On April 25-30, I competed in the 2007 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** Three Day Event in Lexington, KY. A four-star is the highest level of an equestrian sport called three-day eventing, the only competition of its level in the United States, and one of four in the entire world. This year I was one of 41 riders competing at the championship, which brings in close to 100,000 spectators and awards $200,000 in prize money and a Rolex watch. While winning the competition brings a rider international fame, simply qualifying for the event, yet alone finishing the competition, is an astounding feat. Aboard my 15-year-old Thoroughbred gelding No It Tissant, I finished 19th.
SINCE THE AGE of five, I have lived in Vienna and competed in the equestrian sport of eventing. I was 14 and No It Tissant was five when I got him. After graduating from James Madison High School in 2001, I went to Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Va., and received my BS in Business Management in 2005. Upon graduation, I came back to Vienna with hopes to start a career as a professional rider and trainer. In addition to competing and training my own horses, I teach clinics and lessons to riders of all levels and ages, ride and train horses for other people, run a boarding facility and train and sell horses of my own and for clients. During the winter I go to Ocala, Fla. with my horses and train with my coach, Olympic gold medallist for the United States, David O’Connor. This past winter I spent a large portion of time training No It Tissant, who I call Fergus, for The Rolex Championship.
Three-day eventing is the only high-risk Olympic sport in which men and women compete against each other as equals. It’s usually described as an “equestrian triathlon” consisting of dressage, cross-country and show jumping. The first phase, “dressage,” is a set of compulsory movements executed in an arena. This tests the movement, suppleness and obedience of the horse. Similar to figure skating, each movement is scored separately and the overall harmony and precision of horse and rider is factored in. Scores from three separate judges are calculated to arrive at a final percentage score, with the lowest percent being the best. Because Fergus loves running and jumping and has a distain for obedience and dressage, this is our weakest phase. But he surprised me at Rolex and put in a decent test. Our final score put us in 34th place, which was towards the back of the pack but still a good score to move up on in the next two phases.
The next phase, “cross-country,” tests the speed, courage and endurance of the horse. The rider must navigate the horse at a gallop over massive solid obstacles, drop into water, bound up and down banks, and soar over ditches the horse has never seen before. The course is approximately five miles, with a maximum of 45 obstacles up to four feet high and ten feet wide. This phase is the ultimate example of trust between horse and rider. Failure to jump an obstacle, falling off your horse, and going too slow all add penalties to your percentage score. Too many refusals, failure to jump every fence in the correct order and direction, going too slow, and falling off more than once are all things that get one eliminated from the competition. Fergus and I had an incredible cross-country round. We were one of 18 pairs to jump all the fences with no problem, only adding some time penalties to our final score. This moved us up to 24th place.
In the final phase, “show jumping,” horse and rider must jump a series of colored fences of different heights, widths and technicality in an enclosed arena, which again the horse has never seen. While cross-country demands extreme boldness and stamina from horse and rider, show jumping requires the horse to be balanced and supple, and the rider to be precise. With tight turns between obstacles and lines requiring the horse to adjust its stride, the rider must know exactly where and how to maneuver the horse, and the horse must be obedient and responsive to the slightest command. Knocking down rails, going too slow and refusing a fence are all penalties added to your final percentage. Fergus and I had a wonderful round. We were the first pair to jump “clean” (meaning no jump penalties), and there were only six other clean rides in the entire competition! This moved us up to finish in 19th place.
COMPETING IN THE ROLEX Championship has been a dream of mine since I began riding, and just getting the chance to qualify and ride at the international championship is a goal most riders never reach. Our performance at Rolex far exceeded my expectations—we ended up in the top half against Olympic and World Championship medallists from several different nations, and some of the most recognizable names in the international sport. I am extremely proud of my horse, and owe a large part of my success to trainers, family and friends that have supported me along the way.
I hope to compete at Rolex again and also plan on continuing my career as a rider and trainer with the hopes of going to the Olympics. I have a long road ahead of me. The veterans of the sport and Olympic and World Championship team members could not succeed without sponsorship and owners. Very few people make it to Rolex on a horse they got when they were 14. I now plan on continuing my business of teaching and training, while looking for sponsorship and owners that will help get me to the next level.