The Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event presented by Land Rover is a thriller for spectators and equestrian fans, whether they’re on site at the Kentucky Horse Park or watching the action live on USEF Network. For a different perspective, we asked several participants behind the scenes at Rolex Kentucky to describe what their experience at this eventing championship is like.
Lauren Kieffer, Athlete
Olympic eventer Kieffer finished second overall at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event presented by Land Rover in 2014 and 2016 with Veronica, earning the Rolex/USEF CCI4* National Championship both times. This year, she’s riding Jacqueline Mars’s Vermiculus, an Anglo-Arab full brother to Snooze Alarm, Kieffer’s first Rolex mount.
“Rolex is really special. For a rider, it’s unlike any other three-day event. They do such a great job of taking care of the riders and horses, and the facilities, barns, and arenas are amazing, but there’s also so much history there.
“It gets huge crowd support, and the way the crowd is laid out, they’re really right with you for all your rides. You don’t get that everywhere. The stadium, especially, is so enclosed by the crowd. You do hear and see everything. That’s a lot different from other three-days. Younger horses, for their first time there, it can be a lot for them.
“It’s everybody’s goal to get there, and it’s so hard to get there. So pulling in there is an accomplishment. The first time I went, by the time I got there I’d made the jumps so big in my head that it was a bit of a relief to walk the course and see that the fences weren’t actually the size of houses!
“My favorite fence is the last one! It’s always nice to get to the last fence. It’s not fun until it’s over; it’s a big job, and it’s a big responsibility when you take a horse around Rolex or any four-star, and that’s not something to be taken lightly. When you get to the last fence, it’s a job accomplished.”
“On cross-country morning, every rider kind of has a different way they deal with the nerves and pressures. So you go through your routine. I like to wander around the course a bit again in the morning and watch the first rides on the screen. I’ve always got my iPod on, too. You try not to project your nerves onto the horses.”
“What I would tell a first-time rider is to enjoy it, because you never know how long it will take you to get back there. At the time, it seems like you’re going to keep going, but certainly it sometimes can take a long time to come back. When you jump that last show jump and have had a successful weekend, that’s probably the best part, especially with all the crowd and your friends and family.”
Carl Segal, Co-Owner of Copper Beach and Park Trader
Segal and his wife Cassandra started off as Rolex spectators before getting involved as event-horse owners about 15 years ago. Since then, they’ve campaigned such Rolex competitors as My Boy Bobby, who finished third in 2009, and eventing’s all-time leading points-earner, Ballynoe Castle R.M., who finished third in 2013 and fourth in 2014. Both won the Pinnacle Cup as the event’s top-placed American finisher. This year, the Segals have entered their Park Trader, and Carl Segal also co-owns Copper Beach with Sherrie Martin. Buck Davidson rides both.
“We started in eventing at a very low level and never had any expectation or hope of having a horse at Rolex. We would go to Rolex and marvel at these horses that could make it to that level but never anticipated that would be one of ours! We still enjoy going to the lower levels, too.
“When we got to go to Rolex with My Boy Bobby, it was incredible to be there. It was the first-four star he’d ever done. And we had no expectation he’d do as well as he did. Buck did a phenomenal job. It was kind of a miracle weekend. We came to appreciate how unusual it is for a horse to get that far.
“Being there as an owner is an immensely different experience from going as a spectator. It’s exciting, but it’s also nerve-wracking, to be honest with you. Now you’re concerned about how the horse is going to do, whether he has it in him to get around, whether he’s going to measure up, literally, to the height of the jumps and that degree of difficulty. It dawned on us that there are thousands and thousands of eventing horses in the country, and there’s only a handful that wind up at Rolex. It’s a minute percentage that get around Rolex. So we’re very proud of the horse and very proud of the rider. But I love going as a spectator, and I love going as an owner. It’s a different awareness and reality. It’s really a privilege to have a horse there.
“When your horse is out there going on cross-country for 10 to 12 minutes, that’s beyond belief. It feels like they’re out there for an hour. You’re watching on the television screen, which is good because you can see more of the jumps, and it feels like it lasts an eternity. That is just so thrilling. And then when they get through the finish line, it’s exhilarating.
“But then, right away, you start worrying about are they fit to get through the jog Sunday morning. So, really, you’re concerned from Saturday afternoon until Sunday morning about whether your horse will be able to do the show jumping. It surprised me how intense that time is between cross-country and show jumping, and even before the first horse inspection on Wednesday. I’ve seen horses who’ve arrived in Kentucky and didn’t get through the first horse inspection.
“I love the horse inspections. They’re very intense, but it’s beautiful to see the horses jog. It’s a spectacular sight. You get to see how beautiful they are up close, these beautiful animals, without a rider on their backs and without the tack.
