Lexington, KY - The U.S. finished fourth among 19 teams Saturday in Abu Dhabi, UAE, at the FEI Junior and Young Rider World Endurance Championship despite an uphill battle that included an injured horse at the first inspection. "What an exhilarating team effort and realistically an unexpected result - but privately hoped for," said Chef d'Equipe Emmett Ross.
Unexpected, in part, because Natalie Muzzio's horse Khalil Asam was not able to ship, resulting in the loss of Team member Steven Hay. Then, at the first inspection on Friday, Kyle Gibbon's horse, Misu Koran, owned by Stephen Rojek, presented with a sore shoulder and was not able to start. There are five vet checks throughout the race to check the horse's soundness and metabolic capacity in order to be allowed to continue.
The three remaining Team members - 16-year-old Kelsey Russell (Willison, FL) on Gold Raven, 17-year-old Mary Kathryn Clark (Eatonton, GA) aboard Cheryl Van Deusen's DA Al Capone, and 18-year-old Kelsey Kimbler (Aberdeen, SD) on Kirsten Kimbler's Cody Canuck - would all need to finish the course to post a team score and rank as a team (aggregate total time of three riders score as a team).
All three U.S. Young Riders did just that, with Russell and Valerie Kanavy's Gold Raven, a 10-year-old Arabian mare, finishing sixth individually in 5 hours, 37 minutes. "Before the race I reminded our youngsters that they had never raced as fast as they were going to be asked to, or under so much pressure," Ross said.
The 120km race was represented by 76 riders between the ages of 14-21 from 29 countries. The course included deep sand for 12km out of the first 33km on the first loop - a concern for the U.S. Team, Ross said, "because of the lack of experience of our riders in sand."
"But everyone here - riders, mentors, families, crew, and staff were positive throughout," Ross said. "As Chef I had to try to have the riders understand that their task had many levels of responsibility for the team to accomplish a respectable team result - finish well with each horse giving it's all."
Ross said that result did not materialize until the last loop. "And actually not until the last portion of the last loop," he said. "The USA team result started with a 13th-place position for the first loop, and each loop improving two to three positions. I felt that our only chance to even finish a team well was to stick to a very closely monitored effort. Several of us who had worked here often saw how many strong looking and leading visiting horses simply crash on latter loops. We adopted the monitored plan and changed the goal for the horse/ rider combination after each loop."
Kimbler and Clark were separated after the first loop by about 10 minutes, but starting with the third loop, Kimbler and Cody Canuck, a 14-year-old Arabian gelding, caught up to Clark and DA Al Capone, a 16-year-old Arabian gelding.
"They essentially rode together the rest of way with Al and MK providing some last-loop energy to Cody and Kelsey who were tiring somewhat," Ross said. "In fact, these two team members and their wonderful horses did each loop slightly faster than the previous, as planned, except for the third loop which virtually knocked all horses down somewhat off their previous pace or closing pace."
The U.S. Team horses are doing well and will head home on Tuesday.
"It is a remarkable accomplishment for the Young Riders," said Vonita Bowers, director of endurance and reining at the United States Equestrian Federation, which for the first time sent a full team and support staff to Championship. "Many thanks to Emmett Ross, (Team Vet) Dr. Dwight Hooton, and all of the Young Riders crew and supporters."
Photos: Team USA's first training ride in Abu Dhabi. Photo courtesy Kelly Kimbler; Kelsey Kimbler on Cody Canuck and Mary Kathryn Clark on DA Al Capone walking in. Photo courtesy Kelly Kimbler.