It’s roughly 7:45 a.m. on the morning of Thursday, March 23, and the sky above North Run show stables in Grand Prix Village is dimly lit by an assortment of orange, blue, and yellow hues. The sun is just peeking over the horizon, but it prompts the facility lights that once lit the sky to systematically turn off. It’s cool for a Wellington morning—60 degrees, to be exact—and it’s business as usual for 23-year-old Catherine Tyree, who is gamed up and ready by the time we arrive.

On an average morning, Catherine is out of bed by 7:30 a.m., protein bars at the ready (though she isn’t the biggest fan of breakfast, especially on the days that she rides). Catherine’s schedule depends on when and who she’s showing and what classes she’s preparing for. She typically aims to ride three or more of the four horses she’s brought to Wellington on any given day. But that’s just the start of Tyree’s regular fitness routine. “In Florida, I work with a pilates instructor twice a week and I also work out in a group at Athletes Advantage twice a week, so that keeps me busy when I’m not at the barn,” she says.

While Tyree seems relaxed and breezy this morning, today isn’t a typical schooling day. She is already sporting white breeches and a show shirt, concealed by a light jacket, as her early morning rides will be followed by the qualifying round for the prestigious $500,000 Rolex Grand Prix CSI5*, the feature event of the 12-week Winter Equestrian Festival.

Nevertheless, the morning routine must go on as scheduled. There are two friendly faces back in the barn—one still munching his hay—who are anticipating their ride with “Cat”, oblivious and indifferent to the significance of today.

8:00 a.m. Don’t be fooled by his narrow frame, quiet demeanor, and soft, kid’s pony expression. The 13-year-old Belgian Warmblood, Enjoy Louis (Coriano x Kannan), or “Louis”, as he is affectionally called, is no small ring packer. The gelding is Tyree’s grand prix level partner of two years, and she piloted him to a 2nd place finish in the Saugerties $1 Million Grand Prix last September in New York.

Tyree jokingly calls Louis “the laziest grand prix horse ever”, and during the entirety of their morning ride, he lives up to that moniker. For the first 20 minutes, there is a variety of trot and canter work, both on and off the rail. Louis is relaxed and easy going, willing to do what is asked of him without outwardly appearing to hesitate or question his rider. He trots along with a sense of confidence and ease, eye balling the camera out of sheer curiosity each time they make their rounds in my direction. His schooling is like clockwork and for the remaining 10 minutes, Louis is allowed to stretch and walk on a loose rein. He is well versed in his job, so at this stage in his training, it’s all about consistency—and maybe asking him to step on the gas for a second or two.

“I feel very fortunate to have Louis. He’s the one that first taught me, and still teaches me, how to compete at the top level of the sport,” Tyree says. “He doesn’t need to school too much at home; he jumps primarily to keep his fitness up and his muscles loose so that he’s feeling and performing at his best at the shows. Whether I’m flatting or schooling Louis, I’m always working on his rideability and practicing turns. He’s a bit of a slower mover compared to other horses, so being able to go forward for the time allowed and then slowing down at any point is really important in the ring.”

8:32 a.m. With their cool down concluded, Tyree and Louis leave the arena and make their way back to the barn, where he is untacked and led to the wash rack to be rinsed off.

8:45 a.m. The 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Corleone or “Leon” (Vincenzo x Heartbreaker) is the next horse to be schooled, and he has a more rigorous workout session in store. Once in the ring, Tyree begins the warm-up at an active walk, casually changing directions before moving into a working trot. At the canter, she focuses on counter-canter work and fluid transitions. “Since I try not to jump Louis or Bokai too much at home, Leon is the one that I get to practice on the most. When schooling Leon, I’m really able to focus on myself and the areas of my riding that I want to improve. I try to practice short turns and ring pace at home, so it feels familiar in the ring during a Grand Prix with a tight time allowed. Being smooth and keeping my horse straight are also things I try to focus on when jumping Leon.”

9:00 a.m. North Run co-founder and Tyree’s trainer of nearly six years, Missy Clark, joins the duo for the remainder of the lesson. “I started riding with Missy in the Winter of 2012, and I love [her program]. Missy and John Brennan are so methodical and they know so much about the horses. Every step of the way, they’re thinking ahead and everything is planned out really well. The horses are taken care of at the top level, and there is no one else I would want to put my horses’ care in.”

Without hesitation, they jump right into a series of three cavaletti, doing two sets in each direction, with Clark occasionally giving her student instructions and reminders. “Balance is in your heel, not your hand,” she says.

“[Missy is] very clear in what she’s looking for and she really helps the rider try and understand, in the easiest way possible, what she sees or what she’s looking for or what to improve upon,” says Tyree. “She understands that everyone learns at their own pace and goes along their own journey to get to wherever they want to be with their riding. She’s understanding and she never tries to push anything, but she cares about her students and is really invested in seeing them improve and succeed.”

