In 2017, my daughter and I attended our first Kentucky Three-Day Event, or I supposed “Land Rover” as it is known now. I thought it would be just a bucket list thing, and once I had been I would feel like I could move on to other things. But just the opposite occurred. I’m hooked! And I’m looking forward to returning for many years to come.
We were fortunate that a friend, who has a daughter who events, lives in Cincinnati, about an hour away. And we were able to learn so much from their repeated attendance, which made our experience that much more enjoyable because we didn’t make the rookie mistakes.
So as we prepare to make our return Land Rover K3DE trip, I thought I’d pass along what we learned about how to make the most of your Kentucky experience.
You will need a general admission pass to gain access to the Horse Park. If you want seating, you will need to purchase grandstand tickets in addition. But trust me, it’s worth it! If you want grandstand seating, advanced purchase is the preferred way to go because availability is better. Grounds passes tend not to sell out (cross-country day would be the one to sell out, so get there early!), but the reserved seats for show jumping do go quickly, so don’t wait to buy those.
You will also find lots of people with last minute cancellations who offer to sell their tickets online. The big drawback here is that you don’t know who will have tickets become available, or if they are what you’re looking for. Some people only have general admission passes. Others have seating. Others only have a certain number of tickets, and you may need more or less than they have.
You can also buy tickets the day of at the Horse Park. But again, you don’t know what seating will be left for you to choose from. It does work well on cross-country day, because there’s a lot more flexibility in attendance, and all you need is the grounds pass.
First Things First…
Friendly announcement! The Heels Down and Horse Junkies United team will be on the ground in Kentucky this year! We have a lot of fun things planned, including a live taping of a special Heels Down Happy Hour podcast episode on Friday and a street team helping out with the Asmar WEG Challenge on Saturday. Stay tuned to heelsdownmag.com for the full scoop!
You can also purchase a preferred parking pass when you buy your tickets. The more you can upgrade your parking, the better, in my opinion. General parking can put you out out by the polo fields on cross country day, and that means a ton more walking on what is already a long and arduous day.
What to Wear
Be comfortable! April in Kentucky can be hot and humid, or chilly and damp. Watch the forecast, and dress accordingly. Layers are always good because you can adjust as needed. Dubarry boots are quite popular, as are the rubber Hunter boots when it’s really wet. If you’re wearing regular paddock boots or sneakers, consider wearing a pair of rubber shoe covers to keep your feet a bit drier. In any event, I highly recommend a fresh pair of dry socks (stashed in a ziplock bag, just in case), and maybe even a fresh pair of dry shoes.
Be prepared for rain – without your umbrella. The weather during Kentucky is notoriously wet and muddy. So be ready for it. In 2017, there were a couple of periods of significant rain, including about a 30 minute session in the middle of the cross-country action. Rain jackets, rain pants, plastic ponchos, and baseball hats are the order of the day when Mother Nature announces her presence like that.
Consider bringing a pair of flip-flops and leaving them in your car. This can give your feet a break when you return to the parking lot for your drive home.
Last year’s program cost $10, but it’s the best money you’ll spend to get an understanding of what is happening. It gives you the entire dressage test, the entire cross-country course obstacle by obstacle, and the show jumping course. It reviews memorable moments from the past, notable competitors, and a complete map of all the vendors. Plus, they tuck in an order of go. Competitors go in the same order for dressage and cross-country. Then they go in reverse order of standing for show jumping.
Get the LRK3DE app for your phone. It will keep you up to date on order of go, standing, scores – even the weather forecast. If it’s raining, put your phone in a Ziploc sandwich bag, so you can use it in the rain without getting it wet.
Horse inspections are done on Wednesday afternoon, to ensure the horses are fit to continue on to begin competition on Thursday, and on Sunday morning following cross-country. This is where you get to see every horse and rider, and they are evaluated for soundness. There has also come to be quite the fashion element to what riders wear when they jog their horses, particularly on Wednesday. Also, remember that sometimes other people (like a groom) will jog a horse out when a rider has multiple entries.
The dressage portion of the competition takes two days. It will usually run most of the day, depending on how many riders there are are. With a test that runs about six minutes each, it takes a while to get through everyone.
Cross-Country Course Walks
A lot of brands offer a walk of a few of the cross country course with their sponsored riders or other experts. They schedule for these varies, though most of them occur on Friday. Keep an eye on social media and brand pages for updates on what walks are available and with who.
We did the course walk offered by SmartPak, with Boyd Martin and Ryan Wood. It only covered four jumps, but that was a fair distance. There were other walks with Jim Wofford and Karen O’Connor, with whom we joined up when Boyd and Ryan were finished. Here, they went into some of the technical detail about how they would approach a particular question, and what was the most important aspect to successfully navigating it. It was interesting to see how that matched up with the actual rides we saw in the competition the following day.
The course is long. Last year it was about four miles long. That can make for a really tiring expedition for a spectator, especially if you aren’t prepared for it. There are two ways to do cross country: stationary, or walking. If you choose a single place to set up, get there early. I guarantee you aren’t the only one who wants to see everybody ride through the Head of the Lake.
