Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2024

Behind The Photo: The Great Save

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Every rider has “that” moment, the one when things have gone wrong, and you know gravity is just about to unceremoniously part you from your horse’s back. Eventer Molly Koch experienced that moment a few fences from home on cross-country at the Horse Park Of New Jersey Horse Trials II, July 22-23, but impressively managed to score a rare win over gravity. 

Captured on film by show photographer Charlie Mann, the seconds of “will she or won’t she stay on?” might cause even the most seasoned equestrian to exclaim, “How did she save that?”

“It looks a little bit more dramatic than it was. The whole thing was more dramatic than it needed to be,” said Koch, 28, with a laugh. 

The near-dismount was a surprise to her, as she was two jumps from home in open modified division B, at the final water combination. Jumping a small cabin in the water, Koch’s Toome Diamond Lad, a 13-year-old Irish Sport Horse, suddenly changed his mind.

Molly Koch battles gravity to stay aboard Toome Diamond Lad after a cross-country refusal at the Horse Park of New Jersey. Charlie Mann For AK Dragoo Photography Photo

“He loaded up and started to jump, and then he just put his feet down,” she said. “I’m still trying to figure out why he did that. I think he was a little surprised he stopped, too.” 

The sudden stop unseated Koch, and when “Rhett” (Carrick Diamond Lad—Toome Cruising Eezy) then ducked out to the left, she was shifted even further from the tack. At one point, she was completely behind the saddle with both of her legs on the right side of Rhett’s body as she battled to stay on. 

“I’m like, ‘I can’t fall off in this water. It’s dirty. I have to drive home.’ All of that was going through my mind,” she said, adding that she was still clipped in via her safety vest, but knew if she unclipped, she’d fall off.

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At that point, Rhett seemed to decide to help her out.

“He just walked up the bank and then stood there while she climbed back on,” said Mann, who was working for AK Dragoo Photography at the horse trials. “It was one of those ones where, honestly, I’m impressed she saved it.”

He captured a sequence of shots of Koch and Rhett at the water jump, which Koch later reviewed.

 “You can see where he picked up his feet and then put them back down,” she said. “We’ve just been going through it a little bit this summer. We all have our ups and downs, and we might have pushed him a bit too far, and he told us that.”

Once Koch got settled back in the saddle, she and Rhett reapproached the small cabin and jumped it successfully, along with the remaining fences on course, en route to finishing seventh in the division. They’ve been competing together for nearly three years, after Koch sold her previous mount so she could get a new horse to help her reach her ultimate goal: competing in a CCI2*-L. However, it wasn’t love at first sight with Rhett.

“I honestly wasn’t a fan of his at first,” said Koch, a trauma nurse at R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center at the University of Maryland in Baltimore and an EMT with the White Marsh Volunteer Fire Company (Maryland). “He was a little too drafty, a little fat for me. I didn’t like his crooked little face. But it took me all of three days to change my mind about him. He’s got a great personality, and he quickly turned into a barn favorite. He’s a really genuine guy, and he wants to please.”

The duo started off with a couple of novice horse trials before moving up to the training division in the spring of 2021 and then to modified. In 2022, they won their preliminary-level debut at the Plantation Field Horse Trials (Pennsylvania) and finished the year “really strong.” They started 2023 with a third-place finish at the Stable View Aiken Opener Horse Trials (South Carolina) in January. A few more preliminary outings later, Koch said she thinks Rhett started to perceive the increased effort needed for the fences and combinations after “sailing through” the lower levels. 

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“I always say he’s like the kid in high school who never had to study. He just sailed through it. Then, he got to college and thought, ‘I need to take this seriously,’ ” Koch said. 

After losing his footing and falling during cross-country at an event in March, Koch had Rhett checked out “head to toe” by her vet, discovering he had ulcers. Koch and her trainer Lillian Heard Wood decided to drop him down a level and then slowly ramp him back up. 

“We’re really thinking about rideability, and it’s honestly been going really well,” said Koch, who hopes to end the year with a preliminary horse trial in the fall. But first, she and Rhett will have one more modified outing at the Fair Hills Horse Trials, Aug. 11-12 in Elkton, Maryland. 

Mann, 61, will be there with his camera as part of the “Dragoo Crew.” A longtime equestrian photographer who’s shot four Olympic Games, he said he always takes a burst of shots of every horse-and-rider combination that comes by him, hoping to give riders a glimpse into their rounds.

“It’s a matter of just trying to do the same for every rider so they have an equally good gallery [to view],” Mann said. “I try to keep a blank slate, rather than, ‘Oh, here comes Boyd [Martin, Olympic three-day eventer], he’s going to be great.’ I just keep it at ‘Here comes another horse and another rider.’ You keep the camera at your eye, and you’ve got your finger ready for anything.”

And by anything, that sometimes means catching those moments that go by quickly for horses and riders, but which can be disconcerting to see broken into split seconds. Mann said he’s had sequences of shots depicting show jumpers dropping a leg between rails yet surprisingly not knocking the fence down and horses taking off at cross-country fences from really weird, seemingly impossible angles.

“I’m always wowed at the athleticism of the horses and the riders,” Mann said. “There are so many things that people don’t see, even if they’re videoing it. They wouldn’t always see that fraction of a second [that a photo captures.] I’ve learned over the years that when something’s happening, good or bad, to just keep shooting.”

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