Our columnist discusses new qualifications for the four-star—some categories of riders now need two CCI***s instead of one—and how you can decide if a rider or horse is ready for the level.
As riders, we all have a responsibility to the sport. In this era, with social media and the media the way it is, it’s a big boon to your career if you go well at Rolex Kentucky CCI****. The flip side is that it can finish your career as well if it doesn’t go well. People don’t really think about that.
There are a lot of benefits to the new four-star qualifications. I see a lot of people resting on their laurels. They got through one three-star and weren’t competitive and went all the long routes, but they got their qualifying score. In my experience, one three-star doesn’t make you ready for Kentucky.
There’s nothing like a four-star. You can’t simulate it at home; you can’t simulate it at The Fork CIC*** (N.C.) or at Rocking Horse Horse Trials (Fla.). I say to my students, “You’re going to know a lot more about going cross-country on Saturday night than you ever knew going into it.”
It’s just a different deal. I’ve ridden plenty of horses that I thought were really good horses, and they weren’t four-star horses.
It’s almost a different sport. We’re going to make mistakes because we’re human, but if you haven’t been to Kentucky, or haven’t been to a four-star before, you don’t realize how much more difficult it is.
As we say, if you can get 80 percent at a show of what you get at home, that’s a great show. The problem is, the four-star is easily 25 or 30 percent harder than what you can do in practice.
Nobody feels like a three-star is a walk in the park, but you want to be very confident at the three-star level. I’ve seen a little bit too much of people just wanting to get to Kentucky, and I don’t think it’s good for our sport, and long-term it’s not good for them.
You can’t necessarily always go off records either. I’ve had lots of students who were qualified, and I didn’t let them go; certainly Caroline Martin’s done many three-stars, and for the most part all clear, and I wouldn’t let her go last year. I didn’t think she was ready.
She’s been with me for years, and we’re like family, and I had to go to her parents and say, “Look, I know her friends who are not doing as well as her and don’t have the horses she has are putting it on Facebook that they’re going to Kentucky. But I can guarantee they’re not going to be in the sport in five years.”
It’s very hard to teach someone else to a four-star if you haven’t done one yourself. I don’t want to be degrading, and there are plenty of people who haven’t done a four-star who are way better teachers than I am. But as I say to the students who are going to Kentucky every year, it is much more mental than physical.
Teaching, the most important part is that mental part, and that’s what Dad always talked to me about before I went. This is what’s going to happen here, and this is what it’s going to feel like. You don’t know what it’s like when the horse gets to 10 minutes, and maybe it’s a four-stride combination, but you have to go on three. That’s something you can’t teach.
You try to give them the tools and practice, and a lot of the lessons and things I do with my students include talking them through what you’re going to feel here. What are you going to do now? You do have to sort of sit down and put your ass in the saddle and put your legs on and make something happen. Sometimes you really have to make it happen in a four-star.
If you get to fence 32, and it’s a table, three strides to a table—at 11 minutes that’s not necessarily a table and then three strides to a table. I don’t know what it is. It might be two. It might be four. But it’s not going to feel like the three-stride line you did at Rocking Horse.
How You Can Sleep At Night
I’m not really sure it’s quantifiable how you really know someone is ready. It’s not about if you miss or if you don’t miss, because everyone misses. It’s not about if you get a 15 in dressage or a 30 or a 60.
It really is an overall feeling and an overall program. The people who are successful, they’re in some sort of program.
With some students, you’re working harder on the physical side of things; with some you’re working more on the mental side. For me, the mental side is more telling than the physical side. At the end of the day, the four-star is the same height and dimensions as the three-star. The problem is the easy fence in a four-star is maximum height and maximum width.
At the three-star, if you had a funny jump, you have a jump or two to get yourselves back going. At the four-star, you just have to think a couple of fences ahead and react to what’s going on. You have to be quick to give your horse a pat and quick to give a tap with a stick when he needs it. You don’t wait until something’s happened. You have to be proactive rather than reactive.
Two CCI***s is the absolute minimum, especially for the rider. If you have Phillip Dutton or Andrew Nicholson riding, that’s different. But you get some of these 18- to 25-year-olds, especially with one horse, and you say, “Well, it’s my only horse. What if he gets hurt?” No one wants the horse to get hurt, but you have to be ready.
You jump around the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill CCI*** (Md.), that’s for real. If you can do that, you’re feeling like, for this country, that’s as close as it’s going to get to ready. That’s a 3.5-star. But it’s different all over the world. You can go to Poland and get your qualifications or go to Tattersalls (Ireland). There are just different levels of it.
Rebecca Farm (Mont.) hosted their first three-star last year, and you don’t want to make it too hard because there aren’t many in it. But then people do that one, and they think they’re qualified for Kentucky.
