The Race to Le Lion: 'Onto the Fun Stuff!'

Authored By: Judith McSwain
Rory and her support crew after dressage. Photo by Libby Law.

This is my first trip to Europe and it has been full of new experiences. One of my favorite experiences so far is the ability to walk to so many places.  You ask Europeans how far something is and the consistent response is 20 minutes. We have learned 20 minutes can range from 10 to 45.

The farmhouse we booked is a 10-minute walk from the grounds. However, I was ready for the 20-minute European walk. I walked to the end of our quaint street. I looked, and saw the gorgeous cross-country fences.  We really were only 10 minutes away… little did I know, it was 10 minutes from the edge of the property. The Hippodrome du Lion d’Angers is a gigantic property. Shannon [McCormick, Rory’s groom] had told me it was a 30-minute walk. I thought to myself “she left in the dark and surely must be mistaken.” I headed off at a brisk pace for Wednesday’s jog, as I passed the first closed gate, the 20-minute rule came to mind.

The scenery was amazing, lots of old cottages, a new equestrian facility and finally a beautiful stone gated entrance, leading to a very long tree line road. Walking down the path, I saw lush green grass, paddocks and gradually cross-country fences, which are works of art. I was amazed at the creativity, workmanship and challenging appearance. The path ended at a beautiful stabling area with concrete barns and a very creative jogging lane.

One of many beautiful cross-country fences. Photo courtesy of Judith McSwain. 

The setting was amazing for the first horse inspection. I watched as the most promising 7-year-old horse and riders, presented and jogged elegantly in front of me. Tamie and Rory moved in to line and then I heard it, “Fleeceworks Royal and Tamara Smith USA”. My heart skipped a beat. I swallowed hard, holy cow. Here we are, the dream came true.

Tamie was smarty turned out in a dress that complemented her dapple grey partner. Rory raised her head, calmly looked around and seemed to say, “these must be all my fans.” They passed the jog with flying colors. We heard the magic word, "accepted."

Yesterday was started off at the same wonderful pace. Staying so close to the Hippodrome has let us start each day at a civilized hour. The closest gate is now open so we are really only 10 minute walk from the center of the competition area and the trade fair. The stabling is still a bit further. As we were walking and talking about the awe of our surroundings, a wonderful lady heard our accents and said, “you have come a long way,” as she chatted with us about our journey and our experiences.  She was so gracious and made us feel so welcome. She was the mother of the British competitor, Kitty King, and although we did not know it, it was to be one of many such delightful encounters through our day.

We arrived in the barn area as Tamie, Rory and Shannon were getting ready. Tamie had taken Rory out for a canter that morning and told us she felt great.  We quickly put on our special jackets made to complement our USEA/USA ball caps. The front said Holekamp/Turner Grant. The back said USA Le Lion d’Angers 2016 7 YR Old World Championships. We were ready!

Tamie and Rory were early in the order of go, having drawn the third position. The riders are provided two warm-up areas. The first a grass court in the trees. The next is adjacent to the in-gate. It is gorgeous with emerald green grass and a back drop of the village of Le Lion with its 300-year-old cathedral.

Tamie and Rory’s warm-up was wonderful. Suddenly it was time. We heard overhead, “Tamara Smith and Fleeceworks Royal USA.” Our USA bred girl went up the center line and landed a square halt.  A visual of the up and downs of three and a half years went through my mind. I just smiled. It had all been worth this moment. Tamie and Rory looked amazing. Their test was beautiful, flowing and balanced. I could not have been more proud.

Rory and Tamie earning a 51.3 in dressage. Libby Law Photo. 

Rory and Tamie’ s cheering section were waiting at the exit gate, where big hugs and smiles abounded. The incredible photographer, Libby Law was there and captured our moment in time. Rory, graciously accepted the accolades and praise from her most ardent fans.  We walked back to the barn. Rory let us give her big hugs. We told her how amazing she was, to which she looked at us as if to say “of course.” We promptly head to the trade fair afterwards.

The trade fair was very large with over 100 assorted vendors from horse trailers to scarves. My friends and I made the first pass today. The vendors were wonderful and helpful us communicate. We were quite overwhelmed and vowed to return later.

The next stop was back to the dressage arena to cheer on Robyn Fisher and Betawave the second U.S. competitor who made the trip across the pond. It is wonderful to have another U.S.-bred horse and her group here. While we were watching dressage, different individuals from various nations came up, commented on our jackets, welcomed us warmly. There were always a few wonderful moments sharing the international bond that unites us, horses. We have felt that people on the grounds and in the town of Le Lion to have been incredibly friendly and genuinely helpful.

Photo courtesy of Judith McSwain. 

The next adventure was walking the most incredible and beautiful cross-country course with Tamie. It is always so interesting to learn about the course through the eyes of an experienced rider. We were able to walk up to the fences, see heights, widths, drops and angles. It looks like a challenging course. Each fence is really a piece of art with incredible details. We, the cheering section, were planning our spectating strategy as we walked. The question, as always, is how to maximize the number of fences to see. I am excited to see how each fence will ride and what Rory will think of the course.

Judith and Tamie checking out the drop. Photo courtesy of Judith McSwain.

We left Tamie and headed back for the farm house. The trade fair just happened to be in the way. We were forced to make initial purchases with some thoughts lingering on the candy apple red or French blue breeches.

Dinner ended up a minor adventure. We decided to try a restaurant recommended to us by Janet Murphy, Chef d’Equipe of the Irish Team. After the conversation, it appeared to be close by and the directions sounded simple. Well after again taking a driving tour of the surrounding French countryside in the dark without finding the restaurant, we instead found a place within walking distance. They had crepes, not just crepes, but amazing crepes, so we have crossed another item off our bucket list…eating crepes in France.

Rory does not compete today. It looks like she will have a jump school. We may go into town or stay local and explore.

I close the blog out with anticipation of cross-country day tomorrow, the excitement we all feel. When the first horse leaves the box; when we hear the overhead announcement, with the number, the rider, the horse name and country, when we see these amazing teams in action. I wish everyone the best. I wish Tamie and Rory an extra spot of good luck, and to know I will be mentally riding every fence with them and running between others. Lastly, I will try prepare myself to be ready to hear those words from overhead, “and now out of the box representing the USA Tamara Smith and Fleeceworks Royal.” I do not think I will have dry eyes no matter how I try.

Go Holekamp/Turner Grant, Go Fleeceworks Royal, Go U.S. bred and MOST of ALL GO USA! 

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  • Judy McSwain