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Sunday, October 24, 2021

The Road to Rolex

Imagine grabbing a bite to eat in Hollywood, and Reese Witherspoon strolls in. Then, to the left, there’s Brad Pitt and Matt Damon chowing down on a juicy steak. Now replace the city of Hollywood, Calif. with Ocala, Fla., and replace those famous faces with world-renowned Equestrian riders, and you’ve perfectly described a night out in Florida’s horse hub.

Known year-round for its active retirement community and top-notch golfing, Ocala draws the cream of the horseback-riding crop when weather in the Midwest and on the East Coast isn’t conducive to top-level training and competing. Thousands of riders, hundreds of farms and dozens of venues for practicing and competing are jam-packed within the city’s limits. Ocala is truly overrun by the equestrian community during the winter. It’s rare to go into a grocery store without seeing countless shoppers still decked out in their riding attire from the day’s work. Restaurants are crammed full of famished members of the horse community every night. Muddy boots and hay-filled hair are totally acceptable, if not expected, parts of a dinner outfit. Although all disciplines of riders enjoy the sunshine that Ocala has to offer, three-day eventing riders are an especially prominent part of the city’s winter population.

Eventing is commonly referred to as the triathlon of the equestrian world, consisting of three unique phases. Phase one, called dressage, takes place in a small ring, and is a complex pattern of highly technical movements testing the communication between horse and rider. Show jumping presents a course of breakable jumps in an arena, thus challenging the horse and rider to jump quickly and accurately over a series of fences. Finally, the third phase is cross-country. This is the portion that eventers live for. Consisting of a lengthy course of large natural obstacles, such as logs, stone walls, hedges, banks and ditches, cross-country runs through fields, woods and water. The obstacles, generally speaking, are immovable, unlike those in the show jumping. This element of danger can result in some grisly wrecks, yet adds the thrill to cross-country on which these adrenaline-seeking daredevils thrive.

For the best of the best, no cross-country course in the country holds more allure than the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. This competition, called a CCI four star, is the only one of its stature in the United States and is one of just six in the entire world. Eventers often dedicate a lifetime to training and qualifying for this event. Every April, approximately 50 riders vie for this most highly coveted title in American eventing. It is many of these riders that make up the elite class training here in Florida. Some riders are quite flashy, choosing to celebrate with extravagant events such as exclusive parties. Others prefer to stay more under the radar. But all are connected by one factor: their working students.

This is where I come in. It’s common for top-level riders to have dozens of horses in training, and in exchange for room and board, plus free coaching, aspiring young riders toil from dawn to dusk in the stables as working students. Day to day, we clean the barns and handle the daily care of the horses and the facilities. The opportunity to watch the training of the horses and the lessons of other riders is an extremely educational one. We also are able to ride and sometimes compete on a variety of different horses, which is invaluable to ambitious eventers. I arrived down here early January, and I have about two more months in this unique city, working as the right-hand gal to a rider who is chasing the ever-elusive Rolex dream.

Kenzie Wilkinson is writing this series when she isn’t working from sunup to sundown in Florida. If you have any questions for her, contact sports@theaggie.org.

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