Perhaps one of the best reasons to be a member of USEA is the opportunity to qualify for and participate in the USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) presented by Nutrena Feeds. This year there was a record 1,178 entries and a waitlist of over 150. There were 1,009 pinnies handed out and 939 horses started the competition. All combined it made for the largest horse trials in USEA history. Competitions ran in all USEA divisions and additional prizes were given for teams, incentive programs, amateur, and young rider divisions.
There were six days of competition, four of which saw all three phases for different divisions running at the same time. It took considerable creative scheduling to manage multiple rides in all three disciplines on multiple days. Each day concluded with an evening offering of a party and social gathering.
Every single competitor at every level had the opportunity to ride a cross-country course designed by 2020 Olympic designer Derek di Grazia and all the Modified, Training, Novice, and Beginner Novices courses went through the Head of the Lake. Each competitor got to ride a show jumping course designed by Robert Murphy in the Rolex Arena.
This extraordinary USEA championship was put on in conjunction with Equestrian Events, Inc. (EEI) and Mary Fike. EEI started by Edith Conyers, developed by Janie Atkinson, and currently capably led by Vanessa Coleman has been providing international eventing sport from the beginning. Mary Fike and her tremendous staff have been producing multiple events (including the Hagyard Team Challenge long format 3-Day) at the Kentucky Horse Park each year for over 40 years.
It took 20 officials, over three dozen paid staff, and 252 volunteers who filled 653 volunteer shifts to make the magic happen for a week. And those are only the folks who had formal shifts. Many hundreds of additional hours were given by people filling in, doing errands, seeing a potential hiccup, and solving it. Everyone pitched in to make the AEC a spectacular competition for all who came.
Competition required the use of five competition dressage warm-up arenas and appropriate warm-up, two lunging arenas, 196 cross country fences and appropriate fixed and adjustable warm-up fences, and the use of the iconic Rolex Arena for show jumping as well as a ring for warm-up. All jumps were freshly painted, stained, and beautifully decorated and presented. The efforts surrounding footing preparation and maintenance, office tasks, signage, announcing, medical and vet coverage, scoring, repair, stabling, radio communications, hospitality services, volunteer wrangling and feeding, parking for horse trailers for 1000 horses, traffic control, and a myriad of daily tasks was just mind-boggling. There was a trade fair and solid sponsorship at all levels.
My role this year was as a volunteer. This allowed many opportunities to see what a fabulous experience the competition was for so many and to add a skill set to help with making it happen . . . and to relay some of the quirky things I saw, of course!
The Kentucky Horse Park was beautifully green, though it was in the midst of tearing down stabling and arenas from a consecutive month of Hunter/Jumper shows that ended on Sunday. AEC horses were moving in on Monday as tractor-trailer loads of temporary stalls and horses were leaving. The staff did everything humanly possible to turn around and welcome our competitors. The Horse Park has established a series of horse paths to keep them separate from motor traffic including folks to stop traffic to ensure horse right-of-way. These paths enable horses and their people to get to all competition areas in the park. On the rare occasion that a horse/rider lost its way (or mind) and started down the asphalt road, someone would get out of a car or golf cart, stop traffic and direct the horse to a path.
On more than one crisp morning you would hear cries of “loose horse.” As you looked around you saw two or three others break away from their handlers and then a collective effort ensued to capture those free-ranging critters.
Competition was bookended by torrential rain as Hurricane Ida passed between Louisiana and New York on Tuesday and a steady rain moved in on Sunday. The days in between were glorious and sunny, though sometimes breezy thanks to Kentucky fall weather. The footing on cross-country was perfect, the 100-year-old turf was well prepared and as good as footing gets for cross country.
There were so many wonderful horses. Many were young and we’ll see them develop along to the upper levels. Every now and again one horse, no matter what the phase, would stop you in your tracks. You delayed your job for a bit and just enjoyed the performance in front of you. The large majority were nicely trained, well-ridden horses competing with excellence at their level. I heard lots of good coaching, as well as the lessons of humility thanks to your horse (familiar to all horse folks). There was a lot of impressive riding at each level and any number of wonderful horses perfectly suited to their jobs. Winning rides in most divisions had a total score in the 20s and there was one Junior Beginner Novice pair who ended on a final score of 18.5. Many folks traveled serious distances to participate. I didn’t speak with one competitor or supporting crew who didn’t think it was worth it. As with any championship, every horse has a “story” getting there. It was delightful to hear them delivered and see the sense of how totally worth it the effort was.
I saw numerous people out hacking and taking videos of the Horse Park filled with utter amazement at what they were seeing. I chatted with one girl and asked her what impressed her the most. “It was the green and the trees,” she said and then added quizzically, “but I keep looking for the mountains.” Realizing that she was from the Mountain West I explained to her that she was in the Appalachian Mountains and that while Lexington was probably around 1,000 feet elevation, the bigger mountains were about 3,000 feet. She was not terribly impressed that you would call something 1,000 feet “in the mountains.” I suggested she qualify and do her best to get to AEC’s next year at Rebecca Farm. It won’t have bluegrass but it definitely has mountains.
On day four there was the coach/mom of two elementary-school-aged kids who, at the end of what was obviously a long day, said “come on kids.” To which one tired, immobile child said “where are we going?” Without ever looking back mom said, “you won’t know till you come on” as she walked away. Both kids quite quickly followed along.
My volunteer colleagues were amazing. They were on time, cheerful, skilled, and prepared to provide the best eventing experience possible. I recognized many as long-term EEI and Mary Fike competition competitors, officials, coaches, and volunteers. Their understanding of the sport and dedication to making the AEC the best possible high-quality competition we could was impressive. Occasionally you would hear the kind of garbled radio transmission one makes during the hot afternoon of the fourth day of dressage or the 272nd Novice horse was sent to the start box. They were always followed by an apology, a chuckle, and “it’s been a long...” Those of you who run/work events over two or three days have a life-sized picture of how after three full days of competition, you are pretty spent. But at AEC at that point, you’re only half done.
We all felt brain dead at some point during the week but got recharged by colleagues cajoling us back to the task at hand. Or by telling some of the best “one time at competition X” stories I’d ever heard. Given the experience of volunteers, the stories were remarkable enough to get you focused back. One of my favorites was about a volunteer at a competition who was complaining because “the drinking water was dry.” We all struggled with what that could mean, and a week later I have no clue. I asked what her response to him was? “Try the soft drinks, they may be less so.”
Many folks I chatted with said, “I think I’ll go home and try to qualify my horse for next year and go to the AEC.” Can’t think of a better compliment for USEA and the AEC organizing folks than horse people on the ground at the championships thinking they want to participate next year.
We volunteers were thanked by someone in almost every other group of people who pass by. It didn’t matter if I was doing an obvious job, digging with a shovel, or leaning against the fence, many people expressed their appreciation for the volunteers each and every day. At least half the riders individually said thank you and if they didn’t someone in their associated group did.
AEC 2021 – raging success...check!
Pat Maykuth is a rider, coach, licensed official, former organizer, member of organizing committees, former Principal Investigator of the USEA Equine Exercise Physiology Study leading up to the Atlanta Olympics, and a volunteer where it takes a village.
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