Wednesday, May. 22, 2024

Rolex Kentucky Showcases Preparation

Our columnist believes that “prepare, prepare, prepare and prepare” are the four most important things that you can do to have fun in the sport.

The Rolex Kentucky Three-Day event is not only the culmination of the spring season here in the United States, but it’s also the highlight of the U.S. eventing scene. This year, an added bonus is that Rolex prepares our riders for the Olympic Games in Hong Kong this summer. Many people have their dreams on the line, so the drama is high.
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Our columnist believes that “prepare, prepare, prepare and prepare” are the four most important things that you can do to have fun in the sport.

The Rolex Kentucky Three-Day event is not only the culmination of the spring season here in the United States, but it’s also the highlight of the U.S. eventing scene. This year, an added bonus is that Rolex prepares our riders for the Olympic Games in Hong Kong this summer. Many people have their dreams on the line, so the drama is high.

Obviously, the importance of Rolex Kentucky looms large in the next few years as the United States prepares to host the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. For eventing, it will be interesting to see how course designer Mike Etherington-Smith creates the courses these next few years and what he’ll bring to the table for the WEG.

Mike has never designed a WEG, and this responsibility will top an amazing career as a course designer. This year I know that he’s going for the minimum distance for the four-star level mainly because of the Olympic Games. This year’s Rolex will also be a great opportunity for the horses of the future to experience this level for the first time.

We must remember, though, that not everyone will compete to win this event. Some riders will be here to prepare to win another day when the horse and rider have more mileage and are better prepared to take a shot.

It’s always a balance to design a course to prepare horses and test the experience of the established partnerships. Not every course designer gets it right 100 percent of the time, but Mike is certainly one of the best. This fact leads to my next comment.

Over the past year, and especially the past few months, there’s been a huge outpouring of emotion and extensive conversations regarding our sport. The discussions are from one extreme to another, from “we need to turn back the clock to yesteryear,” to “let’s change the sport radically to another form.”

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As always, the true answer falls somewhere in the middle. We have to admit that the “professional” level as we see at Rolex Kentucky is playing at a higher level than ever. This situation has put more of a distance between the professional—someone who studies the sport on a daily basis and practices eight to 10 hours a day—and others who ride maybe six times a week, maybe less, and have fun in the sport.

So do we adjust the professional side of the sport or the amateur side? What true adjustments must we study? Are the courses too tough at the lower levels?

It’s interesting that five years ago I remember hearing that the courses at the novice, training and preliminary levels weren’t challenging enough because the cross-country had lost its influence. The course designers took this conversation seriously.  Have we gone too far in this “adjustment?”  Perhaps it shows that we have to be careful about what we wish for.

Believe me, course designing is hard. That’s why the system for training course designers is extensive and still doesn’t get it right all of the time. It’s impossible to teach an art, you can only teach the techniques of an art form.

When I first started in eventing, course designers were taught that 1⁄3 of the competitors should go clear, 1⁄3 should have some problems and 1⁄3 should be eliminated! I don’t think we need to go back there.

We do need to remember that the horses at all levels must see and understand the question being asked. The lower levels need more time to answer the question, and the upper levels reduce that time. For example, it’s the difference between jumping a fence in five strides after a drop as opposed to jumping the question in one stride.

 Believe me, no one wants to get it wrong. And as the riders improve and training methods improve, course designers are trying to balance the competitive and the training aspects of the sport.

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Sometimes people make mistakes, as riders, as competitors and as course designers. Sometimes those mistakes have tragic endings for people who are pushing too hard or just made a wrong decision. Personally, I believe that admitting and learning from mistakes is the road we want to take. There’s no way we can never make a mistake. We wouldn’t have a sport if we had that attitude; we wouldn’t have a life if we lived this way.

I believe that good ideas are going to result from these conversations as long as we use our intellect and not our emotions. We choose to play in this sport, and I believe our horses also truly choose whether they want to be an eventer or something else. The responsibility lies with us, and we cannot shirk that responsibility or blame others when things go wrong.

When we watch the riders at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, we see what training, commitment and perseverance produces. It’s the top of the game. Let’s all learn from that process, celebrate excellence and take home the knowledge that preparation makes this sport a blast. 

David O’Connor



David O’Connor is the president of the U.S. Equestrian Federation and an Olympic individual gold medalist. He won the 2001 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** and was the second U.S. rider ever to win the Badminton CCI**** (England) in 1997. He retired from international competition in 2004 and now trains competitors and designs cross-country courses. He began contributing to Between Rounds in 2004.

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