With Love, from an AEC Volunteer

“Thank you!” shouted the final rider of the day in the Junior Novice division, turning around to flash a smile back as she cantered away from Fence 13. She’d just had a refusal and maturely and kindly coaxed her horse over the fence into the slightly spooky shadows cast by the trees around us. As she cleared the fence, I’d said (and I’m fairly certain I broke the jump judge code by doing it), “You’re almost home – keep going! You can do it!” Hence her thank you. It was just one of the many inspiring moments I witnessed in my first weekend volunteering with the USEA. This rider and her sweet grey horse, to me, are the epitome of what makes this sport great. Horse and rider as a compassionate partnership, a rider committed to continuing on, and a spirit of gratitude.

Since first attending the then Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event in 1997, I’ve been hooked on eventing. While I don’t compete, I am an avid follower of the sport both here in the U.S. and abroad. I am always in awe of the relationships event riders build with their horses – to me, it truly makes eventing the best sport. A few weeks ago, I saw an article on Eventing Nation saying that the American Eventing Championships was looking for volunteers and I knew I wanted to be part of this special competition. I signed up to serve as both a Dressage Scribe and an Assistant Jump Judge over the course of the week.

Prepped and ready to scribe… Photo by
Claire O’Dell.

Thursday morning was an early one – meeting at The Horse Park before dawn with the other Dressage Scribes awaiting our packets of tests, radios for our judges, and ring assignments. I had the honor of being part of the Novice Masters division. Karen Winn, the veteran judge for the class, was both honest and supportive of each pair who came down centerline. I watched the riders as they circled the ring before heading in  — some looked delighted, others a bit apprehensive, and a few had serious game faces (as in, I would not mess with you in the warm-up!). I caught glimpses of their tests as I took down the comments and scores. This group of men and women were inspiring. They executed their tests well, took advantage of collecting points where they could, and were sensitive to their horses’ strengths and weaknesses. After each test, you could see the relief that the minutes in the white rectangle were over, mixed with gratitude for the work their horses had done.

On cross country day, over about 13 hours, I watched more than 240 horses jump around the Advanced (10%) and Novice (90%) courses. The jump judge gods (AKA the fantastic organizers) placed me in a shady glen on the way toward Head of the Lake. I worked alongside two amazing volunteers — Kristy Cartier and Gary Kirkpatrick — who have both been jump judging since the mid-1990s. They were so supportive as I asked them what they would do in different scenarios, how they got the timing of watching, scoring, and reporting back into a rhythm, and what their favorite events had been over the years. I made two new friends in the process. Quick two-minute snippets of conversation between horses were so much fun as we swapped stories about horses, travel, work, and more.

Some pretty gutsy riding to clear Fence 13 AND a Challenger! Photo by Claire O’Dell.

It occurred to me, as the afternoon shadows shifted that something magical had happened that day. I’d been watching each of these 240+ riders living their dreams. Sure, we were one fence out of many that made up their championship course. Yes, they’d jumped hundreds or thousands of fences to build the skill to get here. But Fence 13, a small bench in the woods, was an important part of their story. We often talk of having goals in life. They require dedication of mind, body, and spirit to be successful. Seeing so many people of all ages galloping and jumping through the course was watching dreams be embodied, the culmination of tremendous amounts of effort, demonstrated by a massive group of dedicated horsewomen and horsemen.

I also was awed by the affection and respect these riders displayed for their horses. I heard “I’m so sorry” uttered in many different ways when a distance wasn’t the best and the horse was honest and jumped anyway. I heard lots of “good girl” or “that’s my boy” shouted in praise as pairs cruised away from us toward their next big test at the water. But my favorite was a sweet young lady who shouted “You are such a star!” to her pretty chestnut horse as they cleared the fence in front of us. It’s what the sport is all about.

I just want to say, to each and every competitor, you all are stars. You made it to the AECs. Whether your weekend went to plan or perhaps you had a blip, you made it to The Horse Park. Keep believing in your dreams, riding your best, and loving your horses. You’ve inspired me more than I can say – I can’t wait to be back at The Horse Park for the AEC next year to volunteer and support this amazing sport and all of you.

Claire O’Dell is a (very) amateur rider from Cincinnati who fell in love with eventing when she attended the event formerly known as Rolex with her mom 20+ years ago. In her non-horse related life, she leads a marketing team for an engineering company. A family health crisis put a pause on her riding several years ago, but she’s recently started back in dressage with the support of her new (and awesome) trainer, Jennifer Grant, and a sweet Haflinger pony, Cassandra. As we all know, life really is better with horses!