LEXINGTON, Ky. - DAY 2- Wednesday, Oct. 6
Today was interesting to say the least. I won’t soon forget many of the things that I saw, heard or did today.
I learned how to do vaulting (see photos of me vaulting, attached). I saw horses play soccer. I saw horses getting a bath… horses with glitter on their bums. I met a German competitor, who after meeting him, won the men’s vaulting individual competition for today—maybe I was good luck… or maybe he’s just that good. And I saw something so magnificent on horses that it’s hard to put into words. But of course, I’ll try.
Grace was the word for the morning for Day 12.
I made it to the Games this morning in time to catch some of the first-ever Para Dressage competition. It was the first year that the WEG included the event for competition.
It was just unbelievable to witness. Obviously no flash photography is allowed, however, photographers are also asked to stay at the top level, so that the horses, which are not use to cameras, cannot hear the shutter of the camera. The covered, outdoor arena is so quiet you hear these majestic creatures’ hooves march in on the soft dirt one at a time to compete in their event. It was like a tennis match or a golf tournament when all you hear from the crowd is the occasional sneeze or cough, but end each round with a roar of cheers and clapping.
I watched a man from Ireland and a woman from Germany compete. The thing about Para Dressage is that you would never know that it was “para” when they are in the spotlight. They move just as smooth and flawlessly with a disabled rider as they do with an able-bodied rider.
Like the Dressage event, Para Dressage riders must complete a series of tests that show how they communicate with their horse. They must ride, doing certain movements and patterns for the judges. ‘Para’ refers to the fact that these riders are riding parallel to able-bodied riders at the games. They all have different levels of disability. Some more than others and they are judged accordingly.
I caught up the rider from Ireland just outside to snap a few photos of him on his horse. In the bright sun, only then did I notice that he did not have legs draped over his saddle. He rode, however, like a man with two legs and certainly a passion for Dressage.
I made my way, well, caught a golf cart over to the indoor arena to talk with a volunteer and learn a thing or two about vaulting—something I had no preconceived notions about. In other words… no idea what it was. Before I met up with Miriam Burk, I ran into the American Vaulting Association Friendship Team that was doing demonstrations all week. ( Photographed L to R: Caleb Patterson, Tessa Divita, Shelby Janes, Julia Overton and Jacqueline Lobdell.)
A team of both girls and boys and ranging in ages 11-26, the group tells me that they congregate from all over the United States including Washington State, Tennessee, Oklahoma, California and Texas.
Shelby Janes, 14, and Tessa Divita, 13, explain to me what vaulting is all about.
Flexibility and strength are the key components to vaulting, mixed with elements of dance and gymnastics. Those thoughts now dancing in my head seem so complicated and challenging, however, the girls tell me that isn’t what is the hardest thing to overcome. Landing softly is their biggest challenge they said.
In order not to hurt their horse, they must land softly and coordinate with their horse for movements. Tessa, whose sister Alicen Divita, 21, is on the U.S. vaulting team in the WEG competing later today, said that it’s not like a balance beam that you can land heal down, or as hard as you want, it’s a horse.
“You have to focus and work as a team with your animal” and the others on the horse, as some vaulting showcase two or three athletes on a horse at one time.
Easy as 1-2-3, and roll, huh?
Well, I had a ‘can-do’ attitude today. Or at least I really tried to have one. Nonetheless, now, I have a ‘heck-yea-I-can-do-vaulting!’ attitude. As long as the horse doesn’t move and I have a spotter on each side of me, that is.
Yes, you heard me right. Miriam Burk put this klutz up on a fake horse, like a pummel horse but wider and softer thank goodness. When I first meet up with her for an interview, I should have known we were in for a treat. She said, “Oh, I have something planned for you.” So she did.
As we walk into the practice area of the arena and she says, “hop up.” Huh? “You’re going to learn vaulting,” she informs me, making it sound so easy.
With my fists wrapped tightly around the handles and one foot in her hands, I take a big hop and throw my leg up and over the ‘horse’—whose name is Blue, by the way. (If you see the photos, you’ll know why.)
During today’s vaulting event, the individual competitors will be tested, judged on the basics, or what they refer to as “compulsory.” This is because vaulting is all about safety, Miriam says. (And the moves that I photographed today by the athletes is what I learned how to do. Granted, not half
as graceful or elegant as those in the ring today, but at least when I photographed them I knew what they were doing, how they did it and what it felt like to do it.)
How did it feel? Scary, wonderful, amazing, thrilling and exhilarating. It is something that I had never heard of before WEG. (There, I’m giving away the fact that beyond the beauty of horses, horseback riding and Derby, I’m somewhat of an equine dummy—But it doesn’t mean I don’t love to watch them any less.) The fact that Miriam was giving me the opportunity to learn such a skill was truly something that as a journalist, horse lover and amateur athlete myself, I will not soon forget.