“It seems to my wife and me that the key is the relationship between the horse and the rider. You really appreciate that even more at the four-star level. The horse has to trust the rider, and the rider has to trust the horse. You can’t just hop on a horse and go around Kentucky. You’ve really got to have the relationship to make it work. That’s what Buck has had with the horses he’s ridden for us.”
Annie Jones, Co-owner of Fernhill Fugitive
Jones has owned a number of Rolex horses for Phillip Dutton, eventing bronze medalist at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, and this year co-owns Fernhill Fugitive with Thomas Tierney. When she’s not cheering on her horses, Jones can often be found out on the grounds with her camera, taking pictures of cross-country fences for friends and family.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of horses run there and some in the top five. I haven’t won it yet, but I’ve had one second and others who have done well. If you’re lucky enough to get there, it’s very exciting.
“The thing that makes me most nervous is the trot-up. You always hold your breath, because you never know what’s going to happen in the trot-up, and there always seems to be some slight crisis. But if you hold your breath long enough, you get through it! The horses are well prepared, and obviously Phillip is a brilliant rider, so I don’t worry about that.
“It’s the one place where we, as owners, can have a truly international competition. Otherwise, you have to go abroad if you want to have top-level international competition, and that’s very expensive. So it’s important from that perspective: you want to be the best, and if you’re just playing to a local audience, you don’t know until you come up against the rest of the world. One of the reasons this is such a good international competition is that they’re offering prize money, and this isn’t a sport where you expect to ever make any money. But they’ve become much more generous with the prize money and they’ve got good backing, which is great and helps attract people from Great Britain, France, Germany, Mexico, Canada, a lot of top international riders.
“The other thing about Rolex that’s so special is the Kentucky Horse Park. It’s a phenomenal facility and a beautiful place, especially at this time of year. It has wonderful, old turf, rolling hills, and great terrain for a proper cross-country test. That’s something we always look forward to.
“There’s tremendous atmosphere in the arenas. There are such crowds and flags everywhere. It does light the horses up, there’s no question about that. The arenas are so electric.
‘On cross-country day, when I have a horse on course, I just stay at the start and finish and watch on the screen in the tent there. That’s the only way you can really see it all. [Course designer] Derek Di Grazia is very conscious of being horse-friendly, and I find that some of his courses will really challenge the imagination of the rider, but in the end if they do their homework and they go the line, it’s very doable, and the horses seem to really enjoy jumping those fences. There are no traps. There’s no hidden agenda. The fences are actually pretty straightforward. A well-trained and very good athlete of a horse should not have a problem jumping those fences. Sometimes at other places there’s a fence that just doesn’t ride well, but I think that’s not true at Rolex. You want it to be fair, and I think everything Derek designs it fair.
“I enjoy taking the horses out to graze and being with so many other great riders and being able to chat with everybody, the people you get to know over time. It’s a great honor to have a horse that’s good enough to go there, and I’ve been lucky enough to have many. It’s very exciting every time.”
Robin Corr, Volunteer
Corr, a dressage rider and retired teacher from Cincinnati, Ohio, has been a volunteer at Rolex since the early 1990s and now leads the team of volunteers who decorate the cross-country obstacles at Rolex Kentucky’s iconic Head of the Lake. Decorating the grounds for Rolex takes about 950 flats of flowers, 212 hanging plants, and a small army of about 125 volunteers led by Sheila Woerth, the chief steward of course decoration, over the course of several weeks.
“I love it. We’re creating beautiful little gardens.
“We get diagrams that tell how we’re supposed to mulch the fences, so we then know how to plant the flowers. Everything goes directly in, the whole cell pack. We don’t take things out of the pots. The course designer decides what he wants in terms of height and width, and Sheila and a couple of others pick the flowers that would fit that. We get a list that says how many flowers we have, what we’re supposed to do or not do, and then you’re on your own to plant it however you want to plant it. When the ground jury goes through and when [cross-country course designer Derek di Grazia] goes through, we sometimes get word that we need to change something. Derek and Mick [Costello, the course builder] and his crew are down-to-earth, and they’re like family now. You can talk to them.
“Our first responsibility is to help the horses. We’re doing the ground lines, helping the horse focus on what it’s supposed to do and helping keep it safe. And the rest, in the words of [former course designer] Mike Etherington-Smith, is a riot of color. That’s where we get to be imaginative. But the first question is always, ‘What kind of ground line are we putting in for the horse?’
“I love the Head of the Lake because it’s always so spectacular. It gets a big crowd. Every year it’s different, and it’s just fun. It takes us most of a day. The past couple of years, we’ve had the giant fish in there, and that presents a problem to solve: how do you plant something that’s in the water? You staple the flowers to the base of it! My go-to things are Velcro® and duct tape, but now I also travel with a staple gun. My Rolex box has all kinds of things I might need, because you can’t do certain things because they might hurt the horse. For example, you can’t nail things, because a nail might come loose.
