September 25, 2010 -- Greetings from Lexington! My editors at Practical Horseman have asked me to do "an occasional blog entry" from the World Equestrian Games (WEG). I'm not sure what they mean by that "occasional" stuff... I guess they want some time for the mushroom-shaped clouds to settle down out of the chat rooms before they publish my next little bit, in case I accidentally say something non-PC.
Blogs come in all shapes and sizes, so I had better warn you about mine. When you read it, bring your sense of humor. Also, I am a trained, professional journalist (cue laugh track) and I will tell you the truth about what is going on here. Besides, if it did not happen the way I tell it... it should have.
So here I was, worried that I would not have enough material for a blog. Then I stopped by the Kentucky Horse Park today; I don't even know where to start. Obviously there is a lot of that going around, as the organizing committee couldn't wait to start, so they started without the start, if you know what I mean. They won't hold the opening ceremony until seven tonight, but the team reining kicked off bright and early this morning. At least the reiners were bright early this morning...the volunteers and FEI stewards not so much. One estimate I heard says that the WEG will have over 10,000 volunteers during the next two weeks. Many of them have been here for a week already and the strain is starting to show. They are working brutal hours, and wearing themselves out dealing with the inevitable problems that jump up during an event as large as this. They have pretty good stories to tell.
The WEG committee has housed them in FEMA trailers, some of them as far away as Frankfort, Ky. This means a 45-minute drive to get to the park, and another half an hour to park (sometimes up to three miles away from their venue) and another half an hour waiting for their shuttle. The senior FEI stewards were more than a little perturbed, when they went through this process at five this morning, only to find that the paid security guards had all left at three in the morning. So from three to five in the morning, four hundred of the best horses in the world had no security. None. This is the sort of thing that makes riders and coaches crazy, and I guess the morning administrative meeting got a little spicy. Anyway, all's well that ends well, and you can bet the stables will be in lock-down for the rest of Games.
Reining puts on quite a show, especially for someone like me with a dressage background. I am used to horses and riders competing in deadly silent conditions, maybe Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" murmuring tastefully in the background.
Not reining. The crowd is into it right off the bat, catcalling, whistling, and getting into the music that each rider selects. The riders try to match the music to something about their horse. For example, U.S. rider Craig Schmersal's horse, Mr. Montana Nic, has "Take Me to Montana" for his theme song. This is going on while you look back and forth from the horse performing in the arena to the giant "Jumbotrons" at each end of the new indoor arena. They are not using dry-ice smoke yet, but stick around--I'll bet that's next. The whole thing is really fast paced and quite entertaining, and eventing dressage could learn something from these guys about entertaining a crowd.
One rider nailed his last sliding stop and behind me I heard "ye-ah-yuh" in that distinctive California surfer accent, looked around, and it was one of the German grooms, cheering for his guy. It's not enough that the rest of the world has stolen Stetsons and Wranglers from us, now they are using our slang! Globalization, I guess.
I was really interested in the whole experience, but of course in the end it always comes back to the horses... and these reining horses are to die for. Most of them are old-fashioned Quarter Horses, 15 hh, and hindquarters on them like a weight lifter. They walk flat-footed into an arena full of cheering fans, with a ho-hum look on their face... "Yup, just another arena full of 20,000 screaming fans." Next thing you know they are spinning like a top, then going lickety-split around the arena, doing flying changes across the centerline, with some world-class sliding stops to top it off.
When they finish their performance, they walk out and stand by the out gate while the TV cameras get a quick interview with the rider. The riders all step down, drop the nearside rein on the ground, and the horse stands there, ground tied and puffing 60 to the minute while the rider does their thing for TV. Near as I can make out, these reining horses have the personality of a Golden Retriever. Pretty cute.
Before I leave reining for the day, I want to share one funny story with you. World famous Dutch dressage rider Anky Van Grunsven has gotten interested in reining. Her dressage horses were not ready to make the trip but she has a reining horse entered here. So one of the greatest dressage riders in the world goes into the arena... and both of her changes are late behind. Horses.
I usually skip the opening and closing ceremonies, but I kind of promised myself this time that I was in for the whole experience. If you love horses, this is the place to be, and I wouldn't want to miss anything. And they certainly gave us our money's worth tonight. I don't know how to describe it, except to say that is was a good show, and typically American.
The announcer had barely said, "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen," when a group of American Indians rode in on some pretty authentic-looking Paints, Pintos, and Appaloosas. The guy in the biggest eagle feather headdress commenced to bless the proceedings in Cherokee. And he did a good job of it, too.
Then we really got rolling... next up was the University of Kentucky football cheerleader squad. The pom-pom girls were a big hit with the guys in the crowd. They were followed by my old alma mater, Culver Military Academy, with the U.S. flag, and then the Star-Spangled Banner kicked things off in style. This was a full fledged production, with the Kentucky Symphony Orchestra up on a stage at the Head of the Lake end of the arena, and a 200-member choir singing back up. This being Kentucky, when the crowd all chimed in on the final "...and the home of the braaaaave" I heard several guys in the grandstands finish the Star Spangled Banner with "Gentlemen, start your engines." No shortage of rednecks down here. Wynonna Judd did the honors for "My Old Kentucky Home" and things were well and truly underway.
