On a still, quiet morning at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, a thin, white rope is lined with spectators. They are hoping to secure the perfect view for the most daunting phase of competition at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event on April 29, 2017. What has become a seemingly yearly tradition on cross-country—a darkened, overcast sky, sometimes punctuated by bouts of rain—sets the tone for a day that will be as unpredictable as the grey clouds that have begun to roll in.

In a corner of the show grounds, away from the excitement of the crowd, 22-year-old Rolex rookie Savannah Fulton of Finksburg, Maryland is preparing for her first ride atop the prestigious CCI4* obstacle course. She’ll be piloting the fiery, 14-year-old Thoroughbred gelding Captain Jack to what she hopes is a clean and successful round. But she’s also well aware that a gallop across the finish line is never guaranteed in this sport.

In preparation for the event, her trainer, Buck Davidson, noted that she’ll be much more knowledgeable at the end of Saturday than she is right now. Anything can happen in those 12 minutes on course, but for now, she’ll treat it like any other competition: with the end goal to do well and get home safe.

5:00 a.m. I wake up at 5:00 a.m., hit snooze until 5:15, and then lay in bed for another five minutes. Then I remember that today is cross-country day. I get a little excited, a little bit sick. I get dressed, and wake my sister up (twice). Along with my parents, I am staying at a hotel 12 minutes away from the Kentucky Horse Park.

“If you have to fall, that is probably a good place to fall.”

6:15 a.m. I drive to the Park, say hi to “Jack”, and give him his mandatory two carrots. He’s annoying in his stall and he’ll kick and bite, so I hold him while [my sister] Grace cleans his stall, and then we water and feed him.

6:45 a.m. I start getting my tack together. It is already together, technically, but I’m just nervous, so I’m checking everything over. We tape the buckles on the bridles so if they were to break, I’ve got a better chance of them staying closed. We check the stirrup leathers and the girth, and then we sit around for a little bit. I don’t do much eating at all before cross-country. I have a little bit of water, and it’s probably not the best plan, but it’s realistic. I’d love to be like, “No, I had two protein shakes,” but it’s totally unrealistic and I know myself. You’re not hungry at all, honestly.

7:45 a.m. Jack didn’t go out because he had to be dry to get his heels glued, and I hold him when the farrier comes out. He glues the back, where the shoe meets the heel, so when we’re galloping it’s harder for Jack to overreach and pull off his shoe.

8:15 a.m. Buck and I walk the course a little bit. We do the Head of the Lake and then the first and second water. We are just killing time at this point, because I walked it four times before this morning, so I know where I am going. It’s just last minute, and everything looks different the day of. Buck goes to get ready to ride, so I walk the course again with my friend Allie Knowles. She did Rolex last year and she is like “Oh, I promise this will ride really well,” or, “Watch out for this one,” mostly for the big brush fences at 5 and 9. In the grand scheme of things, they’re not hard fences at all, but for us, the riders, it looks daunting, because there’s a massive ditch in front. My instructions are, “Just don’t pull back,” which is easier said than done.

“What happens if I don’t see my stride?” I ask.

“You will, it’s just trusting yourself to know that, you will,” Allie replies.

10:20 a.m. It’s nice to be able to watch a lot in the morning, and I take for granted how big the course is. You’re basically stuck in one place, not watching anything, freaking out because no one is coming. I am watching Buck go, and he falls at fence 4, which is hard, because he’s the trailblazer and he’s the best rider I know. He’s completely fine, and it was early in the course, so the horse wasn’t used up, so he can have a little break and then go do something later in the year.

If you have to fall, that is probably a good place to fall. He calls me when I am at fence 4, and he comes and we walk it again because obviously, that plan didn’t work. We decide that I am going to do the long route. My horse has got a ton of energy, and he’s not always the most rideable in the beginning. He knows exactly what’s coming and he’s all for it. That combination causes a few problems for a few people, and at that early point in the course, it would be hard to have a run out there and then do the other 9 or 10 minutes. So I decide to do the long route and we walk that.

