Brooke Schafer got the once in a lifetime opportunity to groom for Rolex rider Julie Norman this year. She sent us a blog about her experience, which was definitely an unforgettable one. Many thanks to Brooke for writing, and thank you for reading.
Many years ago I attended my first Rolex in a very unconventional way. When I was a kid, we used to sneak into Rolex by jumping the fence across the field behind the covered arena (sorry, Rolex!), and I would spend hours walking through the vendors with my mom and friends. Being from Lexington, Rolex was a great local event that we would attend mainly for the great deals.
My favorite day was always Sunday when we would shop and enjoy the event. Most everyone else loved cross country on Saturday, but for some strange reason, I just loved sitting beneath the trees of the old stadium ring, watching the majestic riders gallop around the beautiful bowl-like grassy arena.
Even in the rain, I would sit and watch each rider until the winner was determined and all of the horses galloped into the ring in a beautiful celebration with satin ribbons blowing in the breeze. I never knew any of the riders personally and, because of my interests in the show horse world, I barely recognized any of them by name. I could see their incredible athleticism and skill, even though the eventing world was one that was foreign to me.
In the years after, I stumbled upon eventing and slowly began to learn some of the famous horses and riders. I began to respect and idolize the incredible riders who I had watched for many years at Rolex. In college, my best friend Caitlin seemed to know every horse and rider and would name them off to me as we watched. Little did I know, one day I would get to be behind the scenes of one of the most amazing equestrian competitions in the world.
In 2009, I moved to Louisiana and began riding at a local eventing farm. I missed my show horse world but figured I would ride what was available. I quickly made friends and was impressed by the riding skill of the local riders. Having come from the Bluegrass, I had very little expectations of riders’ abilities in such a far-removed area. I was humbled when I attended a clinic with Sally O’Connor and watched two local riders named Julie Norman and Sydney Conley-Elliott.
Now, five years later, I have spent many long hours riding and competing with both Julie and Sydney and have watched them grow from incredible riders to national leaders in the sport of eventing. Both girls climbed up the ladder through tireless hours; countless dollars; and a lot of blood, sweat and tears.
Julie got the chance of a lifetime this year when she was able to qualify her self-made gelding, Consensus, to compete at Rolex. She was told by several FEI officials that it would not be possible to qualify her horse in just under a year’s time, but Julie knew her ability and the ability of her horse. She set to it in April 2013 and traveled from Montana to Florida (and just about every state in between) to get the job done. Finally, we got the news that she would be achieving her lifelong dream and competing at Rolex 2014.
Upon arrival in Kentucky, Julie had a lesson with Clayton Fredericks, Canadian Olympic coach and past Rolex winner. Her horse Consensus (known at home as Thomas) beautifully executed flying changes and shoulder-ins as she worked him in the quiet environment several days before the competition was set to start. Julie had tasked me and her Louisiana-based student Ashley Hays as her grooms and right-hand girls for the weekend. We were elated and repeatedly exclaimed, “We’re at Rolex! Can you believe we’re at Rolex?!” as we followed along behind her from ring to ring.
Julie’s horse Thomas can be quite quirky and is full of personality. Ashley and I both were well aware of his quirks and attitude and felt prepared to take on the challenge of his care in his first four-star event. He was in fantastic condition upon arrival to Kentucky, and with a little shampoo and baby powder, his copper coat gleamed while his white stockings were brilliant against the luscious green of the Kentucky Bluegrass.
Wednesday morning was the first true test of Julie and Thomas: the first horse inspection. Ashley and I scrubbed and brushed, cleaned and fluffed, and made sure that every hair on Thomas was in place from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail. We added Vaseline to his bridle to make it shine and extra coats of hoof oil to bring out the natural buttery color of his hooves. Julie was beautifully dressed in a white pant suit with pink lily top, and together they were quite the sight. With much excitement, Thomas passed the jogs, and Ashley and I fought back tears of excitement.
On Wednesday afternoon, Julie was able to ride Thomas in the Rolex arena for the very first time. Thomas entered the ring and put on a show like we had never seen before. As Julie rode past me, I yelled out to her: “I hope you’re soaking up every minute of this!” She was — she was beaming from ear to ear.
Julie and Thomas were assigned a dressage ride time of 3:22 p.m. Thursday afternoon. Ashley and I prepared Thomas by taking him for several long walks in the morning and then began once again scrubbing and buffing to make him gleam for the afternoon dressage test. Thomas sported a brand new navy blue bonnet trimmed in white and red with small crystals to catch the sunlight. He and Julie were picked over for every last speck of dirt and finally sent down to the ring for warm-up.
When the time came to enter the ring, I felt like my heart was going to jump through my throat — and I wasn’t even riding! I was just so excited for my best friend and what she had accomplished. Ashley and I got to stand on a podium overlooking the dressage ring in the Rolex arena, and I had the pleasure of standing next to Clayton, listening to his commentary as Julie rode each movement of her dressage test. With only a few bobbles, Julie and Thomas trotted up for their final halt, and the crowd roared with delight. Ashley bawled with tears of joy next to me, and I could feel my cheeks tensing up from smiling for so long. It was a wonderful moment.
