When my trainer and good friend Suzy Stafford was named to the U.S. Team for the FEI World Single Driving Championship in Austria with her Morgan mare PVF Peace of Mind, I couldn’t wait to cheer her on from the sidelines. But then when asked to join her as her official groom for the event, how can anyone say no? Like so many other competitors, my husband David and I have aspirations of someday representing the USA with our young pony Amazing Grace, so we realized that the opportunity to work behind the scenes at a World Championship would be an invaluable learning experience.

  With barely-contained excitement, we set off for Europe via an uneventful flight (the best kind) to Frankfurt, Germany, which deposited us just an easy 30-minute drive from our first stop: the Team USA training camp at Michael Freund's barn in Dreieich. After somehow managing to pack four people and astonishing amounts of luggage into a vehicle reminiscent of a clown car routine, we arrived at the lovely farm, conveniently located on the same grounds as a bed and breakfast, the Hotel Christinenhof. Despite crushing jet lag, it was impossible to rest as we couldn’t wait to take everything in. So Suzy (who had already been in Germany for five weeks) put us right to work: David assumed his favorite position on the back of the marathon carriage as she took Hunny up the hill for a quick obstacle school, followed by a first look at the countryside on the expansive network of trails and roads surrounding the farm.

  After a distinctive German breakfast of meats, cheese, fruit, bread and coffee (lots and lots of coffee), most of the following day was spent engaged in the daunting task of organizing and packing all equipment and carriages for the show. Being used to our dually pickup trucks and lengthy gooseneck trailers, it’s quite an adjustment learning to work within the parameters of box trucks and cargo trailers as utilized in Europe. But with everything finally ready to go, it was time to take the party to town. A short walk from the Hotel Christinenhof takes one to the heart of Dreieich and a trip back in time. The ruins of a castle and city walls dating to 1256 are the centerpiece of the oldest section of town, where it’s impossible to avoid blatantly looking like a tourist as you gape at the quintessential German architecture and undeniable old European charm that all appears to be straight out of a postcard. History is embraced and celebrated as part of daily life in Europe in a way that feels comfortably different from our modern, fast-paced way of life in the U.S. A laughter-filled evening eating authentic German food at a picnic table with friends outside a bierstube followed by a nightcap of ice cream at the corner sweet shop is the stuff lifelong memories are made of.

  Sunday dawned as the day to hit the road and begin our long journey to Piber, Austria, host of the World Championships. To make the trip as easy as possible for the horses, the decision was made to stop overnight outside Munich, just about halfway to our destination. While the horses rested comfortably at the clinic of U.S. Team Veterinarian Dr. Rüdiger Brems, we were relieved to enjoy a glass of wine and collapse in a soft bed at the Gasthof Stangl, a historical Bavarian gem located in a nearby hamlet surrounded by cornfields. Despite spending just a few hours there, a more charming stay would be nearly impossible to imagine.

  The next morning David and I along with our long-time friend Carrie Ostrowski (navigator for Sterling Graburn) got a head start on the horse vans so that we could get to Piber and make sure all stalls were set up for arrival. We were giddy at the thought of being turned loose in the rental car, which also meant we could fly at what seemed like the speed of light down the autobahn. We punched the destination address into the GPS, chose the option for the shortest route, and we were off! 

  As we approached the German-Austrian border, the unmistakable outline of the Alps loomed on the horizon and much to David’s chagrin, it was all Carrie and I could do not to break out into song from The Sound of Music. Castles from centuries long forgotten could easily be seen from the highway, all set among some of the most stunning scenery imaginable. We were able to see a lot more of that scenery than anticipated when the “shortest route” as determined by our GPS turned out to be more of the scenic route, taking us off the main thoroughfare and meandering across the countryside and mountains. Although more circuitous than expected, our drive became a blessing in disguise as we saw much more of ‘real’ Austria than we would have ever experienced from the autobahn.

Finally arriving in Piber (and successfully beating the horses despite our jaunt through the Austrian landscape), we met U.S. Team Coach Thorsten Zarembowicz, obtained our precious credentials, bought souvenir shirts before they sold out, checked the barns, and waited for the vans. We also located our adorable rental camper which Suzy had arranged to be delivered so that we could stay on the grounds close to the horses. Once the horses and equipment pulled in, everyone unloaded, got settled in and took a deep breath. Team USA had arrived!

Words don’t seem to do justice for the beauty surrounding the competition venue in Piber-Köflach, home of the Lipizzaner Stud where the world-famous Lipizzan stallions are bred and raised. Whether out handwalking Hunny in the morning, riding on the carriage during a warm up, or even when hoofing it across the grounds for what seemed like the millionth time, you felt immersed in the picture-postcard scenery, absorbing the splendor and peacefulness with every breath. When I say it is easy to imagine leaving it all behind and moving overseas to live in such stunning surroundings, it’s not an exaggeration.

Staying in the 'camp' at the showgrounds was an experience in itself. Camping (as opposed to staying in a hotel) seems to be much more popular in Europe than in the U.S., with everyone from competitors, grooms, coaches, family, and friends all setting up shop in various forms, from simple tents pitched on grassy patches to lavish living-quarters in horse vans. Each country had its  own festive area staked out in the campground, with team meetings, group dinners, and parties lasting well into each evening. Walking through the grounds I’ll never forget hearing the laughter and the sounds of a different language spoken by people at each table I passed. 

