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West Virginia Rider Dreams of being World Class Equestrian Eventer - 2001-08-08

One of the most challenging equestrian events of all takes place over three days, at competitions around the world. At Three-Day events, the same horse and rider compete in three separate events, dressage, which tests the horse's ability to execute precision moves in response to barely perceptible signals from the rider: cross country, which tests the horse's endurance and courage over large, solid jumps in open country and stadium jumping, which tests the horse's speed and ability to negotiate a course of large jumps and tight turns.

Most American eventers come from Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Virginia. But reporter Erika Celeste found a strong competitor in Three-Day Eventing far from traditional 'horse country', in Huntington, West Virginia.

"I've been told to succeed at this sport I need to relocate. But my roots are here and I love it here. And I'd like to be able to be successful from here," Pam Watts says.

Pam Watts has two great loves: her Huntington West Virginia farm, and competing in Three-Day Equestrian Events. She began riding horses as a small child, but it wasn't until she saw A Three-Day Event at the Kentucky Horse Park, in Lexington, that she knew what she wanted to do with her life.

"It's kinda been a lifetime goal to compete internationally, either in the Pan Am games, World Championships or the Olympics," Watts said.

Ms. Watts may reach one of those goals soon. Over the past 23 years she has won numerous events. Last year, she and her horse Streetlife placed second at three different Advanced Level Championships and they recently won the Wayne National Horse Trial Championship in Chicago. Her coach, two-time Olympic Silver Medallist, Karen O'Connor, says it's tough to be a champion under normal circumstances, let alone the way Ms. Watts does it.

"I've never seen a person work harder to reach a goal than Pam does, and yet at the same time, you can not do this sport alone. The horse is owned generally speaking by other people, Pam owns her own horse and has a day to day struggle to be able to make this work for her," O'Connor said.

So Ms. Watts has the jobs of seven people, from fund-raiser and nutritionist, to trainer and groom - as well as bookkeeper, blacksmith and massage therapist. Mrs. O'Connor believes her student could put her race for a world title on the fast track by moving 7 hours away to Middleburg, Virginia.

"She can train her horses wherever she wants, and she does a fantastic job, but to make it easier for her in terms of travel and expense of travel to competition or a lesson with someone like myself, it would be a half hour drive instead of a days drive, which she's dealing with now," O'Connor said. Ms. Watts agrees that living in Virginia might make it easier but she says she believes in loyalty to those who brought her this far, therefore she'll endure the inconveniences of staying in West Virginia.

"I have to travel 7 hours to Middleburg every time my horses need to get their feet worked on. Fortunately, our vet now has an ultra sound and is putting in a clinic, so the veterinary care has gotten better. Little by little it's working out and we're getting better but it's still difficult," Ms. Watts said.

Ms. Watts says it's all worth it because she's formed deep partnerships with her horses Gracie, Tigger and especially Streetlife her New Zealand Thoroughbred gelding, whom she affectionately calls Woody.

"Woody is the best of everything. He's a very special horse. He's a good jumper, very fast. He's good in the dressage phase and he's very good in the show jumping phase because he doesn't knock the rails down," Ms. Watts said.

Pam Watts may live for eventing but, she has to pick her competitions carefully because there isn't much prize money in the sport and transportation to events around the world is very expensive. Flying one horse to Europe, and back, costs $10,000! She has a few sponsors who pay about a quarter of her costs, but needs more to continue to attend events and stay competitive.

To make ends meet she runs a farm, boards horses and teaches riding.

There are no Three-Day events in West Virginia, but a new horse park being built in the state may soon change that. In the meantime Ms. Watts will continue to pursue her dream of being a World Class Eventer. Yet even if that dream never comes true, she says she'll still be proud she stuck to her decision to stay in West Virginia.

"I feel fortunate to be able to live on a farm. I feel fortunate to have the horses I have. I'm very fortunate to have the clients that I have. It all works out great and I really enjoy it," Ms. Watts said.

Ms. Watts' next big competition is the Fair Hill International Three-Day Event in Maryland this October. If all goes well there, she could be on the short list to compete in the 2002 World Equestrian Games next September in southern Spain.