Tuesday, Apr. 16, 2024

Catherine Kohn’s Care Keeps Rolex Kentucky Athletes Running


This multi-faceted veterinarian has been an integral part of the Rolex Kentucky CCI since the event’s inception.

Catherine Kohn, VMD, has yet to meet a force of nature that can keep her away from the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.
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This multi-faceted veterinarian has been an integral part of the Rolex Kentucky CCI since the event’s inception.

Catherine Kohn, VMD, has yet to meet a force of nature that can keep her away from the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.

Neither cold, nor wind, nor rain (nor even more rain) has stopped her from selflessly serving the competition’s equine athletes every year since the inaugural event, the 1978 World Championships at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.

To the spectator, competition veterinarians often seem peripheral and nondescript, but eventing as we know it could never thrive as it does without their hours of hard work—and Kohn has certainly logged some hours.

A former member of the Fédération Equestre Internationale Veterinary Committee and a professor at The College of Veterinary Medicine at Ohio State University, she began her long-lasting love affair with Rolex Kentucky 31 years ago, when she substituted for a veterinarian at the 1976 invitational event held in preparation for the upcoming World Championships.

“I really enjoyed it and continued to work with them as they developed their event,” recalled Kohn.

And when the Canadian team veterinarian had a family emergency during the ’78 World Championships, she again stepped in as a replacement. “I met a lot of people that year and sort of got a taste for international competition,” she said.

Kohn has stayed onboard throughout the years as Rolex Kentucky has grown from a simple advanced event into a two-star, then three-star, and now four-star international competition.

After receiving her veterinary license from the University of Pennsylvania, Kohn served her residency at the New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa., which gave her easy access to the Chesterland (Pa.) and Fair Hill (Md.) Three-Day Events. She also began working at the Radnor Hunt (Pa.) Three-Day in 1977, making a similar annual commitment to the competition until its final run in the fall of 2006.

“I found out that I liked performance horses the best,” she said. “The horses had to be such spectacular athletes, and after the dressage the judging is very objective. Horses can either gallop the course or they can’t. And this sport has a really nice atmosphere. It’s a very informed competition.”

Kohn herself is partially responsible for the current fleet of competitors being so well educated. Along with friend and mentor John Mayo, DVM, who she endearingly refers to as “the grand old man of eventing,” Kohn implemented a whole new standard for analyzing upper-level equine athletes. That also meant drawing on her talents as an educator to inform the sporting community.

“She’s always there for the riders, and always is helpful,” said colleague Kent Allen, DVM, the contact veterinarian in the United States for the U.S. Equestrian Federation and the FEI. “She and John Mayo basically invented the North American approach to how you evaluate event horses. It means looking at the horses in detail at the arrival exam, where the European approach used to be fairly cursory.

“She invented the data sheets that track the horses through the competition,” he continued, “where as before, it was kind of just scribbling notes here and there. And a lot of the FEI forms we use now—either
she invented the forms themselves or modified them.”

Reigning Over Rolex

Years of dedication to a tradition-steeped competition like Rolex Kentucky isn’t unheard of, but Kohn’s contributions have gone far beyond simple kind-hearted assistance—her work has profoundly impacted the event’s very existence.

“She’s a tireless advocate for the horses and so very knowledgeable about horses, equine veterinary
medicine and the sport of eventing,” said Rolex Organizer Jane Atkinson, who has served the competition for more than two decades. “Those three interrelated areas and her unrelenting demand that horses be sound and fit for their job have ensured not only Rolex Kentucky, but the entire sport, of the welfare of the horse.”

Veterinarians often have the unenviable task of delivering bad news and making unpopular decisions at events, but it’s been Kohn’s grace under fire that has earned her the most respect throughout the years.

Allen said definitively that “if it’s in regards to the welfare of the horse, Catherine will never compromise, and that’s something you can just take to the bank. There are very few people in this world you get to say that about. That’s her line in the sand.”

