This month, Valerie Pride took up an offer of a lifetime to officiate the South American Games in Argentina — and she’s been kind enough to send us a blog detailing her South American adventure. Take it away, Val!
A few months ago, I received an email on behalf of the FEI inviting me to officiate at the South American Games. It was so simple and straightforward I couldn’t help but think it was fake! I received a few succinct emails thereafter from a Colonel in Argentina, again wondering if this was too good to be true.
I’m a planner, a control enthusiast, Type A… you name it — and yet off I went, rather haphazardly, on the biggest judging assignment of my life to date!
I owe the FEI and my U.S. official’s training program and mentors a million thank yous for the opportunity of a lifetime. I learned more in a week than perhaps I have all year. I set out as an ambassador for our sport and I came back a humbled, inspired eventaholic! In just one week I learned how big and small the world really can be.
With just an hour’s difference in time, I couldn’t explain why my flight was over 10 hours long — and then I looked at a map! I needed to pack for the beginning of summer. I managed to get it all into a carry-on bag (minus my jammies — #fail — and a power adapter — #bigfail!), and off I went across the equator with prayers, a USB cable and a power pack from my LRK3DE swag bag two years ago.
Thank goodness a (rather good-looking) man at the airport was standing outside of customs with my name on a piece of paper. I went to shake his hand; he went to kiss the side of my cheek. Why didn’t I google ‘greetings in Argentina’? So awkward!
I hopped into a military van with him and a driver and we assessed rather quickly that I had forgotten all of the Spanish I used to speak while in high school and college. We drove in silence with my eyes wide open as I watched the city of Buenos Aires unfold in front of me. Alongside the highway were horses grazing, people riding bareback, horses tethered outside of 70s-era high rise apartment buildings and working in makeshift arenas amongst city buildings. What a first impression!
An hour or so later, we ended up on the military base of Campo de Mayo. The equitation school has its own side to the base and that was my home sweet home for the next week.
I didn’t really know what to expect — however, this wasn’t it! Campo de Mayo is home to the army cavalry as well as a huge lesson program. There are hundreds of stables, hundreds of horses and mules, multiple arenas both indoors and outdoors, paddocks, cross-country courses, a hot walker… the list goes on.
I was given a tour and met so many people within the first hour that my mind was blown. My biggest tour guide was the course designer for the Championships, Eric Winter — you may recognize him as the Badminton designer, as well. I probably should have looked at the FEI schedule so I didn’t embarrass myself on so many levels! The poor guy didn’t know this American was going to shadow him for the rest of his day.
My other ground jury members weren’t arriving until the next day. The CDs and TDs like to do their thing and have everything all set for the arrival of the ground jury so I wasn’t trying to disturb them — but I wasn’t sure what else to do!
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Eric was so class and took it all in stride. This venue is hosting a whopping four (!) 4*-S events next year and he was trying to create these tracks in his mind. I got to get my steps in walking around the venue, talking course design theory and just generally being a tourist for the rest of my day.
I was #sorrynotsorry for taking so many pictures. It became a running joke. The TDs were two super experienced guys I’ve had the privilege of working with before. They have worked the Worlds, Olympics, and multiple top events around the globe. I think I reminded them all of what it was like experiencing an event of this caliber for the first time and traveling so far outside of one’s comfort zone!
On Wednesday, the whole gang arrived. I had the honor of working with officials from Europe and South America, with experience of judging the Pan-Ams and comparable competitions.
At an FEI event, the officials become your family for the week. You do everything together — literally. We loaded a bus every morning and afternoon to be transported to and from our bed and breakfast hotel after working together all day. You eat meals together; you can’t really even go to the loo without telling someone that was your next destination!
Our mission for the day was to walk courses. The competition hosted a 2*-L, 3*-S, 3*-L and the 3*-L Championships. We were busy! Not everyone knows what it takes to be an official, but assessing the cross country course and its questions is about the most important behind-the-scenes thing that you do.
The venue rivals that of any event I’ve ever been to in my life: varied terrain and a vast array of fences and questions at each level that absolutely met the international standard, if not raised it. Not to mention, I walked amongst parakeets and monarch butterflies… so many firsts! I was reminded of how easy it is to take eventing life in the States for granted.
These course designers from Argentina have made major sacrifices to live and study abroad in the UK and Europe learning from the best in the world, everything from building to design, so they can bring it back and teach it to their crew. The TDs don’t have the number of competitions like we do in the States, so they study courses on the apps and the previews on websites like Eventing Nation to keep themselves updated and challenged with what is going on around the world.
I consider eventing my job and my passion and my life, and I’m sitting here wondering if I want it and deserve it as much as these guys — they are inspiring! (Ok, true confession, most evenings I watch YouTube videos of like Burghley dressage tests and judge them and see how I compare with the actual judges, so maybe I’ve just found my family amongst eventing nerds. Moving on!)
Thursday brought the horse inspection. It was just all class. Not only did I receive an order of go, I had a chair under a pavilion with snacks and proper china serving tea and coffee! Our job as FEI officials is to determine the horses’ fitness to compete.
These horses ranged from European models flown over to compete alongside horses purchased from abroad as well as those bred and raised by the militaries of Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, and Argentina. When I tell you these riders presented their horses, I can’t stress enough the presentation. There they were, mostly in uniform, standing at attention announcing their name, horse name and competition number. I felt like I needed to salute them back before sending them off to walk and trot down the inspection lane!
I have a secret obsession with everyone’s farrier work and after I’ve done a onceover of the animal, I fixate on their feet. I stumbled upon a finding for the first time in my life: the military horses have etched into their left front hoof their soldier’s ID number. I had to inquire. It was like the original microchip!
