Major Win

“It was a matter of time. Tara rode brilliantly this morning. I am so proud of her,” a beaming Elizabeth said. “Cam is the horse of the moment. He’s always been a very solid, very reliable mount for Tara. He did everything Tara asked of him this morning. I can’t be more proud of him too. I am so happy and excited for them both.”

Tara Scott Westin, USA (Traverse City, Sep 18 2021)

The $73,000 1.45m Winning Round CSI5* was the second career start for Tara, Deborah and Elizabeth, first individual career start for them, at this level. While most of everyone expected Elizabeth to notch the first major win, among the three, the one who wasn’t so sure was Elizabeth, herself. “Tara is a fantastic rider. She pushes me hard, I push her hard. Deborah, just as talented. Over the course of this season, there hasn’t been much separation in our finish times.”

Tara, what were you thinking when Elizabeth put up her time, then Deborah comes up a few slots later to tie her? “They weren’t going to make it easy. If Elizabeth rides early in a draw, she will drop the hammer and set the time to beat. This event fits her strategy. There is no jump-off, so you have no choice but go for it.”

And, when Daniel slipped in ahead of Deborah and Elizabeth? “He made it more difficult. But, this is when riding last has its advantages. You know what it’ll take to win, the tempo you need. It’s a matter of going out and execute.”

When did you realize you won? “During the ride, your focus is riding clear. You know your tempo. What you don’t know is your time until it comes up on the scoreboard. When it came up … The best part, it never gets old.”

interview: Tara being interviewed on German TV (Traverse City, Sep 18 2021)

The Trish Factor

All eyes focused on her, leading off for the new team, The Upstarts, to the MLSJ team competition.

When she arrived at Flintfields, hours earlier, she walked through liked she belonged. And, she should. She paid her dues rising through the ranks. Criticized for being a tough competitor when the sport was still heavily male-centric. Moreover, she doesn’t need to prove or explain herself to anyone.

Naturally, she drew a few stares. It was like, “Whoa, who is she?” On the circuit, so few know of her. Many do not. She relishes the role of being an unknown. The few that did know of her, they only know her by reputation. A very selective, top tier coach and instructor who doesn’t coach many riders, and develop even fewer. And, how did three unknown riders were able to attract her to their provisional MLSJ team, to compete no less.

One does not need to see farther than her impressive career stat line, “1,242 career starts and 207 career wins, ranked 12th in the world.” When she left competing, she did so on her own terms.

19 year old Trish with Midnight Majestic (Fayetteville, NC May 1983)
photo courtesy of Trish Van Hollen

Trish Van Hollen burst into the equestrian ranks as a highly regarded junior, with strong fundamentals. Well-schooled, highly disciplined, a very strong skill set. She knew when to be patient, when to put the hammer down. Her three horses, all cast-offs from other jumper programs. She renamed them with Majesty or Majestic in their names.

In her first two seasons, at the Premier AA Level, Trish said she was rather middling in her performance. “I was an average rider with an average skill set. Walker knew I was uncomfortable in the show ring. He asked me, what was wrong. I replied I didn’t know. He just told me to relax. Control the things you can control. The other stuff, ignore. Easier said than done. Looking back, I’d say the pressure was enormous. There were so few girls my age competing at that level.”

She started her third year with much to prove. The USEF was threatening to strip her of the ability to compete at the Premier AA Level. Walker was incensed they would do that to her, but figured girls, women, needed to work twice as hard to belong. “We’ll make it easy for them, Trish. You’ll outwork everyone.”

And, she did prove herself. All the hard work, the hours in the practice ring, began to pay off. Her riding began to gel. She went on a serious tear on the Premier AA circuit. It included an impressive 20-0 run in four weeks in Traverse City. It earned Trish the opportunity to compete for the American Gold Cup. She was a 19 year old upstart, a complete unknown, who didn’t have any CSI starts. Someone thought, “Invite the kid, she’ll have a good ride. Then, send her back to AA knowing she had work to do when she finishes at the bottom.” They didn’t expect Trish and Majestic Summer to dominate the event.

best with the best: Trish with SAM: Secret Agent Man (Traverse City, Sep 18 2021)

Crossing the start timers, Trish, onboard Cold Majesty, quietly and efficiently rode the course. She was giving a master class in how to ride a jumper course. She also laid down a marker. They rode clear, finishing in 69.01, in the qualification round. The best individual time in the round. Better than Elizabeth, her ace rider, who finished clear at 69.77 with the second best individual time.

