You know those moments when you pause, look around, and realize how lucky you are to be where you are standing? That was me when I found myself leaning against the fence of the dressage arena, camera and media badge in hand, at the Tryon International Equestrian Center as Laura Graves and Verdades passaged their way down the center line and the crowd erupted with cheers.
From the moment it was released that the 2018 World Equestrian Games were returning to the U.S., I had my heart set on being in attendance. Once again, my job gave me some perks and I was able to be there as media—it still boggles my mind sometimes that instead of paying for tickets and flights and all the other necessities of traveling, I actually get paid to photograph these events.
My flight left at the crack of dawn on Tuesday morning (I wish I was joking about this—I left for the Providence airport at 2:30 AM), giving me and my boss (my traveling companion), plenty of time to settle in, pick up our credentials, and beat the crowds to the WEG Shop tent to pick up gifts for friends back home before the evening’s opening ceremony/country concert/parachute landing. By the time the ceremony wrapped up and we made the hour-long trek back to our hotel, I was at the end of a 20-hour day supported by 3 hours of sleep and incredibly ready for bed.
The fun really began on Wednesday as dressage, reining, and (eventually cancelled) endurance kicked off the Games. A quick check of the ride times for the Grand Prix showed that the riders I really wanted to capture were going the following day, so I opted to head to Tryon’s indoor arena for my dose of reining.
As someone who has never watched reining in person, I couldn’t believe the difference in the atmosphere. The second you walked into the arena, you were surrounded by the sound of the crowd whooping and yelling, and the stands were full of fans and teams supporting their riders, waving flags, and wolf whistling their hearts out.
Obviously the riding was different as well. The closest thing you get to a sliding stop in show jumping or eventing is when a horse throws a dirty stop into the mix and a dressage test’s pirouette is only so similar to a spin. The western discipline was out of my comfort zone for sure, but it didn’t make shooting it any less fun, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well my little camera did with the artificial lighting.
After watching Cade McCutcheon and Custom Made Gun top the leaderboard while the U.S. fans went wild (including his sister who spent the majority of his run crying happy tears in the stands), I made my way back to the air-conditioned, half-built building that was the International Media Center to sort photos until the eventing horse inspection. Sadly for me, though good for the riders handling their horses, the eventing jog was uneventful (almost all of the horses kept their feet on the ground) and all were accepted.
Thursday was full of shooting dressage in the newly built and quite massive U.S. Trust Arena. It was also my birthday, and what better way to ring in 25 than by photographing the top names in the sport?
While I usually find dressage a bit boring, I’d never seen this level of it up close and was continually impressed throughout the day. The morning and early afternoon consisted of riders I was mostly unfamiliar with, so after a few hours of shooting, I met up with Jill Tweedy, the founder and incredible bossy lady behind Tucker Tweed, for a refreshing rosé.
I made it back ringside just in time for Charlotte Dujardin and the floppy-eared Mount St John Freestyle to make their way down the centerline and execute a beautiful test that started the Germany-United States-Great Britain order that would grace both medal ceremonies. While I never got to see Charlotte aboard Valegro, seeing her excel early on with a future superstar is just as nice.
My next must-see of the day was Isabell Werth. I’m not a huge follower of dressage (hence why I only recognize the bigger names) and didn’t know the story behind Isabell’s journey with Bella Rose, but seeing the number one dressage rider in the world hold back tears of happiness before she could even give her final salute hit me right in the feels. They may win ribbons and trophies galore, but the top riders love their horses and appreciate the awards just as much as us little adult ammies do.
The real highlight of my day was getting to watch the U.S. Dressage Queen herself, Laura Graves, and Verdades put in an incredible test that earned Diddy a few neck scratches on the way out and pushed the home team into the silver medal position. That was enough of a birthday present for me.
Friday was unknowingly our last day at WEG. Having known that, I probably would have appreciated it more, but the Horse Show Coverage Hangover with all of it’s exhaustion was hitting me hard.
Swapping rings with my boss, I spent the morning covering the eventing competition’s dressage tests. It is safe to say that I got a little spoiled going to Kentucky back in April because I sadly didn’t find the class very exciting or interesting. Once the last of the U.S. pairs, Phillip Dutton and Z, completed their test, I sought refuge in the air conditioning until the top six dressage pairs from Thursday were scheduled to ride in the Grand Prix Special.
Unsurprisingly, the final six for the Special included Isabell, Laura, and Charlotte, meaning I had the chance to watch them ride a final time and repeat the medal order from the day before. This was also the only medal ceremony I stayed for and I am so glad I did. At one point, as the German anthem was playing in honor of Isabell’s gold, Laura reached over and put a hand on her shoulder, smiling as the now 2018 WEG double gold medalist wiped away tears.
Saturday brought a bit of chaos to our WEG trip. The evening before, it was announced that Hurricane Florence, though no longer considered a hurricane, was still going to bring a downpour to Tryon, therefore the Sunday schedule was pushed to Monday. After moving our flight up to Saturday evening as staying until Monday wasn’t a viable option, it was cancelled just as we arrived at TIEC for cross-country day (my favorite). Thus began the search for any flight that would take us back to New England that day and the decision that, sadly, getting home was more important than the second phase of eventing. Instead, I sat in the airport for hours, living vicariously through all the photos and videos posted of cross-country (which luckily finished before the weather turned). In the end, the rescheduled flight was delayed, which would’ve caused us to miss our connector, so we swapped at the last minute and ended up landing in Boston (note: not where we flew out of; aka, not where the car was parked) a full 24 hours before we were originally supposed to get back home.
While I was happy to be back in Massachusetts, I was (and still kind of am) sad that we missed out on what was an incredible cross-country course and the nail-biting stadium phase. Though I am even more sad that I wasn’t there for the second week, when McLain Ward and Clinta brought the gold home for the U.S.
Do I have thoughts and feelings on the event itself and the equine community’s reaction to everything that happened through its run? Yes, but that is a blog post for another day, if I ever actually decide to put those thoughts to a computer.
Wonky travel plans aside, I had an incredible time at WEG and am still wowed at the fact that I was able to attend as part of my job. Two years ago, I was photographing local hunter/jumper shows and watching these big events on my laptop screen; now, I get to see them firsthand, in the middle of all the action.
Although my massive spending at AETA didn’t give me much to work with, stay tuned for a WEG haul coming soon!