Two Eventing Riders Live Their Dreams

How two dedicated eventers—Colleen Rutledge and Martha McDowell—keep lofty goals in focus despite daunting challenges.


Colleen Rutledge and Shiraz at the 2011 Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials

Colleen Rutledge had a banner 2011, her first year riding at the four-star level. With her Thoroughbred gelding Shiraz (Luke), she finished 12th at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in the spring, then traveled to England in the fall for the Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials. There they were the third-highest U.S. combination, finishing 37th overall. But smaller triumphs within the big story actually ranked higher for Colleen on a personal level. “I was just happy to have gotten around Rolex; our placing was icing on the cake! Burghley was the biggest learning experience I’ve ever had, and I felt really good that my horse made the trip like it was no big deal. I’m very proud of our dressage at Burghley because we pushed for more. Our score didn’t reflect it, but a good friend who saw my test at Rolex confirmed that Burghley was better. That was fabulous to me—all you ever ask for is to improve a little bit.”

Colleen has achieved these high points in the face of family issues that would keep many parents occupied at home full-time. Her youngest child, 4-year-old Ciana, is in treatment for a rare form of muscle cancer. Her son Connor, age 7, born with severe brain damage, breathes with the help of a ventilator and is confined to a wheelchair. Her family also includes two older children, daughter Cassie and stepson Matt.

How has she managed, then, to maintain the upbeat energy that powers a training and lesson program at her family’s Turnabout Farm in Mount Airy, Maryland, and to set herself goals like Rolex, Burghley and (for this year) Badminton?

Happy or Not
“I do have bad days, of course,” says the 35-year-old rider. “But I figured out a number of years ago that it was a decision to be unhappy or happy: I could either be happy, or I could be not, and if I put a positive spin on things, it would be easier for me in the long run. In the worst situations I tend to crack jokes, otherwise I can’t function. I encourage the laughing, like, ‘Let’s find a glimmer of hope somewhere, in something.'”

Colleen says she has already lived her nightmare, and it has shaped the way she lives the rest of her life. “My son was probably my turning point, in that I take nothing for granted now. There is nothing worse than having a child who is not alive but not dead. I grieved more than nine months for the boy he would have been but is never going to be. Now I celebrate, because the little things that babies do, he struggles with them and then he gets it. That is such a monumental thing.”

Colleen started riding when her mom, Sallie Morris, put her on a pony at age 2. An enthusiastic Pony Clubber at 8, she was soon competing in mounted games. By the time she was 13, she was on an international Pony Club team that went to Canada to compete. After turning 18, she traveled to Europe for Pony Club competitions in England, France, Belgium and Germany. “I taught Pony Club lessons for years, which developed my love of teaching. The hook was seeing students who at first didn’t understand something grasp a concept and keep going with it.” A self-described adrenalin junkie, she was “completely hooked” on eventing after her first one-star. “Speed, jumps, all kinds of stuff—fantastic! As I’ve matured, I’m also finding the dressage more interesting.”

Luke had been bought off the track as a show hunter prospect by another trainer and came to Colleen’s attention because he didn’t want to be a hunter. “His personality didn’t match with the young rider for whom he was intended; he was a little too much on the bold side. He was an extravagant jumper, unbelievably talented but a bit of a whack job. I loved him because he was so much like the first horse I ever rode Advanced, a typical flighty Thoroughbred chestnut mare.”

Because she was in the last month of her pregnancy with Ciana, Colleen couldn’t ride Luke for weeks after his purchase in late 2007. When they started working together, she figured him out with the help of Olympic eventer and top trainer and clinician Jim Wofford. “Luke doesn’t have the kind of personality that takes orders well. He’ll work with me, but if I tell him what to do too many times—and I tell him wrong—then he just gets angry.” They were going Advanced by 2010 when they competed at the Jersey Fresh International Three Day Event (coming in eighth in the CIC***), the Bromont Three Day Event (where they were 12th in the CCI***) and Fair Hill International (finishing 17th in the CCI***).