Two hours later, in the medal round, again Trish quietly and efficiently rode the course. Again, she set the tone. They rode clear finishing at 68.44. Again, with the best individual time in the round. And, again, Elizabeth finishing clear at 68.96 with the second best individual time.

It was said they couldn’t finish any better than fourth place, the position they were in, entering the medal round. They, however, weren’t fading away. Instead, they closed gap to finish a very close second.

They finished with a statement.

Traverse City: Arrivals

The airport has been busy with the arrival of equestrians and their horses. It is literally a who’s of who of top-tier professionals arriving. Several competed in Tokyo; others are fresh from the Longines and Rolex professional tours in Europe. Converging to ride the main event, the American Gold Cup. The atmosphere is quite electric.

While the daughters will not be competing for the gold cup trophy themselves, there are plenty of events on the board.

One of those is the $200,000 MLSJ Team Competition CSI5*. In MLSJ team jumping, the format is the same used in the Olympics. Each team riding the event consists of four riders. Scoring, the three highest count, the lowest dropped. The first round is the qualification round, the second round is the medal round.

To round out their team, Elizabeth, Deborah and Tara needed another rider, with 4* or 5* experience. They only knew one who fits the bill perfectly. They asked Trish if she would come out to compete with them in the team event. Still an active rider, Trish occasionally competes if the event is challenging. It didn’t take long for her to say yes. She flew in early Thursday morning with her horse Cold Majesty. A light practice session followed in the early  evening. While the other teams have been competing on the MLSJ tour, they are new to the fray. They compete on their own terms. Hence the team name, “The Upstarts.”

Trish and Cold Majesty (RRC, Sep 2020)

They are tough. They are strong-willed. And, oh, they are all girls.

Traverse City: American Gold Cup

Partially beneath a sea of blue. In between, a few reds. Above it, the portrait of her beloved chestnut bay, Majestic Summer.

“This is what you are riding for in the future. Everyone talks about Olympic Gold or the World Cup trophy. Nice as they are, this is the one piece of hardware everyone wants to win. The American Gold Cup. One day, each of you will get to lift this cup high in victory. It’ll be your statement that you belong.” They touched the cup much like how a priceless artifact would be touched, barely.

Very few see this room in her home. Riding glory covers every inch. All of it earned by the daughter of a North Carolina stable foreman.

What makes the American Gold Cup different? The course. The competitiveness. The prestige. “A lot makes it different,” Trish explains. “You won’t find another course of its design. Not the Olympics. Not the World Cup Finals. The course is designed to clearly separate the best from the rest of the field. The competitiveness is a who’s who of the best in the world. The prestige is competing among the best.”

the prize: The American Gold Cup (Traverse City, Sep 2020)
photo credit: Elaine Wessel/Phelps Media Group

Previously, the event was held at Old Salem Farm in Westchester County, an hour outside NYC, before moving to Traverse City in 2020.

Traverse City is a blue-collar town. In its harbor, a small fishing fleet which works Grand Traverse Bay, northern Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. It is also called the cherry capital for an obvious reason. During the summer, it becomes an equestrian town with a decidedly blue-collar feel.

In the early years, it was where a rider could learn their craft. Club, B and C level shows where a rider would gain their experience on Saturday afternoons. Soon, the level of competition began to improve. The upper Midwest was fast becoming the cradle of American equestrians. Traverse City became an important stop in the path of development. Its blue-collar setting allowed those from very modest backgrounds to compete in equestrian sports.

For more than fifty years, Traverse City has featured some of the best showjumping competition. From Premier AA level to CSI5*, every notable professional has competed here. Beezie Madden, Kent Farrington, McClain Ward, Jessica Springsteen, Kelli Cruciotti. And, a certain alumnus named Trish Van Hollen. More recently, it has added Major League Show Jumping (MLSJ) to its show portfolio. The MLSJ tour brings 5* competition to North America, with competition at the team and individual levels.