They finish with the cavaletti work, and Tyree moves on to practice turns over verticals in different directions. Following that, she works over a small course with Leon, approaching the jumps at different speeds and from different angles, all while being mindful of a ‘time allowed’.  They complete the course with circle work in the corner of the arena before collecting and going over it once more.

9:30 a.m. The lesson finishes and Tyree lets Leon walk on a loose rein for the cool down.

9:40 a.m. The pair exits the arena and Leon is untacked and taken to the wash rack to get rinsed off. Tyree prepares to head over to the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center to walk the course before the start of $35,000 Ruby et Violette WEF Challenge Cup Round 11. She’ll be riding the 11-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Bokai (Up to Date x Olympic Ferro) in what she hopes will be a successful qualifying round for the Saturday night class.

“I bought [Bokai] a year ago and I’ve always been very familiar with him and I’ve always quite liked him. We just happened to be at Axel’s [Verlooy] farm one day with another student of Missy’s, and I wasn’t even supposed to be trying anything. Axel suggested that I get on, and immediately it was a good fit. I fell in love with him and he’s exceeded my expectations. He’s an unbelievable horse, and there’s nothing that I would say is a weak area for him. He goes in the ring and he tries really hard.

“That’s something that I really admire about him—he has a really big heart. I knew that there wasn’t anything he couldn’t jump, and it was just a matter of time until I got comfortable enough to ask him of that. He’s really stepped up this circuit in Florida and I think that I’m now completely confident no matter where we go.”

Bokai was purchased as a second grand prix horse to take some of the pressure off Enjoy Louis. On March 3, 2017, the duo produced their most notable performance of the winter season in the $150,000 WEF Nations Cup CSI4* with Tyree piloting the grey gelding to double clear rounds during her Nations Cup debut for the United States.

“I knew once I went in the ring that everything would be okay,” Catherine said after the class. “I jumped the first jump, and it felt like every other class that I have done so far down here.”

10:00 a.m.  Tyree enters the International Arena to walk today’s course, where she is joined by many of the 54 competitors who will be vying for a spot in the Saturday Night Lights grand prix. Catherine says that she usually walks the course at least twice, once with Missy, and once by herself.

“I always go over [the course] with both Missy and John. They have such great experience in the sport and they pick up on little things that I wouldn’t really think about. We talk about what could be hard for my horses or what I really need to focus on. Once we go through our plan, I’ll walk around to see where all the jumps are, to see where I want to be turning, and to get a really good sense of where I want to be when I’m in the ring. That way, when I go in, it’s kind of second nature.”

11:17 a.m. Catherine is 32nd in the order and gets on in advance of her ride time to warm up Bokai, who is known to be a bit fresh at times. “I just try to keep him relaxed and moving. I get on quite early before any class with him so he can get focused, especially if it’s night class. When I jump the first jump in the warm-up ring, all of that completely goes away. He’s very focused and I just try and [concentrate] on schooling my horses so that they use themselves in a proper way before we go in the ring so I set them up for success.”

Halfway through their warm-up, the tractors clear out the schooling ring for a routine drag, and Tyree uses the time to watch the rider who’s currently in the ring. Once back in the arena, she goes over a few jumps, her team checks her tack, and—when her name is called ‘on-deck’ from the schooling ring—she begins her walk down the shoot into the International Arena.

11:21 a.m. At the end of their ride, Tyree and Bokai are clear, though a pesky time fault prevents them from moving on to the jump-off round, leaving them in 32nd place. While they still qualify for the Rolex Grand Prix on Saturday, Tyree is a little disappointed with the accumulated time fault.

“We’re all competitive, so when that happens, I really put the blame on myself. I think that I took away from his performance a bit when I got the time fault. [Bokai] jumped phenomenally and he felt great. He wanted to jump clear—he did jump clear—and he wanted to be in the jump-off, but I was just a little bit slow,” she says.

“As a rider, that’s on me, and that’s something that I need to be more on top of. I was a little upset with myself, but I was very happy with how he went.”

11:30 a.m. Tyree walks around the warm-up arena to let Bokai cool down and stretch before dismounting and giving him a well-deserved pat. After he heads back to the stables with groom Cathal Bennet, Tyree walks over to her trainers to discuss the round that just took place. As with everything, the show must go on, and there is still work left to be done before the day is officially over. Tyree has one more horse to ride in the International Ring before she heads back to North Run, and another left to school at home before her day is over. At this stage in the game, every class is important, but equally critical is building the confidence and experience—for horse and rider, alike—at a level that only a handful of competitors ever reach.

“So far I’ve done four CSI5* grands prix, so I’m still relatively new to it,” she explains. “I’m lucky to have two horses that [allow me to feel] like I can walk in and put in a good round and that they’ll do their part as well. It was a huge honor to be asked to be on the Nations Cup team at WEF.

“It is something that I’ve always wanted, and I hoped that if I kept my head down and kept doing what I was doing that it would happen.”

-Photography by Tori Repole.