I never thought I would say it, but the main arena at the KHP looked, well, small tonight. Maybe it had something to do with the enormous stage that has been built, which takes up a quarter of the arena. Also there are bleachers that rise up a hundred feet in the air on all four sides, bleachers that were packed with people. The place wasn't sold out, but there were not many open seats, and from the crowd at the Bourbon Bar, you wouldn't think there was a recession going on. Even at $8 a pop the cocktails were flowing pretty freely, and everybody was in a good mood while we settled back to watch the show. And it was a pretty good show... all sorts of quadrille rides, some pretty good roping tricks, plus displays of gaited horses, fine harness, and a Thoroughbred race around the arena, won by Chris McCarron.
There were some liberty horses that were as good as I have ever seen, and then one guy came into the arena standing up on the backs of two horses galloping in tandem. He was dressed in some kind of black uniform with a lot of gold braid, and wearing what looked like a dead crow on his head. But he could really horseback, and the crowd loved it, especially the part where he got going too fast, and the outside horse went a little wide going around the turn in front of the stage. There was a moment where it looked as if he were going to do the splits at 500 meters per minute, but he got things reorganized, and galloped out waving to the crowd.
It is all kind of whirling around in my head, but the best part of it was just watching every kind of horse come in and strut their stuff, and watching the crowd lap it up. Probably the cutest act was towards the end, when some Paints and Pintos came in pulling antique circus wagons. One small cart was pulled by three miniature horses, and you could track their progress around the arena by the audible "aaawwww" of approval and affection that would burst out of that section of the bleachers. But my favorite was the steam calliope pulled by matched Pintos. "If they fire up that calliope," I thought to myself, "we are going to have horses scattered from Hell to breakfast." But wiser heads prevailed, and we got a mini-concert from a great bluegrass band, The Cherryholmes, instead.
All this had been going on for a couple of hours by now, and I was starting to feel like a monkey kissing a porcupine... I didn't know how much more of this fun I could stand. Then up on the stage steps Denyce Graves, a famous lady opera singer. She certainly matched the stereotype of what you think of, when you think of female opera singers. This was OK with me, because I know what they say about how to tell when the opera is over.
No such luck... we were treated/subjected to several renditions of famous arias. The good news was she was joined for the final aria by some Friesian dressage horses, which at least gave me something to watch while I waited for the opera to be over. (Is it just me, or did the white leggings on those Fresians cause their fetlocks to puff out, making them look like giant poodles?)
Next thing I know, the mezzo-soprano was off the stage, replaced by Sarah Lee Guthrie, Woody Guthrie's granddaughter, who led a group sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land." I did tell you the opening ceremonies took three hours to open, didn't I?
The headliner of the night had to be Muhammad Ali, who took a turn around the arena in a 1957 emerald green convertible. Ali is a local guy and was a big hit, even upstaging the royalty that was present. But finally Princess Haya, President of the FEI, said those magic words "I declare the 2010 World Equestrian Games open!" Well... those words were hardly out of her mouth before 37,000 people headed for the parking lots like they were boarding the last helicopter out of Saigon. There was about another hour of entertainment left, but by now people were looking at their watches and thinking about the traffic jam that was about to start.
And that's another story... everything you have heard about the parking situation here is true. Expect to park a long way from the arenas and to wait in line for just about everything. The food and drinks areas are well laid out and efficient, but there are just a lot of people here. And by the way... those Manolo Blahniks? Forget them. Wear sensible shoes and pack a raincoat and a fleece, because the weather has changed here, and rain is in the forecast. Oh, and don't forget the spare credit card... you know, the one you have been saving for a rainy day. Well, it is going to rain here, and Bit O'Britain has the biggest tent on the grounds, just full of horse toys of every description. You can bring your netbooks and iPhones... Shannon Crocker is running the Microsoft Internet caf? here, and says the bloggers are jamming her place. I asked her if they had clogged up her Internet connection, and she just smiled and said they have something like a warp-speed connection... not to worry. Anyway, the Games are open for business.
All in all it was a great ceremony, and I am glad I was there. Since the ceremony opened with some American Indians, I thought I would let an American Indian have the last word. Our Plains Indians were some of the best cavalry the world has ever seen, and they have a real feeling for their horses. Plenty Coups, a war chief of the Crows during the Battle of the Little Big Horn, said, "My horse fights with me and fasts with me because if he is to carry me in battle he must know my heart and I must know his or we shall never become brothers. I have been told that the white man who is almost a god and yet a great fool, does not believe that the horse has a spirit. This cannot be true. I have many times seen my horse's soul in his eyes."
I hope you get a chance to see these horses with your own eyes over the next two weeks.
Read Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6
Jim Wofford has represented the U.S. in eventing at three Olympics and two World Championships; he has won the U.S. National Championship five times on five different horses. As a coach, he has had at least one student on every U.S. Olympic, World Championship and Pan American team since 1978. He is a regular columnist for Practical Horseman magazine.
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