“This is the first time we are competing at this level,” Elizabeth said at the Tuesday afternoon presser. “It sends chills just to be here … where we are walking among the very best in our sport. Whether we belong, whether we can be competitive at this level, long term, only time will tell.” 

Deborah added what they have been able to accomplish this season has been remarkable. “Are we satisfied? Not really. We have been competitive, we have ridden well. By no means are we satisfied. There is room for improvement, to become better riders. Sure, every rider says that, but it is different to make it happen. It takes commitment and giving our best every time we step into the practice ring, every time we step into the show ring.”

There is plenty of x-factor when competing for the gold cup trophy. It has eluded some of the very best in McClain Ward, Shane Sweetnam, Daniel Bluman and Margie Engle. Beezie Madden is a three-time winner. Kent Farrington, two-time winner and defending champion. Mario Deslauriers, Richie Moloney, Devin Ryan, Jessica Springsteen, and Molly Ashe Cawley each have won the trophy. In showjumping, they are the household names, the rock stars of the sport.

The field is pre-selected to represent the fifty best jumpers in the world, at the moment. While Trish believes Elizabeth, Deborah and Tara are ready now, it may take another 2-3 seasons of dominating performances to become part of the select field. “The FEI can be notoriously slow in recognizing fast-rising talent. So, I wouldn’t characterize it as an oversight just yet. They likely have noticed, but want to see if they’re a flash-in-the-pan.” Griffin was disappointed they did not make this year’s field. “They have proven themselves to be very competitive, particularly this season. They’ve shown they can compete with the best and are unafraid of the competition. Clearly, they belong. They just don’t hob-nob with the blueblood crowd in the sport.”

A question was asked about whether going to medical school was a distraction. Tara laughed before answering. “I’m a daughter of a trauma surgeon, certainly the finest, in my estimation. Deborah and Elizabeth, their mom is the best surgical RN around. Growing up, it was ‘Don’t let horses distract you from your studies,’ for the three of us. School is not a distraction while we’re riding and riding is not a distraction while we’re in school.”

The CSI2*/CSI5* American Gold Cup began this morning.

While others are waiting, Elizabeth, onboard SAM: Secret Agent Man, stayed in motion, earning the win in the $5,000 1.40m Jumper Open. The prize money by EquiLine was winner-take-all.

And, so it goes.

Traverse City: Week Two

The second week of the fall series began earlier today. If the first week was any indicator of what is to come, the second week will prove to be equally competitive.

Elizabeth onboard SAM: Secret Agent Man (Traverse City, Sep 02 2021)

The daughters did well last week, with Elizabeth sweeping the four FEI events. That is not an easy task in itself. She would likely agree she is on a roll. Deborah and Tara, themselves, are doing very well too. In so much to make the podium a family affair. “They have pushed me to ride cleaner, better rounds in practice, and certainly in the show ring. Obviously, it shows in the results. Hopefully, I’m doing the same for them.”

It has left the question to be asked in the pressers, “What is the secret behind the success?” All three have said it is staying with what they know. “We haven’t really adjusted our technique all that much,” Deborah said. “We’ve studied our video, from practice and competition, breaking down the rides. Looking at the detail.” Tara chimed in, “It is what a good rider does. Knowing what is working, things that need tightening. Most importantly, staying strong with your fundamentals.”

Most have noticed the daughters have learned a few things from Trish, namely outworking everybody else. “It is a matter of staying sharp, particularly when you’re in that zone,” Elizabeth explained. “It is not necessarily riding demanding practice sessions, but keeping the fluidity, the constancy in your riding.” She added a rider knows when they need a demanding practice session. “When everyone else is in the clubhouse, we might be doing a ride around in a practice ring. Or, when everyone else might be done with riding for the day, we might be watching a video and taking notes. And, not necessarily of ourselves …”

The eyes will mostly be on Elizabeth, to see if she can replicate last week’s performance. Many are still buzzing about her win last week over a top-tier professional in the Grand Prix. “I gotta little lucky. There’s a reason why they’re ranked top 25 in the world.”

Deborah calls it, the “On any given Sunday” effect. “It was a Sunday, the weather a bit messy for much of the day. He made the mistake of leaving her an opening. Elizabeth did what she will always do, make your mistake a costly one.”