Get Fit

With four-star competition now in her sights, Colleen got a reality check from Jim Wofford. “He told me that to go higher than three-star, I had to get myself fit. He said, ‘You have a four-star horse; you need to be fit enough to be a four-star rider. You get away with not being fit enough now because your horse is fantastic. It’s not his problem if you fail, it’s both of your problem.’ It was a kick in the butt that I needed at that point.”

She consulted a nutritionist who advised her on limiting her calorie intake, and started working out on a stationary bicycle in addition to a daily routine that includes riding as many as 15 horses. She was fitter by Rolex last year but felt she could do better. A late-night infomercial for a workout DVD called Insanity piqued her interest. “I was about to take Ciana for an eight-week course of radiation during which, because of taking her back and forth to the hospital, I wouldn’t be able to ride. I needed something to keep myself going, so I took the DVD. The 30-minute workout showed me how unfit I really was! In a week I could see and feel a difference. It’s a lot of core work and also working your quads, with stretching before and after. I’ve gotten better; I’m much more able to control where I need to be on my horse. There’s a trickle-down effect on my students—they are all getting themselves fitter, and they’ve told some of their friends.”

A support network of friends and family enables Colleen to keep the program going at home and at her barn and to take time away, like this year’s trip to Aiken, South Carolina, to prepare for the early 2012 eventing season. Her mother provides chiropractic and veterinary services and is Colleen’s “number-one cheerleader.” Her husband, Brian, picks up the slack at home when she is away and maintains her Facebook page; he has also helped fundraise for her travel to England. “I have a number of people I can rely on to get my kids from school and look after them. It takes some managing and scheduling.” Her mother, Brian and her two daughters were able to come to England last fall to watch her ride at Burghley. (Because of his need for a ventilator, her son is safer staying at home with a caregiver.)

Figuring Out the Puzzle

In addition to four-star competition with Luke, Colleen is excited about Covert Rights, a homebred (by BFF Incognito out of Let’s Get it Right) who has done well in Young Event Horse competitions. “I have a bunch of other babies by the same stallion. The most fun for me is working with horses, seeing how far they want to go. I like figuring out the puzzle.” Her students are also encouraged to figure things out. “I want to train them well enough that I don’t need to be at the shows with them. I encourage them to look at things differently. It’s all about the quality of the ride, versus, ‘What place did you get?’ Go to the show and then tell me whether you improved! My goal every time I go to a competition is my horses’ education.”

Although she had some Olympic hopes for 2012 after her success in 2011, Colleen has a good attitude about not being long-listed for the Team. “I know it’s because of my dressage. I’m not going to take it personally. It doesn’t change what I’m currently doing. I’ve been working with [FEI ‘O’ dressage judge, international competitor and top clinician] Linda Zang every week on several different horses. I don’t want to be reduced to a snapshot of who is the best fit for the team at this particular time. I want to go to Badminton and Burghley and have a great dressage test, then continue that improvement in the next two phases.”

Colleen’s secret for coping with potentially devastating problems is to hold on to the positive. “It makes me so happy that every day I get to come to work and do things that I love. Even if everything were to stop tomorrow, I still got to do what I wanted.”

For more information on Colleen Rutledge and her program, go to her website


Martha McDowell and Gaelic Marriage at the 2011 Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event

When Martha McDowell attended the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event for the first time in 2004, it was as a spectator on a family trip from her home in Montana. “My kids and I took pictures of each other next to the big jumps, amazed and awed. I hadn’t gone higher than Prelim at that point and never thought I would be riding there someday.” Only seven years later, Martha returned to the Kentucky Horse Park at age 50 to compete at Rolex on her Thoroughbred Gaelic Marriage. In her quest to get there, she had covered thousands of miles with her truck and trailer and spent weeks away from her family.

She and Gaelic won’t be back this year in spite of her earlier hopes for 2012, but she already has her sights on 2013.

