The World Equestrian Games: Olympics For Horses Neal Conan talks to NPR's Health Policy Correspondent about her first love -- horses -- and the 2010 World Equestrian Games.

The World Equestrian Games: Olympics For Horses

The World Equestrian Games: Olympics For Horses

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Neal Conan talks to NPR's Health Policy Correspondent about her first love — horses — and the 2010 World Equestrian Games.


Julie Rovner is familiar to many of you as NPR's health policy correspondent. But you may not know that when she's not trapped on Capitol Hill, she indulges her passion for horses. Julie Rovner is a horse owner, rider and amateur competitor in dressage and eventing. If you're not familiar with those terms, stay tuned. Julie's just back from the weekend at the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky. And Julie, nice to have you back with us.

JULIE ROVNER: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And equestrians, tell us what you think of the WEG, the World Equestrian Games, thus far? 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We have some of your pictures up there?

ROVNER: I think so.

CONAN: Okay. So this is the first time this giant competition has taken place here in the United States.

ROVNER: That's right. And it was very exciting for all of us horse folk in the U.S. when they announced that it would be here in Kentucky this year. This is something that's always been in Europe. This is the sixth WEG and it is - this is every horse sport that's recognized by the international governing body for horse sports.

In 1990, they decided that rather than having individual world championships, they would have all of the world championships in one giant competition. Some people have been calling it the Olympics of horse sports. But, of course, there are horse sports in the Olympics. So this is done in the even numbered year that is not the Olympic year.

And it's basically - what it really turns into is kind of the world's fair of horses. You've got all of these things to do in addition to the competition that's at the Kentucky Horse Park that, in fact, was built for the world championships of eventing back in 1978. There's a big three-day event there every year.

But this year, of course, for the WEG, there's a three-day event and dressage and show jumping, the three Olympics sports. Plus reining and driving and, what else, vaulting and para dressage, this year for the first time, which is dressage for people with disabilities. And I think I must be missing one or two, but there are eight sports total over 16 days.

CONAN: So for those of us who are less familiar with this, why don't we start with three-day eventing, because that includes three different disciplines.

ROVNER: That's right, three different disciplines. There is dressage on the first day, and the cross-country, which brings the biggest crowd. There were 50,000 people there on Saturday, which was cross-country day. And then on the last day, the stadium, they go into a stadium and jump around the stadium jumps. And those were indeed the big - that's usually the big draw. And again, the Kentucky Horse Park Camp put on a three-day event, which they do every year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROVNER: They pretty much knew they can have that one in hand. And it was very exciting, although not really for the U.S. There was some bad luck. They lost one of their competitors before the event even began, had to add a new team member. And then, they had two fabulous, really three clean jumping rounds from the U.S. team. And then, in the stadium, things went awry so the U.S. team finished fourth.

There was an individual from the U.S. team, Becky Holder, who was in second place after cross-country and was really poised to take an individual medal. And then her horse, in the morning - you have to trot for the vets. This is the idea of this three-day event is that your horse can have the presence when they're fit to run, gallop really four miles, they can do this dressage test, then go gallop a cross-country, and then come back and have the stamina left, the ability to do the stadium jumping. And her horse did not trot for the judges Sunday morning. So she didn't even do the stadium round.

CONAN: What is it like as these different events are going on? Describe the scene for us a little bit.

ROVNER: It really was - I can only describe it's like a world's fair for horse people. To have 50,000 people - and the Kentucky Horse Park is 1,200 acres. So it is an enormous place. But there are - you know, there was an equine village where there were demonstrations and vendors and, you know, things that you could do, things for kids to do. You could -there were places where you could sit, ride or rein, for all these, you know, English people, ride English - you know, to try a Western horse.

There were mechanical horses that you could try. Literally, there are a couple of different places there are mechanical horses you could sign up to ride these fancy mechanical horses that you could tell you, you know, what - where you were sitting wrong or using your leg wrong. Lots of things to buy. Horse people love to buy things for their horses and for themselves. Lots to eat, lots to drink. The bourbon in Kentucky is quite good. I read one blog where someone said they tried bourbon-flavored beer. They didn't like that very much.