Friday evening, we witnessed the marriage of Julie’s close friend Ellen Doughty to her fiancé Alistair Hume. It was a majestic ceremony set overlooking the Head of the Lake on the Rolex cross country course. Although I carried the stress of the upcoming days of the competition, the beautiful wedding was a nice reprieve and a good reminder of family, friendship and love.
Saturday morning arrived, and although everyone was feeling the repercussions of too many cocktails from the night before, we were all excited that it was cross country day. Julie and Thomas were scheduled to ride at 12:52 p.m., and Ashley and I made sure that Thomas was walked, stretched and ready to roll.
Finally, it was time to head up to warm up and, after we put Julie up on Thomas and sent them on their way, Ashley and I gathered multiple buckets, sponges and scrapers in preparation for the vet box post cross country. Regis Webb, Julie’s longtime coach from Benton, La., and Sydney accompanied us in cross country warm up and looked on as Julie galloped and guided Thomas over the warm-up fences.
Although Thomas was clearing each fence beautifully, I could tell that he did not have his normal overzealous spring that he usually exhibits in warm up. As Julie cantered up to me, I could tell by her face that she felt the same way. She came over and said, “Something’s not right; he’s not my normal cross country horse.” I reassured her that he was probably just saving himself for the daunting course and that he may just need an extra squeeze coming out of the start box.
She didn’t seem convinced, and when she spoke to Clayton, she expressed her same concern. Clayton reassured her that everything was fine and she would just have to ride harder. He told her, “You may actually have to kick, Julie.” Julie had never had to “kick” Thomas before. Regardless of any pre-start concerns, Julie guided Thomas to the start box and before we knew it, the clock counted down and they were off!
Regis, Sydney, Ashley and I watched Julie gallop over the first jump and then turned to run back to the vet box tent to watch the rest of the course via TV and live feed. Much to our disappointment, the live feed to the tent had somehow been cut, and we were unable to see any of Julie’s cross country run. We were left to follow along by the voice of the announcer. Our stomachs turned as we hoped and prayed that Julie and Thomas made it home safely after each fence. Julie and Thomas had an unfortunate runout at the D element at jump 19. Julie would later explain that she missed her line, and although Thomas tried to jump the element, he was just too far left.
When we knew they were nearing the end of the course, we waited at the finish line ready to grab Thomas and assist Julie. Thomas came off the course with elevated breathing and appeared quite exhausted from the Kentucky hills and maxed-out fences. With the help of Stephen Rogers and the Rolex veterinarians, we sponged, scraped and walked Thomas for 20 minutes to help him cool down and catch his breath. We brought him back to the barn and set to work icing and wrapping Thomas to help aid in his recovery.
We worked through the night icing and walking Thomas — 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off — with the rest of the Rolex competitors and grooms, and at 11 p.m., the FEI stewards instructed everyone to leave the barns to allow the horses to rest. We hated to say goodbye to Thomas even for a few short hours; we were all so proud of him and wanted him to recover and be prepared to compete the next day.
Julie, Ashley and I awoke at 4:30 a.m. to head back to the barn to continue icing and walking Thomas so that he would be sound and fresh for the 9 a.m. horse inspection. With very little sleep and a lot of long hours of caring for Thomas, we were all pretty exhausted heading into the morning jogs. Julie wore a beautiful navy pant suit accented with gold, and we all held our breath as she presented him before the panel of veterinarians and FEI stewards.
Much to our delight, it was announced “Julie Norman and Consensus ACCEPTED,” and we all burst into tears of joy (and delirium from lack of sleep). We were all so excited that Julie and Thomas would get to compete in the stadium jumping later that day. Of the original 63 starters, only 35 advanced to compete in the stadium jumping round of the final day.
Ashley and I had the chance of a lifetime as we got to walk the show jumping course with Julie and the other Rolex competitors. It was an incredible feeling to be walking behind the likes of Karen O’Connor, Buck Davidson and Phillip Dutton as we approached each fence and considered the best route to take before and after.
Before long, it was time to have Thomas prepped and down to the warm-up ring for Julie to get on and begin loosening him up. We all watched as she trotted and cantered around and took a few warm-up fences. Unfortunately, it seemed that Thomas was feeling some of the effects of completing his first four-star cross country course the day before, and he knocked down the first few warm up fences.
I could tell by Julie’s face that she could tell she wasn’t sitting on her normal horse. Clayton encouraged her to ride every fence, while Regis told her she needed to ride him straight and not lose him through the turns. The ring steward indicated to Julie it was time for her to go to the ring. She cantered Thomas down the long corridor into the grand outdoor stadium. Ashley and I ran behind to get our place up on the podium.
Despite a rusty warm-up, Thomas galloped into the ring and went into a higher gear. He powered over the first fence pointing his white feet, and I immediately knew he was giving all he had. Around he went powering over each fence and with each attempt, I held my breath. His back feet grazed three rails and when it was all over, he and Julie had gained 12 faults. Despite the rails, we were all thrilled. They did it!
The feeling of finishing Rolex, even as a groom, was an amazing one that cannot be put into words. It consisted of many highs and lows, long hours and sore feet. In the end, every moment, both good and bad, was completely worth it. Before it was even over, we were already planning our trip back next year.
Watch out, Rolex 2015! We’re coming back with a vengeance, and we will no longer be Rolex Rookies!