A 17-Year Hiatus

Martha started eventing as a junior in the east. While growing up in the Albany, New York, area, she watched competitions at Ledyard Farm in Wenham, Massachusetts, and did clinics with the legendary riders who were on the team back then Bruce Davidson, Tad Coffin, Denny Emerson and Michael Plumb.

When it was time for college, however, competitive riding stopped, and she didn’t return to horses for 17 years. By then she had a master’s in medical anthropology from the University of Virginia, was married to orthopedic spinal surgeon Greg McDowell and was the mother of four children. The family had moved to Billings, Montana, where Martha assumed she would henceforth be riding Western. “But I discovered there are actually people out here who event!”

Because of the huge Western distances, she says, when you event in Montana “there is no such thing as a competition just two hours away.” Riders develop a special camaraderie. “Everybody camps out at the event in trailers with living quarters or in tents. You get to know people because they aren’t super busy doing six horses at one competition; they’re riding one or two. And they have to stay at the event because they’re ten hours from home!”

Local racetracks were a good source of eventing prospects for Martha, and she brought a number of off-the-track Thoroughbreds up through the lower levels. “I had some nice youngsters, but it’s hard to find a horse you know will be brave enough to keep going at the upper levels.” In 2007, she decided to widen her search. “I wanted a horse who was proven to be bold and had done waters, ditches, banks—all that kind of stuff.” With the help of contacts back east in Maryland she found Gaelic Marriage, a 7-year-old Thoroughbred then going Prelim.

The new partnership had a slow start. “He’s a really strong personality and pretty sure he knows the right way to do things. It took a while for us to get to the point where we agreed we were going to do this together.” Martha credits show-jumping work with Volker Ehlers, a trainer from Germany then based in Montana, with helping her establish the communication and control she needed. Other important resources have been the Broussard family’s Rebecca Farm in Kalispell, Montana, and Olympic eventer Jil Walton, who moved from California to Kalispell in 2006 and started her own business, Jarba Farms. “Rebecca Farm—which hosts an Advanced three-day and is also a huge draw for clinics—is only seven hours from me, and having Jil in my life has made a big difference.”

By 2009, she and Gaelic began to click and the miles began to pile up on her truck odometer. Martha earned her U.S. Eventing Association Advanced Master Amateur Rider rating in both 2009 and 2010. To keep going during the Montana winters, she needed to spend part of the season campaigning in other Western states where the weather is better. They placed sixth in the CCI** at Colorado Horse Park that year and won a division of Advanced at Galway Downs in California. In 2010 they were ninth in the CCI*** at the Galway Downs International Horse Trials and 18th in The Event at Rebecca Farm’s three-star.

A Role Model

Two of the McDowells’ children were still at home during these years of intense training and competition daughters Terra and Kelsie, both then in high school. (Terra finishes high school this spring, and Kelsie will be a sophomore at Boston University this fall.) “They were at an age where they didn’t want to spend a lot of time with their mother anyway,” Martha laughs. “But it has been a bit of a strain having me gone so much.” She believes that despite the stress of her absences, her children, including 25-year-old Nicholas and his sister Jesse, who graduates from college this spring, are proud of what she has accomplished and glad she’s getting to do it. “I don’t know how many people find something they’re that passionate about and that they’re lucky enough to pursue. Hopefully it’s something my daughters in particular can have as a role model—the idea that you don’t have to start out by imposing limitations on yourself. You try to pursue everything you want to, start out with those aspirations.”

As for her husband, she says, “He is a fantastic support. When I started riding at the upper levels, there was the excitement of it all and he realized how technical and demanding it was and how important it was for me and my horses to be really fit. He understood why I couldn’t stay in Montana and get that done. He recognizes that it could be a risky sport and he sees a lot of trauma in his work, but he has never been worried about the safety aspect. He trusts that I’ve got a good horse, and I do everything you can do. I get good help with training, I try not to overdo things, I keep it all in balance. I think he sees that chances are good I will have a positive outcome.”

