The World Equestrian Games. Undoubtedly an event on every horse enthusiast’s bucket list, this behemoth of equestrian events comes once every four years, also serving as a highlight of the season for equestrian journalists like myself who spend months on the road covering the sports we love.
But this most recent WEG, which concluded last month in Normandy, France, may yet be the undoing of the whole concept of the event, which has united the world championships for eight different disciplines — dressage, show jumping, eventing, combined driving, vaulting, reining, endurance and para dressage — since the inaugural Stockholm Games in 1990.
The two Games held prior to Normandy — Aachen in 2006 and Lexington in 2010 — were both staged at established venues well equipped to host such a large event. And while there were certainly logistical issues that go hand-in-hand with hosting thousands of horses and tens of thousands of spectators, Aachen and Lexington were largely hailed a success.
I say all this to set the scene for Normandy, where the Games were held across three separate venues in the heart of this historic region. Caen hosted several of the disciplines, like dressage and show jumping, at d’Ornano Stadium, a soccer venue where organizers laid down footing for the occasion.
Haras du Pin, an hour away from the main venue in Caen, hosted eventing, while Sartilly, an hour away from Caen in the opposite direction, set the backdrop for endurance, with the breathtaking Mont St. Michel abbey rising in the distance as horses and riders crested rolling hilltops.
Perhaps organizers thought the scenery would make up for the total lack of infrastructure. Haras du Pin, too, had a lovely backdrop, a magnificent chateau perched on the hill overlooking the dressage arena and part of the cross-country course for eventing. If only it had enough restrooms for the very full bladders that plagued spectators throughout the course of the event.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. As managing editor for Eventing Nation, an online news resource for the sport of eventing, I traveled to WEG with my fellow editor Leslie Wylie, ready to cover eventing and support our Team USA riders. This was not my first trip to the rodeo — as I’ve covered major events in six different countries — but it was my first World Games.
When Leslie posted a photo on Facebook of her suitcase packed and ready to go — overflowing with every red, white and blue piece of clothing she owned — I realized my own USA jacket seemed woefully inadequate. So I raided the Fourth of July clearance section at Party City for every piece of U.S. paraphernalia I could find. We were ready.
First Up-- Parking
We flew into Paris, rented a car and drove into Caen, where we were promptly thwarted by the first of many logistical issues to come: parking. Every parking lot we drove to turned us away — they were all full. And though the very kind volunteers patiently tried to explain to us in French where to find the next parking lot, those were all full too.
We eventually parked back at our hotel and walked an hour across the city to the accreditation office to pick up our press passes. Defeated, we returned to our official media hotel — thinking the adventure would at least make for a good blog post — only to discover the Wi-Fi connection didn’t work. And thus our first day in France was complete.
Mercifully, the Wi-Fi in our media hotel worked the next morning, or at least it did long enough for me to read an email informing us that due to “extraordinary weather,” — i.e. rain — all parking lots at Haras du Pin — i.e. grassy fields masquerading as parking lots — were closed for the day.
We met a fellow journalist at the breakfast buffet who had been battling the three-ring circus for a few days longer than we had, and she quickly took us under her wing. That turned out to be our saving grace throughout the remainder of the trip, as she speaks fluent French.
Since we couldn’t drive in to Haras du Pin, we caught the media shuttle and took in the lay of the land on the hour-long ride. Most of the drive is all highway, but once you get within 15 minutes of the venue, the roads turn into twisty village paths. Quaint, certainly, but how were these roads going to accommodate the crowd of 50,000 spectators expected on cross-country day?
Finally, we arrived at Haras du Pin. We had taken the first shuttle of the day, so we had plenty of time to stake out a spot in the media center — laying down a large American flag across our table, of course — and walk the daunting cross-country course, which had been all the buzz for months leading up to the Games.
As we say in eventing, this wasn’t going to be a dressage show. And aside from the very difficult nature of the cross country, the ground was extremely saturated from the “extraordinary weather” that had plagued the area recently — because it never rains in France, right? — with muddy divots already forming on the galloping track from the riders walking the course.
Then it was on to the first day of dressage, when hordes of spectators came onto the grounds for the first time. It had continued to rain overnight, and with the venue set up in a big grassy field with no formal walkways, the spectator paths quickly turned into a swamp. We started using the hashtags #WoodstockWEG and #ArmageddonWEG on Twitter.
Think spectators slipping and falling, taking other people down with them in the process; shoes getting stuck in the muck and ultimately lost in the quagmire; strollers immobilized in the deep mud, with children strapped in and screaming while parents tried to figure out what to do. It was truly a remarkable scene.
The organizers had brought in only two food trucks and one beverage stand. By lunchtime, the lines stretched to more than 100 people each. With no food provided for the journalists, we quickly learned to pack lunch and dinner from our hotel’s breakfast buffet. It will be awhile before I can eat bread and cheese again.
Unfortunately, the food provided for the riders was not much better. Strictly rationed so riders could only eat one of each type of food, vegetarians simply starved that week, as they were not permitted to take additional fruit or bread when forgoing the meat option. One rider’s significant other started calling it “1950’s orphanage food.”
And I can barely speak of the restroom situation at Haras du Pin. When it became clear the handful of port-o-pots were not adequate to service the growing crowds, the organizers brought in wood shacks with shavings at the bottom. I saw things that cannot be unseen.
Word began trickling in that things weren’t much better an hour away back in Caen, where pure dressage was underway in the main d’Ornano Stadium. There wasn’t any food at all for spectators there; instead, they had to leave the stadium and venture out into the city to find sustenance.