“You have to be very careful of the footing in front of where the horse is going to land. We walk as close as we can to the fence so that we aren’t impacting the take-off or landing points. We’re also very protective of the fences. When we do the mulch, we’re out there with brushes, because Mick’s crew does a beautiful job of making the wood look really beautiful after they’ve taken off the bark, and we don’t want any mulch to mar their beauty. This is somebody’s work of art.
“We get to watch the whole evolution: the fence appears, we mulch it, we plant the flowers. On cross-country day, when the last horse goes on course, we’re like ants. We have to take off every single flower and every single bush, and then get things into the stadium, all within a couple of hours.
“I love the pansies. I love when we do a table jump and it will have maybe 40 flats of pansies in it. It’s just a field of color. Pansies are just such happy little flowers, and they come in so many different colors that make things pop out visually—and that’s something we have to look for. The horses have to be able to see things. Sometimes you’ll step back and look and think, ‘This is too dark.’ And so you call to see if we have any pink in our store house. You need colors to make things pop.
“It’s been so educational, and it’s so much fun to do. There’s so much camaraderie among the planters. We’ve become a giant family that meets once a year. We have kids who came with their moms at first and now they’re in college. People have moved away and still come back, and we all reconnect during those weekends in April.”
Janis Linnan, Licensed Official
Linnan, the Fédération Equestre Internationale Eventing Steward General for the USA, has volunteered at the Rolex event since the early 1980s. She got her start as a licensed official under the famed horseman and Olympic eventer Major General Jonathan “Jack” Burton. At Rolex, Linnan will be one of a number of stewards posted in various locations, including the barns, at warm-up locations, and with veterinarians.
“The role of the FEI steward is to help the competitors and look out for the welfare of the horses and the welfare of the competitors. You observe, you help, and you intervene if necessary. We’re there when the horses come in and help the veterinarians check over the horses’ passports, we assist at the jog, and we go into the barns and always have a presence there if someone needs anything. We steward the warm-ups and check the bits and saddlery for dressage, and it’s basically the same thing for the warm-ups for cross-country and show jumping. For the dressage phase, for example, we follow the FEI dressage rules for bitting and for saddlery. We check to make sure there are no earplugs in the horses’ ears, and we check to make sure the bit matches what’s legally allowed in the dressage arena, to ensure a level playing field for everyone. The spurs can only be a particular length, so we check that they’re not a type that’s prohibited.
“For the jumping phase, we have to supervise and make sure everybody follows the jumper rules. We have to follow warm-up rules for the jumpers, as far as where the poles can be and how high the jumps can be, those types of things.
“And usually everything is fine, because people do know the rules.
“We have seen a lot of change for the good over the years. People have a better understanding of how the horse really reads a jump and the development of our understanding of the horse. There have been so many studies now about how horses react and how they think. And there’s been so much development in the veterinary care given to the horses so they can maintain good health. I think we’ve come to understand better over the years how they do their jobs and what wonderful athletes they are. It’s interesting, if you listen to different course designers explain how they’ve learned over the years how to build types of fences that test horses’ abilities without overtaxing them. There are technical questions, but they don’t overtax the horse, and I’ve seen that develop and move forward in a really good way.
“My favorite memory is of working with General Burton for so many years. He was my mentor, and he was the person who encouraged me to become a licensed official, a technical delegate, a judge, and a licensed FEI steward. There was a real need then, as there is now, for people to step up and give back to the sport and be licensed officials. It’s a way of giving back, and it’s something I hope our next generation feels, too.
“General Burton and I worked many years together at Rolex. He always kept a level head, and he could see things from a larger perspective. He had a calm demeanor when there was something going on and people’s emotions were running high; he always took a deep breath and got people to realize that we’re all here for the same reason. He was a great role model.
“You want the competitors to understand that the officials are there to help and we have the competitors’ and the horses’ best welfare at heart. We want to help them succeed, not to eliminate them! If someone has a logo, we can measure the logo to make sure it’s within the rules. There’s a scale in the office, and we tell people, ‘Don’t forget to weigh your horse’s boots before the competition,’ because when you’re jumping the boots can’t be over 500 grams per leg. If they have questions about bits or spurs, we’re happy to look at them ahead of time. We’re there to help people have a successful competition.
“I think the horses at this level really do enjoy their job, and they do form a partnership with the person who’s riding them. That’s easy to see when you’re out there.
“Rolex is a true four-star, and it’s a privilege to work there and help everyone put it all together. To work at the four-star in your country, it’s a special thing.”
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