Martha maintains a high level of personal fitness. “I feel stronger than I did 10 years ago,” she says. Her program includes Hot Asana yoga, in which stretching and strengthening movements are performed in rapid sequence in a heated room (110 F to 115 F), and kettle bells, “a calisthenics or Pilates-type program that uses weights with round handles. You swing them around your body, between your legs so a lot of the strengthening happens through the movement, not just lifting the weight.” Like the rest of her family, she is also an aggressive skier. “I don’t think it’s enough to ride several horses a day; especially at the upper levels, I think you have to do some kind of cardio workout and some other core-strengthening program.”

Bound for Rolex

Martha’s decision to run Gaelic at Rolex in 2011 meant an even longer absence from home and lots more driving. “I went to California in mid-January—a two-day trip—then the drive to North Carolina in early March took three 17-hour days on the road.” In North Carolina (where she parked her rig in a friend’s driveway for living quarters), she worked with top eventer Bobby Costello three times a week and competed at Southern Pines and The Fork. All the signs were good. “Gaelic just blazed around cross country at The Fork and I savored every moment. When we headed for Rolex after that, I felt super ready.”

She was not discouraged by having to retire at the Normandy Bank, late in the cross-country course at Rolex. “That was rider error on my part. We had an early runout on the course at a left brush corner, in a very boggy area. I think Gaelic didn’t trust the footing there. Then we were just spot-on most of the rest of the way around. At the Normandy Bank you could go to the left brush corner or the right brush corner. I should have changed my original plan to jump the left because of what had happened earlier on course; I shouldn’t have presented him to the same kind of fence. But this horse had never stopped with me on cross country. The first time I had a stop with him was at a four-star! If you never have needed to plan your options for an alternate route, you don’t learn to do it; you and your horse can still be green at the four-star level. You need experience to correct your mistakes.”

Following cross country, she was already planning a return to Rolex in 2012. However, a routine vet check before cross country at Fair Hill International in Maryland last October—after another trek across the continent—indicated Gaelic had a heart arrhythmia. The atrial fibrillation that caused it was corrected at New Bolton Center after his withdrawal from competition. “Once converted back to normal heart rhythm, the horse is fine, good to go, but it was very disheartening that we didn’t get to do Fair Hill.” Already qualified for Rolex 2012, Martha could have just taken Gaelic home. “But we were so getting ready to go’ that when someone suggested we fly back to California and run at Galway Downs, I was like, ‘Let’s go do it!'” She found a subsidized flight west for herself and Gaelic and paying passengers for her rig, driven back west by a friend.

At Galway Downs, Gaelic banged his patella on a new combination that included an open trakhener. “He didn’t read the question as well as he usually does.” His prognosis is very good after arthroscopic surgery for a bone chip, but the rehab time will keep him out of Rolex.

“Up to this point it was a great story with everything on the upswing,” Martha says. “It’s upsetting that my horse, who has been just amazing for me, got hurt doing the sport that I love. I would have preferred that something happened to me. I hope I’ll get to do it all with him next year.”

What could have been a crushing disappointment is balanced by the other parts of her life, where much is going on. She gave up her amateur status to begin teaching students at her High Plains Stable after her return from Rolex last year. “A lot of people were saying, ‘There’s no one in Billings who teaches jumping; you’ve got to do this!’ I wasn’t sure I was the teaching type, but I find I like it.” She has two promising young horses: 5-year-old homebred The Fantastic Mr. Fox, a Hanoverian/Thoroughbred who took Reserve Champion last fall in the Young Event Horse 4-Year-Old division at Fair Hill, and 6-year-old Quintessentially, a “super-talented” jumper. Both were targeted to start 2012 at Prelim in California. She also sees benefits for her marriage in not planning weeks away this winter and spring; she and Greg had a bicycling trip to San Francisco planned for early February.

“Maybe I’ll get to watch Rolex this year,” she says. “Jil is qualified and she may go. That would be fun.”

She sounds only a little bit wistful.

For more information on Martha, go to her website

[Editor”s Note: Sadly, Martha had to euthanize Gaelic in March 2012 due to a post-surgical infection of the joint.]

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

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