Olympic horses, Rappahannock roots

The Wildasins (Jim, Arden and Sarah) with Il Vicio, one of Arden’s intermediate horses, at home in Rappahannock County. Photo by Lauren R. Giannini.
The Wildasins (Jim, Arden and Sarah) with Il Vicio, one of Arden’s intermediate horses, at home in Rappahannock County. Photo by Lauren R. Giannini.

For equestrians following the London Olympics, three-day eventing runs from Saturday through Tuesday (July 28-31). The excitement built steadily this year, hitting some very high notes in April at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, the international four-star, the first major step for horse-and-rider combinations making their bid for the U.S. Olympic team.

For the Wildasins of Sperryville, the run-up to London provided them with a wild ride of optimism, hope and intense excitement as they cheered their two horses through the selection process.

They’re on Sunday

The two Wildasin horses and riders are scheduled to begin Sunday, July 29, at about 11:30 a.m. EDT (Coleman/Twizzel) and 2:30 p.m. (Dutton/Mystery Whisper). If you have MSNBC on cable or satellite, you can also stream the competition video online at www.nbcolympics.com.

And now, confirmed for London: not one but two of the family’s horses, Twizzel (with Will Coleman of Virginia) and Mystery Whisper (with Phillip Dutton of Pennsylvania). For owners to witness one horse make the leap onto the international stage is huge, but for two owned by one family to get to the Olympics – well, that’s the ultimate dream.

“There’s lots of excitement in the family – it’s great that they both made the team,” understated Jim Wildasin.

The head of the Wildasin horsehold says he rode once as a child and didn’t get anywhere near horses for about 30 years. His wife, Sarah, however, is an avid foxhunter and trail rider in Virginia and South Carolina. Their daughter, Arden, 18, is hooked on three-day eventing – Dutton is her coach – and, thanks to horses, the family ended up in Rappahannock County.

Twizzel and Will Coleman at Rolex Kentucky, the premier four-star this side of the Atlantic, where they placed fifth on the strength of two clean jumping rounds. Photo by Lauren R. Giannini.
Twizzel and Will Coleman at Rolex Kentucky, the premier four-star this side of the Atlantic, where they placed fifth on the strength of two clean jumping rounds. Photo by Lauren R. Giannini.

“One year we moved to Aiken [South Carolina] and never made it back to Connecticut,” recalled Wildasin. “At that point, Arden had a number of horses. When we drove through Virginia, we thought it was the most beautiful state. One weekend we made a trip to visit places we had found on the internet, and Montpelier was the last house we saw that day. We stood on the porch, looked out and said this is it!

With Aiken serving as their winter quarters, the rest of the year Arden’s horses are ensconced in the barn at Montpelier, the historic F.T. Valley mansion built by the valley’s namesake, Francis Thornton. Upon one’s approach, the dogs check out all visitors – and then, invariably, all visitors check out those enthralling views.

The move to Virginia accomplished something else: Wildasin now has his very own horse, Benjamin Button, a handsome Cleveland Bay crossbred, and this self-avowed pleasure rider totally gets the high-performance equestrian world. Wildasin waited patiently for four years to see Twizzel fulfill his potential. In November, he bought Mystery Whisper for Arden, but they sent the talented upper-level prospect to Dutton’s farm for more training and mileage. The duo won three three-stars in early 2012, which opened the door wide for Dutton and Whisper to make a bid for the Olympic team.

“It isn’t an accident that the two people who have our horses are Will and Phillip,” said Jim Wildasin. “What we respect about both Will and Phillip is their exceptional horsemanship.”

Three-day eventing harks back to the early part of the 20th century, when most nations fielded cavalry regiments. At the Stockholm Olympics in 1912, Army officers competed in the debut of “The Military,” whose three phases are part of training for battle: Dressage nurtured elegance and precision on the parade ground; cross-country jumping tested courage and endurance of horse and officer, who often had to relay important messages at speed over various obstacles and terrain; stadium jumping was the final test of soundness and precision over fences that fell at a touch. Most nations cross-entered officers in the dressage and show jumping.

The Olympics allowed civilians in 1924, non-commissioned Army officers in 1956, and the first women participated in equestrian events in 1964. The rest, as they say, is history. The British soon renamed “The Military” as, simply, three-day eventing – and it caught on quickly around the world.

Arden Wildasin got hooked on horses as a child in Connecticut. She participated in the local U.S. Pony Club until she was about 12. That’s when her mother prompted a decision: Stay with pony club or go eventing.

“When I needed more push, I got introduced to Phillip Dutton,” explained Arden. “I was about 16. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without him. I see him as a second father. If I go cross-country and he says do this, I trust him. Dad was always into it. He gives the reins over to the rider – Phillip and Will – and they know what’s best for the horse. Dad really gets the game.”

Wildasin says that horses have to love what they’re doing and have the physical skills to accomplish it, and that they should be run only when they’re ready and the rider must also be ready, but being “qualified” doesn’t necessarily mean ready.

The Wildasins’ Mystery Whisper and Phillip Dutton at their first competition of 2012, which led to three consecutive wins on the three-star level and a bid for the Olympic team. Courtesy of Beth Harpham/equidigital.com.
The Wildasins’ Mystery Whisper and Phillip Dutton at their first competition of 2012, which led to three consecutive wins on the three-star level and a bid for the Olympic team. Courtesy of Beth Harpham/equidigital.com.

“One reason why Arden has multiple horses is a safety thing,” emphasized Wildasin. “If she has two or three rides, she’s that much more experienced each time she leaves the start to go around that particular cross-country. We’re very fortunate that Arden has the opportunity to ride several horses.”

Safety is a huge concern. Piloting a half-ton of incredibly fit horse over the cross-country is not for the faint of heart. As horses and riders work up through the levels the jumping, the test “questions” get bigger and more technical.

“Every competition [for me] is about learning,” said Arden. “My goal is to ride as many four-stars around the world as I can. For the Olympics, the horses have it in them. I can’t wait to go over and be behind the scenes and then come back and build that relationship with Whisper.”

Arden and her parents are living the dream that has fired up so many horse-crazy kids of all ages. They want their horses to do well, but the bottom line is that the horses, an integral part of their family, come out of this great adventure safe and sound.

In addition to Dutton and Mystery Whisper, Coleman and Twizzel, the team includes Boyd Martin (Pennsylvania) on Otis Barbotiere, Karen O’Connor (Virginia) on Mr. Medicott and Tiana Coudray (California) on Ringwood Magister. The potential exists for the U.S. to bring home a team medal, but each horse and rider must put in the test of their lives in all three phases.

“You never know what’s going to happen, but we’re thinking positively – it’s a great team,” said Arden. “It would be great to see both of our horses and riders come out on the other side with the pride that says they tried their hardest. It would be great to win a medal. Whatever happens, all we really want is for the horses to come out of the competition all right.”