But I digress. Once I hoist myself up onto Blue, it was time for MY compulsory test. I tuck my toes under the belly, legs tight against its sides and leveled out my arms as if to balance myself. I am poised, back straight, looking ahead, and I feel like I know what I am doing. This is just the warm up for what was to come. It is the easy part.
Miriam then tells me to use my core to lift myself up and hop onto my knees, but putting my weight back on the tops of my feet rather than my knees, therefore not hurting Blue. Once I spring onto my knees it is time for something a bit scary, even for a fake, non-moving horse.
It is time to stand. And while this ‘horse’ is not as tall as a real horse and is standing still, the adrenaline starts to rush through my veins, making my fingertips a bit sweaty. As I released one finger at a time from the two handles, I slowly and methodically straighten my knees, arms out to the sides and raise my body to the upright position. The sand from the arena is gritty on my shoes and makes me nervous as I slide around a bit. But Miriam stands close to Blue as a spotter and makes me relax much like she does for her students.
My trainer for the day trains special needs children and adults at Equestrian Crossings in Whidbey Island, Wash., every day when she isn’t volunteering at world equine competitions like WEG. She teaches them vaulting gives them skills that they can use on and off the horse.
And today she is teaching me the skills I need to be confident, because confidence seems to be the biggest part of vaulting, especially to a newbie like myself.
Miriam says it’s a good way to “break self limitations—it’s fun for building confidence and balance.” You also learn to work with others and trust. Like I trust Miriam to catch me if I fall, I also trust another spotter who came to teach me how to roll on the horse.
Germany’s Gero Meyer, who I mentioned earlier won the men’s competition today, comes over prior to his own vaulting, taking a break from stretching on a mat nearby. The three-time world champion resonates some of the same comments from the team I interviewed earlier, when he tells me that it’s all about working together as a team, whether it’s with your horse or others on the horse. It’s about coming together. Teams take care of each other he said. Then he takes care of me.
Gero and Miriam take to each side of me. After I fling my leg up and over Blue to turn my body around and to the neck portion over the handles, I am instructed to put my head down. Miriam tells me to place my neck on Blue and look through the handle, that currently I am still gripping. I really didn’t feel secure. In fact, I’m not sure my neck is supposed to bend quite this way. But I continue. With them on my side, I roll, tucked like a ball, landing on my back at the end of Blue, legs draped over its sides. That wasn’t so hard. Wait, now she tells me that I have to roll back?
Using my core and all the effort that I can muster, I hoist my curled-up body backward and up over the handles, landing with my legs on each side of the neck. It was fun! And more importantly I did it! And I have the photos to prove it!
I think that it was easier, aside from the stationary horse factor, because I had two people on either side of me encouraging me, telling me that I could do it. That I could do what Gero does. I can’t, but it made me believe that I could and that is what I think they were trying to tell me. It’s not just about the physical support—although knowing I had four hands on my sides in case I tumbled the wrong way if my balance threw me was nice—it was about the mental support. They forced me to have a can-do attitude. It’s not only horse riding that is therapeutic, but also those around you that can mend a mental block, a disability of any kind.
Miriam said that while being at the games she has seen teams helping teams from other countries, encouraging everyone—saying, ‘You can do it!’
After my lesson in vaulting, I head out the arena’s media platform to photograph the men’s individual competition. I watch as they flow from one movement on their horse into another. The circular ring tends to make you dizzy when looking from behind a camera, but their agility is something that has to be captured.
I watch, as the horse runs in circles and the athlete, using the
two handles, leaps onto the horses back and straight into a move that resembles a handstand. As the rider extends his arms out to the side, I see that his toes are locked just under the horse’s sides. The rider throws his leg into the air to switch sides on the horse, all the while pointing his toe to the sky.
Movements are like liquid pouring down over the horse as the vaulting athlete comes down from a handstand to the seated position. Large animals with a grace like no other and athletes that have just as much grace and poise as their much larger partners is a magnificent sight to behold.
After I leave the vaulting I catch the tail-end of The Knights of Iceland ( see photo gallery) who, wearing fur and sequins make the outdoor crowd scream in amazement as their horses, about eight, line up and move as one, running hard and to the sound of “Uprising” by Muse. “They will not control us! We will be victorious!” The sound of the stampede of horses draws in hundreds of spectators, cheering loudly for the horses.
Glitter touches get washed.
Nothing catches your eye quite like the sparkle of glitter glistening off the toosh of a horse. That’s right. The whole rear of two horses stopped me dead in my tracks at the horse washing station. I was almost hypnotized and at the very least mesmerized by the way the glitter caught the sunlight just so.
I ask Autumn Teach of Sacramento Calif., why her horse, Bailey, and Lori Winje, who is standing next to her with her horse Nikki, have shiny hineys? She tells me that they are the California Cowgirls and they like glitter on everything.
As the horses get washed down, the girls are sure not to wash off the massive amounts of glitter on their rumps.
I leave the glitter twins and see something else that makes me pull out my camera and scratch my head.
