This is a part of a series of articles following California Aggie writer Kenzie Wilkinson as she works for a rider preparing for the Rolex Three Day Event.
The sport of eventing is a notoriously humbling one, and unfortunately it didn’t fail to deliver its usual dose of humility to my Florida crew in the preparation leading up to Rolex. During my excursion south to Ocala, even amongst the flock of the world’s most elite event riders, I envisioned all sorts of grandiose Rolex-weekend scenarios. I saw the crowd explode as my trainer nailed her dressage test. I teared up from the vision of her and her horse charging across the finish after cross-country. I even dreamed of us parading into that famous stadium to accept the first-place prize at the end of the weekend. The one thing I didn’t imagine was not going to Rolex at all.
However, at this level in eventing, there is no such thing as over-preparation, and at the last minute my trainer made the heart-wrenching, yet very respectable, decision to forgo Rolex in exchange for another year of preparation. Though initially devastating, this alteration of plans couldn’t put a damper on the brilliant winter I had in Ocala. The working-student experience was without a doubt the best one of my life, and something that I highly recommend to every aspiring rider.
With the dust finally having settled from the Rolex whirlwind, I was fortunate to catch up with veteran four-star event rider Liz Millikin for a bit of post-Rolex wisdom.
What should the riders take away from Rolex, regardless of their success at the competition?
I think riders need to remember that Rolex is just another competition—they went and tried their best, and ultimately need to just enjoy the journey!
How should riders prepare for the next events to come?
I think the best training technique is to make sure that your horse is very sound and happy. I would use the competitions as my fitness gauge. I always backed off the last gallop before competition and just used it as a pipe opener to keep my horse fresh and happy.
What Rolex ride are you most proud of?
I think I am most proud of my first Rolex in 1999, as I was battling cancer and had to go in for a major surgery two days after, and was quite sick during Rolex. It’s funny because as upper-level riders, we all become so fixated on Rolex as this be-all-end-all competition. But that year, I realized that everything else in life was pretty simple compared to possibly dying. I was of course nervous going into the cross-country start box, but once on course I just wanted to ride well and have fun!
What sets a horse and a rider with four-star potential apart from the rest?
An upper-level horse just oozes a very quality about them. They have a look of eagles in their eye and just know they are cool. They are often quirky too, but some just have a very cool brain. As for a rider, you must be confident and be able to really push yourself and react quickly. It’s all about instinct.
The Americans were kept out of the top placings at Rolex. How can the U.S. riders step up their game?
People need to stop buying these horses that are just fancy movers and that can’t gallop for 12 minutes. We need more Thoroughbred [rider] types to be competitive against the world. People also way over-compete their horses and never give them the true downtime for six plus weeks in the field.
Finally, what is one piece of advice you would give to ambitious young riders?
I would tell anyone that you must enjoy the journey because there are so many ups and downs and heartbreaks but it is a wonderful life too! You must be able to laugh at yourself!
Kenzie Wilkinson has returned to UC Davis after an extremely rewarding trip to Florida, but can still be found spending all of the time that she can spare on her passion. She can be reached at email@example.com for any questions or comments.
Photo by Catherine Wilkinson.