Colleen Rutledge had a banner 2011, her first year riding at the four-star level. With her Thoroughbred gelding Shiraz (Luke), she finished 12th at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in the spring, then traveled to England in the fall for the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials. There they were the third-highest U.S. combination, finishing 37th overall. But smaller triumphs within the big story actually ranked higher for Colleen on a personal level. "I was just happy to have gotten around Rolex; our placing was icing on the cake! Burghley was the biggest learning experience I've ever had, and I felt really good that my horse made the trip like it was no big deal. I'm very proud of our dressage at Burghley because we pushed for more. Our score didn't reflect it, but a good friend who saw my test at Rolex confirmed that Burghley was better. That was fabulous to me—all you ever ask for is to improve a little bit."
Colleen has achieved these high points in the face of family issues that would keep many parents occupied at home full-time. Her youngest child, 4-year-old Ciana, is in treatment for a rare form of muscle cancer. Her son Connor, age 7, born with severe brain damage, breathes with the help of a ventilator and is confined to a wheelchair. Her family also includes two older children, daughter Cassie and stepson Matt.
How has she managed, then, to maintain the upbeat energy that powers a training and lesson program at her family's Turnabout Farm in Mount Airy, Maryland, and to set herself goals like Rolex, Burghley and (for this year) Badminton?
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Happy or Not
"I do have bad days, of course," says the 35-year-old rider. "But I figured out a number of years ago that it was a decision to be unhappy or happy: I could either be happy, or I could be not, and if I put a positive spin on things, it would be easier for me in the long run. In the worst situations I tend to crack jokes, otherwise I can't function. I encourage the laughing, like, ‘Let's find a glimmer of hope somewhere, in something.'"
Colleen says she has already lived her nightmare, and it has shaped the way she lives the rest of her life. "My son was probably my turning point, in that I take nothing for granted now. There is nothing worse than having a child who is not alive but not dead. I grieved more than nine months for the boy he would have been but is never going to be. Now I celebrate, because the little things that babies do … he struggles with them and then he gets it. That is such a monumental thing."
Colleen started riding when her mom, Sallie Morris, put her on a pony at age 2. An enthusiastic Pony Clubber at 8, she was soon competing in mounted games. By the time she was 13, she was on an international Pony Club team that went to Canada to compete. After turning 18, she traveled to Europe for Pony Club competitions in England, France, Belgium and Germany. "I taught Pony Club lessons for years, which developed my love of teaching. The hook was seeing students who at first didn't understand something grasp a concept and keep going with it." A self-described adrenalin junkie, she was "completely hooked" on eventing after her first one-star. "Speed, jumps, all kinds of stuff—fantastic! As I've matured, I'm also finding the dressage more interesting."
Luke had been bought off the track as a show hunter prospect by another trainer and came to Colleen's attention because he didn't want to be a hunter. "His personality didn't match with the young rider for whom he was intended; he was a little too much on the bold side. He was an extravagant jumper, unbelievably talented but a bit of a whack job. I loved him because he was so much like the first horse I ever rode Advanced, a typical flighty Thoroughbred chestnut mare."
Because she was in the last month of her pregnancy with Ciana, Colleen couldn't ride Luke for weeks after his purchase in late 2007. When they started working together, she figured him out with the help of Olympic eventer and top trainer and clinician Jim Wofford. "Luke doesn't have the kind of personality that takes orders well. He'll work with me, but if I tell him what to do too many times—and I tell him wrong—then he just gets angry." They were going Advanced by 2010 when they competed at the Jersey Fresh International Three Day Event (coming in eighth in the CIC***), the Bromont Three Day Event (where they were 12th in the CCI***) and Fair Hill International (finishing 17th in the CCI***).
With four-star competition now in her sights, Colleen got a reality check from Jim Wofford. "He told me that to go higher than three-star, I had to get myself fit. He said, ‘You have a four-star horse; you need to be fit enough to be a four-star rider. You get away with not being fit enough now because your horse is fantastic. It's not his problem if you fail, it's both of your problem.' It was a kick in the butt that I needed at that point."
She consulted a nutritionist who advised her on limiting her calorie intake, and started working out on a stationary bicycle in addition to a daily routine that includes riding as many as 15 horses. She was fitter by Rolex last year but felt she could do better. A late-night infomercial for a workout DVD called Insanity piqued her interest. "I was about to take Ciana for an eight-week course of radiation during which, because of taking her back and forth to the hospital, I wouldn't be able to ride. I needed something to keep myself going, so I took the DVD. The 30-minute workout showed me how unfit I really was! In a week I could see and feel a difference. It's a lot of core work and also working your quads, with stretching before and after. I've gotten better; I'm much more able to control where I need to be on my horse. There's a trickle-down effect on my students—they are all getting themselves fitter, and they've told some of their friends."
A support network of friends and family enables Colleen to keep the program going at home and at her barn and to take time away, like this year's trip to Aiken, South Carolina, to prepare for the early 2012 eventing season. Her mother provides chiropractic and veterinary services and is Colleen's "number-one cheerleader." Her husband, Brian, picks up the slack at home when she is away and maintains her Facebook page; he has also helped fundraise for her travel to England. "I have a number of people I can rely on to get my kids from school and look after them. It takes some managing and scheduling." Her mother, Brian and her two daughters were able to come to England last fall to watch her ride at Burghley. (Because of his need for a ventilator, her son is safer staying at home with a caregiver.)
Figuring Out the Puzzle
In addition to four-star competition with Luke, Colleen is excited about Covert Rights, a homebred (by BFF Incognito out of Let's Get it Right) who has done well in Young Event Horse competitions. "I have a bunch of other babies by the same stallion. The most fun for me is working with horses, seeing how far they want to go. I like figuring out the puzzle." Her students are also encouraged to figure things out. "I want to train them well enough that I don't need to be at the shows with them. I encourage them to look at things differently. It's all about the quality of the ride, versus, ‘What place did you get?' Go to the show and then tell me whether you improved! My goal every time I go to a competition is my horses' education."
Although she had some Olympic hopes for 2012 after her success in 2011, Colleen has a good attitude about not being long-listed for the Team. "I know it's because of my dressage. I'm not going to take it personally. It doesn't change what I'm currently doing. I've been working with [FEI ‘O' dressage judge, international competitor and top clinician] Linda Zang every week on several different horses. I don't want to be reduced to a snapshot of who is the best fit for the team at this particular time. I want to go to Badminton and Burghley and have a great dressage test, then continue that improvement in the next two phases."
Colleen's secret for coping with potentially devastating problems is to hold on to the positive. "It makes me so happy that every day I get to come to work and do things that I love. Even if everything were to stop tomorrow, I still got to do what I wanted."
For more information on Colleen Rutledge and her program, go to her website www.colleenrutledgeeventing.com.