Christmas, New Years, my birthday: I don’t feel any of these in my bones the way I do the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI5*-L week. (Well, maybe my birthday, as the bones feel that pretty strongly!) Like Christmas, everything seems clearer and feels more real the week of Kentucky.
As a competitor, every choice you make that week is crucial. How much energy do you have for the endless distractions? Every appearance is different and should be savored. Every meal, meeting and ride should have a purpose, whether for much-needed stress relief or to ratchet up the pressure. To have a horse entered is a huge privilege and honor, but make no mistake, it’s a privilege that’s earned by everyone involved.
Bruce Davidson, whose victory at the 1974 World Eventing Championships (England) is the reason the Kentucky Horse Park exists, once said that every great horse deserves to have a Badminton on its resume, and I believe for North American horses the same can be said of Kentucky.
The best in the world are lining up to contest what looks like the most competitive field we may have ever seen in Lexington, with no less than six former five-star winners entered!
The five-star is again the feature of the week, but the showgrounds will be extra busy with the four-star short running alongside, and the pure show jumping classes have returned. The four-star was an exciting class last year, and I’m so glad it’s getting a regular spot. I’m sure it will make for a long day of sport that will give everyone, especially the fans, much to talk about.
Without a doubt, the Kentucky team will put on a show that lacks nothing, as they have been doing this for years. No one involved is anything less than the best. Course designer Derek di Grazia is coming off a brilliantly designed Olympics, and I can’t wait to see what he and his team have in store.
After running behind closed doors last year, the crown jewel of North American eventing will once again have spectators. It felt strange last year without the trade fair, exhibitions and crowds of cheering fans, but this year will be full of excitement. We will all benefit from that energy, and I can’t wait.
A Packed Stadium
If you’re competing in Kentucky, who you are as a rider will be revealed. But don’t worry, you are not alone. Far from it. Who will be there? Who will witness this moment in time? Who’s along for the ride with you?
Let’s pretend we are going to gather the people who have been involved in the journey in the stands at the Kentucky Horse Park. No one gets here alone, although it often feels lonely.
We can start with the poor parents, spouses and other family members. As you’ve chased this week for years, you’ve tortured them with your nonstop babbling about flying changes, narrow fences and water jumps. They’ve experienced all the successes along the way, as well as the failures. They’ve listened to questions of, “How could I have added a stride to that line?” Or, “Why did I leave out that stride and have that rail?” They’ve experienced driving across the country with emotions high, whether positive or negative, and being trapped in a cab with a rabid raccoon would be preferable to driving home from a failed event with some driven equestrians.
How many times can you rehash a mistake no one but you cares about? Yet, these poor people listen and stoically nod at the appropriate places. They listen to you discuss the feelings of your horse responding to some nuance—something that likely only matters to you or your coach—ad nauseum.
Getting to Kentucky can’t be done without a horse, and that starts with the breeders—some dreamer just like you, planning a match that without a doubt will yield a champion. How could it not work out? That mare only needed the right stallion, and it’s a week in the Kentucky bluegrass for me!
My dad and I bred one for me back in 1991. Our sure thing turned out to be a 15.3-hand mare named Leaps And Bounds, whose barn name was “Pippa,” after Pippa Nolan, now Funnell. A sure thing? She couldn’t be sold as the market recognized she certainly wasn’t good enough. So my wife, Jennifer Carter, who at 5’5″ was better suited size-wise, took her over at training level and made two appearances in the five-star. Planning is what makes the horse, right?
My own mount, Madison Park, was the result of a colt jumping a fence and covering a mare, and for that effort he was gelded. But everyone who had some connection to Parker was happy to claim ownership of their part of his journey and say they always knew he was going to make it to the top. They were right, because if you believe in the journey enough, and try enough times, something will come of it.
The coaches who have helped you along the way have some ownership here as well. It’s different for every rider, but if we invited all the coaches behind each rider’s career, it would take a large part of the grandstand to house them. Coaches remember and revel in the achievements of riders they’ve helped along the way. As a coach, you inform and direct, before passing along to the next coach in line. If you’re trying to be successful, not just entered, at this level, you’re still getting help. The best riders are supported by a team of coaches at different times of the year, all to bring out the best in them on a week like no other. I’ve sold and trained horses and coached people who’ve had their moment on that hallowed ground, and every time it’s special for a different reason.
Riders also depend on a group of owners—ones who must believe through the failures and thrive on more than just successes. If you’re lucky enough to have good owners, cherish them. They follow the dream and invest in your journey with the hope that they will get to travel down that winding drive, figuratively and literally, that will deposit them on the world stage. All the owners in the barn, regardless of whether their horse makes it to Kentucky, are partly responsible for the rider’s journey and should be appreciated for their involvement. I hope the owners leave Kentucky recognizing the victory of their participation even if it didn’t end with a winning result.
Our imaginary grandstand already has quite the crowd, but the guest list for the party isn’t set yet.
How about all the volunteers at the events you’ve gone to? Or the organizers who devote time and money to creating a platform to bring your horses to this level? The builders and designers who create questions to prepare you for this moment, who are trying to create good footing out of bad, and terrain where there was none or too much? All of them support the journey. Many of these upstanding individuals will be at the Kentucky Horse Park because they recognize this is their reward, and it provides them motivation and inspiration to put in more efforts.
The veterinarians, farriers, physical therapists and other horse health professionals deserve seats in the stands as well. They’re often called on at any time of day or night to handle an emergency, or a perceived one, created by an anxious rider. It’s an unrealistic expectation that puts these poor professionals at odds with any sense of normalcy in life, and their families will deal with the demands as well.
Then there are the very hard-working and caring grooms and farm staff who provide the rider time to truly commit and concentrate on their preparation and performance, as well as dealing with the inevitable ups and downs. These individuals truly deserve a box seat by the ring, but they’re often furthest from the action with the best company a person can have: their horse. They develop an insight and connection with the horse that should be the envy of almost anyone; a love like no other is often the only reward for their great effort.
All this effort, support and thousands of hours of work will result in a performance that takes a total of 20 minutes. Twenty minutes that will create memories that last the rest of your life—memories that will be relived amongst your team from the grandstand, too. So many of us just want those 20 minutes, and few will get them. For those that do, it will change your heart. “One more time” is what most of us who have been there ask for—one more chance to feel that bond with an equine partner who knows your soul.
The magic of those partnerships will be on full display this year in Kentucky, and I can’t wait to watch in awe. The mighty of the world will gallop around a cross-country track that will be as well-built and designed as any in the world, yet they will show harmony in dressage, and follow light guidance for precision in the show jumping. One will take home a worthy victory, but all those behind them in our imaginary stands will be winners. Best of luck to you all, enjoy the ride, and most of all pat your horse (unless they prefer a scratch).
An Olympic veteran for Canada, Kyle Carter also earned team silver at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Kentucky) and the 2007 Pan American Games (Brazil), as well as placing second in the 1999 Rolex Kentucky CCI4*-L. Carter currently holds the record for coaching the most gold medalists at the FEI North American Youth Championships, and he served as the coach for the Guatemalan and Venezuelan eventing teams. He is a co-founder and coach for Ride IQ, and he and his wife, Jennifer Carter, run Five Ring Stable in Citra, Florida.
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our April 2022 issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked.
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