When I was a kid, my family used to joke that the weekend of the Kentucky Three-Day Event was more exciting to me than Christmas. They weren’t wrong.
I first attended the event when I was 14 years old and in eighth grade. You know, when it was still “Rolex.” My family had somewhat recently moved to Savannah, Georgia—a beautiful town in the deep south that is framed by the arches of oak trees draped in Spanish moss, with humid, salty air that hangs heavy over the city. As beautiful as Savannah may be, there aren’t very many horses there beyond the ones who pull carriages downtown.
And for me, that was a problem.
In my new middle school, I was the lone, weird horse girl. I talked about famous riders no one else knew or cared about. I doodled horses in my spiral notebooks. Each writing project or book report was related to horses. I spent my afternoons nose-deep in Dover catalogs when I should have been doing my homework. You know what I’m talking about because I bet you were that girl, too.
I knew there was a whole vast world of horse stuff out there that I so badly longed to be part of, but I didn’t know how to get there. I would have given anything to dive headfirst into the horse world and drown myself in it. My once-a-week riding lessons and each treasured issue of Practical Horseman were small windows into that world, but they only fueled my curiosity, rather than satisfying it.
Shortly after we moved to Savannah, I started riding lessons at a happy, kid-friendly barn called Silverthorne Run with a trainer named Jennifer Helgren. Despite the fact there weren’t any local events, Jen did a great job of exposing us kids to whatever learning opportunities she could find. Each year, she took a group to Lexington, Kentucky and when I showed up at Silverthorne, it didn’t take much convincing to get me to hop on the bandwagon.
My first trip to Kentucky—and every one after that—was pure magic. I loved the intensity of the silent stadium when the top riders entered the dressage ring. I loved hearing Sally O’Connor’s clever commentary on the headsets. I loved the way the wind rippled the waves of bluegrass on the gentle rolling hills of the cross-country course. I loved the goosebumps that came over me when I felt the ground rumble beneath galloping horses. I loved hearing Nigel Casserley’s voice ring out over the loudspeakers in the Kentucky Horse Park. I loved the formality of the jogs. I loved the way the stadium exploded in thunderous applause on show jumping day and the victorious fist pumps. I loved the greasy, fried trade fair food. And for the girl who was always begging her mom to drive her to the nearest tack shop—which was over an hour away from home and in a different state—the shopping opportunities felt endless.
But the moment I first fell in love with Kentucky was when I looked around at the swarms of people—from fresh-faced little girls skipping around to older, weathered women walking with a slight hitch in their step—to find that I wasn’t so alone anymore. There were more of me! There were thousands of weird horse girls there, all in various stages of life, and we were all pretty much the same. I felt like this was my initiation into the larger horse world that I desperately wanted to be part of.
Kentucky was also the first place I saw the horses I fantasized about take shape in real life. The riders and horses I had only ever seen in glossy pictures were actually there—living, breathing—right in front of me. For so long, it felt like they had only ever existed in my imagination. If they were real, maybe the ambitions I dreamt up for myself could become real one day, too.
Over the years, Kentucky has changed, and we have all changed with it. The format of the competition has evolved. The event got a new name. The horse park built a bigger stadium. I grew up from the horseless teenage girl who lugged around a giant poster and waited in line for rider autographs to an equestrian magazine editor. I traded in my cross-country vest and crash helmet for Pikeurs and dress boots to become a dressage rider. And now I have a retired event horse and a new dressage partner. I used to frantically run around the grounds with my Nikon D40, snapping photos of whatever I could to show my mom and dad at home. Now, I like to sit in the shade and take in the action with a cocktail in my hand.
For me and my crew from Savannah, Kentucky is where we get together and relive the good old days. It’s where we laugh at all the dumb stuff we (mostly I) said when we were younger and talk about upcoming weddings and grad school plans and babies and new horses and new jobs. Kentucky is also where I run into old friends from college and catch up on where post-grad life has taken us. Now, it’s a destination I travel to with my Practical Horseman colleagues and connect with other professionals in our industry. And, it’s a place where I always make new friends.
Each year I stand on those rolling hills of Kentucky bluegrass, I think about the person I was the last time I stood there, and who I was when I first stood there. It’s a place that’s always encouraged me to dream the big dreams about the kind of person I want to become. Although the details change a little bit from year to year, I always imagine that person on a horse.
I’m sure everyone who has been to Kentucky has a special story to tell about why they love it. Maybe for you it’s the educational aspect, or the excitement of the sport. Maybe it’s the shopping. Maybe you have a friend who is competing. Maybe it’s the atmosphere. Or maybe it’s simply the horses.
Every year I go to Kentucky, I wonder how many young girls are there for the first time, feeling the goosebumps, staring wide-eyed at those incredible athletes. And then I wonder who among them we will one day see in the middle of that very same stadium where we have all gathered.
Lindsay Paulsen is Practical Horseman’s Managing Editor for Dressage and DressageToday.com’s Digital Editor. She’s a USDF bronze medalist and enjoys competing her mare, Ulita O (“Fenna”), at Fourth Level and spoiling her retired event horse, Femme Fatale (“Kat”).