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Event Rider Kim Severson: How It All Started

In five years, eventer Kim Severson catapulted from a "surprise" win at the 1999 Rolex Kentucky CCI*** to a team bronze and individual silver medal at the Athens Olympics. Here's a look back at the foundations of her stellar career.


When she won the 1999 Rolex Kentucky CCI*** on Over The Limit ("Jake"), Kim Severson (then Kim Vinoski) left a field of better-known competitors in the dust--and left the many eventing fans who hadn't heard of her playing catch-up. Over the rest of the year, proving that Rolex was no fluke, she...
  • qualified for the US Equestrian Teams' Pan American Games eventing squad--though a stone bruise kept Jake (and her) from competing
  • finished second with Jake at Britain's Blenheim Petplan International CCI*** while touring on a USET grant
  • won Pennsylvania Radnor Hunt International CCI** with Silent Partner ("Mars").
An impressive string of achievements for any rider in any year, it was even more so because Kim's 1998 was more notable for what didn't happen.

Promise, Letdown and "Blessing in Disguise"
Kim and her longtime event horse, Jerry McGerry ("Jeremy"), had started 1998 with high hopes--until he bowed a tendon on steeplechase at Rolex, the first CCI*** for them both. Shortly afterward, she got the ride on Jake, whom she began aiming toward October's Fair Hill CCI***.

But in September, a fall with a young horse at the Middleburg, Va., cross-country water jump broke her pelvis. And just like that, the season that began with such promise was over, and Kim "dropped out of everybody's sight," says Olympic three-day veteran Jim Wofford, who'd been coaching her since the beginning of the year.

A disaster? Well, no, says Kim. "The fall was a blessing in disguise; I became stronger, more determined."

Finding a Way to Do It
Examples of determination had never been in short supply while Kim was growing up in Tuscon, Ariz. Back East, her mother, Jackie Severson, had suffered from severe respiratory problems; when doctors advised her to give up horses, "I told them I'd rather be dead," Jackie says cheerfully. Instead, she moved the family to the Southwest.

Jackie took an equally direct approach to her children's riding. "If you had a pony, you had to ride it," she says. "If you wanted to show, you had to take lessons. If you took lessons, you had to practice. If you didn't want to have a pony, you didn't have to ride at all. That was fine with me."

She actively sought trainers who could teach Kim and her older sister, Kirsten, to "really ride--I wanted them to be safe." But as for daily responsibilities, "They had to want to do it badly enough to do it for themselves."

In her teens, after years of dressage lessons, Kim began eventing with Canadian Dale Irvin and Arizona trainer Nathan Martin. At eighteen, she attended a clinic in Phoenix with former Olympic three-day coach Jack Le Goff; he offered her one of his horses to ride if she would re-locate to Virginia to pursue the sport seriously. She took him up on his offer.

With two horses (Jack's and the one she'd brought east), Kim took a full-time job with Dominion Saddlery. By the end of two years, she felt the need to reassess where she was.

In 1996, she moved to Charlottesville--where, looking for a way to do the horses full-time, she answered an ad for a training job at a local farm owned by Linda Wachtmeister, but "I was way too ambitious for what Linda wanted. Jeremy was ready to go Intermediate, and I had all these ideas about the Olympics!"

The disappointment turned out to be another disguised blessing. When Linda re-advertised the job a few months later, Kim--never short of determination--responded again. This time, Linda says, "I felt it was pretty much meant to be."

By the following summer, Linda had been drawn into the excitement of Kim's goals and was buying horses for her to ride. For the enthusiastic new owner, the setbacks of 1998 were a reality check--but not a discouragement. "She's never looked back," says Kim.

New Ride, Different Person
Kim's painful fracture took six weeks to heal. Did she begin riding--and jumping--sooner than the doctors had advised? "Of course." And when she did, she realized that her enforced furlough had "made me less inhibited."

Before the fall, Kim says, Jim Wofford had been encouraging her to develop "a more horse-friendly style: getting the horse in a balanced frame while I stayed in the middle of him, and just letting it flow ... But I rode to jumps like a dressage rider: get my horse very collected, get him organized, send him to the jump and have a big effort."

In the aftermath of the fall, Kim says, she found Jim's advice making sense to her on a gut level. "I'd been trying to make it so complicated. Now I was much more determined just to go and do it. It was a different feel, a new ride; I was a different person."

In spring 1999, with Rolex her new goal for Jake's first three-star (and her first for all practical purposes), Kim prepared by running the horse conservatively at three horse trials. Especially after her dashed 1998 expectations with Jeremy, her '99 Rolex hopes were modest: "to get around and stay on."

One of the things that really helped once she got to Kentucky, Kim says, was walking the rolling cross-country course with Jim. "Jim remembers all the other stuff you may have forgotten [by the time you get to Advanced]. You're focusing on the distances at the coffin; he says, 'Look around--you're in the trees here, you've jumped from light into dark.' At Rolex, for instance, he reminded those of us who were new that there'd be a huge crowd--more than we'd ever seen on course--around the Head of the Lake."