So they actually sell - sold and sell, because it goes on until the end of the week, grounds passes where you can go and you can spend the entire day there and never see any of the competition.

CONAN: Oh, just wander around and see the scene?

Ms. ROVNER: You can wander around and see the scene. And as I say, there is a ton to do. Now, the other thing I should mention is that many of the horse organizations are housed there at the Kentucky Horse Park -the United States Equestrian Association, the United States Dressage Association, United States Pony Club, the American Saddlebred Association. So they're all on the ground there. Their headquarters are there. There's an enormous museum of the horse that's an affiliate of the Smithsonian. We actually spent a good hour there and didn't get to see all of that.


Ms. ROVNER: So there is a ton to do in addition to the competition.

CONAN: And just briefly, cross country, that sounds self-evident.

Ms. ROVNER: Yes.

CONAN: All right. Dressage, basically dancing with horses.

Ms. ROVNER: It is. And watching the main part of the dressage competition is sort of like watching figure skating school figures. All the horses do the same test, if you will, a prescribed series of movements.

CONAN: They don't that in figure skating anymore.

Ms. ROVNER: They don't, I know. It's what - for us old people, it's what they used to do in figure skating. Then there is the dressage freestyle, where they do it to music. And that's more like the figure skating that we're used to. They are actually - in the Olympics, it's all one competition. In the world championships, it's two separate competitions.

But there is now this superstar horse called Moorland Totilas. He's a Dutch horse from the Netherlands. He won, actually, all three. Well, he won the two individual gold medals, helped the Dutch team to the team gold medal. He's getting scores like no one has ever seen before. If you can imagine, you know, a quarterback completing 90 percent of its passes or, you know, someone in baseball batting, you know, .750, that's what this horse is doing in terms of scores.

I got to see him. Friday night, we went to the freestyle part of the competition. And really, it was just amazing to - actually I've seen this horse on video, but to actually see him live is really something special. And he's only nine. So he's got a long career ahead of him.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Tina(ph) is calling. Tina from Ocala in Florida, horse country.

TINA (Caller): Very much so. Very much so. And I must start out saying I'm a classical purist in the dressage world. And I love the Andalusians and the Lusitanos. And I was so disappointed that Juan Munoz Diaz and Fuego did not place any better than they did. While the Dutch horse is very nice, I just - in my heart, I was so disappointed that Fuego did not place higher.

CONAN: Julie, you were nodding your head.

Ms. ROVNER: I am nodding. I have a friend who's very upset about this. This is a Spanish horse named Fuego XII. I was teasing someone that the previous 11 Fuegos must have been pretty special for them to get to 12.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROVNER: This was a Spanish rider who the friends I was with said they had seen a couple of years ago at another international competition with a different horse. But he's an amazing rider and the horse put on an amazing performance. But again, I think the type of horse that it is, it can do some things unbelievably well and I think other things probably not quite as well.

But it was funny at the very end, the rider was so excited that he threw off, you know, his hat and with such big flare that he terrified his horse and he almost fell off. The horse spooked and I don't know whether one could see it. I think these were - this was shown on the Web. But I don't know how much you could see of how quite - how excited that the horse got after he got so excited.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROVNER: But I believe he finished fourth or fifth. He did not finish in the medals.

TINA: Yeah. He finished fourth and I don't know - well, you may have seen it. It's difficult to see on the videos but as he was doing his one-tempi changes, when the rider just put his rings in one hand and just barely had contact with him. And the horse maintained perfect form. It just took my breath away, the whole ride.

Ms. ROVNER: Yes, he was showboating, I believe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROVNER: For people who don't ride, the one-tempi changes are one of the very difficult things that they do in very upper level dressage where the horse changes the lead of his canter at every stride. And it's something that only the very, very, very top horses can do. And indeed, the Spanish rider did it with his reins in one hand, which was kind of -which I think some judges might have found that, perhaps, in the world of, you know, kind of buttoned-up dressage, maybe a little bit much.

