HARRODSBURG — They were industrious and famous for woodworking and animal husbandry, but the 1800s religious sect known as the Shakers weren't known for their athleticism.
However, for the next three weeks, a restored historic settlement in Mercer County, will host some of the top equestrian riders in the world. Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is where the U.S. endurance team will train for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
Shaker Village has hosted everything from craft shows to education-reform roundtables for years. But "we have never been a training camp before, so this is a new experience for us," said Madge Adams, president and CEO of the site.
Endurance is essentially a 100-mile horse race with five compulsory stops for veterinarians to check the horses' fitness to continue. The competitor who finishes the ride in the shortest time wins.
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Shaker Village was selected as a training site because it was close to the Kentucky Horse Park, where the Games will be held Sept. 25 to Oct. 10, said Vonita Bowers, director of endurance for the U.S. Equestrian Federation. She and endurance coach Becky Hart — called a chef d'equipe in the endurance world — visited several sites last year.
The 33 miles of turf trails at Shaker Village are similar to the course on which the horses will compete, so they will be acclimated to the conditions at the Games.
"Some of these horses have never been on turf before," Hart said. "We looked at some farms in Lexington that were lovely, but there were no trails. Here we've got everything we need."
Riders and horses will be housed and fed on the same 3,000-acre property, so riders can get to their horses within minutes. (In some venues, the riders might be an hour away from their horses.)
Hart said she likes the fact that Shaker Village is "a little hillier than Lexington, so we don't have to work the horses quite as hard. We can use those hills ... and that keeps the horses sound."
"I feel like when we leave here, we'll be very prepared," Bowers said.
Choosing top five
Of the 10 riders and 12 horses, only five of each will be chosen for the team that goes to the Games. That decision will be made Sept. 17 at Shaker Village by five selectors, who are experienced endurance riders.
"We're looking for five horses and riders that can win medals," Hart said. "We'll be looking for the horses that look ready to go. Any one of these horses, at this point in time, I would be thrilled to have on the team."
Those not chosen for the team will be used in support functions during the competition.
The team also will practice cooling a horse, which is done at points along the ride. The rider is handed a water bottle, and another person pours large bottles of water on the horses' hindquarters.
"It's almost choreographed like a ballet," Hart said. "It looks chaotic, but when we have it down, it actually cools the horse very quickly."
Shaker Village has had trails open to the public for 10 years. Of the 38 miles of trails, 33 are used for horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, running and even cross-country skiing, said Don Pelly, the historic site's property manager.
Most of the trails go along fence lines and roads, and most are loops that range from easy to strenuous.
The trails will still be open to the public as the endurance team trains at Shaker Village, Pelly said. And some stalls in the 20-stall barn are still open to people who wish to board their horses there for a few days.
The underdog team
Shaker Village has been the site of several endurance events during the last few years, including the 75-mile North American Young Riders Endurance Ride in July. But hosting a U.S. team "is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Pelly said.
Teams from other countries also inquired about staying at Shaker Village, "but the U.S. team actually contacted us first," Pelly said.
The U.S. team is an underdog team in endurance, with Spain, the United Arab Emirates, France and Australia fielding teams that typically do well, Hart said.
For their part, the riders say they're ready for the WEG experience.
Melody Blittersdorf of Jeffersonville, Vt., said she would love to make the final five chosen to compete in the Games, "but I'll support the team that makes it."
"I'm having a great time, and I'm learning a lot," said Lindsay Graham of Napa, Calif., as she stood next to her horse, Monk. "My chances of making the team are as good as anybody else's."
As for Kentucky, "if you're a horse person, this is heaven," Graham said.