s she strolled through the grounds of the Kentucky Horse Park, Sumaia al-Areki admitted that she didn't know much about horses.
"But these animals are so beautiful and graceful," said the twenty-something graduate student, who had come to the University of Kentucky from Yemen to earn her master's degree in public health. "And I know horses are important to Kentucky, like they are back in my country.
"I'm not here to root for any specific team, just to see what the World Equestrian Games are all about," she added. "I've only been in Kentucky for six weeks, so when friends suggested we come out here, I said, 'Certainly.'"
Al-Areki had come to the right spot. For 16 days in late September and early October, the 485-hectare (1200-acre) park north of Lexington was arguably the center of the universe for equine sport.
The competition attracted nearly half a million visitors to see 632 top riders from 58 countries compete in dressage, jumping, endurance and five other disciplines—including a new one, "para-dressage," for disabled riders.
World Equestrian Games, 1990-2014
On the opposite end of the equestrian-knowledge spectrum from al-Areki was Kentucky native Brian Purvis, who manages a thoroughbred farm with 75 yearlings. He said he came to the games "purely as a spectator."
"People from all over the globe are here to see our state, so this is pretty special for Kentucky, and it's the first time the World Equestrian Games have ever been held in America," he said. "It's a chance to show off our $3.5 billion horse industry and the many other things Kentucky offers."
Before 1990, each competitive equestrian discipline had held its own world championship. That year, six of the world championships came together in Sweden, where 37 countries participated in dressage, eventing, stadium jumping, carriage driving, endurance riding and vaulting. Since then, like the Olympics, the combined competitions have been held in a different country every four years, under the name of the World Equestrian Games. In 2002, the Games added reining as a seventh discipline, and this year para-dressage became the eighth.
On September 25, this year's Games began as a lively mixture of rodeo, circus, state-fair and Olympic elements. In the crowds, spectators and competitors wearing top hats, black riding boots, white breeches and dark coats mingled with others in 10-gallon hats, blue jeans, silver belt buckles, pearl-snap shirts, bolo ties and chaps. The first event was a decidedly western one: the reining competition.
I'd had an introduction to reining on my flight into Lexington, where I sat beside Hannah Bengtson, a freshman at Augustana College in Illinois. She was attending the Games representing the National Reining Horse Youth Association. One of her carry-ons was a large, hard-shelled box that carried her dress cowboy hat.
"Reining is the most dressage-like western event, designed to show the athleticism and ballet-like movement of western horses," she said. "Competitors are required to run patterns, and each one includes small slow circles, large fast circles, flying lead changes, rollbacks, 360-degree spins in place and sliding stops. It's pretty exciting."
On the horse-park grounds, which have stables for more than 1000 horses and attract nearly a million guests annually to shows, competitions, tours and seminars, visitors also had the chance to experience the Bluegrass State itself through exhibits whose themes ranged from tourism to business, agriculture and Civil War history. At the International Museum of the Horse, they learned how the horse is intertwined with human history, and thousands walked through "A Gift From the Desert: The Art, History and Culture of the Arabian Horse," a 409-piece exhibition that included decorated and historic saddles, sculptures, Bedouin clothing, bridles, jeweled swords, paintings and photographs of 5600-year-old petroglyphs.
Mark Newton, a Chicago hospital administrator, said he liked the display that focused on Bedouin life.
"This brought back a lot of memories," said Newton, who worked in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates three decades ago. "I recognize a lot of the clothing and the words, too."
Patricia Lawrence raises Arabians on a farm near Jonesville, Kentucky, and she served as a volunteer at the Games. "Seeing that exhibit inspired me to learn more about the Arab world and Arabian horses," she said.
At the opening ceremony, Princess Haya bint Al Hussein, president of the Fédération Équestre Internationale, led off with a salute to the hosts.
"Nowhere else in the world can you find the unbridled spirit of Kentucky," said Al Hussein, daughter of the late King Hussein of Jordan and wife of Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and ruler of Dubai.
