You can train for years on the most expensive horse, with the greatest coach around. Yet somehow, when you step into that arena or that cross-country start box, whatever advantages you might have had walking in tend to evaporate. At that point, it’s just you, your horse, and the imposing task ahead.

Nowhere is this more apparent than for a young rider on cross-country for the first time at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in Lexington. This April, one of those competitors looking to finally check the four-star box off her resume was 22-year-old American rider Savannah “Woodge” Fulton aboard the 14-year-old OTTB, Captain Jack, owned by the Full Moon Farm Syndicate.

Though she comes from a horse riding family in Finksburg, Maryland (her mom is a trainer and her dad a farrier), Savannah has climbed the ranks quickly since completing her first CCI1* in 2014. After moving to train with Buck Davidson Jr. for the Adequan/FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships five years ago, Savannah stayed on, and now works for her mentor full-time.

According to Savannah, when it came time to discuss their Rolex cross-country plan, her coach’s advice was nothing if not practical. “[Buck] said, ‘You’ll be so much more knowledgeable at the end of Saturday than you are right now,'” Savannah says—and he was right. “It’s like the amount I learned over the 12 minutes that I [did] the course was just a lifetime’s worth.

“At this level, [Buck] can give me all of his wisdom and the mistakes he’s made that he hopes I don’t have to [repeat], but at the end of the day, you’re just turned out there loose. You’ve done your prep work, and you just have to trust that you and your horse know what you’re doing.”

At the end of the weekend, Savannah and “Jack” were more than successful in their first four-star, finishing 35th overall with only time faults on Derek di Grazia’s challenging course. Here, Fulton shares the eight lessons she could only have learned by completing her first cross-country run at Rolex.

1. Have enough to get home.

Buck compared it to a car. If you get to empty on your car [gas gauge] after eight minutes of driving, what the heck are you supposed to do? By the same token, if you’re on cross-country and you get home with half a tank, you’ll feel stupid, because you had more horse and you were saving him. Obviously, you’d much rather air on the side of having your ‘gas full’ as opposed to your ‘gas empty’. This was my first time, and I’m obviously not hoping to win. But in the years to come, I’ll need to use all my experience to figure out how to use the most of my horse without it becoming dangerous.

2. Pick a point on course to rate your horse.

The big thing was when we got to the hollow at the top of the hill—which was a mostly uphill climb the entire way—we’d know what we were [gas or no-gas-wise] when we got there. Jack landed from that fence and dragged me all the way down the hill, and I was like, I think this is as good of an indicator as possible that the tank is still pretty full. My plan was to hopefully get into a good rhythm and just cruise, and I think that’s exactly what we did.

3. Choose time faults over penalties. 

Getting home safe was the main thing, and being clear comes second. I took two options which I’m happy I did, because we finished [clear but outside the time]. Thank God it was that instead of choosing to take a different option…and having 20 [penalities] instead—because that 20 is a pain in the butt. At the end of the day, it really isn’t a big deal, but it [would have been hard] to know that if I’d not been greedy with the time and had taken those few extra seconds, then I would’ve been fine.

4. Making the right decisions in the moment.

I’ve never hit Jack before on cross-country because I’ve never needed to. Buck tries to tell you what you need to do, but there’s no way to know until you’re out there. Sometimes, I’ll need to tap him on the shoulder and then pat him; sometimes I’m going to need to pat him and then tap him on the shoulder. It’s just keeping both of us switched on the whole way, because that was the longest 12 minutes ever. It went by super fast, but it also went by super slow.

5. Riding hard before you need to.

There’s so much galloping in between the fences, and unfortunately, there’s also time to kind of think about the next thing. It wasn’t the prettiest round we’ve ever had, but we did it. Whenever I do have a stop or a run-out, I always wish that I had ridden as hard as I did before [I got into trouble] as I did after it. In Kentucky, I just tried to start out on course a little bit mad, almost—just like, We’re doing this.

6. It’s not over until it’s over. 

Someone asked what I was most worried about, and I said, “The next fence.” In Kentucky, it’s not over ’till it’s over. People still fall at the last fence, and they had those two big tables at the second to last, which I thought was a big ask. Certainly, a lot of people scraped those, and that’s not really where I wanted to be.

7. Ride the horse you have from moment to moment. 

Jack is a Thoroughbred, and that’s the biggest thing. He always keeps trying. Cantering up to the last fence, he was full of go. If anything, he got a little heavier in the bridle, which makes him easier to ride because he starts off kind of everywhere and you’re just trying to get him relaxed. By the 5th or 6th minute, I felt him settle into the course, and by the 10th minute, he didn’t mind [my] leg on him, which is probably what its supposed to feel like.

8. Celebrate the small triumphs as you go. 

When we walked the course, Buck said, “If you see your stride to the first of those tables down the hill, you’re going to say, ‘Yay!’” and I totally did. I came down, leaned back, and hoped that he picked up his front legs, and he did. Those houses are deceptively vertical.

As soon as I saw my stride to the last fence, I said, “Thank God!”

-Photos by Tori Repole and Shannon Brinkman. Reporting by Tori Repole.