It’s that time of year again. It’s this weekend every year when we make the annual trek to Lexington, Kentucky for the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.
[Editor’s aside: Do to the tendency toward abject laziness on the part of this blog’s author, this post was originally written on April 28, 2016. It was then massaged, edited, spell checked, corrected, edited some more, filed away, forgotten about and then finally resurrected today, August 10, 2016 when it was massaged some more, edited even more, spell checked again and then finally finished and posted. Thank you for your understanding.]
Five years ago, my wife introduced me to the world of “eventing.”
For those not in the know (like me, a few years ago) Rolex is kind of like the Super Bowl—or at least an important playoff game—for “horse people.” Unlike the Super Bowl, however, it’s a very sophisticated event complete with officials in top hats and athletes (both the two- and four-legged variety) who participate for their love of the sport and not for a really obscene paycheck.
The sport is known as “eventing,” and consists of three disciplines: “dressage,” “cross country” and ”stadium jumping.” Each of these is the ultimate test of horse and rider and requires that rider be in absolute physical and mental sync with horse. Failure leads to defeat and in some cases—particularly in the cross-country phase—can lead to very serious injury and even death of either horse or rider.
Yes, horses, and sometimes riders, die doing this. And it’s more common than you might imagine.
The “Three” Day Event That Takes Four Days
During the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event (which lasts four-days), “dressage”—the first “test”—is always held on Thursday and Friday. It takes two days because at this stage of the competition, none of the riders have been eliminated. Each dressage ride takes about five minutes, and because of the number of riders at five minutes apiece, the “three day event” becomes four days.
Dressage is considered to be the most sophisticated of the three tests and often, riders will wear very fanciful outfits complete with top hats in some cases. Though in the name of safety, most riders these days will wear riding helmets. It is also the most complex part of the weekend with horse and rider executing very precise movements in a very precise way at very precise times.
Sound difficult? Precisely!
Dressage, as defined by the International Equestrian Federation, is “the highest expression of horse training” where “horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements.”
As described on Wikipedia:
Its fundamental purpose is to develop, through standardized progressive training methods, a horse’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform, thereby maximizing its potential as a riding horse. At the peak of a dressage horse’s gymnastic development, the horse responds smoothly to a skilled rider’s minimal aids. The rider is relaxed and appears effort-free while the horse willingly performs the requested movement.
It’s one thing to read about it, but something entirely different to see it in person. And while a video doesn’t do it justice, if you’re interested, here’s a video of Elisa Wallace riding Simply Priceless at 2016’s dressage test:
Dressage is very interesting, but if you choose to attend Rolex at some point, and you’ve never attended before, you may want to skip Thursday. Unless you’re really, really into eventing (and most of the spectators really are really into it), once you’ve seen one dressage test, you’ve pretty much seen them all.
It Goes From Slow to Really, Really Fast
Next up, on Saturday is “cross country,” and this is where is gets really fun, really fast and really dangerous. Cross country is the phase that is both the most anticipated and the most attended by spectators.
And Chihuahua’s just love it.
As described on Wikipedia:
Cross country equestrian jumping is an endurance test that forms one of the three phases of the sport of eventing; it may also be a competition in its own right, known as hunter trials or simply ‘cross-country,’ although these tend to be lower level, local competitions. The object of the endurance test is to prove the speed, endurance and jumping ability of the true cross-country horse when he is well-trained and brought to the peak of condition. At the same time, it demonstrates the rider’s knowledge of pace and the use of this horse across country.
Cross country is dangerous simply because of the nature of the sport: imagine riding a thousand pound animal running very quickly (averaging 25 miles per hour) along an often very wet course all while jumping over (and in some cases through) massive obstacles (even through water).
There’s no way to put into words the experience of seeing cross-country in person. It’s truly impressive when one of these beasts shoots past you at top speed from about ten feet away.
Below I’ve included another video of Elisa Wallace riding Simply Priceless in the cross country phase of 2016’s event. As you will see in the video, it was actively raining (and really cold) during the cross county phase; the ground was indeed very slippery.
The video is recorded on a helmet cam, from the rider’s point-of-view:
…and here’s a quick video that I recorded of one of the final riders at 2014’s event, jumping the final obstacle and crossing the finish line:
Our Dog’s Crazy
One of the quirkiest aspects of Rolex is that it is a dog-friendly weekend, and thousands of spectators bring their mutts along with them year after year. While dogs are not allowed in the arena for the dressage or stadium jumping tests, they are allowed on the cross country track.
On our first—and of course subsequent visits—to Rolex, we have, like many others dragged our dog along. It was that first year back in 2011 when we learned that our ever faithful companion Buckley is highly intrigued by the cross country event. (And perhaps just south of crazy.) He finds the concept of a galloping horse to be—on the one hand—fascinating and—on the other—something to be reined in at all costs. As you can see for yourself, he knows how to tell the horse what he thinks of this cross country business:
He brings smiles and laughter to everyone who witnesses his sheer enthusiasm for eventing.
Day Three (Which is Really Day Four)
Finally, on day three (which is really day four, but pay no mind to the man behind the curtain) comes “stadium jumping.”
Referring one more time to Wikipedia:
Stadium or show jumping is the final phase of eventing competition and tests the technical jumping skills of the horse and rider, including suppleness, obedience, fitness and athleticism. In this phase, 12–20 fences are set up in a ring. These fences are typically brightly colored and consist of elements that can be knocked down, unlike cross country obstacles. This phase is also timed, with penalties being given for every second over the required time. In addition to normal jumping skills, eventing show jumping tests the fitness and stamina of the horse and rider, generally being held after the cross-country phase in higher level and international events.
Stadium jumping is far more exciting to the average attendee than is dressage, but, like dressage, it is a whole bunch of the same thing. Unlike dressage, however, by this point in the competition, the ranks have really thinned out. Riders who didn’t make it through cross country (or even dressage) have already packed it in by now and so there are far fewer riders to watch.
In my mind, the reaction of the crowd is almost as interesting as the ride itself. Every time a rail is knocked down, you’ll hear thousands of people simultaneously groan and when a rider completes the course, regardless of the quality of their ride, the stands always erupt in cheers.
One last time, here’s Elisa Wallace on Simply Priceless during 2016’s stadium jumping test:
It All Comes Down To This
There really are no losers here, because just making it to an event like Rolex is a gargantuan feat. There are horses and riders who didn’t quite make it to the finish line this year and others who did, but in both cases, it was only after years of hard work and dedication that they made it here at all.
But win or lose, most will be back next year.
They don’t come for the fame, because they don’t really get a lot of fame outside of eventing circles. After all, when was the last time you heard a bunch of guys at a sport’s bar talking about the horses and riders at Rolex?
They don’t come for the money, because there is no paycheck here. While the winner of the competition (and several runners up) receive a substantial “prize package,” (part of which is monetary), the sum is paltry compared to what they pay a guy to chase an oblong ball around a field for a couple of hours on the weekends.
These people come year after year for the love of the sport.
The skill, training and dedication required to lead a horse through three days of this grueling competition is tough to comprehend.
But when you understand that it’s not about sponsors, it isn’t about money, it’s not about doing a television commercial or a being offered a spot on some sports show after retirement, when you understand that it’s really for nothing more than the realization of a dream that these people have been carrying with them since childhood, well then it becomes Simply Priceless.
And besides: the dog digs it.