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March 29, 2012

Road To The Olympics: Reed Kessler, Part 1

Cylana has stepped into the spotlight and answered all the tough questions for Reed Kessler. Photo by Molly Sorge.

In this series, the Chronicle follows seven riders as they seek to fulfill their Olympic dreams in London in 2012.

I think no matter what you walk into, you have to say, “I’m trying to win this,” or else you stand no chance. I want to be an international rider, and I want to make it to the Olympics in the future. But since I’m just 17 and this was my first time going through the selection trials process, I didn’t have any expectations.

I was hoping to execute every day to the best of my ability and make it to the end and put forth a decent performance for my first time so I could get my name out there and get some experience. I couldn’t have dreamed that it would go this well. [Kessler won the selection trials for the U.S. show jumping team for the London Olympic Games on Cylana and placed third on Mika. She’s ranked first and fifth on the U.S. Equestrian Federation team long list for the Games.]

[Kessler’s trainer] Katie [Prudent] said, “I knew this was going to happen,” and I told her, “Well, that makes one of us!”

There’s still a long way to go. I have barely any experience at this level. So far it’s been unbelievable, and I’m not taking anything away from myself; I understand the gravity of winning the trials. But I can’t realistically say “I’m going to London!” I would give my left arm to, but if someone with the experience and talent of Margie Engle  or McLain Ward takes my place, that would be OK.

I think it helped me going into the trials that I had no real expectations of making the team. I think it’s a lot harder to be someone like Beezie Madden or Margie Engle or Mario Deslauriers, who easily and very realistically could be on the team in London, whereas I just wanted to do the best that I could.

I kept saying, every day during thetrials, how happy and excited I was because I was exceeding my own expectations. I said to everyone, “Even if I fall off in the next round, I’ll be happy.” I’ve come so much farther than I thought I would have, and I’ve learned so much in the process.

It was so much fun. It was funny to see everyone so tense and so nervous, meanwhile our whole team just had a blast the whole week. We were having so much fun.

Practice Makes Perfect, No Matter The Height

It was very difficult to prepare for the trials, because only as of January have I been old enough to jump anything above a [CSIO**], which is 1.45 to 1.50 meters. It’s not like I could go to huge shows and get mileage jumping big jumps. It’s kind of like the blind leading the blind with me and my horses at this level.

So we showed at a lot of different venues, trying to prepare me to be able to walk in and execute no matter where we were. It was like doing the equitation all over again. I couldn’t jump bigger than 1.50 meters, but I was going to keep doing 1.50-meter courses until they were perfect, so when it came time to move up in January of this year, I’d be ready.

[Kessler jumped in her first FEI World Cup qualifier on Feb. 11 on Mika and had just one rail.]

[Katie], is one of the greatest talents that this country has ever seen. She just has so much feel. Some people have all that talent but can’t put it into words and help other people. But she has an amazing gift for teaching. She has a great way of describing exactly how she would ride something or fix something. She can almost telepathically communicate the idea to you, until you know exactly what it should feel like.

I was basically just moving up to the low juniors when I started riding with her four years ago. She’s brought me up from there to winning the trials. It’s shocking, because a few years ago she’d joke about me going to the Olympics, and I’d roll my eyes and laugh.

Last year, when we planned for the trials, I planned to ride Mika, since he’s so experienced. We jumped some smaller classes the first week of [the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival], but didn’t really start showing in the grand prix classes until halfway through circuit.

He’s a pretty nervous horse in general. But the more he goes, the more confidence he gets. It was a fine line of not wanting to over-use him before the trials, but since we’d never jumped that high, we figured we should probably get in there and do it a bit. We started around Week 4 in a two-star CSI here under the lights. He hadn’t gone under the lights in a year, and I had four rails.

But we kept doing more and building him up; he got better and better. The week before the trials, we just did two 1.40-meter classes, going very slowly and schooling. I think he was very confident for this week.

The Story Of Cylana

We got Cylana last summer during the USEF Young Rider European tour. We’d been looking for a speed horse for a long time, because Flight had been serving as my speed horse, and he’s 18 this year.

We went to look at the Etters’, which is a big sales barn in Switzerland. We had to decide between two horses—there was one who was really fast, but 1.45 meters was a stretch, and then there was Cylana. She had a lot of jump, but she was very overweight and had no muscle tone.

She’s so easy to ride that we thought that even if she didn’t work out for me, she’d for sure be sellable as a great junior horse.

Henri [Prudent] was with me on the tour, and as we finished up the last few shows, we started working with Cylana. But we babied her because she was so unfit. Katie likes to dig right in, so when we got Cylana home to Katie and Henri’s farm, she had me working her pretty hard. A week later, we took her to Chantilly [France] as her first show with me, and she was exhausted. I had three rails every day in the 1.35-meter classes, and Katie said, “I don’t know about this one.” But I really liked her, so I said, “Give her a little bit to get fit. Let’s try.”