Traverse City: Turning Heads

The media tent was abuzz.

With the show closed to the public, the media pool was treated to a scintillating performance by the daughters in the opening event of the show, the $5,000 1.40m Jumper Open Class. The prize money by EquiLine was winner-take-all.

Tara on board Candace Happy Girl in the 1.40m Jumper (Traverse City, Sep 01 2021)

They had drawn three of the last four starting slots in the 26 rider field. While they have ridden bunched early in a draw, or in the middle, this was the first they rode in the last few slots of a draw. Stephanie, a 16 year old junior, from Pennsylvania, had led the event. Riding out of the #2 slot, she rode clear with a solid 67.02 round. With three professionals riding the class, her time was holding up, which made it more impressive.

It seemed no one would be able to catch Stephanie on the 13 obstacle/16 effort course. Deborah, riding from the #23 position on board Captain Andrew, put the hammer down, turning in a clear round of 62.44. Ronnie, one of the best young jumpers in the Midwest, followed. He was turning in a solid round until his horse refused at #10. He decided to wave off.

Knowing Tara and Elizabeth could beat her time, it did put pressure on the two. They would have to ride aggressive lines to catch her. It made sense since Deborah rode a fairly aggressive line herself. Riding 25th, Tara had Candace Happy Girl on nearly the same aggressive line Deborah had with Captain Andrew. Fractions of second behind Deborah at the splits, Tara was making a run over the last three fences of the course. It was going to be close. Tara finished clear at 62.47. She could finish no worst than third.

Elizabeth, riding last, entered the course on board her golden boy, Mr. Ed.  He seemed to be a poor choice on Elizabeth’s part. Most wondered, “What could she be thinking?” On a finesse course, Eddie would be the perfect choice. On a fast course, like this, Elizabeth would be in a better position with Lilith or SAM.

And, this is precisely what Elizabeth was doing, finessing the course. Riding a decidedly tactical line, she only needed to have speed through the bending line. Through the rest of the course, she could be quite conservative. Elizabeth finished clear at 62.28.

“I could have dropped the hammer with Eddie,” Elizabeth explained in the presser. “I’m a firm believer in ‘speed kills’ on a speed course. This is a case where riding last has its advantages. You kinda seen what everybody else has done. What worked, what didn’t, and incorporate that knowledge into what you want to do. You succeed, or you don’t. It’s that simple.”

Travel Day: Traverse City

The first major campaign with Deborah, Elizabeth and Tara could not have been better. Remaining on the board, three major shows to close out the season. While the hiatus freshened up all concerned, the process to prepare and ready began in earnest the day after the Denver International ended in late July.

Meeting with Arturo, Juan and Wes, Griffin laid out her plan on how things should work. All four have worked at Flintfields with other touring professionals. They know what works, and what doesn’t. The extras which would make the stay in residence better. In moving team operations from one location to another, every variable, every contingency, even the unexpected, needs to be considered and planned.

“You need to hit the ground running before you arrive.” From feed to supplies to stabling to veterinary care, particularity is essential. The responsibility for proper care of each horse requires the utmost attention. Each one has a different personality. Each one has a different dietary requirement. Each one has a different care requirement. “The money we invest for transport, stabling, entry fees and more is significant. Everything needs to be in place and must meet our exacting standard. Accept any less, we are at a competitive disadvantage. Accept any less, I have not done my job to protect my riders, to protect my horses.” This is true for every other team across the sport.

Griffin focused most of her attention on the venue. Detail, more detail, and more detail. Having undergone a major renovation over the past five years, she wanted to know more about Flintfields. It is completely different from its older self. It meant connecting with her fellow professionals with other tours. It meant talking with Flintfields staff directly. It meant taking a three-day trip to visit the facility. Griffin simply needed to be convinced it was worth the expense of coming. “If it was just a coat of fresh paint to convince Ali Griffin to spend money here, I would say, ‘Screw it, let’s save the money and roll it over into next season.’ We’re not the richest professional group on tour, so we need to spend our premium dollars wisely and carefully.”

ready to go: waiting for taxi clearance at 5:30 am (DIA, Aug 30 2021)
photo credit: Andrea Kanakredes, RN, MSN

With the arrangements set, it was an all-go for transport. It was likely we would need to wait on Qatar Airways Cargo while they shifted their aircraft around. Much of their air cargo capacity had been shifted to support the evacuation from Afghanistan. It was possible we would fly on a standard passenger Boeing 777-400 with the horses in a specially-outfitted cargo hold. We would be the only passengers, but with a full flight attendant crew and a proper breakfast. Our air cargo 777F arrived at DIA Sunday evening, non-stop from Tokyo. Got to love Qatar Air for coming through. Due to the international situation, private security was brought in to protect the plane.