Jog day always seems to be a high-stress situation, even when you know your horse is ready to go. I calmed my nerves (and my OCD) with a three-hour head start on braiding to ensure I had Hunny looking exactly the way I wanted. The inspection area (actually located in a parking lot) was a madhouse as each nation’s horses came down in a patriotic group surrounded by throngs of spectators. All of Team USA’s horses were turned out impeccably and kept their composure to coast through the inspection without any issues. That afternoon, everyone participated in official opening ceremonies in the main stadium complete with a parade of athletes, just like you see on television during the Olympics. You can’t help but be filled with pride when walking into the stadium wearing official USA gear and waving our flag for an appreciative crowd! Capping off the day was the festive tradition of “Nations Night,” where each country represented at the World Championships gathered in the huge dining tent to share food and fun with fellow athletes from around the world. The U.S. Team table proved to be a big hit with buffalo chicken wings with blue cheese dressing and Jack Daniels with Coca-Cola.

With 75 horses from a record number of 23 nations participating, dressage was held over a full two days beginning Thursday in the impressive main stadium. While not as overwhelming as an Olympic venue, there were still plenty of distractions for horses and drivers to contend with as part of an electric atmosphere that we simply aren’t used to seeing stateside (perhaps with the exception of Live Oak International). The ring was flanked on one side by a noisy covered grandstand the entire length of the arena (usually packed with crowds) with festive Bavarian music booming continuously; a bustling VIP and dining tent was set up behind “C”; and four marathon hazards with a non-stop parade of bikes and people walking the obstacles lined the far side. Three of our four U.S. competitors (Donna Crookston, Leslie Berndl, and Suzy) drew to go on the first day with Sterling Graburn scheduled to drive on Friday; and while the quality of performances was high, we all watched as the atmosphere got the best of quite a few combinations and the scores reflected the tension. But Suzy and Hunny’s determination and focus shone through with an elegant, mistake-free test to earn a score of 49.23 and claim Thursday’s overnight lead. Ultimately she would only be beaten on the second day by 2014 bronze medalist Marlen Fallak from Germany, who scored just 0.64 points better with her horse Tessa FST. After dressage, the U.S. Team was ranked third!

But the weather, which up to this point had been glorious, was about to take a turn for the worse. A local resident warned us that when the storms come from a certain direction over the mountains, all heck breaks loose – a prediction which unfortunately proved to be true. While Friday’s dressage competition was still underway, the heavens opened to deliver an unbelievable amount of rain. Temporary barns quickly flooded while several unlucky drivers were caught having to perform their once-in-a-lifetime test in the deluge. The final three competitors were held in a nearby covered arena to circle endlessly for two hours while the arena dried sufficiently for the drivers to safely complete their tests.

The heavy rains also did a number on the marathon course put together by renowned course designer Gabor Finthá (HUN), which was already a daunting track with eight complex hazards that Suzy described as “alternating between super technical and a flat-out track race.” Officials were forced to remove the fifth hazard when they were unable to undo the storm’s damage to the ground, but this did little to make the challenge of a muddy track in the hazards, hilly terrain and hot temperatures any easier on the horses. Donna Crookston was first on course for Team USA with her young horse Viktor, and a safe and steady round proved to be a promising start. But it all went downhill from there as both Leslie Berndl and Sterling Graburn struggled in the demanding hazards, and fans were stunned to see Suzy eliminated when she and Hunny failed to go through the “E” gate in the third obstacle. While mistakes on the marathon course happen to every driver at some point, to have it happen on the World Championship stage was crushing for all.

Things went from bad to worse that evening when we found Hunny in distress as the grueling marathon had taken its toll. “At night check we found her with a very high temperature and shivering, and our U.S. Team Veterinarian Dr. Rüdiger Brems was immediately on top of the situation,” said Suzy in an official statement. “In the best interest of Hunny’s health and welfare, we decided to be aggressive with treatment using certain medications which are prohibited under FEI drug rules, so we of course then discontinued our participation in the competition. It was the right thing to do for Hunny.” Thankfully by morning, Hunny was in much better spirits, but it made for a long night.

Even though the World Championships were over for us, Sterling, Leslie, and Donna still had their hands full tackling the final day’s cones course, and it was a doozy with one tricky rollback turn after another and what for a long time seemed to be an impossibly-tight time allowed. Respectable performances by our remaining U.S. drivers were encouraging but weren't enough to bring the team any higher than a disappointing 14th place finish, while the Germans seemed unstoppable in claiming both the Team and Individual Gold Medals. For us, the high hopes of the previous week had completely evaporated as we packed for a long, contemplative drive back to Germany to prepare for the exhausting trip home. I was fortunate to be asked by Suzy to fly home on the plane with Hunny, which is another experience that needs to be seen to be believed and could be the subject of an entire article on its own!

More than two weeks after my journey began I finally arrived back in Kentucky with a freshly-stamped passport, feeling like I had been transported home from an alternate reality. As an aspiring international driver, to see for myself the impressive level of competition in Europe was an invaluable and eye-opening experience in preparation for the future with Gracie. As we share the memories and process everything that happened, David and I find ourselves completely rethinking many aspects of our training and competition strategies as we now get ready for the fall and winter season in Florida. Even though we were devastated by the end result for Suzy and Team USA, we are so thankful to have had this opportunity and will never forget the experience gained as we learned to cope with great disappointment as well as success. It fueled a hunger for us to continue our participation and progress in driving sport at the elite level, and we will carry this knowledge with us to those future horizons – wherever they may lead.

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