by Kate S. Spencer, Kentucky Three-Day Event “Super Fan”
Sometimes, the smallest event will have the most lasting consequences.
Years and years (and years) ago, I was in Lexington to visit with my spunky and very independent Grandmother. I was out for a drive in her 1966 Dodge Dart and stopped to fill the tank when a truck towing a horse trailer pulled in beside me. The driver’s name was Karen, and somewhere in the middle of pumping gas, checking horses, and talking to her passengers about their plans for the day, she looked across the pump at me to ask me how my day was going.
That was the moment it all began.
Karen invited me out to the Kentucky Horse Park to see something called a three-day event. I asked her if it was a racing thing, or a jumping thing, and she said, “Yes!” Her enthusiasm was infectious, and she was clearly so excited to be heading there herself that I got back in my car and followed her horse trailer straight to the Horse Park.
My horse experience at that time could be best described as “loving, but distant.” I was still jokingly writing “horse” on my annual Christmas list, as I had been doing since I was three, but I had yet to convert dreams to reality where horses were concerned. An avid spectator at rodeos and thoroughbred races, I had enough knowledge of horses to be both in awe of them and slightly intimidated by them. As a young girl, I was bitten, stepped on, and squashed against the side of a barn by various horses, and though it didn’t dampen my love for them, it certainly made me (painfully) aware of their size and strength.
No stranger to the Kentucky Horse Park, I wandered the grounds that first day in amazement of the activity and the sheer number of horses and people and sights to see. The loudspeakers were broadcasting a lovely English voice (Nigel Casserley) and there were so many places to look that my mind couldn’t focus on any one thing. I had arrived on a Friday – Dressage day – and it was the first time I had ever seen riding like this, or horses that looked like this. I sat mesmerized in the stands watching horses and riders doing the most beautiful things, and I thought, “I want to do this!”
The next morning I was back, bright and early, to see the Cross-Country – something so amazing that I couldn’t stop talking about it (and still haven’t stopped talking about it, say my family). The athleticism, the pure energy of these horses is just something you have to see to believe. The same horses that were dressed in their best the day before, controlled and focused, I was now watching do what they really wanted to do. I watched rider after rider guide their horses at speed through complex jump combinations before galloping off to face the next challenge. Of course I was back on Sunday to hold my breath with thousands of other fans through the finale, even recognizing Karen O’Connor (my new friend from the gas station) on her horse, Biko, among the competitors.
I haven’t missed one day of this event for more than 25 years.
I keep coming back, year after year, to the Kentucky Three-Day Event because this competition is the only thing I have ever seen that truly showcases how multi-talented, athletic and graceful horses are. There are certainly horses that can individually run faster or jump higher or execute flying lead changes more gracefully than the horses I see at this event, but THESE horses can do ALL of these things, in three consecutive days, which makes them, in my mind, the best in the world.
I went home to California after that first Kentucky Three-Day experience with new enthusiasm for connecting with horses. I booked my first riding lesson, and, days later, I was sitting astride Avalanche, the first horse I ever loved. I have had many more lessons since that first time, and some truly wonderful horses have come into my life. My equine partners and I have competed in Dressage and Jumping competitions, participated in search and rescue missions, and ponied young Thoroughbreds at the track. We have ridden miles and miles of California coastline and competed in trail trial competitions that challenged our bodies and our minds. We have come face to face with a mountain lion (surprising all three of us), camped out under the stars, and helped make more than one child’s birthday party just a bit more unforgettable.
Somewhere along the road, I discovered the truth of this beautiful quote by Bertrand Leclair, “Closeness, friendship, affection…keeping your own horse means all of these things.” Would I have been as connected to horses as I am now if I had not found the Kentucky Three Day Event? Possibly, though it would have taken me a lot longer to make horses a priority in my life.
Booking my annual flight to Lexington was a Thanksgiving ritual for me, until, in 2013, I decided to save the airfare…and moved myself and my horses, permanently, to Lexington. Now I am not so much surrounded by horses as immersed in their world. In the course of one weekend, I have watched an eventing competition at Masterson Station Park, visited Silver Charm at Old Friends Equine, and assisted at the birth of a new foal. I love it here, in bluegrass paradise.
Karen O’Connor did a lot more than pass a few minutes chatting with a stranger over a gas pump, all those years ago…she was the catalyst that changed my ambiguous love of horses into the reality of living a life with horses that I am still savoring to this day.