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Atkinson said Kohn’s demeanor is highly professional, but that she also “has empathy for the rider if a horse has to be eliminated because of unsoundness. She’s always sorry if a horse has to be spun and will talk to the rider and explain why, which is so very important for a rider’s psyche.

“She knows the rules; she knows how to evaluate soundness and fitness,” Atkinson continued. “She knows the horses so well since she officiates at so many events and works with the horses being considered
for international competition. She remembers problems horses have had in the past, but for the sake of the horses, I think this is a good thing.”

Despite having to make some unfortunate calls, Kohn said she enjoys the sport and all of the horses and riders involved. From Rolex course walks with Jimmy Wofford to dinners with top international veterinarians, judges and course designers, “I’ve sure learned a lot from a lot of people in eventing,” she said. “It’s great to watch real horsemen at work. There aren’t that many real horsemen in the world.”

Darren Chiacchia, who’s known Kohn for more than 10 years and won the short-format CCI under her watchful eye in 2004, said Kohn has always been approachable. “[She’s] very willing to communicate with the riders, very, very frank and also very quick to compliment someone on how well their horse is
conditioned,” he said.

“I think the consistency that she’s brought to the sport—whether it be for the jogs during competitions or the role she’s played for our team in the selection process—that level of consistency translates into fairness,” said Chiacchia. “And we’ve all taken turns on the good side and the not-so-good side of that.
To any rider, the most valuable thing is that you be operating under a fair and level playing field.”

Kohn said her memories of Rolex are always particularly fond. “There have been some Rolex competitions that have come down to a quarter of a point in the stadium,” she recalled. “It’s been really amazing
watching the event grow. That’s been really gratifying to work at that.”

Sharing The Wealth

Kohn’s wealth of knowledge and expertise hasn’t been limited to just Rolex Kentucky, however. Aside from sitting on the FEI Veterinary Panel, she has served numerous Olympic and World Equestrian Games teams and was the president of the Veterinary Commission for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. She served as the veterinary delegate at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, Thailand, and also worked at numerous Bromont
(Que.) CCI**s.

“She’s been a great traveling companion across the globe,” said Allen, who, as chairman of the USEF Veterinary Committee and an FEI veterinarian, has done plenty of traveling himself. “We often get lost on roundabouts together. I keep driving and Catherine sits in the passenger seat and looks at the map and we keep going around the roundabout until we figure it out,” he joked.

Stateside, Kohn has also provided support at the North American Jr./Young Rider Championships in addition to her schedule of regular events.

“I feel really lucky to get to do the stuff I do here in the United States,” she said. “Fair Hill is just the most beautiful property you’ll ever want to see. And I’m sad that Radnor is gone, because I have great memories of Dick and Vita Thompson from 22 years. They practically had to adopt me.”

The human element is an important part of Kohn’s veterinary practice, which is why she chooses to teach and perform research to balance out the competitions.

Average days at The Ohio State University veterinary school, where she’s worked since 1985, see her completing rounds, treating clinic patients and teaching classes. She also performs research in the fields of thermoregulation, fluid/acid-base balance, rotavirus and calcium metabolism.

“To make my life feel complete I need to do some research,” said Kohn, who rides her own horse for pleasure and dances to keep fit in her rare free time. “I like discovery and new knowledge. Working closely with riders is great, but I [also] like working with students. I like stimulating students to think creatively. I like to have that balance.”

Seeking to bring that balance with her to Rolex Kentucky, Kohn started a volunteer program more than 10 years ago for equine veterinary students at schools across the country. About 10 students per school, including some from her own classes at OSU, travel to Rolex Kentucky each spring to shadow practicing veterinarians and gain hands-on experience with performance horses.

It’s an opportunity for students to learn more about the sport, network with other veterinarians and help out around the finish line of the cross-country. This year Kohn said they will also host some brief lectures and tour the Hagyard Equine Medical Institute in Lexington.

