Here's the thing … an obvious problem is still a problem. Derek di Grazia's cross-country course at the 2012 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event posed some questions that should have been obvious to any rider experienced at that level, yet the course proved too much for many of the large international field gathered at the Kentucky Horse Park in late April. This is the second year Derek has
designed the course, and what is obvious is that he is still mentally miles ahead of the competitors.
Derek has changed the feel of cross-country courses at Rolex by the simple means of deciding that horses and riders should indeed go across the country. When you attempt one of his courses, it is not enough to be able to count strides between obstacles … you have to be able to ride as well. The jumps are big enough, but now the terrain does something interesting right in front of the fence—it dips slightly one way, leading your horse to duck out in that direction. Or you approach from a left-handed downhill turn, only to find that you must jump a corner at the bottom of the left-handed turn with the red flag on the right side of the jump (on approach, cross-country jumps have a red flag on the right and a white flag on the left) thus giving an unbalanced or dishonest horse a perfect opportunity to avoid the obstacle by ducking out to the right.
Course designers these days do not design anything new. If they experiment and get it wrong, the Internet forums burst into flames of outrage and the designer's job is in jeopardy. Or if a course designer does come up with something genuinely new and different, what happens? The riders mutiny, the ground jury takes another look at the offending obstacle(s) and the new obstacle or complex is removed. Riders and ground juries these days will not allow the slightest deviation from what has been jumped in the past.
Part of this aversion is concern for the horses; part of it is fear of the unknown. However, the end result is that when we walk an upper-level course, we now see an endless repetition of the same questions … jump into water and turn to a narrow obstacle, jump a big bank up and bounce the rail awaiting you, or slow down and ride a very precise line between narrow or corner jumps, carefully counting strides as you proceed. Fortunately, Derek has changed that at Rolex, and future riders at the event will bring a newly awakened sense of the effect of terrain on their horses.
In my opinion, the riders' lack of feel for the terrain is the reason behind the number of withdrawals and eliminations on cross-country day—not that the course was too hard. (Out of 54 starters cross country, there were 22 eliminations/retirements.) In addition, some of the riders obviously had Olympic fever and decided to try all the straight routes, regardless of their horses' experience or capabilities.
Still, I was impressed by the attitude of the international competitors after the cross-country. Even those who failed to finish agreed the course was lovely and fair, and they had just not been up to the challenge. Most of them stated, with a grim look in their eyes, that they plan to be back next year. They will be better for their experiences this year, and you will see much better riding as a result.
Six months ago, I wouldn't have given you a nickel for our chances of an eventing medal in the upcoming London Olympics. Because of what I watched at Rolex this year, however, I am predicting at least a team medal for the United States. We will have several riders there capable of winning an individual medal as well. All we need is for the eventing gods to smile on us, and our team will have a triumphant return from London.