As I look over to the Village Arena, I see horses playing soccer. And it isn’t a little, human-sized soccer ball. No, no my friend. It is about the size of my sedan. It is a real treat to watch horses high kick, hooves pushing a large soccer ball around to each other. Something I’m not soon to see again I’m sure.
I end my day by heading over the Rolex Stadium where Jumping was the main event. And the U.S. Team ended the last round in 3rd place.
I witnessed a lot of truly indescribable talent today, but Jumping is something that when you watch on T.V. loses something in the translation. However, when you are dodging what the horse’s hooves fling up in the air next to you, that is real.
It is amazing in person to see how horses almost glide over the bars throughout the course, which was designed to reflect Kentucky and horse racing specifically for the Games. I find myself routing for the horse to make each jump and when its hoof just barely taps the bar and it falls, the stadium is overcome by a loud, in sync “Ohhh”.
As the horse jumps over the three-in-a-row sequence in front of me, I can hear it breathing heavily. It’s a deep, loud sound that is more apparent than the sound of its hooves hitting the ground coming down from a jump. One by one, they make their way around the 13-jump course, which includes a replica of Churchill Downs, Calumet Farm, as well as the Tote Board and Winner’s Circle at the Derby.
After leaving the stadium, walking to my shuttle, the roar of the oversized crowd can be still be heard and I imagine can be heard from any point in the Horse Park.
I leave WEG less intimated, more knowledgeable and even more in awe of the massive animals than I was when I came.
DAY 1- Tuesday, Oct. 5
What started out as a chilly morning, turned into a beautiful, blue-sky day. A warm breeze tops off the already perfect temperature at the World Equestrian Games today. It’s Day 11 of the games. Day 1 for me.
Eight gold Rolex clocks hang on the wall in the media center. They display the world’s the time zones: San Francisco, Dallas, Lexington, London, Geneva, Dubai, Beijing and Sydney. I am at the ‘Olympics’ for horses, better known as the World Equestrian Games. It comes around just but once every four years. And it’s not only the first time I have covered such a magnificent event, but it is also the fist time it has been held in the U.S.
The hustle of spectators, competitors and horses alike isn’t the only thing to see and hear. Slews of different languages are spoken fluently throughout the park. Each country is represented by its flag, which flies high as the wind picks up in the afternoon.
Today, I walked around the grounds of the World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. Sometimes there seems to be more going on outside the stadiums and arenas than inside. Competitors would disagree, but if you’re a people watcher as much as a horse watcher, you know what I’m talking about.
There are so many faces and smiles at the Horse Park.
Everyone has a story. I was lucky enough to catch a few interesting people while I walked around the Park today.
The name is Chuck Weber . He is an artist who was set up
at a tent, painting horses at the Kentucky Horse Council’s booth. What a great story he had to tell. We started talking about his artwork and his family in Kentucky, when he begins to tell me about his real story. His story of triumph, courage and grace, which led to his art not only becoming his life’s work, but also his life’s passion. Read the full story, click here .
The horses can’t talk, but they somehow have a story to tell as well. Their trots, gallops and hoofed steps are graceful, elegant and thoughtful. Their large, well-defined muscles flex as their rider gives them the signal it’s time to jump over the next hurdle. I’m watching the horses as they practice in the outdoor ring. They are warming up with jumps prior to today’s competition in the Main Stadium.
I talked to a woman today who is originally from Versailles, Ky., and now lives in Louisville, and is a champion for women riders. The author noticed a difference between men and women and did something about it. She also trains and treats horses holistically. Read her full story, click here.
I saw horses and riders from India, both dressed in gold and bright colors. They stepped into the outdoor ring. The bleachers remain full from the last showing. In a line, they move seamlessly around to each corner of the fenced-in arena. The announcers explain the type of horse and where they are from.
The three riders met with the crowd after their ride and answered questions, allowing spectators to get an up-close look at their horses, which had noticeably pointy ears, as well as their outfits. The spectators compliment the three on their beautiful horses and point out the uniqueness of their ears’ shape. The riders obliged them with photos and a few pets on the top of their horses’ long, smooth noses.
Just outside that area, I stumbled upon a few riders from Team Wales who were demonstrating vaulting and allowing those who wanted to try on a pommel horse to give it a shot. One at a time, kids skipped onto the trampoline set up next to it. One-two-three and up! They swung their short legs up and over the pommel horse, earning cheers from the small crowd that gathered as well as from the professional riders from Wales, who are wearing their Team Wales jackets proudly. One walks around to the crowd offering candy out of an orange plastic jack-o-lantern. The children gladly partake.
I see another small crowd gathering around a horse and a few people, so I make my way to see who and what they are. They are entertainers in fur-trimmed, shiny, silver-sequined outfits. They are The Knights of Iceland . After a quick Google search, I found out that they are in fact, quite a show. The Icelandic horses run through fire! I may have to check out their Wednesday afternoon show.