Aug 21, 2018

Memories from the Vet Box with Cathy Wieschhoff

By Claire Kelley - USEA Staff
Cathy Wieschhoff and Spelga Dam (Evros x Kilgarron) going through Treasure Island at the Kentucky Three-Day Event in 1997. Dara Dickey Photo.

“They were all hard,” Cathy Wieschhoff said when describing classic, long format three-day events in the 1990s and early 2000s. A witness to the evolution of three-day eventing, Wieschhoff’s background includes working for U.S. Eventing Hall of Fame member Torrance Watkins, many years alongside the O’Connors, eleven trips to the Kentucky Three-Day Event, and a 15th place finish at Burghley CCI4*.

While the removal of the long format at the upper levels took place in the early 2000s, the USEA Classic Series was created for competitors to relive the thrill of steeplechase, roads and tracks, and the vet box at Beginner Novice through Preliminary levels. Referring to steeplechase at the four-star level, Wieschhoff explained, “At that speed and at that height, it wasn’t something you got to practice. You were going faster than you’ve ever gone before and even though steeplechase used to scare me, that’s what I loved about it – you kept going.”

Wieschhoff has led a life of eventing dating back to the 1970s. Her international career started in 1981 where she competed in her first classic event on a mare named Champagne at Radnor and in 1985 she did her first three-star at Rotherfield in England with Chessie System.“It’s about the mentality of the rider and that brings out the mentality in the horse. I think that’s why everyone loves the Classic Series. Steeplechase gets the rider into jumping out of a rhythm and that’s why they all feel great on cross-country. You knock the cobwebs off [on steeplechase] and say, ‘Okay let’s get this cross-country done.”

Wieschhoff and Spelga Dam at Fair Hill International in 1997. Susan Sexton Photo.

Lead packets, top hats, and a minimum rider weight of 165 pounds, Wieschhoff, a veteran of the sport, reflected on what it was like to compete in the classic three-day events. “Most people walked over to phase A with their horse in hand because you had to weigh in. You had to go to the scales and with your saddle you had to weigh at least 165 pounds. Then, you would tack the horse up and someone would be watching you the whole time to make sure you didn’t take any lead out.”

“When you came across the finish line of Phase D, you would get off, no one was allowed to touch your horse, you pulled the saddle and went to the scales to weigh. You weren’t allowed to weigh with your whip because some people put lead in their whips. If you lost some weight out there, you could add one or two pounds by adding your bridle on the weigh out. Women like Torrance were carrying 40 pounds or more of dead weight on their horses. Thanks to Carol Kozlowski, that rule is now abolished.”

Wieschhoff and Westlord at Rolex Kentucky in 2001. Mick Vovers Photo.

In the era where one could fall off, get back on, and continue with the competition, Wieschhoff misses the ‘never give up’ mentality. “It was all such a flurry of activity, it was exciting, and there was no reason to stop. If your horse was fine and you were halfway fine, you got it done.”

There were two distinct stories Wieschhoff remembers while she was competing on roads and tracks. “You’d cross each other on roads and tracks all the time. You’re seeing each other and wishing each other good luck. I don’t remember which horse David O’Connor was on, but I remember it was at Kentucky. He tried to turn around the flag and just wiped out because it was pouring rain. He told me, “Cathy, don’t make a fast turn out there, because I just wiped out and fell off.” At that time, “There were no penalties given for separating from your horse on roads and tracks. So, he fell off, got back on, and kept on going.”

“Another time at Kentucky I was on roads and tracks, I remember passing Nancy Lindroth, and it was thundering and lightning. I was soaking wet and wondering, 'Why am I out here, why am I doing this to myself?'”

Wieschoff and Spelga Dam tackling the bounce into the Head of the Lake at the Kentucky Three-Day Event in 1998. Graham Photography Photo.

Spelga Dam (Evros x Kilgarron), also known as Kate, was an Irish Chestnut mare that Wieschhoff competed for many years. “When I rode Kate at Burghley [in 1998], it started raining on Friday night and it didn’t stop. I was number 77 and a lot of horses had gone before me. I remember trying to find good footing on steeplechase because it was a mud track and when I was trotting back through the stubble fields, I thought to myself, ‘She is never going to be sound.’ But we got into the vet box and she was good to go. And off we went!”

“In previous years [at Burghley] there would be a long gallop to the Keeper’s Brush, but in 1998 they put a triple offset bounce on course. She was fantastic and when I came across the finish line I was thrilled to find out that I moved up on the leaderboard. She had a bunch of rails in show jumping but so did everyone else because our horses were exhausted. I didn’t ice back then, you would put them in poultice and they were all good. In the 1990s we didn’t ice but in the 2000s it started to become the thing to do.”

In a time where the sport wasn’t for the weak-minded, Spelga Dam and Wieschhoff competed for over seven years at the highest level. “She was the soundest horse, and I never once injected her before the age of 14. She was amazingly sound with a strong mind and strong body. She was awesome.”

Spelga Dam earning ‘Best Conditioned Horse’ in 1997 presented by Dr. Catherine Cohn and Dr. Kent Allen. James R. Wells Photo.

“The first roads and tracks would be 30 minutes, then you’d have a four-and-a-half-minute steeplechase, a second roads and tracks for 45 minutes, and an 11 or 12 minute cross-country course. You were in the tack for about an hour and half.”

Wieschhoff described her horse’s fitness routine leading up to classic events in the 1990s: “I did the same thing with most of my horses. I would do long trot sets for 45 minutes to an hour twice a week and I’d gallop twice a week. The gallop consisted of a 15-minute trot and three eight or nine [minute canters] and that seemed to work for me. When I started training with the O’Connors, I learned how to do the fabulous long gallop up the hill instead of wearing them out by doing sets.”

As for riders aiming to compete in a Classic Series event, Wieschhoff advised to, “make sure you are fit enough. There’s an extra level of stress that’s added to a three-day event - you’ve got to remember the markers on roads and tracks, handle the stress of doing steeplechase for the first time, and remember the plan for a successful cross-country round. Also, I think it’s good if riders practice steeplechase before they go [to a classic event]. There might be an opportunity to practice during the event because of the outstanding education riders receive when participating, but I think it's good to practice before you arrive if possible. ”

Wieschhoff in 1997. James R. Wells Photo.

“I don’t miss steeplechase or walking all the courses, but I miss the fight that everyone had to keep going.”

About the USEA Classic Series

The USEA Classic Series keeps the spirit of the classic long ­format three­-day events alive for Beginner Novice through the Preliminary levels. Competitors can experience the rush of endurance day, including roads and tracks, steeplechase, the vet box, and cross­ country, as well as participate in formal veterinary inspections and educational activities with experts on the ins and outs of competing in a long ­format three-­day event.

Riders who compete in a USEA Classic Series event during the year will have the chance to win a variety of prizes at the events and will also be entered in a drawing held at the USEA Year End Award Ceremony for a year’s supply of SmartPak supplements and a custom fitted Stackhouse and Ellis saddle. Click here to learn more about the USEA Classic Series.

The USEA would like to thank Parker Equine Insurance, FLAIR, SmartPak Equine, Stackhouse & Ellis Saddles, and Eventing Training Online for sponsoring the USEA Classic Series.

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