After the inspection, we had the draw for the order of the teams. It was such a fun session involving champagne bottles being labeled at the bottom with a number and the Chefs d’ Equipe picking the bottles to determine the running order. I didn’t see anyone open one at that moment — but I’m sure it also made for a fun afternoon for the teams cheers-ing the start of their competition!
The pressure is on in this Team Championship, and trying to qualify for Pan Am and subsequently the Olympic Games is in the front or back of everyone’s minds, so the sights are set high! We had a very special afternoon arranged as well; while the TDs and stewards held down the fort, the rest of us got to sneak away to La Dolfina, home of polo superstar Adolfo Cambiaso. In layman’s terms, we went to David Beckham’s house.
We got to tour Adolfo’s stables and facility, and he talked openly about his training regimen. This all happened in front of his controversial team of cloned mares that won the Open; they all stood patiently for us to admire them and for me to ponder how it is that cloned horses always have different markings. He invited us to watch an afternoon game between his horses and players that now include his daughter and son, who can hold their own on a world stage.
Polo is probably literally the only horse sport I have not attempted. I’ve vaulted, rode cutting horses, I can drive a cart, steeplechase and race ride. But this — I fear I’m not even coordinated enough to attempt it on a bicycle let alone a horse! Halfway through, however, I was getting a total adrenaline rush and would have totally jumped in if he needed a substitute — plus their helmets are super customized with colors and logos and his daughter played with fluorescent pink sticks… maybe this could be my fall-back plan.
Friday was the day we all had dreams or nightmares about: judging the dressage! We are all supposed to assess the performance from our own position around the arena and yet are scores are all supposed to be within five percentage points of one another. These scores lay down the penalties that every rider dreams of finishing on and they have all been training for PBs.
My scribe was an incredibly talented female civilian rider who has represented Uruguay at the Pan Ams and volunteered to scribe because she’s hurt her back and couldn’t ride. She’s also an FEI official and judged at Great Meadows this summer. How lucky could I be?!
We had the most amazing time together, discussing each ride after the test. It’s just so fun to speak to someone who sits next to you all day and really gets it, riding the test along with you and the rider, the same highs and lows as you do when someone does a fantastic extension across a diagonal or picks up a wrong lead coming out of a simple change.
A special shout out to the team from Chile who competed in white uniforms — I don’t know who thought this was practical for a sport surrounded by slobbering furry animals, but my goodness was it an impressive picture as they traveled around the outside of the arena!
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On Friday night, I’m as nervous for the next day’s cross-country when I’m judging as I am when I ride! I’m afraid I’m going to forget a fence or even worse, where the gaps are in the roping so that I can get quickly in and out of the galloping lanes without causing a scene.
As lucky as I was, I had a military vehicle and driver while the other two members of the ground jury sat at control because they could speak Spanish and have a more real-time feel of what was going on via radio communication.
What this organizing committee was able to offer was second to none in the world. Control was unbelievably, well, controlled; their radio mannerisms were precise and clear. Each fence had a soldier with a stop watch to resolve any timing issues and they had all drilled for days previously on what to do with runouts, stops, flags, pins — everything.
With only 40 starters, each rider got his own time around the course and the public came out in masses to spectate and cheer. There was a natural amphitheater provided by the hillside along control and starting at 9am they were playing club music that couldn’t help put you in the mood ready to tackle anything and everything out there!
It’s just so heartwarming, the things that are universal. Grooms and girlfriends were running around from combination to combination with their phones out videoing. One father started crying as his son made it across the finish line and shook my hand because I was wearing a radio and holding a clipboard. The announcer got everyone into a frenzy announcing the time penalties (not a single rider made the time, it was so competitive!) and current standings. One rider had the absolute save of the year as he fought his way from his horse’s head all the way back to the saddle. I don’t care what language you spoke, the fist pumps and hollers he received were universally understood!
The Sunday morning horse inspection always seems to come up too soon. I think the horses felt the same way; so many of them pranced and danced their way down the jog strip I think they wanted to run cross country all over again! But it was on to the final phase, show jumping, in the most beautiful grass arena I might have ever had the honor to walk upon. They haven’t had any rain in literally five months but had been watering this arena daily. I could have walked the course barefoot!
The fences were absolute works of art. The designer was a pure show jumper and I really enjoyed talking theory with him as he presented his courses. I was tucking away all of these tidbits to build the course in my own arena as soon as I got home.
Eventing proves to be a humbling sport no matter which hemisphere or continent you participate. Rails go flying or don’t move at all, even when they should. The gasp and clap are understood universally, and I think at some point in the day everyone in the stands or the judging booth did one or the other or both.
It was the most fantastic end to a great week of sport. As the final horse left the arena, the marching band entered and all of the fun and pomp and circumstance of the prize giving followed.
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The festivities continued without the horses, with the teams taking the podiums surrounded by friends and family and food and drinks getting passed around like there was no tomorrow — because today was all about today. And the years that it took to get to today. And the kids swarming the steps to remind you about the future and that eventing has an incredible tomorrow to look forward to and believe in and train for, no matter your role or your federation. We are all eventers, and the time was now to celebrate all that is and will be about this amazing life that we all live and share together. This sport unites us, energizes us and helps people put away, even just for one moment, our differences and instead celebrate everything about the horses and our sport that is fantastically understood and unspoken amongst us all.
Thank you to Eventing Nation for letting me share my experiences. Thank you to the FEI for all you do to promote eventing and horse sport around the world. Thank you to the USEF for my training and thank you to all of my support system back home that keeps me at a competition one way or the other every week. I am one incredibly lucky girl.