And the restrooms in the stadium were literally just holes in the ground. I later spoke to one Swedish volunteer who told me a very unfortunate tale of trying to explain to a handicapped spectator that she would have to leave the stadium, as there were no handicapped restroom facilities available for her.
But the show must go on, right? U.S. eventing is in a growing stage, with new coach David O’Connor still working to implement his program since officially coming into the role last year. Our U.S. riders have struggled to produce good results on the international stage, so we definitely came into the competition as underdogs.
And that’s why we were bursting with pride at the conclusion of dressage, when our team sat in bronze medal position. The team had put in six lovely tests, with Phillip Dutton and the Trading Aces Syndicate’s Trading Aces leading the way for the team on a very good score of 43.8 to sit in 9th place individually after the phase.
So, naturally, we broke out all our U.S. gear for cross-country day. I wore star-spangled pants with a red shirt, my USA jacket, and an American flag tied around my shoulders like a cape. An Uncle Sam hat completed the look, and we painted our faces with “USA” and “EN” for Eventing Nation.
With 50,000 spectators expected to clog the winding village roads to Haras du Pin, we left our hotel at 6 a.m. on cross-country day and dutifully drove to our designated parking lot, only to be told it had been moved. Nothing surprised us at this point.
We finally found our parking lot and slogged through the mud to get to the media center. Already, the venue was packed with people, all holding flags to support their respective countries, with many of them sporting wigs, hats and face paint. It was an incredible display of national pride, and the colorful spectacle helped brighten the muddy mess.
Unfortunately, as I spoke to spectators throughout the day — many people wanted the strange American in the Uncle Sam hat to take pictures with their young children — I learned that the main highway from Caen to Haras du Pin stood at a standstill in total gridlock.
Many spectators said it took between five and eight hours to make the one-hour drive to the venue despite setting out hours before cross country began. The lucky ones made it in time to watch the last few horses run the course at the end of the day. The not-so-lucky never did, and the official WEG Facebook page is crowded with comments from angry spectators demanding ticket refunds.
Cross-country day ultimately proved to be equally disastrous for Team USA. Our first two team riders retired on course, with the horses so exhausted by the deep, muddy footing that they simply had nothing left to give. Without three completing scores, our team’s day was over just as quickly as it began.
Things started looking up when our next three riders at least made it around the course, albeit with refusals, which each add 20 penalties onto the overall score. Boyd Martin and Shamwari 4 were our only combination to complete the course without any jumping penalties, which put them into 9th place individually.
At a major event like the World Games, you always fear for the safety of horses and riders on cross-country day. And even though Team USA’s dreams of a medal were dashed, we returned to the media center saying that at least it had been a relatively safe day for the horses and riders.
No sooner had we started typing up our reports than we received word that Wild Lone, ridden by Harry Meade of Great Britain, had collapsed and died after jumping clear around the course. Meade very bravely came to a press conference to speak about the horse’s death, his face pale and tear-streaked. He’d ridden Wild Lone for 10 years — what anguish he must have experienced in losing a cherished partner in such a tragic way.
The day suddenly took on a very different, somber tone, as it always does when a horse perishes on cross country. Wild Lone had been one of the four team horses for Great Britain, who sat in silver medal position after cross country. If the country won a medal the next day, Meade would still win a medal too, though sadly without his beloved horse by his side.
With Team USA out of medal contention, we agreed to cheer on Great Britain for the sake of Meade’s medal. We toned down the USA pride the next day out of respect for Wild Lone’s death, though we still needed to cheer on the four remaining U.S. riders in show jumping. Red tights with blue shorts and my USA jacket seemed appropriate.
The eventing horses all shipped an hour from Haras du Pin to Caen for show jumping in d’Ornano Stadium, which was packed with 20,000 spectators. With the sun shining, a faint scent of the sea in the air and not a speck of mud in sight, things were looking up.
I have never experienced a show jumping day quite like this one. The French fans are incredibly loud, and the roar of the crowd made for an electric atmosphere. When a rider jumped clear, the crowd absolutely went wild; it’s something I’ll never forget.
At the end of the day, Martin pulled one rail to finish 8th individually for Team USA. Germany won team gold, with Great Britain — and Meade! — winning team silver, and the Netherlands in bronze medal position.
Jenni to the Rescue
As I left the photographer’s zone to head back to the media center to start writing my report, I noticed the surly security guard manning the exit was in a shoving match with a rider who was trying to get by. It was Meade. “My wife is in the stands,” I heard him say. “I’m just trying to get to her.” The security guard replied, “It doesn’t matter,” and continued to push him back repeatedly.
So in some sort of hungry, sleep-deprived rage fueled by what a disaster my experience at WEG had been up to that point, I shoved the security guard back from Meade and yelled, “The man just won a silver medal, for God’s sake. Let him through!”
I’m not sure if the guard was so stunned that someone much shorter and less burly than him had dared to challenge his authority, or if the fact that I was wearing bright red tights caught him off guard. But that split second after I pushed him back distracted the security guard enough to let Meade slip by to find his wife in the grandstands.
And that was just the grand finale to what was certainly a less than ideal week in France. I simply don’t have enough space to tell the countless other stories I’ve heard of riders, spectators and journalists being treated poorly. We all need T-shirts that say, “I survived WEG 2014.”
I fear Bromont, a picturesque little ski town in Quebec that’s been tapped to host the 2018 Games, is doomed to fail too, as it’s much like Normandy — beautiful but totally inappropriate to host an event as mammoth as the world championships for eight different disciplines.
Indeed, the future of WEG hangs in the balance, and there have been numerous calls since the conclusion of the Games to stick to established venues like Aachen and Lexington, or split the disciplines into separate championships. Whatever changes may come in the future, I’ll always take with me these muddy tales from the frontlines in Normandy.