Louisiana-based eventer Julie Norman traveled to Lexington, Ky., to compete in her first Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI****. The event was also her and her horse Consensus’ first at the four-star level. Read what she had to say about her Rolex Rookie experience.
I’m finally back to riding after recovering from one of the most exciting weekends of my life. Last week, I traveled with fellow rider Ellen Doughty and our two horses (Consensus and Sir Oberon) from Louisiana to compete at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. We were both first timers, and after a long hard year of traveling and teaching (we have to pay the bills somehow!), we had finally made it.
Ellen’s horse Obie had been suffering from a heel grab several weeks earlier, and while we did everything we could to try to ensure he would heal in time for Rolex, it just wasn’t meant to be this trip. Luckily, it gave Ellen time to focus on her Rolex wedding, which was the first of its kind. I was devastated for Ellen that she did not get to ride, but I was fortunate to have her by my side during my first four-star event.
While setting up in the barns we discovered that we were stabled across the aisle from Hawley Bennett-Awad, Doug Payne, Selena O’Hanlon, Michael Pollard and Lainey Ashker. The next barn over held the likes of Buck Davidson and Phillip Dutton. Needless to say, Ellen, our grooms and I were all a bit star-struck.
Every time we passed Mark Todd or William Fox-Pitt, I had to fight the urge to leap at them like a rabid teenager and beg for a photo (perfect Facebook profile pic!).
I have been working with Canadian Olympic coach Clayton Fredericks for a little over a year, and I was glad to get in two dressage lessons with him before the competition began. He stressed the importance to make my horse Thomas “rideable.” Thomas can be quite explosive in dressage, which doesn’t always work in my favor, so it was important to have him perfect for this test that would demand so much of him in front of a crowd of thousands.
Riding into the Rolex outdoor stadium for the first time was an incredible feeling. Thomas trotted into the arena in a beautiful forward medium trot and navigated past flowers, cameras and people as if they weren’t even there. I had to remind myself to stay focused on him and not get caught up in the excitement of the moment—but I could barely contain my smile.
On Saturday we got to the fun part—cross-country! When we got to warm-up, Thomas wasn’t his normal wild self. He was relaxed and almost seemed a bit tired. I jumped a few jumps, and he just seemed a bit lackadaisical. I talked to Clayton and Regis Webb (my longtime coach from home in Louisiana) about what I thought, and they reassured me that he looked great, and he would be fine. I just needed to ride hard and safe.
Leaving the start box, Thomas came out running so I felt better than I did in warm-up. Before I knew it, we were at our first question: 5ABC, the water.
He jumped in great and was honest and game for it, so I knew that he was going to be OK. The next several jumps rode really well. I’ll never forget the feeling of galloping down to the Head of The Lake. I was excited and nervous about the big jump in. I just remember telling myself to stay back and stay in the middle of him. He would take care of the rest. The feeling of leaving the Head of The Lake clean is such an amazing feeling.
Coming to the Normandy Bank, I could feel Thomas getting tired. He was starting to lean into my leg and hang on the reins a bit. I came in a bit slower, planning on doing the four strides to the brush instead of the three strides.
We were right on our line, and then all of a sudden he slipped really hard behind. Being the honest horse he is, he jumped element C anyway, but it put us in the wrong direction for element D. I tried hard to turn him back in time for the last element, but there was no time to get him back on the line.
So I made my circle and re-approached, and he jumped the last part with ease. It was disappointing to have the 20 penalties because if he wouldn’t have slipped he would have jumped around clean. But we continued on regardless of the bad luck and galloped down to the huge ditch and brush. Coming into the last field was the greatest feeling. He kept trying his heart out until the very last jump, and I was ecstatic to cross those finish flags!
Sunday morning is probably the most nerve wracking part of the entire weekend. My grooms and I were up all night icing and walking Thomas to make sure he was sound for his last jog. But once again, we were so relieved to hear that we were accepted, and we could go on to the show jumping. Ashley, Brooke and I broke into tears knowing that we did it.
Heading down to the warm-up for the last time was a bit bittersweet. I wasn’t ready for the weekend to be over. I was having the time of my life and was so thrilled just to be there!
But it was time for me to stop thinking about my feelings and start warming up. Thomas was definitely tired from the day before. Again, he wasn’t his normal exuberant self in the warm-up, but I promised him that if he finished he was going to get a long vacation when he got home. Once again, I headed down to the main arena.
I didn’t even notice all of the people. I was very focused on the plan that Clayton and I had talked about before I headed in. Thomas jumped in his normal style: legs flying and powering over everything. I could feel him start to tire around jump 8, so we had three rails down at the very end. I knew he had given me everything he had. He is an incredible horse with an extremely big heart.
With Rolex over, I am looking forward to the rest of the year. Thomas is on a much deserved vacation while I’m back at home teaching and riding, trying to save money for competitions later in the year. Looking back, Rolex was the most incredible experience of my lifetime.
There were plenty of highs and lows, but I wouldn’t have changed anything about my first experience! I am ready for next year, and next year I’m not going just to complete it, I’m going to compete!