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Julie Wolfert: Eventing and the Fine Art of Equine Ballet

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“My favorite moment is when they salute the judge at the end of their competition or when they’re making a great jump. Those moments never get old. That’s why I love my job. To see that accomplishment on their faces is super rewarding,” she enthused.

If horse racing is the sport of kings, then eventing is the entertainment of the gods. The melding of horse and rider as one is intensely evident as they together negotiate harrowing jumps, travel treacherous routes or perform the detailed and precise ballet of routines. This breathtaking performance is followed by many throughout the world, but successfully completed by only a few. It is an Olympic competition that the Greek gods would take great pleasure in observing.

Eventing is a challenging and costly sport, since the rider must have a skilled and highly trained horse that takes years to develop and prepare. For the United States, nearly all of the big names in the sport of eventing live on the East and West Coasts, except for the Midwest’s own Julie Wolfert. Twenty-five year old Julie calls Bucyrus, Kansas, home, and it also houses her eventing business. Julie Wolfert Eventing is run out of her farm, Chaps Equestrian Center, and offers a wide variety of services including horse training, boarding, sales and lessons. Julie actively competes in events all over the country with her many students.

“I went into the sport of eventing because of my love of horses, and it seems that I’ve always loved them. It was something I was born with because my mom enjoyed horses, too,” remembered Julie. “I started with Western riding and then moved into English riding. Then one day I was watching the Olympics on TV and saw eventing. I told my mom I wanted to do that sport. That was around 2005, and I’ve been in eventing ever since.”

     Eventing is an equine triathlon, combining three different disciplines in one competition. It can be run as a one-day event, in which all three segments are completed, or separated into a day for each area. It has a long and colorful past springing from the testing of cavalry members of many years ago, requiring its participants to display skills in several types of riding. Eventing features a single horse-and-rider team going up against other teams across the three areas.

Dressage is commonly referred to as horse ballet because horse and rider are expected to perform a series of specific fixed movements that are scored by judges. Cross-country includes running a specified course with jumps while the rider and horse are timed. “Show jumping is the grand finale of the three phases and the most well known. It features a series of jumps over various obstacles with no refusals by the horse or hitting the poles,” noted Julie. “Horse and rider have about two minutes to navigate ten obstacles such as fences or barriers.”

Julie’s success at eventing has been growing steadily. She’s scored many top-notch performances in national and international competition throughout the years. After a stellar performance in a regional event held in Montana, she was named to the prestigious 2014 United States Equestrian Federation Developing Riders/Eventing 25 Participants List. With that honor came the opportunity to train in Florida with the head coach of the Olympic Equestrian Team and Olympic gold medalist David O’Connor. “It was so neat to be in that program and compete with upper-level riders,” enthused Julie. “I’ve always dreamed of being a member of the Olympic Team, and after the exposure I received at this training, it might have been in my future.”

But unfortunately for Julie, tragedy struck as her beloved horse Buenos Aires passed away in June. The loss was a tremendous blow to her program and emotionally to her. “Aires was a once-in-a-lifetime horse. He was extremely athletic, and it seemed that the harder the exercise, the

easier he was to ride, as he would be more focused and engaged,” recalled Julie. “He was my top horse and the one that was going to take me places. He was an off-the-track Thoroughbred that I trained myself from square one. It was quite an accomplishment to have taken the horse from the lowest to the highest levels of eventing. His loss was devastating to me.”

At this time, she’s riding Buenas Suerte, a five-year-old Thoroughbred that is also off the track. But he is currently in the early stages of eventing, and it takes many years to get a horse to the top levels. “He isn’t as talented as Aires but he does give it his all, so it will be interesting to see how far he will let me take him,” she said.

Julie remains hopeful that perhaps a more developed horse will come her way. Right now she’s networking with others in the eventing field, especially syndicates with available horses. “With the right horse, you could say I might have a slight shot at the 2020 Olympics,” she said. “Eventing is a very humbling sport, as you have to rely on your equine partner to be healthy and sound. I am currently looking for a horse that has the potential and athleticism that Aires had to get me back to the top again.” But eventing is a very expensive sport to do on your own. Julie is very focused on fundraising to be able to continue her riding career. Donations and sponsorships are solicited on a regular basis, and Julie sells various logoed advertising specialties to raise even more money.

