Pulling Back the Curtain on the AEC Advanced Cross Country Course

Photo by Leslie Wylie. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

What eventer hasn’t fantasized about blasting full-tilt across a perfectly manicured golf course? Nothing but you, your horse and acres of velvety green bermudagrass beckoning to be galloped upon.

The 2016 American Eventing Championships offers hundreds of competitors a chance to indulge that very daydream, less the part where they’re being chased by angry country club guards and their horse pulls a suspensory from sinking a hole hoof in one.

Plus most golf courses weren’t designed by NASA, which I suspect that this course at Tryon International Equestrian Center is. The footing is a magical layer cake of synthetic materials, fiber, felt and soil mix, a quick-bake mix apparently, as the track has come together in just a matter of months. I’ve overheard the superlative “best footing in the world” thrown around, and I’m not inclined to disagree. (If you’re on the fence about which studs to use, the USEA shared some helpful advice from super groom Max Corcoran here.) 

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Looking down on the derby field. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

The perimeter of the course is clearly still a work in progress, hence the construction site-esque background in several of the jump photos below. The derby field, where much of the cross country action takes place, is rimmed by dramatic slopes that yesterday were naked dirt and have since been covered in some sort of turquoise fertilizer stuff. As fast as things happen around TIEC, I wouldn’t be surprised to get here tomorrow and discover that the hillsides sprouted a wallpaper of flowering vines overnight. A custom strain of flowering vines, of course, with butterfly-attracting blooms color coordinated to match the jumps. 

And then there are parts of the course that are so naturally resplendent, you can almost talk yourself into believing that they’re NOT real. Like the mountain creek that rims the backside of the Intermediate and Advanced courses. I can see it in my head, Mark Bellissimo standing on the track with designer Captain Mark Phillips, scratching his chin in thought: “I like where you’re going with this thing, Mark, but it needs a little more oomph. I want to send these eventers home with the feeling that they had a real cultural experience. Let’s show some them some authentic Appalachian character … a cool, rushing mountain stream, perhaps. Can we make that happen?”

And on the seventh day, there was a babbling brook. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

And on the eighth day, there was a cool, rushing mountain stream. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

We’ve all been dying of curiosity for months, so without further ado let’s have a stroll around the Advanced course.

The first nine jumps are up on the derby field, which we shall henceforth refer to as the world’s first equine putt-putt course. A bit of man-made topographical variety — a perfectly sculpted slope up here, a matching slope down there — keeps it from being a ho-hum putting green, and there’s a water hazard in the middle, the first of two on course.

Photo by Leslie Wylie

Photo by Leslie Wylie

The first question is asked at #4AB, an angled one-stride of tables, followed by a proper skinny at #5. The water is up next: #6A, a rifle holding the Intermediate duck at gunpoint …

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

… to #6B, a shotgun shell shaped skinny hovering above a pile of actual shotgun shells. Perhaps they’ll pipe some banjo music in on cross country day? (As someone who lives in East Tennessee, I’m allowed to make these sorts of jokes.)

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

After another pass across the putt-putt course, the competitors are finally slingshotted away from civilization into something closer resembling nature. Jumps 10 through 12 are positioned on a ribbon of turf that twists and turns along the hillside. Navigating this stretch, I imagine, will feel a bit like one of those log flume amusement park rides. Weeee!

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

The #13 combination is a skinny sandwiched by two quite gaping open corners, both fitted with frangible pins. John won’t buy us a drone so you’ll have to make do with this shaky walking video of the line:

The pinball chute continues on for some time with the occasional table to navigate and the downhill brush table to skinny combination at #15AB, the only combination that incorporates terrain.

By this point in the game you’re starting to wonder where all the banks and ditches are. The answer being: “What banks and ditches?” as the course is populated largely by portables. It reminds me of the very earliest days of Chattahoochee Hills, long before there were barns or arenas. It was just a cool piece of land with some portables rolled out onto it, and that was OK by us because the potential was clearly there for more. Rome wasn’t built in a day and TIEC won’t be, either. At the rate they’re going it’s going to take at least, I don’t know, a couple weeks.

The second water is a straightforward ramped rail in, straight across to a bank one-stride cabin out. There’s excitement still to come though, as back-to-back combinations at #22 and #23 feature corners as the second element. One’s right-handed and one’s left-handed for equal opportunity runout opportunities.

23B. Double Brush & Corner

23B. Double Brush & Corner

After that, competitors are just three run-and-jump tables from the finish.

A track like this that twists, turns and doubles back on itself will favor horses with a quick turn of hoof to match. Riders looking to make the time will be shaving their turns, setting up efficiently and stepping hard on the accelerator upon landing to get on with the next fence. The myriad changes in footing, coupled with the busyness of the derby field, will challenge horses at all levels to keep their head in the game.  

“Romantic sunset AEC course walks,” like several other baffling non sequiturs, have become an EN tradition. While last year’s Texas Rose Horse Park sunset is a tough act to follow, North Carolina put the moves on us yesterday evening as well. In parting:

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Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Stick with us for all the latest, all week long. Go Eventing.

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