If you want to walk it, figure out where the nearest point to your car is, and start from there. Then, walk the course as if you were a rider. It may mean that you start in the middle of the course, but you will see every jump, and you’ll walk it all – you’ll have to in order to get back to your car. Plus that will leave you with the shortest walk back to your car when it’s all over for the day, and you’re exhausted.
Regardless of how you choose to take on the cross-country competition, bring a backpack and load it down with drinks and snacks. You are very limited in available food and beverages out on course, so it’s pretty much what you bring with you. Just remember to put your trash back in your backpack until you find a trash can on course. They’re out there, but they’re sparsely populated, and can be tough to locate.
Pay Attention to the Cross-Country Stewards
Perhaps most importantly, follow the instructions of the cross country course stewards. They are there for a reason! Listen for the whistle, indicating a rider is approaching. Stay alert! There have been instances of a horse spooking or a spectator otherwise interfering and causing a problem for a rider.
There’s also some fun pomp and circumstance, as there are local riders who serve as mounted stewards, dressed in their hunt garb. Talk to them! They are willing and proud to share with interested spectators about their horse, and their hunt.
Additionally, please keep your dog on a leash and in control if you do bring him or her. Dogs can be highly disruptive, and while most horses are used to them it’s important to be respectful. Dogs are a very common sighting in Kentucky, so your pooch is welcome but his bad manners are not.
With the number of competitors dwindling over the prior two phases, there are usually about 30 or 40 pairs left to complete the show jumping course. So the action starts later, around 1 p.m., and lasts until about 3 p.m. But that grandstand ticket is really worth it for the best view of the action.
If you’re wanting to hear an expert opinion on the dressage and show jumping action, consider renting a headset. They’re $20/day, and can be rented for the day or the duration of the show. Through them, you get access to ongoing commentary by a seasoned eventer, pointing out what dressage moves are scoring well, and where the challenges are on the jump course. Last year, the commentator was Lucinda Green, and I found her narration to be quite helpful.
The shopping at K3DE is an eventer’s paradise! All the vendors you know, and even some you may not know, are there. Brands set up enormous stores, stocked to the gills with everything you could imagine you or your horse could need. The vendors are open until 5 p.m. daily, so you have time to shop after the day’s competition is complete. But don’t underestimate how long you could spend perusing all that is offered.
There are also some non-equestrian vendors, but they are more the exception, and tend to be jewelry focused.
We were warned that the food was not great. But our experience was that the food was delicious. I can’t wait for another bourbon chicken sandwich, and Nutella crepe. Yum! But consider going for your food run on off hours, as lines can be quite long and slow.
There are permanent facilities at Rolex Stadium. Be prepared for lines, and consider making your run at a time other than scheduled breaks to avoid the crowd. Obviously, on cross country day, you’re limited to port-a-potties, unless you’re willing to hike all the way back to Rolex Stadium.
Cameras and Pictures
It goes without saying, but take extra fully charged batteries and extra empty memory cards for your camera. I’d also recommend the biggest, most bada$$ lens you can deal with. You’re close to the action, and the “regular” pictures are great. But it’s really incredible to get photos of a rider’s expression going over a nail biter of a fence, or the horse’s expression as he takes on a big cross country jump. The extra zoom capability is also helpful when you can’t get quite as close as you want.
Bring three times as many SD cards as you think you could possibly ever need. You just never know, and once your card is full, you’re stuck. Then download your photos from the memory card to the cloud or your laptop when you return home for the day. Just in case…
After the cross country competition is done, the course is open for spectators who want to take photos next to the huge, stomach churning obstacles. If you’ve got your Wellies on, you can even go into the water. Just be mindful that there are others who want to take their pictures too.
One woman made a production out of being the only person on a giant table, with the repeated plea of “just two more pictures.” She then proceeded to spend nearly 15 minutes taking photos, hogging the jump, when others were waiting. When she finally left, another person cut in front of us for their photo op, and got some well-deserved eye roll from others who were also waiting. And then they proceeded to get snarky. The point is, remember that you aren’t the only one who wants a picture. Wait your turn, be quick, be polite, and move on. These are mementos, not Pulitzer Prize winning photos, you’re taking.
Tour the Kentucky Horse Park
Consider coming a day early, and taking a tour of the Kentucky Horse Park. There are some past Kentucky Derby winners enjoying their retirement there, as well as the headquarters for groups like the US Equestrian Federation, the US Dressage Federation. There are also famous retired race horses, and memorials to legends like War Admiral.
Enjoy Local Fare
When you’ve left the Horse Park for the day, have dinner at a local place. My favorite is Joe Bologna’s Pizzeria in Lexington. Their garlic breadsticks are amazing! Our Cincinnati friends introduced us to Dewey’s Pizza, and Skyline Chili. And we did make our mandatory run for Greater’s Ice Cream. See what local eats you can find, and make your own Kentucky traditions.
And be sure to stop by the sponsor village row, where SmartPak will be set up with all the wares you could possibly need!