Epic Riding and Horsemanship On Display At Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event

Every year I go to Rolex Kentucky, and I see things that help me to become a better trainer and horseman.
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Every year I go to Rolex Kentucky, and I see things that help me to become a better trainer and horseman.

Every year, after the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event is over, I always leave the Kentucky Horse Park feeling awed and inspired. It’s easy, after so many years in any sport, to get a bit blasé about it. After you’ve competed in and covered a sport like eventing for 30 or more years, it’s easy to feel sort of “what else is new?” about the international levels and participants.

With his great rider on Trading Aces, Phillip Dutton (left) won a 2014 Range Rover Evoque.

With his great rider on Trading Aces, Phillip Dutton (left) won a 2014 Range Rover Evoque.

But then every year I go to Rolex Kentucky, and I see things that thrill and inspire me, things that help me to become a better trainer and horseman. And every year I come home thankful that I was there.

So here, in no particular order, are the things that inspired me at this Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.

Kim Severson is back: Enough said.

Once a household name, the only three-time American winner of America’s only CCI4*, and the 2004 Olympic silver medalist, Severson has drifted a bit since the retirement of her superstar Winsome Adante. But a new horse, Fernhill Fearless (aka “Sparky”), and a new outlook have brought one of the greatest American event riders back to the international scene.

And she didn’t just show up—she kicked butt. Every phase was a riding lesson, but her cross-country round was simply amazing. Foot-perfect and the ideal example off what cross-country riding should be. I’ll be encouraging all my students to watch her videos on the USEF Network.

Boyd Martin’s faith in Trading Aces was proven to be right. “Oscar” is a charming horse, but with two lackluster CCI performances in 2013, many people, including me, figured that the big warmblood just didn’t have quite enough hot “blood” to be competitive at the CCI4* level—a little too careful, a little too slow, a little to heavy to get fit enough.

But Martin believed he had a superstar on his hands, and he moved heaven and earth to figure out what Oscar needed to succeed. It turned out the horse wasn’t sweating properly, and a combination of an old-time remedy (high-alcohol beer in his breakfast every morning) and new (a medication for anhydrosis), plus a stepped-up conditioning program had him looking like a different horse this time around.

Sadly, Martin didn’t get to ride his new and improved partner, having broken his leg on a different horse in March, but Martin’s friend Phillip Dutton stepped in to the irons and finished eighth, winning the Land Rover Best Rider of the Day award for finishing exactly on the optimum time of 11:12. Dutton’s prize was a two-year lease on a 2014 Range Rover Evoque.

With her cross-country round with High Times, Jennifer McFall showed how you develop a four-star horse. Someone looking at McFall’s score at the end of the weekend might think she’d be disappointed. But she was probably one of the happiest people at the Kentucky Horse Park. After an early green run-out, she carefully nursed him through the long routes on the next few combinations. And “Billy’s confidence grew before our eyes. He jumped better, more eagerly, and bolder with each passing fence, and by the last third of the course, he stormed through all the straight ways and finished with his ears up and full of run.

At any point McFall could have given up—given in to the disappointment of the stop or kept pushing her horse at the tough stuff. Instead, she rode one of the smartest, most thoughtful rounds I’ve seen in a long time, and she ended up with a much better horse than she started with.

We also spent Friday and Saturday evenings at the Kentucky Reining Cup, and, honestly, it’s a ball. There were several noteworthy moments there too.

Mandy McCutcheon makes history: She’s the most decorated female reiner of all time, but this weekend she became the first woman to go over the $2 million mark in career earnings and became the first female member of a U.S. World Equestrian Games reining team. She did it aboard a horse, Yellow Jersey, owned by her dad, the legendary Tim McQuay, and though I’m certain Mandy’s as tough as they come, her joy and emotion were infectious. Tim, a man of few words, only said quietly, “I wanted her to have a chance,” when asked why he gave one of his top horses to Mandy to ride, but his pride and joy shone through in his voice.

Pete Kyle retires A Ruf Gal. As a particular fan of tough, liver chestnut mares, I’ve always thought A Ruf Gal looked like a lot of fun to ride, and her lifetime achievements are too long to list. So when Pete dismounted and removed her saddle in the ring after the musical freestyle performance on Saturday night, a hush immediately fell over the crowd.

You see, in the reining world, that signals a horse’s retirement from competition. Pete led the mare from the ring, where the emotion overtook him, and his face crumpled, no longer able to keep the tears at bay. He hugged her neck and wiped his face in her mane, and whispered in her ear. His wife joined him and pressed her forehead to the mare’s, tears streaming down her face. The crowd was now on its feet, their standing ovation thundering down on Kyle, and he fell to his knees. I, and everyone around me, was bawling. Enjoy your retirement, good mare.

Still, Dan James stole the freestyle show. I’d vaguely heard of Dan James, as I’d watched a bit of the “Mustang Millionaire” show on NatGeo Wild. But since so much in that show was cringe-worthy, I didn’t really notice him (although I did recall he was one of the few who didn’t make me want to change the channel).

James opened freestyle night with a liberty demonstration with two of his horses that knocked my socks off, and when he competed later in night, he just blew everyone away.

James didn’t just ride the freestyle bareback; he rode the last third of it backwards—he did flying lead changes, sliding stops and spins riding backwards. Holy cow! And, as a finale, he leaped off and had the horse execute an excellent spin from a hand signal only.

His theme as that he was Tonto, so he was also shirtless and had a fake dead bird on his head (OK, so he was dressed as Johnny Depp’s Tonto from The Lone Ranger). I’m not a fan of natural horsemanship, but what this guy can do with horses is simply amazing. Totally awesome. He also made me feel less awesome about my own horse-training skills.

If you’ve never been to the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, you’ve just got to go. Every horse person should put it on their bucket list, because there is always something inspiring to take away. CI can’t wait until next year.