Three-day eventing performance depends on relationship between horse, rider and groom

June 29, 2012

The flying is the easy part, said horse groom Megan Kepferle. But getting Manoir de Carneville into his container can be a challenge. A little improvisation was called for: The container was split into sections and filled with barn shavings. It worked. The horse was lifted off the tarmac and into the airplane’s cargo hold.

Kepferle, from Lexington Park, Md. and the 12-year-old horse, nicknamed “Tate,” would fly from New York City to Belgium before traveling to Wiltshire, England. They’re now roughly 80 miles west of London, the site of their Olympic dreams.

Last summer, Manoir finished third in an international competition and has been shortlisted for this summer’s U.S. Olympic Team in the sport of three-day eventing.

Over the course of three days, the horse is judged on its grace as well as its ability to run and jump. Kepferle compared the sport to a triathlon, because it combines three different aspects of equestrian competition.

On the first day, the horse and rider pair go through movements in the ring that emphasize the horse’s obedience. On the second day, the horse tackles a cross-country course, and on day three it must successfully leap a series of obstacles.

But Manoir’s spot on the team has yet to be sealed. Because the chance of injury is so great, Kepferle said, the U.S. Equestrian Association waits until the last minute to submit the final team. A top five finish in this weekend’s Barbury Castle International Horse Trials would qualify him for the Olympics.

Kepferle, 27, believes she knows the horse better than anyone, evenrider Sinead Halpin. They built their relationship on a New Jersey farm, where Kepferle is responsible for the horse day to day. Manoir can be a bit of a diva, Kepferle said; she often refers to him as “The French Princess.”

The 11 other American horse and rider pairs who will compete this weekend arrived Sunday, but Manoir has been in England for nearly a month. He arrived early because he tends to be tired after air travel. Yes, horses get jet lag too, Kepferle said, and Manoir needs to be in shape for the competition.

“Even if we don’t make it on the team, what’s happened the last couple of years has been awesome,” Kepferle said. “Unbelievable, to be honest. I feel very lucky where I am.”

Kepferle said she comes from a “non-horsey background,” but her best friend’s mom rode horses and, when she was in the fifth grade, Kepferle eventually convinced her parents to let her ride.

Her family still doesn’t understand much about eventing. It’s a difficult sport to explain, Kepferle said. The first stage is dressage, followed by cross country and show jumping. But Kepferle often begins to lose people when she explains the first stage.

“A few Christmases ago, I have this picture of my whole family like making fun of me, basically,” Kepferle said with a laugh. “And they’re all prancing around because to them that’s what dressage looks like. It’s like dancing. So they don’t really have an idea what I do, but they’re pretty supportive.”

For a school assignment shortly after she began to ride, Kepferle wrote that she wanted to make the 2012 Olympics. That was in 1995. Four Olympic Games have since passed.

She started riding as a hunter jumper and didn’t learn about eventing for another three years. She began to research the sport and follow the top riders.

“There was a lady at the barn, an older lady, who owned a horse trailer,” Kepferle said. “So she took me to my first event and I won it. After that, I was addicted.”

Being a professional rider is expensive and the number of spots is limited. The more likely path seemed to be as a groom. Kepferle’s first job was as an apprentice while she attended Towson University. Upon graduation, she spent a year in London working for a British rider.

As the head groom, Kepferle’s primary job is to make sure Manoir is sound. A minor irregularity in a horse’s condition could result in its disqualification. Kepferle pays close attention to the horse’s behavior and diet and the condition of its legs.

Her relationship with Manoir is built on trust, something that has grown over time. When they first met three years ago, Kepferle said, the horse was difficult to read and neither trusted the other. Now she compares him to a child. She said she trusts Manoir more than any horse she’s known.

“The horse that I met the first day, I never would think he’d be where he is today,” she said. “He continues to impress me. He wows me. He’s turned into an incredible horse. I had no idea what he was capable of.”

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