Standing fifth after dressage, Kim and Jake were still learning about each other on endurance day. "It was my first steeplechase with him--he was fabulous!" The cross-country course flowed past. A clean round positioned them to win the whole thing on stadium day despite having rails at the first and last fences.

"I'm delighted," Jim Wofford said after stadium. "But I'm not surprised."

Fine-Tuning the Basics
Kim's Rolex win catapulted her into a new world. Short-listed for the USET's Pan Am Games three-day squad, she received dressage coaching during the summer selection trials from team chef d'equipe Captain Mark Phillips.

Mark "went back and fine-tuned the basics. He improved the gaits, getting Jake really collected and light. I'd had a lot of dressage rubbed into my head over the years, but there were small things I think I'd forgotten. Mark caught all those things--like making sure that my horse is truly bent correctly in the half-pass ... He put them together and made everything work that much better."

A perfectionist prone to "agonizing over details" herself, Kim was learning from someone on her wavelength. "Mark doesn't let up until you've gotten what he wants." When she ended up on a USET Developing Rider tour with Jake, Mars went along for the mileage--and for lessons with Mark as well.

By this time, Kim was prepared for the Mark Phillips effect. "Mars is a bigger horse than Jake, and Mark said I wasn't asking for all he could give. He told me to ride him more forward, more down and around--and really make him pay attention." After three lessons, the 16.3-hand gelding became much more rideable; at events, he rose from his accustomed middle-of-the-pack spot at the end of the dressage phase to the top handful of placings.

"He HAD to Jump This Water"
At the Blenheim CCI***, Jake's dressage score (another result of Mark's coaching) set the stage for the high point of Kim's British tour: a tie for first place with France's Franck Bourney. (The tiebreaker, in Franck's favor, was Kim's cross-country time, 22 seconds over time allowed).

Meanwhile, however, there was the question developing about Mars and water. "He was a little sticky at the North Georgia water in the spring, but it's a lot of water for a new Intermediate horse to look at; I thought nothing of it. At Thirlstane Castle in Scotland, the first water is an actual flowing stream, almost a river, and the footing isn't great. I think it threw Mars for a loop, and he stopped at the second water on course. At our next event, he again stopped at the second water."

Coming up at home was the fall eventing season, culminating at the Radnor CCI**, where Kim hoped to run Mars for the AHSA Fall Three-Day Event Championship. But a lead-up event was Middleburg, where her fall and injury just a year before had occurred at the water jump.

At Middleburg, an anxious Kim went to Jim for support. "I said, 'What am I going to do? The horse is having water problems, and I fell here last year, and...' He just looked at me and said, 'I didn't bring my couch with me'--in other words, stop analyzing and go do the job. It was like a slap in the face, but I knew he was right. You have to realize that's how it's going to be."

In fact, Jim's "tough love" coaching was just an extension of the approach Jackie Severson had used to teach her daughters self reliance early on. Now, says Kim, she realized "Mars had to jump that water if we were going to Radnor." And he did. "I gave him the strongest ride on the approach that I possibly could, and he jumped it beautifully."

At Radnor, Kim's dressage test with Mars put them 10 points ahead of the nearest challenger, Beale Morris on Eastern Shore. They negotiated the direct route through the water complexes successfully, if not elegantly, in a cross-country run paced to bring them home clean just one second under the time. That accuracy kept them in first when two show-jumping rails erased their lead, tying them with Beale, who finished on her dressage score but 20 seconds fast on cross-country.

"If You Think You're There, That's When You're Not"
As a 12-year-old in Pony Club, Kim says, the Advanced event riders she admired seemed to live in another universe--"they were like movie stars." In reaching the top levels of her sport, one of her most surprising discoveries has been that she still feels--well, just like herself.

"I'm still who I've always been. I'm still plugging along. You don't know what's going to happen; I may lose it all this year and never have it again. In a way, I still feel like a 12-year-old Pony Clubber, still looking at much better riders and thinking, 'Wow!' I believe in what I do, but I'm always working, always trying harder. That's the way it's going to be. I feel that if you think you're there, that's when you're not--because you stop learning."

This story first appeared in the May 2000 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.

Update
Kim returned to Rolex in 2002 to win the CCI**** with Winsome Adante ("Dan") and was a member of that year's gold-medal World Championship eventing squad. But she and Dan had a rocky 2003: Kim broke her leg just before Rolex, and Dan had colic surgery in late summer while preparing in England for the Burghley CCI****. The setbacks made her dramatic win with Dan at Rolex 2004 even more poignant. Selected for the Olympic three-day squad, she rode Dan to an individual silver medal and helped the US team earn the bronze in Athens.

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