Big. Demanding. Terrifying.
Those are the terms riders are using to describe the cross-country course they will tackle Saturday at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.
"There's not a jump out there that doesn't need some technique and some skill to ride," said U.S. team member and Olympic veteran Karen O'Connor. "You'll see dreams shattered all around the course."
Eventing course designer Michael Etherington-Smith is known to riders as "Mike E-S," but after this they may call him "Maximum Mike."
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"He's very good at frightening the riders, which he's done," said Kristina Cook of Great Britain. She and her horse, Miners Frolic, are the reigning European champions, so they know big jumps.
What riders have lost sleep over will vary according to their horse.
"If you've got a horse that doesn't like ditches, there's some big ditches. If you've got a horse that doesn't like water, there's lots of water," Cook said. "And if they get frightened at one of those, you know they've got more of those coming up."
The cross-country event, a crowd favorite, is a timed test in which each competitor must negotiate a series of solid jumps outdoors that may include jumps into water, over ditches, up and down banks and over large, solid timber.
"This course is big, right from the start, with no real let up," said Mark Todd, a New Zealand rider and three-time Olympic gold medalist. "Maximum heights, maximum spreads."
The course, which spreads from one end of the Kentucky Horse Park to the other, is about 6,412 meters, or 3.98 miles, with 28 jumps, nearly every one as high, as deep and as wide as regulations allow.
Eventing competitions have seen a series of fatal accidents of both riders and horses in recent years and officials in the United States and abroad have instituted measures to make the sport safer, particularly on high-risk cross-country jumps.
To that end, Etherington-Smith said, there is one feature that spectators may not notice: a new safety development called reverse pinning.
"The rails are on the back of the uprights rather than on the front," he said, making jumps more likely to collapse if a horse crashes into a fence.
It's been tested in Europe this year and, he said, probably saved a few riders some nasty injuries.
'An element of risk'
Asked whether the course for the Games is safe, he said: "There's no such thing as a safe course. It's an impossible question to answer, but lots of checks and balances have been built in, and it's been approved by the officials.
"A huge amount of thought goes into this, but this is a cross-country course. There is an element of risk."
He said all the comments he has heard from managers and riders have been complimentary.
Another factor he's been working on for two years is the footing. The Horse Park ground has become compacted, and he said ground crews have been working hard to loosen the soil and keep the galloping lanes well-watered during the drought.
A serious course
There are markers of sorts to let the competitors know the difficulty of the course.
The second fence, for example, is an homage to bourbon. And, like a good drink, it's a spine-stiffener at the maximum 3 feet, 11 inches high table, with a 6-foot, 6-inch spread to the top.
That's important, Etherington-Smith said, to let horses know this is a serious course. "Riders need the early fences to get horses in the right frame of mind," he said.
After walking the course, U.S. team member Boyd Martin said he's "terrified."
"It's high. It's the biggest thing I've ever tried to do," he said.
Etherington-Smith met Martin's comment with amused skepticism. "There are plenty of Plan B's out there," he said.
What he means by that is that, at the more complex jumps, there are easier options.
Take the Land Between the Lakes water jump, beside the Rolex Stadium.
If riders are game, they will go over the narrow brush jutting out over the water, up on the bank and over the goose, then circle back into the water and up onto an island where they have to go over 3-foot, 9-inch rails and down a 6-foot, 6-inch drop back into the water.
If they don't have quite enough horse for that, they can jump the alternate route.
Go fast, or play it safe?
But smaller fences come at a price: longer routes. And time will be critical. To avoid adding penalty points to their scores, riders have to get around the course in 11 minutes, 15 seconds or less, at an average speed of 21 mph.
So, it comes down to a choice between going fast or playing it safe. And team coaches will be strategizing as the day goes on to figure out which gives them the best chance at a medal.
Etherington-Smith thinks most top riders will go the fast way at the lake, which is about two-thirds of the way home.
"If they're not going well at this point, they're never going to be going well," he said. "They're going to have to concentrate."
Near the end of the course, just to keep things interesting, Etherington-Smith has thrown in a 4-foot, 9-inch scalloped brush fence that German rider Ingrid Klimke said will really show "how much petrol your horse has left in the tank."
She said it's a course that demands respect. "It's quite challenging. It's definitely a four-star competition. But that's why we're here," she said.