CONAN: Just to give you some example. A thoroughbred on a mile and an eighth race might change his lead, what, two or three times. So changing your leading every stride is something - that's something.

Ms. ROVNER: Yeah.

CONAN: All right, Tina, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

TINA: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. You mentioned there's another sport, another discipline, this top hats and the coats and the cutaways and the boots and the tight pants. There's now reining, which uses Western saddles and a lot of spangles.

Ms. ROVNER: That's right. These are, you know, this is real cowboy reining. These are American quarter horses. It is so far dominated by Americans. The Americans won the team event and the individual event. But one of the people who competed in reining this time was Anky van Grunsen, whos sort of the queen of dressage. She's won I don't know how many Olympic and world gold medals, but her dressage horses were not ready for this competition for various reasons. And she decided - she'd taken up reining and she decided she'd compete in reining. And I was reading on a blog today that here she was, the world's best dressage. And one the things that you do in reining is that you have changes of lead.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROVNER: And she missed hers - missed her changes behind. So I said, yeah, there she was, the world's greatest dressage rider couldn't get her horses to change their lead properly. So she did not make the finals. But people, I think, were amused to see, you know, one of the world's greatest dressage riders there in her chaps and cowboy hat with her quarter horse.

CONAN: Christine(ph) is on the line calling from Modesto.

CHRISTINE (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to make a comment about the difference between the World Equestrian Games and the Olympics. And the biggest difference is in the Olympics, every country can send a rider if they want, if they have one. The World Equestrian Games, all of the riders actually have to qualify, and it's the top riders of the world. So you might get seven riders in one country and no riders from other countries. But it really is, for equestrian sports, way bigger and more important to be at the World Equestrian Games. And the quality of riders and horses are very different than at the Olympics even.

CONAN: And Christine, how do you watch WEG?

CHRISTINE: How do - I'm sorry?

CONAN: How do you watch? How do you keep up with it? Are you watching on computer?

CHRISTINE: You know what, it's actually very disappointing as a horse aficionado because in Europe, all of these things are televised on the main channels. And here you really - you have to subscribe to a cable TV channel or look on the Internet. And in the end, what I end up doing is I end up waiting for the DVDs to come out and then I get the DVDs.

CONAN: Okay. Well, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

CHRISTINE: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: And let's see if we can squeeze one last caller in. Annie(ph) is on the line calling from Rochester, New York.

ANNIE (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ANNIE: I was at the equestrian games myself for eventing. I am an upper-level eventer. And I have to say, especially after seeing the dressage, the dome freestyle, I was very disappointed in a lot of the eventers dressage tests. Their half-pirouettes, you know, were just quite sub-par. They had a lot of movement in them. And their halts were almost sliding stops. And having my roots originally in dressage and then moving onto eventing, I was a little embarrassed for our upper-level eventers.

CONAN: Was that criticism popular in Nashville, Julie?

Ms. ROVNER: Lexington.

CONAN: Lexington, excuse me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROVNER: Kentucky, not Tennessee.

CONAN: Yes. Not Tennessee.

Ms. ROVNER: I actually didn't hear though much about - although I did not see - I saw the dressage dressage. I did not see the - much of the eventing dressage. I saw a little bit of it. They had some of that actually on the video there.

But, you know, mostly, I think going to the last caller talking about the difference between the Olympics and the WEG, one of the things that you can't see at something like the world championship is that because every country can send a team to the Olympics, they sometimes, I think, are making the courses a little bit easier to make them a little bit safer.

This was a really tough cross country course. I mean, every single jump was a challenge. There were 19 riders who didn't finish. Luckily, there were no serious falls or injuries this time. But I guess everybody has to go back to their dressage.

CONAN: Annie, we'll send you as our critic next time.

ANNIE: Oh, great thanks. That sounds wonderful.

CONAN: Appreciate the phone call. And Julie, thank you for stopping by and filling us in on your weekend. We appreciate it.

Ms. ROVNER: My pleasure.

CONAN: Julie Rovner is NPR's health policy correspondent, filling in briefly as NPR's equestrian correspondent. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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