. The France-is-Awesome Moment: The host nation humbly held itself for last in the parade of nations at the start of the ceremony. But when the French appeared on the scene, the stadium erupted in cheers and standing ovations in a near-tear-jerking display of patriotism. By the time they got a quarter of the way around the arena, the ambiance had become so electric that the France Equestrian Team members started jumping up and down, and so the crowds started jumping up and down, too. Then they got a full-stadium wave going. (Well, almost full-stadium. There were no waves going on in the press tribunes. Sigh. We were lame.) The crowds (sans the journalists) got so into this wave that it kept going even when Laurent Beauvais, president of the Regional Council of Lower Normandy, was ringing out a fervent patriotic speech in the voice of a French politician swelling with the pride of his home region of Normandy to the explosive cheers of a clearly Francophile crowd.
 

4. The What-the-Heck Moment: [image imageid="3847" includeTitle="false" includeSummary="false"][/image] Okay, so this was just weird. I mean, come on. Who parked the Austrian para-dressage rider in the pile of horse caca? The nations paraded in alphabetical order, so this poor A-country member sat there with his feet in poop during the procession of 74 countries, all the way to the end. I was like, Please. Scoop. The. Poop. People! Ah well. Love horses, love their poop.
 

5. The Lost-My-Socks Moment: We watched as the arena changed from standard old arena dirt into a map of the world, and then into a cool tribal settlement. So by then, we were already impressed. But nothing—nothing—compared to that moment when suddenly there was a torrential storm, and a huge tidal wave came roaring over the tribal villages, covering the lands in raging sea water. [brightcove videoid="3747298587001"] And when I say raging sea water, I mean raging, moving, high-wave water. I know, logically, that there was no water down there in that arena. But try telling that to my eyes. What we all saw was a terrifying scene of crashing waves and tossing ships, right there where, three minutes earlier, people were dancing and horses were galloping. The crowd was ecstatic at this scene, and for good cause. That one scene alone is worth traveling from across the globe to see. It knocked our socks off in that chilly August Normand evening—but we were all too stunned to even remember the cold.


[image imageid="3849" includeTitle="false" includeSummary="false"][/image] 6. The What-World-Am-I-In? Moment:  Movement artists danced out scenes creating impressionist works of art, to the heart-thundering tones of Mozart, as their canvases miraculously transformed into finished masterpieces right before our eyes with laser-light technology. It was a full-scale, captivating inundation of magnificent art forms.


7. The Defy-Physics Moment: I don’t know how they did it. I mean, I saw them do it, but I still don’t believe it. When my family goes camping, it takes us about an hour to set up our pole tent—and we’ve gotten good. But these guys? They pulled up these tribal tents in about six seconds flat. One pole in the middle, and then themselves as stakes. That’s right. They sat on the edge of the fabric to hold the central pole in place. How the…? I mean, in theory, okay. But on an arena ground, in six seconds, and nobody’s pole falls over? Then later, they set up two-legged screens and held them in place with thin ropes on each side. Just. Holding. The ropes. Don’t try this at home. Gravity will definitely win one direction or the other. I don’t know how long these guys practiced those moves, but I’ve gotta find out.


8. The Make-the-Equitation-Scientists-and-Historians-Cry-with-Joy Moment: [brightcove videoid="3747298576001"] So, those physics-defying screens in #7…. Guess what they did with them. First, they projected the Bayeux tapestry across them. And when I say “projected,” of course, I’m talking once again about the laser-light projections, which make it look like it’s the real thing, not just some light projection. We had before us, in about 10-times-greater-than-life-size, the Bayeux Tapestry—or so it seemed—with all its ancient glory of horses. Art enthusiasts who’ve ever studied the history of equestrian art were sure to get a lump in their throats at that scene. But as if that wasn’t enough, then the images magically transformed into Eadweard Muybridge’s revolutionary photographs, the world’s first ever photographic study of equine movement, published in the United States’ Scientific American and France’s La Nature in the 1870s.
 

9. The OMG-How-Cool-is-That Moment: If you’re reading this, you’re probably a horse-lover. And if you’ve ever played chess, then most likely your favorite playing piece is the…. horse! Okay, so the official name of the piece is the knight. But most of us like to think of it as the horse. So does Skertzò, the creative design company of the opening ceremony. When they transformed the arena into a giant chess board, it just felt so cool to see this kind of honor made to the horse. [brightcove videoid="3747262458001"] The horse is a critical part of all kinds of human culture—even game culture. In this chess game, the only playing pieces were the horses: Two black horses, and two white horses, with their riders, taking turns and moving to their appropriate squares. Only later did the pawns—dancers—appear to “threaten” the horses in this exquisite balletic display of a time-honored cultural diversion. True, the movements didn’t always reflect the way an actual knight chess piece should move, but that’s artistic license. Overall, an ultimately cool act of this spectacular show.
 

10. The Soaring-Spirit Moment: For a brief moment, we lost the fantastical settings of the ground below and saw the arena as a sandy, well-trodden flooring. But within seconds, the fantasy returned, this time in the form of a gentle ocean, rising up in trickling waves on the beach. The clear blue waters soon rippled up, lapping onto the shores and covering more than three-fourths of the length of the arena. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, suddenly a herd of white horses came galloping freely across the waters, as though they were magical beasts whose hooves could tap the surfaces of the water without ever sinking. Accompanied by powerful music, the white herd covered the full length of the sea and galloped up onto the beach, playing and celebrating their liberty. Their trainer, the well-loved French equestrian Lorenzo, then came galloping across the seas to join them, mounted with one foot on each of two free white horses. The trio joined up with the rest of the herd, and together they lined up in one side-by-side line representing freedom and unity, galloping over this free and peaceful seaside land. 

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In a magnificent display of the beauty of the horse-human relationship in nature, these white horses soared like free spirits, inviting the spectators’ spirits to soar free with them. I know mine did.