“She’s been the organizational lead there for years and years,” said Allen of Kohn’s nationwide network of schools, students, treating and associate vets, all aimed at promoting the welfare of the performance horse.

“The amount of time out of her career and personal life [she’s devoted], as far as I know, is unmatched. She’s been doing it for years and gets little thanks for it and does a job that no one else can do. She’s truly been one of the guardians for the horse in the eventing world.”

Event Formats: The Long And Short Of It

Because Catherine Kohn records medical data on horses from every event she works, she’s beginning to develop a detailed record system that will eventually be able to pin down hard evidence on the different effects the long vs. the short format has had on equine athletes.

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Although she senses some trends, Kohn is quick to note that it’s still too early to tell what the real conditioning and injury differences will be.

“I don’t think we know enough yet about the short format,” she said. “Certainly, there are some differences in how you ride, [but] we really haven’t had enough years yet to compare. If people are willing to pool their resources, we will be able to quite rapidly develop a handle on injury rates in another couple or three years.”

The short format has also forced veterinarians to take a different approach when assessing horses.

“With no [phases] A, B and C, the examination before the horses start on cross-country is no longer a requirement,” explained Atkinson. “Also, without A, B and C, we don’t know what the horses have done prior to entering the start box, so it’s made it difficult for the veterinarians, whose job it is to guard the welfare of the horses, to have solid parameters to use for judgment of the fitness of the horse to start on the cross-country.

“While they don’t have the right to stop a horse from starting cross-country, they still observe the horses, and if they suspect a problem, can bring it to the ground jury,” she added. “Their job of judging the overall condition, soundness and fitness of the horse is more difficult, requiring a fine-tuning of their diagnostic abilities.”

When the format change initially came about, Kohn said she was sad to see the classic format go because of many factors, first and foremost the true horsemanship it required. But in view of the country’s lack of good steeplechase courses, she said the sport now lends itself to more venues in the short format.

“The correct choice is to have a format that can be safest and best for the horse,” she said.

More detailed data on everything from TPR recovery time to tendon and joint injuries will help to hone a format that’s best for the horses’ welfare in the future. “It’s not that it’s better or worse,” said Kohn of the current format. “It’s just a different sport. Time will tell.”

When The Competition Heats Up

As president of the veterinary commission for the 1996 Olympics, Catherine Kohn undertook a massive effort to prepare the world’s equine athletes for the oppressive heat of August in Atlanta. Up until that point, no hard data existed on the effects of this kind of weather on the sport horse, so ensuring the safety and welfare of the arriving athletes was imperative.

“Because I’d been involved in eventing for so long and had always been keeping data on TPR rates on horses that were competing at different temperatures, when these issues of ‘what are we going to do in hot Atlanta?’ came about, I was asked to contribute my thoughts,” Kohn said modestly.

After engaging in meetings with the Fédération Equestre Internationale and running two test events in the years leading up to the Games, Kohn assessed the heat/humidity impact on the horses’ performances, their ability to thermoregulate and their recovery times.

Tests were also performed to measure the process of acclimatization for foreign horses. These findings helped competing teams to train accordingly and told organizers what to plan for (such as those massive misting fans).

“Catherine was definitely one of the steering mechanisms on that,” said Kent Allen DVM of the heat tests. “She was critical in that role. The Atlanta work was truly the landmark work done on heat and exercising the horse.”

Now, more than a decade later, those comprehensive findings will be the standard for planning events at the 2008 Olympics, to be held in the sweltering heat of Hong Kong. Modifications are likely to include an early-morning and evening schedule of events and a shortened endurance test.

“I’ve talked to the veterinarians over there, and they’re going to take it lock, stock and barrel from the Atlanta work,” Allen continued. “There will be very little new work, because very little new work needs to be done.”

Kohn said she will likely attend the Hong Kong test event this summer.

Kat Netzler

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