From Schuyler to the Olympics in Rio
SCHUYLER COUNTY (8/17/16)--"She started in Cayutaville," recalls proud father Roger VanderVliet. "We had a small backyard farm through 4-H with all kinds of animals, and slowly the horses took more and more space. Daddy brought home a pony from Cornell and that's where it all started." His three daughters all loved horses, and all became champion riders. One of his daughters, Laura Jean VanderVliet, made working with horses her livelihood.
These days Laura Jean, based in Aiken, South Carolina, competes in Eventing and also trains horses for competition. Learning to train horses is a hands-on process based on experience and actively working with the animal. Laura Jean VanderVliet typically trains up to 20 horses at a time, developing their confidence and experience while teaching them to respond to a rider.
Last week she was at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with her partner Nilson Moreira da Silva, and Muggles, a horse she trained. Da Silva was an alternate on the Brazilian team but did not compete this year. However, even though he didn't compete, Roger VanderVliet calls it "A golden opportunity to train with world-class trainers." Among these is his daughter, who has trained horses for other Olympic events and managed a stable at the Atlanta Olympics.
Eventing is a rigorous sport, described by Roger VanderVliet as a triathalon for horses. Competitors ride dressage--a series of formal movements in the ring. Then there's a cross-country segment, which tests horse and rider's agility and endurance as they jump a variety of obstacles ranging from simple to complex jumps encountered in rough terrain. These might be as apparently easy as a pile of brush or several logs, or as complex as jumping a small child's peak-roofed playhouse. In this segment, a horse might have to jump into--and out of--a water obstacle. Finally, there's stadium jumping, where they are judged on how many formal jumps they can clear without knocking down rails. Each knock-down adds four points to the score--in this instance, VanderVliet explains, the pair with the lowest score wins. All events are timed.
The path to the Olympics includes international eventing competitions across the country, where 200 to 300 horses and riders compete over a variety of terrains and jumps. The horse can't see the course beforehand, though the rider is allowed to view and assess the challenges, and often riders share tips on successful navigating. Laura Jean's late mother, Jean VanderVliet, frequently took photos of the process. Horses and their riders represent diverse circumstances and backgrounds from a single horse brought in a small trailer pulled by the family pick-up truck to a fancy five-horse trailer pulled by a large truck with a young driver--who is also the eventer--at the wheel. An eventing competition may last several days and include a long-distance trail ride. Meanwhile, sponsors who attend to cheer on their team, could enjoy dog obedience competitions, tail-gate parties and other auxiliary events.
Horse and rider have to be agile, aggressive, hard-working and healthy--each event begins with a "Vet-In," where the horses and riders are presented to the judges who assess the animal's soundness before allowing it to start the course. They also have to be well-funded, generally through sponsors, because it costs $1,000 to $3,000 per month per horse for stabling, training, event entries, veterinarian bills and travel to compete on this level. And the horses themselves, often Thoroughbreds, are easily worth $100,000 each. Then there's the eventer's wardrobe, which includes a well-tailored coat, boots, riding breeches, protective helmet and top hat.
Laura VanderVliet and da Silva established a "Muggles Club" to help get them to the Olympics. "They had to raise close to $30,000 to compete on this level," says Roger VanderVliet, who is a sponsor. Wanting to help in every way possible, he says he has also cleaned stalls.
Their part of the Olympics over, Muggles recently left Brazil for England, while Laura Jean VanderVliet returned to her stables in the United States. When she landed, she called her father, adding to the status reports she'd posted daily online. "She said it was fun," he says. "Being there was fantastic."