At 3:00 am, Monday morning, we arrived for our check-in and loading. After passing through two security checkpoints, we arrived at the Fed Ex terminal. A working dog team from US Customs checked all of our gear, checked all of the horse gear, checked the jet stalls. The daughters had a little wonderment regarding the security layers, but this is what happens when a bad change in the threat environment occurs. Sign a couple of forms, and we were good to go.

Even with the security, Qatar Airways Cargo 2997SP, non-stop from Denver to Williamsburg, MI, departed on time at 05:50 am MT/07:50 am ET. The 3 hour, 15 minute flight would have us arriving shortly after 11:00 am in Michigan.

at 35,000 feet: sparkling white grape juice and popcorn (Qatar 2997SP, Aug 30 2021)
photo credit: Tara Scott Westin

When we arrived, we weren’t the only big cargo jet carrying horses. Three FedEx MD-11s and two Emirates 777Fs were parked on the tarmac. Another Qatar Air cargo flight was landing as we finished loading the horse transport trailer.

Today, it begins for real.

Competing On The COVID Field

At the beginning of the year, the prospect of another lost season seemed likely. Much of the schedule had already been cancelled. The COVID virus had become more dangerous than ever before. New cases were accelerating. Deaths were reaching unbelievable heights. The vaccine rollout seemed weeks away, if not months away. Uncertainty was the norm.

The fall/winter surge created kill zones, here and abroad. Two of the more notable kill zones were in California and Florida. Quietly, in Florida, the Winter Equestrian Festival and the Global Dressage Festival began as scheduled. They would become the foundation to set the Olympic selection process (USA and Canada) and fill the remaining slots in the World Cup Finals.

The question needed to be asked, “Why the urgency to be back in the saddle?” Thousands were dying, and the equestrian governing body, the FEI, seemed more intent on restarting the sport. Similarly, ranked professionals ignored international travel restrictions, calling their travel essential. “Would you risk your life just to qualify for an Olympic or World Cup slot?” In Europe, the risk was two-fold, COVID (people) and EHV-neuro (horses). Apparently, the risk was seen as manageable. Many did not know anyone who contracted COVID, let alone be hospitalized or die. It was an abstract.  EHV-neuro only affected horses, so it didn’t matter as much.

Japan was having difficulty in containing COVID at the start of the year as they are now. The FEI deemed several shows could continue despite the spread of the highly contagious EHV-neuro. It all seemed very reckless, the attitudes very cavalier.

Laurie asked the daughters, “Vaccine, no vaccine, is it really worth your life?” An uncomfortable question, certainly, but one that goes to the heart of what matters. It was prompted by the loss of 82 patients over the course of three days in her units, followed by the addition of 107 COVID terminal patients. By any accounting, those numbers are staggering. Unimaginable grief for 82 families, and another 107 families soon facing the same anguish in the coming hours, days and weeks.

The question did bother them, as it should. They had time to conduct their due diligence, to carefully plan their show schedule and travel arrangements. To develop a plan on how to return home if one of us became ill with COVID. If a new season was to commence, it would likely coincide with the start of the new FEI year in April. Every indicator pointed in this direction.

While they were vaccinated in Group 1A of the rollout, the daughters are subject to ongoing testing every 2-3 days, on a randomized basis. They are subject to ongoing COVID mitigation protocols of mask wearing, physical separation and other hygienic practices. Both testing and mitigation protocols render vaccination status a moot issue.  Basically, they are not your typical equestrians, who may, or may not, be vaccinated. Who may, or may not, be tested on a regular basis. Who may, or may not, follow protocol 100% of the time. Instead, they are your typical medical students at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, subject to vaccination, frequent testing, following and practicing protocols during a pandemic.

