By Darlene Ricker
Photos by Diana De Rosa, unless otherwise noted
In the old days, tradition held that Sunday was a day of rest, and that’s exactly what the organizers of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games 2014 in Normandy had in mind when they created the schedule of events. For all disciplines at these Games, Sunday the 24th was designated an official “Rest Day” so that the athletes could take a deep breath before the competition began on Monday.
However, the word “rest” is not currently in the vocabulary of most of these competitors. After all, it’s hard to kick back when you’ve been on a treadmill the past year or more, revving up to hit your peak (and, more importantly, your horse’s peak) in Normandy.
For example, members of the U.S. Endurance Team spent Sunday the same way they spent the previous days: preparing for Thursday’s 100-mile race. They got up well before the daily meeting that takes place first thing in the morning with chef d’equipe Emmett Ross, the team vet and any other members of the group who may be needed. The meeting starts promptly at 8 a.m. “Not 8:01, not 8:05,” as Emmett told me. “Eight o’clock sharp.”
This Sunday morning, the riders had had only a few hours of sleep. The previous evening they had marched in the Parade of Athletes in the Opening Ceremony at D’Ornano Stadium in Caen, a four-hour roundtrip bus ride from their base near Sartilly (where the endurance race will be held) on the English Channel. It was close to midnight when the ceremony ended, so they didn’t get to sleep until about 2:30 a.m.
You certainly couldn’t tell by their appearance, though. When I arrived Sunday morning at their stabling area about six miles from Sartilly, the team members and their handlers looked far more awake than I’m sure I did. After they brought their horses in from pasture and attended the morning meeting, they tacked their meticulously groomed mounts and made themselves available for the next couple hours for a private photo shoot. I’m sure they had plenty of other things that needed to be done, but they and Emmett were extremely gracious and patient. After the official team photos were taken, they gave us another “photo op,” this time at an exercise track a short walk from the stabling area.
The riders mounted up and hacked around the sand track, first warming up at the walk and trot. Then they eased into a canter. As each approached, maintaining the pace, members of the crew came dashing up from the sides of the track, carrying plastic jugs of water. As you can see in the photos that accompany this story, they ran up to the horses and handed off (more like tossed) the containers to the riders, who (if the handoff was successful) dumped the water on their horses’ necks to cool them down.
And this was a day of rest?
Well, eventually, yes (sort of). Emmett gave the riders the remainder of the day to do whatever they wanted, which for most of them meant chatting with teammates and crew and tending to their horses. The horses are never left unattended, whether in their stalls or in pasture. At least one team rider or crew member keeps constant watch, taking turns with others. That was my parting vision of the US Endurance Team on Sunday. As my photography partner, Diana de Rosa, and I headed off to the train station to go back to Caen, the minder who had been sitting in a lawn chair for several hours, staring at the horses in the pasture, was still doing so. But now it had begun to rain, so he had moved his perch to the front seat of a car, maintaining his lonely but ever-important vigil. As one of the team riders had said to me earlier that day: “The horse first.” Always.