That spirit was given free rein at the opening. The show began with dancers performing to the University of Kentucky Orchestra's rendition of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man." Native American tribal leaders—at least six of them on horseback—blessed the proceedings with a "Prayer For All Nations." University of Kentucky cheerleaders flipped and twirled and an Indiana high school mounted drill team bore American flags while a choir from Louisville sang the national anthem.
And it wouldn't have been Kentucky without bluegrass music, which was supplied by the band Cherryholmes playing "Horse and Man," the anthem of the Games. Then came horses: muscular Thoroughbreds ridden by jockeys in colorful racing silks and nine high-stepping American Saddlebreds that collectively held 40 world championships. Five-time Grammy winner and Kentucky native Wynonna Judd sang "My Old Kentucky Home," heavyweight boxing legend and Louisville native Muhammad Ali rode around the track and, in a salute to the foundation breed of all modern horses, the orchestra accompanied a display of Arabians wearing western, English and desert tack.
For the next 15 days, visitors saw the competitions, listened to more music, sampled Bluegrass State cuisine and watched demonstration shows of everything from Icelandic ponies to gigantic draft horses.
The outcome of the leadoff reining competition turned out to be a crowd-pleaser, as the us team captured the gold medal. Next came the grueling, 162-kilometer (100-mi) endurance discipline. The team gold went to the United Arab Emirates (with an individual silver to Shaykh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai), but the individual gold, won by Spain's Maria Alvarez Ponton, was a high point of the first week: She rode to victory only six weeks after giving birth to a daughter.
One of the most popular events was vaulting, in which elaborately costumed participants performed gymnastic moves on the backs of cantering horses. The French team had some of the showiest garb—shiny silver-and-black costumes that made them look like a Star Wars cast—but the us team took the gold, followed by Germany and Austria.
In driven dressage, Australian Boyd Excell set a world record with perfect scores on maneuvers behind four young Warmblood horses. The marathon phase of the four-in-hand combined driving discipline brought the Games' only whiff of intrigue: An unknown vandal slashed the seats of Dutchman IJsbrand Chardon's carriage. Though he feared his brakes might have been tampered with as well, he competed nonetheless and won the event.
"Whoever tried to sabotage me didn't win!" he said after his drive.
|Brian E. Clark
Crowds also enjoyed freestyle dressage, which filled the 25,000-seat Rolex Main Stadium. To win the gold, Edward Gal of the Netherlands performed outstanding "horse ballet" on his steed, Moorlands Totillas.
Fans also cheered the grit of 88 para-dressage riders from 19 countries, who competed despite a wide range of disabilities. Hannelore Brenner of Germany, paralyzed from the waist down in a riding accident, won gold in the Grade iii, moderately disabled, division. Riders like herself have a unique rapport with their mounts, she claimed.
"The horses compensate for our problems," she said. "It doesn't matter if we are missing an arm or a leg. They learn to go with your special riding style in a very short time."
And two of the biggest winners at the Games never even mounted a horse. Six-year-old Khloe Casey of Ohio won her very own Arabian horse with a $10 ticket in a raffle organized by the Arabian Horse Association, and Gentry Deck of Kentucky won the 430-horsepower equivalent—a 2010 Corvette—in the raffle sponsored by the Corvette Museum in nearby Bowling Green.
Toward the end of the Games, on a warm afternoon in an Equine Village arena near the Museum of the Horse, children petted Arabians after the horses had performed with riders in Bedouin, Native American and western garb. Seven-year-old Betsy Anderson of Louisville rubbed the nose of two Arabians at the arena fence. "They are so pretty," she told her friends. "But it's even neater when they get them to rear up on their hind legs."
On the last night, in a stadium ringed by shiny Mustangs—of the variety produced by Ford—Princess Haya thanked the Bluegrass State and its people, and Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear lauded the Games and put in a hopeful plug for their return to Lexington in 2018.
"Y'all come back and see us," he said with a broad grin. "You're always welcome in the horse capital of the world."
||Brian E. Clark is a Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun-Times and other publications.