On Sunday afternoon at the FEI World Equestrian Games I found myself crouching in a ball under the 3 1/2-foot high floor of the main grandstand, not unlike a very sweaty, very tired gopher. I should explain.
I’ve been in Tryon, North Carolina, for the past 15 days covering the World Equestrian Games for the Chronicle, a privilege all of us on staff long to be called up for, and this year four of us are lucky enough to get. It is truly a remarkable experience—every four years you can witness the pinnacle of eight different equestrian sports at one venue, and I have been absolutely floored by the sport. The highlight was Team USA’s winning show jumping finish that had us all a nervous mess. (I watched from atop a tiny stool in the photography pen—I think my greatest athletic achievement of the WEG was the fact I didn’t break any bones jumping up and down on it like a lunatic when McLain Ward broke those beams.)
On the not-so-glamourous side, you have me in my gopher hole under the stands in a desperate attempt to occupy the only shade in the stadium. The WEG is amazing, but it is 12-plus hour work day after 12-plus hour work day for 15 days straight. On days competition wasn’t running, we were furiously typing our magazine stories from the hotel, and the unseasonably hot weather (upper 80s and high humidity—I could probably have swam through the air on the worst days) had me thankful that at least two disciplines put us in the indoor arena.
I come from the show jumping world, so I was particularly excited when their competition got underway Wednesday. Even if you take the weather out of it, jumping championships are a beast of a thing. Over five days these horses jump five rounds over 1.60-meter obstacles, six rounds if you’re Team USA or Sweden and had to jump off for gold, and two of those rounds go on the same day: Sunday.
I crawled out from my gopher hole when I heard the announcer call up the first horse of that final individual round. The approximate temperature? Satan’s Easy Bake oven, but if you left it in a car all day. A championship is always grueling, but this one particularly was incredibly hot and trying for the horses, and as I looked across the course of massive obstacles these riders were about to ask them to jump I couldn’t help but think how incredible it is a horse would ever do this for us in the first place.
They don’t have to, and frankly if all humans disappeared from earth you wouldn’t find 120 horses getting together under the blazing Carolina sun to jump five or six rounds over 1.60-meter fences. They have no interest in ribbons outside of eating them. They do this for us because we ask them to, and they trust us. Of all the hours or days, months or years that went into preparing for this moment it was the ones spent forging a relationship that counted the most Sunday afternoon at the WEG.
Maybe we ask too much of horses; maybe it’s too punishing. I suppose horse sport is always a balance between testing the extraordinary and pushing horses too far, but Sunday fell on the right side of that line. You saw riders like Pedro Veniss, who knew his mount was tired after a couple rails and retired from the individual round. His horse was still jumping; he was near the end of the course and could probably have finished, but he let his friend stop, thanked him for his effort, and walked out of the ring to fight another day.
Laura Kraut had an amazing quote in her morning interview where she said: “I was so happy with her for the gold medal, and I hate to put a lot of pressure on her for this [final round]. This is sort of the selfish round. Yesterday was for our country and our team; today is a selfish round, so I thought, ‘You know what, if she’s not feeling it that’s OK.’ But for her to come out and be the way she was, it’s just a bonus.”
So there I was after handling the morning’s interviews, stationed at the in-gate with the assignment of getting pictures of riders leaving the ring. It was Day 15. I was hot and sweaty despite my gopher-ing, and I thought I had seen plenty of top horse sport and was ready for some AC and a cold beer, thank you very much. We sometimes give riders a hard time for being too stoic in great moments like this anyway. Most are such veterans of top sport they don’t show much emotion—but today was not one of those days.
I found myself near tears as I watched rider after rider fly over that final fence, and whether they had two rails down or none, they dropped the reins and pointed down at the real hero of the day, and they made sure that crowd knew who they were clapping for. They hugged, patted, kissed and cried over their horses.
I sat in the stands for part of the team competition and felt that electric camaraderie of thousands cheering on their home team, but what you saw standing at the in-gate was extraordinary. You got to see up close those tiny, quiet moments when a rider would lean down on their horse’s neck, and in a stadium of thousands of screaming fans it was just them, their horse and a whispered thank you.
The medals were awarded almost an hour after most of these riders went, but to me the real victory of the day was when all of those horses’ hind feet left the ground at the final fence in that final round. That’s when they sat down on their hocks, dug in their feet and said, “I’ll try. I’m not sure I’ll clear it; I may be hot and tired, a little sore and stiff from these five days of jumping, but you are my person, and for you I’ll try.”
The athletic ability of these horses is entirely amazing, but that’s not what I’ll remember most from this World Equestrian Games. What I won’t ever forget witnessing is the incredible generosity of a horse’s spirit, the truly extraordinary part of these animals we have the privilege to swing a leg over and ask to fly.