Julie is not only focused on her own riding future but also helping younger riders realize the potential of their eventing careers. Julie Wolfert Eventing has many students, all at different stages of learning. Julie can help anyone from a pre-beginner novice to an international rider obtain success. “Students bring their horses, and I train the horses and the students together. The students range in age from eight years old to over 50. You don’t have to be a particular age to participate in my program, and you can compete at any age in eventing.”

During her training sessions, Julie works with each student as she teaches him or her the finer points of dressage, show jumping and cross country. Some of the sessions are conducted privately, while Julie encourages students to train together, helping each other through challenges. Julie also gives eventing clinics in order to reach a larger group of students. “My success is solid, and I can help others as they learn from me. I believe that dressage is the building block for eventing students, and you can layer the other segments on top of that foundation,” she noted. “I stick with key movements and explain why they are doing it, and they get the movement and understand it. Then they go on to the next level.”

Eventing can be one of the most thrilling sports to participate in and enjoy as a spectator, and when you’re in the right program, it can be very safe. Julie says it educates children about everyday life and the accountabilities that go with it. “It teaches your child responsibility at an early age because they take care of the horse. It’s such a great learning experience for kids, and it’s also a good therapy tool. In eventing, you just connect with your horse. Sometimes there are tough things going on in your life, and you ride your horse for therapy to get you through it. And don’t think that I haven’t seen parents negotiate with their kids while using the horse as leverage,” laughed Julie.

While Julie has many great recollections of her own accomplishments in the eventing arena, the most memorable ones involve her students. “My favorite moment is when they salute the judge at the end of their competition or when they’re making a great jump. Those moments never get old. That’s why I love my job. To see that accomplishment on their faces is super rewarding,” she enthused. “Also, one of my students won a competition that allowed her to go to Young Riders, which is the ‘Junior Olympics’ for eventing held in Lexington, Kentucky. It made me feel good that I produced a student who was able to achieve this.”

Those favorite moments involving her students are quite plentiful for Julie. At the National Championships last year in Tyler, Texas, all of her students who were qualified placed in various segments of the competition; many were top ten finishes. In addition, another student took twelfth and Julie took fourth in the Intermediate Division, which is the second highest division offered at the event.

While the efforts of Julie and her students are quite impressive, she laments that very few people realize that Kansas does offer impressive contributions to the sport of eventing. “The hardest part for our sport is being in the Midwest, because the major shows are held on East and West coasts, which limits your ability to spend time training with more advanced riders. The travel is extensive to get to these shows, so I’m really focused on fundraising to be able to afford to do this. But there are a lot of people in the Midwest who want to participate in eventing. I’m proud that I’m able to bring a lot of knowledge and experience to this area and help grow the sport.”

To be successful in eventing, a qualified rider is only half of the equation. For eventing, you have your own horse that is exceptionally well trained, and the student must learn how to ride the horse. Each horse rides very differently, and unfortunately, they can do whatever they want. Julie focuses on cross-training sessions in which riders practice each segment of eventing as the horse and rider become a team, each one anticipating the actions of the other as they negotiate the challenges before them.“You know the horse and the horse knows you,” noted Julie. “You’re on a 1,300-pound animal with a mind of its own, and when you’re going up for a big jump, you’ve got to trust one another. You have to be one with the horse. I can’t really describe it, but there’s an intense bond between human and animal in this sport. Horse people are different from others. We love our horses, and they are our world.”

While Julie continues her efforts to promote the exciting and exacting sport of eventing in this region, she will challenge herself and her students to be the best they possibly can be. The sport has little room for error, while pushing horse and rider to even loftier heights and more difficult tests of strength and endurance. Yes, the thrilling sport of eventing could be described as entertainment for the gods, but for Julie, eventing truly is the ride of a lifetime.