When the 21 season began in April, the robust vaccine rollout and declining new case-hospitalization-death numbers fueled a wave of optimism. Perhaps, just perhaps, the COVID pandemic could be in the rearview mirror. However, there was a substantial, widespread reduction in testing. Also ignored were those who were experiencing severe adverse reactions. Those severe adverse reactions are considered miniscule when compared to the larger body of the vaccinated. In the past, those severe adverse reactions would be enough to halt a vaccine program. Unbeknownst to many, including infectious specialists, the data were beginning to indicate more virulent variants were on the horizon. Variants that are able to evade testing, not respond to treatment, showing initial signs of vaccine resistance. Would knowledge of any of this make a difference? Not likely.

To compete in the COVID environment, a rider must submit a liability waiver, a risk acknowledgement, and an acceptance of COVID regulations. While there is an overlap among these documents, the show applicant (rider) would fully understand they are competing during a public health emergency, and the possibility of contracting COVID exists. Support crew members are required to submit the same set of documents. Similarly, they would understand the conditions they would be working in.

Additionally, riders and their support crews would be subject to random temperature checks, mask wearing, physical distancing, and other mitigation practices deemed necessary. Failing to follow protocol could result in summary disqualification and possible suspension. (There are no warnings.) In show rings and practice rings, only riders are allowed to remove their masks. It only takes a single, positive COVID test result, by anyone, to disrupt a show, to close a venue.

As an extra safety margin, we conducted our own COVID testing program while on tour. Every 2-3 days, we would collect throat swabs. Those swabs were sent back to Laurie’s department for PCR analysis by FedEx overnight priority. Diagnostic notes regarding collection and general health condition corresponding to each test swab are included. Within 2-4 hours of receipt, test results are generated. Two reports of the results are printed. One report is directed for inclusion in the corresponding digital health record, while the other report is delivered via email to the corresponding sample contributor. In different environments, over the course of 11 weeks – Saratoga, Saugerties, San Juan Capistrano, Denver – it made sense to test aggressively. Each locale had experienced active COVID outbreaks. Having the ability to produce results of a recent COVID test has it advantages. The primary advantage is current health condition vis-à-vis COVID, and the other is if there is a question about our COVID status. Of course, we are billed accordingly.

While the COVID vaccines are important, they only represent a portion of the protection scheme. They only minimize the effects of a COVID infection. They do not prevent contraction; they do not halt transmissibility. They are not curative. The best way to protect oneself, it remains wearing a mask.

Practice Session

Both Trish and Griffin watched Deborah, Tara and Elizabeth in a full speed practice session at RRC. It was more about agility than fence height on a GGT-type surface and grass. With another practice session on the schedule, they will be prepared for the final three shows of their season.

on course: Tara and Candace (Happy Girl) (RRC, Aug 21 2021)

on course: Deborah and Captain Andrew (RRC, Aug 21 2021)

on course: Elizabeth and Lilith (RRC, Aug 21 2021)

While their practices are fairly loose and unscripted, this was a highly choreographed session. They were obviously working to achieve certain goals. No smiles, no back and forth. A very serious practice. Whenever Trish halted practice for a brief chat, they listened intently. When practice resumed, they picked up their focus again.

Several of their competitors, in their next shows, will be those who last competed on the Olympic stage. A few others will be those who regularly compete at the highest level of the sport. The daughters will need to be at their best.

The Fourth Year Begins

Deborah, Elizabeth and Tara begin their fourth year of medical school today.

pre-dawn arrival (University of Colorado Hospital, Aug 03 2021)

It is an exciting time for them and their fourth-year classmates. While they will continue to be referred to as Mr. or Ms., it is the closest to being an MD without being one. They will go on morning rounds everyday. A few will be required to go on rounds in the late afternoon. A fewer number may be required to go on rounds over the weekend.

The primary task of the fourth year is to watch, listen, ask questions, answer questions, and study without the safety net of the classroom or laboratory. If they do not know the answer to a question, replying “I do not know” is allowed. All is more exacting, more demanding. It is about being a complete professional.

Trish has noted Deborah, Elizabeth and Tara understand the pressure. “This is only one step of many. They are my best. They will do fine in this arena too.” 

end of the day (University of Colorado Hospital, Aug 03 2021)