The fastest way to do anything is to go slowly. What’s the harm in doing one more? If you’re not ready, your horse can get hurt, you can get hurt, you can hurt the sport. If you do any of those three things, it’s a long road back.
You can be the best rider in the world, and the best horse in the world, and you can still break your neck. That’s the sport. You’re going to fall down, and we get that. Even the best riders—everyone makes mistakes. There are going to be people who are 100 percent prepared, and it just goes wrong. That’s why you say good luck before you go.
When Laine Ashker had that horrible fall at Rolex with Frodo Baggins in 2008, I told her the year before that the horse shouldn’t go to Kentucky, and she did another year of three-stars. She did well at both those three-stars. And it still went wrong the next year.
You try to do the best you can do. I can sleep at night, and I know Laine made a mistake, but if it had happened the year before, I would have jumped off a bridge. I would have known we should have waited another year. But she did another year at three-star, and then she made a mistake at Rolex. These things happen, and that’s part of the sport. I could stand there and defend her because we did it right.
If the horse is a little better than the rider, that’s probably a good thing. With the younger people, it’s important they have good horses to keep them safe. I still feel anything can happen, but I will always feel better if the horse is better than the rider. If the rider makes that big mistake, and the horse stops, fine, whatever. If the horse isn’t quite as good as the rider, and the rider goes braindead at the four-star, then we’re in trouble.
Coaching riding is not easy. If you want to be a pilot, there’s a guy sitting right next to you with a steering wheel. It’s very nerve-wracking, and it’s why I don’t have that much hair.
It’s a big responsibility, and I take it very seriously, and I’ve had plenty of people who left me because I didn’t think they were ready. I’m OK with that, and it doesn’t bother me at all.
I’ve also had plenty of people I thought were ready, and it didn’t work. And plenty of people I didn’t think were going to make it, and they did. At the end of the day, everyone deserves a chance.
There’s something that makes you say, “OK, you still don’t know for sure, but you know it’s time to give it a go.” You might end up just being a AAA player, but you’re never going to know unless you get to the major leagues. Kentucky is the major leagues. That hits you square on when you get there.
When Is The Horse Ready?
You don’t know if you have a four-star horse until you do it.
I’m not sure putting qualifications where you have to get X in dressage or X in show jumping is helpful. Some of the worst show jumpers I’ve ever ridden were the best cross-country horses. Some of the worst on the flat were the best cross-country horses. And then some of the best show jumping horses were the worst cross-country horses.
Physically it’s a big job for those horses. They have to be fitter than one year takes. It’s why you don’t see a lot of 8-year-olds running around the four-star. It doesn’t happen. They have to be bigger, stronger horses and carry themselves.
It’s a long way with lots of big jumps, and for the horse, too, it’s mentally exhausting. If the horse is physically not up to it, they’re not going to be mentally up to it either. At that level, you’re at the major leagues and a professional athlete, and everyone needs to be on point.
Park Trader is the scariest horse to ride around a prelim or intermediate, but he’s fun to ride at the four-star. My Boy Bobby did one four-star. He did it once. A four-star horse is one who does it many, many times.
Bobby wasn’t made for the four-star level. It was faster than he can go and longer than he can go, but he did it on one magical weekend.
This year, I have Copper Beech, who’s 10 now. He’s done four CCI***s. And I don’t know if he’s ready! I don’t know if he’s a four-star horse, but I have to give him a chance. He’s gone very well in the three-stars, and he doesn’t seem to get tired.
You see a lot of horses who are good at their first four-star, and then the second one they don’t want to do it anymore. Then some aren’t good at their first, and the second one goes well.
There is no exact science to it. That’s about the only thing I do know. It does come with experience, and I don’t know how to put it in words, but you just know you’ve done everything you can do, and the horse deserves a chance.
The more times you go to Rolex, the slower you are to go back, especially if you’ve had success. I guess as you get older, and you’ve been a few times, your expectations get higher. There’s no point in just going to make it around.
If I had the answer, I’d be a lot richer than I am. Certainly you don’t know until you’ve finished Kentucky.
Buck Davidson is an event rider based in Riegelsville, Pa., and Ocala, Fla. The son of eventing legend Bruce Davidson, Buck has carried on the family name with major achievements beginning during his young rider career. He was a member of the Land Rover U.S. Eventing Team at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (Ky.) and at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (France), and he won team gold at the 2011 Pan American Games (Mexico). He was third at the 2014 Rolex Kentucky CCI**** and won the 2015 Jersey Fresh CCI*** with Ballynoe Castle RM. He has three horses, Park Trader, Petite Flower and Copper Beech, entered in this year’s Rolex Kentucky. He began contributing to Between Rounds in 2010.