11:14 a.m. I go back to the tack room, sit down, and tell my sister my course and how I am planning to ride every fence. Then I get dressed.

12:00 p.m. We start tacking up, but of course, it doesn’t take that long to do so.

12:30 p.m. It’s finally 12:30 and I get on Jack and walk out there. Jack is the kind of horse that knows exactly what day it is and he knows his job. You try to trot and he wants to canter. My first thought is that the warm-up jumps are way too big. I do a couple verticals and then jump a table in the corner. Then, we go back to the walk and we grease him up. If he’s relaxed, he’s chill.

Two minutes out, I am looping the reins and Grace takes the bridle and just walks him around the box. He gets a bit anxious in the box, but it’s also mental for me. It’s really easy to get choked up on him when I want him to relax and walk, but it doesn’t make a difference if it’s 10 minutes ahead of time or 10 seconds ahead of time—you just pick up the reins and off he goes. That’s sort of our system, now, and that’s what works for us. At 15 seconds out, I pick up the reins and go out.

My course ends. My first thought is, Thank God that’s over.

1:08 p.m. My course start time.

 1:20 p.m. My course ends. My first thought is, Thank God that’s over. I am relieved, so happy, but mostly relieved. At that point, I’m still a little bit nauseous and it’s a whirlwind. I get off and I’m trying to catch my breath. I don’t care how fit you are, at the end of something like that, you’re like, Oh my God. I have a great team around me and they are checking him over, making sure he doesn’t have any cuts or anything, and sponging and sweat-scraping him. There’s a magic line on Jack that you do not sponge behind, and that’s the saddle area. He will kick like nobody’s business, and you can’t take his temperature. Luckily, he gives you a few warnings before, and that normally backs people off, but you have to take his vital signs. Jack is so cute when he finishes, because he’s always just so happy and proud of himself. He’ll drag you around, which I honestly think is his favorite part of the whole thing, because there’s just no control.

[The vets] check them right when they come in, and then you’ve got 10 minutes to cool them off. They’re checked again, and if they’re within the acceptable standards—which changes depending on the day’s conditions—then they’re good to go back to the barn.

“Jack is so cute when he finishes, because he’s always just so happy and proud of himself. He’ll drag you around, which I honestly think is his favorite part of the whole thing, because there’s just no control.”

 2:00 p.m. After the cooldown, Buck has three horses until he goes, so I stay to watch him. Grace walks Jack back and he gets a bath, and the walk back is nice, because it cools him down. After he gets a bath, he gets iced: 20 minutes on, 20 minutes off, with a walk in between. He’s iced twice and walked twice, and then he’s hooked up to fluids. His hind legs are wrapped, now, and when he comes out of ice, we wrap his front legs.

Buck’s horse is hot coming in, but he has a great crew working on her, so I give him a water and ask him how it went. I load his tack onto the golf cart and then I get a ride back to the barn to go check on Jack and give him carrots and kisses and thank you’s. Our vet and I get back to the barn and we take an initial look at their legs, which can obviously change a lot, but it’s always good when they’re clean from the start.

4:00 p.m. Right now, Jack is on fluids and he has to stand still, so Grace is taking the time to braid him because he’s not very good with that. One person feeds him carrots and the other person braids. It’s a lot of fluids, so it will take between 1-2 hours to run through them.

6:00 p.m. Jack is done icing now, so we jog him to see how he looks. Then you just gauge it. It’s not like, “Okay, he’s sound now, we can go to dinner.” You keep icing and letting them walk and graze. They close the barn at 11 p.m., so you don’t want to make them mad by staying late to ice, but the horses need it. We go to dinner, and then I have a camper here, so I plan on spending the night. We give him breaks in between icing bouts, and then at 10:59 p.m., I wrap him up, say goodnight, and go to sleep for a few hours.

I’ll be back again as soon as they’ll let me in at 6 a.m.

-Photography by Tori Repole for NF Style.