Our columnist explores the qualities necessary for a horse and rider to tackle eventing’s highest level.
Four-star events are their own little world. Thousands of riders ride thousands of horses in hundreds of events all over the world every year, but most of them will never in their lives gallop down to an advanced fence, and only a fraction of the advanced riders who do will ever tackle the four-star challenge.
Four-star events are big, daunting, dangerous and demanding, so much so that they take most horses and riders out to the edges of their talents and abilities, to places that most of us don’t want to go, and truth be told, where most of us shouldn’t even try to go.
An event like Rolex Kentucky might be analogous to the World Series in Yankee Stadium, the Stanley Cup at the Forum in Montreal, the Super Bowl, or clawing up the icebound ledges of Mt. Everest. Those elite athletes who take on such challenges become the classical example of the Biblical adage, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
So often we hear phrases like, “That might be a Rolex horse,” or “That girl has what it takes to ride at Rolex.” What does that mean, though, in specific, practical terms? What are the qualities of mind, body, spirit and will that differentiate the few who actually ride out of that starting box beneath those towering trees, from the hundreds of others whose dreams will never quite come true?
Here are five lists of related qualities. Some are physical, some emotional, and some almost spiritual. Some are more characteristic of what the riders need, while some pertain to the needs of rider and horse.
First, I think the Rolex quest begins with desire, drive and insatiable hunger. You have to not only want it, you have to need it, at even perhaps some intemperate obsessive level. Climbing Mt. Everest doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Then, secondly, you simply have to have courage, grit and guts, and so does your horse. You have to be able to walk up to those monsters and think, “Yes, I can do this.” You can’t get into the, “Oh my God, that thing looks like the Grand Canyon!” Because, if you do, that thing will become the Grand Canyon, something you’d rather not experience.
Being tough and overly brave can also have disadvantages, however. You have to temper courage with the reality of what you are actually capable of achieving. You shouldn’t be like the Jack Russell terrier who attacks the Rottweiler.
Thirdly, you and your horse have to be athletic, tough and agile. This is no shuffleboard court, no polite game of golf or tennis. It’s more akin to what the American Indians supposedly called the early games of lacrosse, “War’s little brother.” You have to be a warrior, and your horse has to be a warrior.
You and your horse must also have talent, aptitude and skill. Some horses are better jumpers, faster gallopers and better movers than their less gifted cousins. You want to ride those horses. Some riders can sit the trot, nail those flying changes, see those distances and ride those angles. Their vital edge is that they are better riders than other riders. Elitism trumps democracy at Rolex.
And, finally, you have to have the persistence, the perseverance, the relentless commitment to keep plugging away, year after year when everything conspires to drive your dreams into the dirt. The only people who don’t fall off are the people who don’t get on in the first place. The good ones struggle back on after every fall, every failure.
I asked several current and former advanced-level riders what special qualities sets the Rolex horse apart from the already elite group of advanced level horses. Here’s what they said.
Michael and Nathalie Pollard said that the true four-star horse had to possess either one or the other of these two somewhat contradictory qualities: Either the horse must be obedient enough to do exactly what its rider asks, each step of the way, or the horse must be totally independent enough to basically say “Hang on, rider, here we go!”
I asked Eric Dierks if he had a horse for Rolex this spring. He replied that he didn’t, but that his wife, Sara, was hoping to take Somerset II there. “That horse jumps over fences like they were blades of grass,” said Eric.
John Williams, who rode Carrick to individual fourth place and team gold at the 2002 World Equestrian Games (Spain), had a succinct summation of what the elite event horse must have. John said this is a horse that “won’t be discouraged.”
Karen McCollom, whose solid old warrior, Inniscarra, tackled Rolex five times in the early 90s said, “These horses don’t need courage, because they aren’t scared in the first place. What sets them apart is confidence. They are always looking for that next fence.”
Charlie Plumb compared the great horses to human athletes like Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods. “At the end of the day they want to keep firing. They try harder than the others. They’ve got big hearts.”
And, Maya Studenmund echoed what Charlie said. “Yes, they‘ve got to have talent, but that special horse has to have the biggest heart.”
Denny Emerson rode on the 1974 World Championship gold-medal eventing team. He served as the U.S. Eventing Association president twice and won the USEA Wofford Cup for his lifetime dedication to eventing. At his Tamarack Hill Farm in South Strafford, Vt., and Southern Pines, N.C., he trains horses and riders and stands stallions. An original Between Rounds contributor, Emerson began writing his column in 1989.