Last week, I was fortunate enough to take some time off and meet some of my girlfriends from all over the country at the Rolex 3 Day Event in Lexington, KY to cheer on our mutual friend and coach Julie Norman as she competed for her very first time!

Needless to say, we are all very proud of Julie. To qualify is an honor, to finish is something truly special. But, Julie couldn't do it all alone! She had help from her long time coach Regis Webb and advice from Clayton Fredericks. In addition, she had the assistance to of two fellow horse lovers, Brooke Shafer and Ashley Hays.

Show Jumping Course Walk with Hannah, Ashley, Julie, Brooke, Vikki and Regis; Photo courtesy of Brooke Schafer

Here is Brooke's account of being a Rolex 'Rookie'... Used with her permission, of course!

2014 Rolex Review – Behind the Scenes with a Rolex RookieMany 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 to 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 ring. Even in the rain I would sit and watch each rider until the final 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 however the Eventing world was one that was foreign to me.

In the years after, I stumbled across 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 rider’s 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, 5 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 of 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 life dream and competing at Rolex 2014.

Upon arrival to Kentucky, Julie had a lesson with Clayton Fredericks, Canadian Olympic coach and past Rolex winner. Her horse Consensus (known at Thomas) beautifully executed flying changes and shoulder-ins as she worked him in the quiet KY Horse Park 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 beginning with the first horse inspection (also known as ‘jogs’). 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 him 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 – 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. Many of her friends and family from Holly Hill Farm were sitting in the stands taking in the beautiful sights and sounds around them.

Julie and Thomas were assigned a dressage ride time of 3:22 on 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 trim 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 where she had come. 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 she rode each movement of her dressage test. With only a few baubles Julie and Thomas trotted in 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 – we would advance to cross country!

With Friday off, I woke up early to care for Thomas before I headed home to ride and care for my own horses. Taking care of Thomas included morning feed and hay, cleaning his stall, dumping his water buckets and refilling with fresh water, sweeping the area in front of his stall, removing his bandages and checking legs, walking him for 15-20 minutes to allow him time to stretch and graze, and finally giving him plenty of treats and love to remind him just how proud we were of him. I spent the day at home riding and catching up on errands and I’ll admit that as I rode Lakoyta (the paint Thoroughbred I’ve been competing Beginner Novice) I couldn’t help but ask him to execute some of the exercises I had seen Clayton instruct Julie to do the days before (Lakoyta wasn’t overly impressed!).

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. Julie and I left the reception early, Julie still in her bridesmaid dress, to walk the cross country course. The cool Kentucky evening was breathtaking and we laughed as we held cocktails and straddled some of the jumps for unforgettable funny photos.

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 (CROSS COUNTRY DAY! EEK!). Julie and Thomas were scheduled to ride at 12:52 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, Louisiana) and Sydney Conley-Elliott (Julie’s longtime friend and fellow Advanced rider) 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 over-zealous 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 run-out at jump 19, element D. 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 (27 jumps with 45 jumping efforts) we waited at the finish line ready to grab Thomas and assist Julie safely down. Thomas came off the course pretty hard – he was mouth 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. Unfortunately when he came off course he appeared a bit sore on his right front. We brought him back to the barn and set to work icing and wrapping Thomas to help aid in his recovery from his first four star cross country course.

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 11pm 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 am to head back to the barn to continue icing and walking Thomas so that he would be sound and fresh for the 9 am 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 that “Julie Norman and Consensus were 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 round later that day. Of the original 63 starters (out of 82 entries), 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 graced 3 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!

Ashley, Julie and Brooke at the Rolex Kentucky Stables; photo courtesy of Brooke Schafer