Meet Ema Klugman, Kentucky Three Day Event’s Highest Placed Young Rider

Ema Klugman & Bendigo. Photo © Heather N. Photography


The Landrover Kentucky Three Day Event is the only 5* event in the U.S. and one of only six such events in the world. Even though spectators weren’t allowed this year due to strict COVID protocols, riders representing eight different countries made it to the Kentucky Horse Park for the 5* event in a field of 63 total horse and rider pairs—including six rookies.

During a short break between the 4* and 5* show jumping phases, I had a chance to catch up with one of those rookies, Ema Klugman, to learn more about her, her mount, and how their week had gone leading up to the final phase.

Born in Italy, representing Australia, and based out of Maryland, Ema was one of the youngest riders in the 5* event at only 23. On the flipside, her horse, Bendigo, (“Ben” as he’s known around the barn) was the oldest horse in the field at 19! 

Heather French: Tell me about Ben! How long have you had him?

Ema Klugman: I’ve had Ben for about 8 years now, but he didn’t run his first event until he was 11; this is actually his first 5* too. He can be difficult on the ground and undersaddle, so he hadn’t done much when we first bought him. The cool thing about him though is he’s really intelligent; when he arrives at a show, he’s supremely focused. He cares a lot about it. I know it sounds weird that I’m anthropomorphizing my horse, but it’s true!

HF: What’s Ben’s favorite activity when he’s not showing?

EK: He’s turned out 24/7 which he really enjoys, and he loves going on trail rides with my mom. [laughter] No really! It’s his favorite day of the week.

Ema Klugman & Bendigo. Photo © Heather N. Photography

HF: How long have you been riding, and how did you get started?

EK: I started riding when I was eight at a farm down the street from us in Nairobi, Kenya, and later got into Pony Club, so 15 years I guess!

HF: How are you feeling about the week so far?

EK: It’s going really great! His dressage always leaves something to be desired – it’s just who he is, but it was a good test for him. On cross country he was amazing. He was listening well, but he was also reading the jumps himself. That’s the sort of thing you need at this level I think. The horse has to be responsive, but he also has to take some initiative. 

Photo © Heather N. Photography

HF: What about that inspection this morning, when Ben was pulled for a second look?

EK: I think I lost eight years off my life in those four minutes! The horses did a big job yesterday, and I’m sure none of them feels quite 100% based on the efforts they gave so it’s an important phase you just have to get through. I had my mentor, Marilyn Little, there though and she talked me through it and made sure I wasn’t freaking out. When I think about it, it’s really like there are five phases with the jogs… not just three!

HF: What are you thinking now going into the final phase of the competition?

EK: I haven’t gotten to walk the course yet to see how it will ride, but Ben is a fabulous show jumper. I think he’s had maybe 5 rails in his whole career! It’s definitely the biggest and fanciest venue he’s ever seen, but I’m hoping it makes him jump better even though he’s tired. My goal for the week was just to finish, and maybe even go double clear. We’ve got the clear for the cross country phase, so hopefully we can get it in show jumping as well since that’s Ben’s best phase! He’s so careful and smart that I probably wouldn’t want to be sitting on another horse today. 

Ema & Bendigo completed cross country with no jumping faults. Photo © Heather N. Photography

Ema and Bendigo had an unfortunate miscommunication in the triple combination during show jumping, but otherwise put in a stellar round, earning them 33rd place. Ema was awarded the highest placed young rider award.

Heather French lives in Austin, Texas where she regularly photographs the local hunter jumper circuit in addition to traveling for event coverage. Heather is also a rider herself, and owns a small but mighty OTTB jumper named Val.