Oldham County’s Hermitage Farm is serving as quite the prep site for the World Equestrian Games at Kentucky Horse Park [Sports]

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This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

Imagine Major League Baseball’s World Series unfolding here in Kentucky, or maybe the Super Bowl or even the Summer Olympics. For horse enthusiasts, the equivalent is about to kick off, as the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games begin at the 1,200-acre Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington on Sept. 25 and run for 16 days through Oct. 10.

Held every four years, the World Equestrian Games feature the world’s top show horses, riders, drivers and vaulters. The games are governed by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), based in Switzerland, the international governing body for equine sports competition. This is the first time the event has been held outside Europe.

The competition will involve eight equine sporting events, including the more familiar show jumping and dressage, but also the less well known, such as four-in-hand combined driving, complete with carriages, and vaulting, where gymnastic performers leap circus-like onto and off cantering horses. 

Game organizers say roughly 800 competitors from more than 50 countries will contend for world champion status in their respective events. For top competitors in three of the disciplines (jumping, dressage and eventing), WEG offers the possibility of a world championship and the opportunity to prep for the Summer Olympics two years away. For the remaining five non-Olympic disciplines, these games are it. “This is our highest level of competition,” says Deb Laderoute, 52, a contender in combined driving and the first Canadian woman to qualify for a World Equestrian Games. 

For much of the spring and late summer, Laderoute, of Calgary, Alberta, trained her team of horses at Hermitage Farm in Goshen, Ky. (The 700-acre spread has been purchased in two parcels over the last decade by local entrepreneurs and 21c Museum Hotel developers Steve Wilson and wife Laura Lee Brown from former Humana executive and Thoroughbred breeder Carl Pollard.)

Wilson, a horse enthusiast and himself an amateur combined driving competitor, says he plans to turn the farm into the Hermitage International Training Center and offer premiere training, clinics and competitions. Attracting top-caliber talent like Laderoute to the farm as she prepares for the WEG is part of Wilson’s plan to put Hermitage on the equine map.

For Laderoute, the ability to prepare her horses an hour away from the site of the Games is invaluable. “Kentucky’s humidity, heat and altitude are something we don’t have up in Calgary,” she says by phone on a day when the Louisville temperature is hovering near 95 and she is in Illinois for a competition. “I mean, right now in Calgary, it’s 65 to 70 degrees, and it’s generally dry. That’s one of the big reasons I wanted to stay in Kentucky.”

Both she and her horses will have time to acclimate, she says, and training locally will spare her team a grueling trip prior to competition. Travel can be hard on horses, so hers will have the advantage of being well rested. Travel can also strain competitors’ and horse owners’ wallets. Gavin Robson, 44, who trains in Ohio and will represent Australia in combined driving at the games, says the cost of flying a team of horses from the U.S. to Europe for an international competition can run from $40,000 to $60,000. That doesn’t include airfare, food or lodging for entrants, grooms and assistants, or the cost of boarding horses once they arrive for competition.  

“The Americans have spent a lot of money traveling to Europe (for the World Equestrian Games),” he says. “Now the Europeans will have to come here.”

Robson likes the set-up for WEG — all events at one venue — and thinks the elite European teams will love a crucial ingredient the casual observer might ignore: footing. “The ground is better in Kentucky,” he says. “In Europe, sometimes the ground can be heavy going. For example, in the Netherlands, where you have a lot of competitions, you can have sandy soil and you have to deal with that. The Europeans are going to be happy with the conditions in Kentucky.”

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On a warm, hazy July day amid the rolling green pastures of Hermitage Farm, horse trainer José Hernandez, 30, offers a glimpse of what spectators at the World Equestrian Games will see. Hernandez, who trains for Wilson, has been around horses for 25 years.

Just beyond the dark wood and red trim of Barn 12, near two half-barrels of red geraniums, he readies four flashy, nearly matched black-and-white horses for a “four-in-hand” driving session — with the harnessed horses arranged two in front and two in back, like the stagecoaches in Western movies. They’re Georgian Grandes, a recent breed derived by crossing draft horses with saddlebreds to achieve an elegant yet heavier-boned animal.

I climb onto the back of what’s called a dressage carriage, the type used on the first day of a combined driving competition. Hernandez guides the team into an open pasture to practice turns. “It’s like a family,” he says, “a herd. I watch them to see how they interact.”

The two horses in back (the “wheelers”) must be stronger to pull more of the weight of the carriage, but they also need to be followers, Hernandez says. The horses in front must be very smart leaders. The entire team needs to be supple and work together.

Combined driving is not for the faint of heart. The first day of competition is measured enough, featuring “driven dressage,” where through precise maneuvers horses show their grace and polish. But day two is the higher-speed marathon, a timed event, usually about 20 kilometers (or roughly 12 miles), over a cross-country course with challenges such as hills, water hazards and tight twists through trees or man-made chutes. Day three is the tamer cones course — in which the team demonstrates its ability to carve patterns through a complex course marked with cones. 

As Hernandez takes the team around the field to the sighs and groans of the carriage and the jangle of a harness, three dogs cavort nearby. “We try to get the horses used to almost anything,” he says, “because in a driving competition (with a crowd of spectators), you never know what you’ll encounter. As part of training, we’re trying to keep them quiet.”

“Ali, Ali,” he says, calling softly to one of the team. He talks to the horses and makes a dove-like cooing sound to calm them. Afterward, assistants help remove the heavy harness from the animals. It’s a big operation, requiring several people. “You can see why we only do this (the full four-in-hand) once a week,” Hernandez says with a smile. On the other days, the horses are worked under saddle or on a long line.

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With expansions at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington that include a new outdoor stadium, a new indoor stadium, exhibit areas and road improvements, some are calling the venue the finest equine facility in North America.

Jeff Petska, 45, is chef d’equipe, chief of the U.S. reining team. After competing last year at a test event at the Horse Park, he’s convinced the venue is up to the task of fielding a demanding international competition. “They’ll stage a world-class event, for sure,” he says.

NBC Sports plans six hours of coverage over three weekends. Millions more viewers are expected to watch via international coverage broadcast over the Internet and by satellite.

And the outlook for the American team? U.S. riders returned from the 2008 Olympic Games with a gold, a silver and a bronze, and American competitors routinely show well in international events. “Obviously you have the home court advantage,” says Petska, 45, whose reining team returned from the 2006 WEG in Aachen, Germany, with team gold. “No one wants to lose on their home soil, so it can work both ways. We’ve got the pressure. But we’re fielding a very strong team.”     

Photo: John Nation