Event Rider Kim Severson: How It All
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...
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.
- 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").
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.