We didn’t end up showing her that much over the summer. We just worked on fitness, and now she’s like a racehorse. We got to Florida, and she looked totally different. She looks like an athlete now, and she’s got so much energy.

I showed Cylana in a few smaller grand prix classes early in the circuit. She won the $30,000 WEF Challenge Cup in Week 6 and then had just one rail in the [$200,000 Bainbridge CSI-W]. She has such a great brain that we just kept moving her up and thought she might do well in the trials.
Cylana is a total professional. She has a briefcase and she goes to work. She’s so brave and scopey—she’s an overscoped equitation horse.

[Cylana jumped clear in Rounds 1 and 2 of the trials, then had 8 faults in Round 3, a massive course at night.]

She’s so fit, and she just picked up under the lights. She’s still a green horse, really—she’d only done one other night class. I don’t think I expected her to be as fresh as she was with all the jumping she’d done, but she went beautifully; she was just a bit electric, and so was I. And when I had that jump down in the last round [the back rail of the last oxer on course], I think I’d just gotten a little bit excited.

We still have to keep Cylana’s fitness up, so she goes on the treadmill every day. When I’m not showing, I’ll take her out along the canals and roads and trot and canter. She’s a monster now. When I rode her before the final jog after the trials, she was wild. Four huge rounds of 1.60-meter jumping in four days, and she was still insane!

Learning The Sophisticated Details

What I’ve really come away with from the trials is the realization that I can do it. I have what it takes to walk in next time and say, “Everybody had better watch out, because I can do this.”

Maybe I got a little excited to the last jump in the last round on Cylana, and I need to be able to ignore that and bring it home in the end. My weakest round for sure was the round with the largest jumps. Everyone said that was an Olympic-level round, and the experience of tackling such a big track was so educational.

I was happy because I did have a few mistakes that I could really identify and correct for the next night class. Mika has a pretty hard right drift, and as I was coming to 5AB, I let him drift a bit with his right bulge, and then the nine strides into the combination got a little bit long. So he had A and B down behind. After that, I thought to myself, “You know he goes right, so keep his shoulders straight so you can ride the line.” It’s just like in equitation, keeping your track straight.

Cylana’s still pretty green under the lights, and she was a little bit charged, and I was a little bit excited. As I was going to the double, she took me a little bit past the distance I wanted, and she’s so scopey and brave that I probably could have just taken my leg off her completely.

But you’re cantering up to this big 1.60-meter double of airy, wide, liverpool oxers and you think, “I just can’t help myself; I just want to help you with my leg.” There’s so much momentum in an approach like that that I probably could have just held her, but I legged her and she had a rail.

Then in C of the triple combination, I did need to help her. The scopey triple bar to an oxer to a really long one stride to a vertical is where I needed to kick, and I didn’t. I kicked in the wrong place. Lesson learned.

I talked it over with Katie and asked her what she thought of 5AB, and she said that maybe I could have held her off it and trusted her scope a bit more. But C of the triple, I immediately knew it was my fault. It was such a demanding jump off that distance. I gave her 90 percent, and I needed to give her 100 percent. There are some places where I need some insight into sophisticated moments, and Katie tells me what she thinks caused a problem. And of course there are also the obvious blunders where I mentally kick myself right away.

We’re going to stay in Florida for a while until it’s time to go to Kentucky [in early May for the first observation event] and then to Spruce Meadows in June.

But after this, it’s completely up to [U.S. Chef d’Equipe George Morris] where I show and what I show in. I’ll do whatever he says. I know it’s a long shot to actually be on the team, but I’m going to put everything I have into it as if I was one of the veterans going for it.

Fast Facts About Reed Kessler

Age: 17

Hometown: Armonk, N.Y., and Wellington, Fla. When showing in Europe in the summer, Kessler is based out of coach Katie Prudent’s farm in Rosières aux Salines, France.

Olympic Contenders: Cylana (birth name Cylana van de Ruitershoeve), a 10-year-old, chestnut Belgian Warmblood mare (Skippy II—Verona van de Ruiterhoeve, Darco), owned by Reed Kessler.

Mika, a 12-year-old, bay French-bred Selle Français gelding (Nidor Platiere—Faeva de Villiers, Rubis Rouge), owned by Reed Kessler.

“Cylana doesn’t have that much of a personality in the barn; she’s not a lovely and delicate little thing. But she’s all business in the ring,” Kessler said. “Mika is in general pretty nervous. We spoil the daylights out of him in order to get him cheeky and confident.”

Her Secret Weapon: Barn manager Tracey Edge. When Kessler moved up to bigger FEI classes three years ago, Katie Prudent recommended that she hire Edge, whose experience in grooming and management has given her thorough knowledge of FEI rules. In the past, Edge worked for event riders Abigail Lufkin and Bettina and Andrew Hoy and show jumper Cara Raether, so she’s a veteran of many international championships.

“Tracey is a genius. She’s phenomenal with the horses, and we all have a lot of faith in her,” Kessler said.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Reed Kessler Wasn't Quite Expecting To Be On This Road To The Olympics" ran in the April 9, 2012, issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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