The Trials of Equestrian Sports

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Key to winning in eventing is the connection between horse and rider.
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This agile heeler is able to leap tall fences in a single bound.
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Horse trials often include other attractions, such as dog agility demonstrations.
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Water obstacles are only part of the cross-country event.
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"My boots are better than your boots!"

Some folks love the spectacle. Others are drawn to the spirit of the competition. Most thoroughly enjoy a grand day in the country, but hosting horse trials is not for the weak-hearted. Organizing equestrian events is no walk on the farm.

Depending on the level of sophistication, a host might need to secure sponsors, assemble a luncheon committee, design and mail invitations, organize routes and jumps, prepare a menu, hire caterers and staff, choose market vendors, and perform a slew of other duties that take months of research and planning. Preparations for annual competitions often begin as soon as the last competitor the previous year has dismounted.

Fitch’s Corner Horse Trials host and founder Fernanda Kellogg, 61, wouldn’t have it any other way.

Kellogg runs a New York City foundation during the week and fantasizes about her 130-acre weekend horse farm in Upstate New York as one would a favorite vacation destination. She commutes an hour and a half every Friday afternoon from Manhattan to enjoy the serene atmosphere of her country residence, only to retrace the path Monday morning. A simple philosophy backs her decision to run summer trials there for the past 14 years: “The fun,” Kellogg says, is “putting on a great day for riders who love the sport of eventing and, of course, the spirit of the horse.”

She isn’t alone in her appreciation of the sport. Originally conceived to test Army horses to assure animals were fit for combat, eventing has been an Olympic sport since 1912 when only active Army officers using military charges participated. What began as a five-day competition has spawned several variations.

The standard three-day format originated at the 1924 Paris Olympics, the first time the event was open for civilians. This format introduced the three universal components of eventing: dressage, cross country and stadium (or show) jumping.

Horse and rider

Dressage measures how well a horse and rider perform a predetermined set of ballet-like movements. These movements, which Kellogg describes as a “test of obedience reflected in the precision of horse and rider,” celebrate the horse’s success in training for balance and suppleness. Judges identify violations and assign penalties as they study the horse’s fluidity and how well the rider handles her animal. Each movement is scored individually; the final mark is computed using a special algorithm.

The second phase, cross country, determines endurance and tests a team’s bravery, fortitude and athletic ability. Horse and rider must be physically fit to perform well, as they are required to jump more permanent obstacles such as stone walls and pole fixtures. At the lower levels of competition, 12 to 20 fences must be crossed; for the more experienced, 30 to 40. The rider must also navigate through common countryside diversions such as streams, ditches and banks. Penalty scores from dressage and cross country are combined to generate results after the second day.

Stadium jumping, the final phase, consists of 12 to 20 hurdles designed to test the fitness and skills of the horse and rider team. The stage’s winner is the team that incurs the fewest penalties.

Upon completion of all three phases, judges tally the scores, and winners of the overall competition receive their ribbons before enjoying a victory lap.

Location, location

An important element of any trials is location. Fitch’s Corner’s prime placement in the quiet village of Millbrook allows ample room for ever-changing courses and spacious viewing areas, open fields for event stabling, and a guest house so volunteers are always on-site. A mild summer climate makes cancellation unlikely. Kellogg’s love for both the animal and the sport support her persistence that the show goes on.

In the beginning

As with most endeavors that take love and nurturing to thrive, Fitch’s Corner started small. “The origin of hosting the Horse Trials was a summer project for my daughter and the farm manager,” Kellogg says. “They proposed organizing the first event … and both still participate in the organization.” What began as a 40-horse competition has swelled to 240 entrants.

Other trials nationwide also have seen improved participation. M. Stanley Wiggs, organizer of the Spring Bay Horse Trials in Lexington, Kentucky, coordinates an annual event that marked its 10th anniversary in April. She welcomes 200 to 280 competitors each year from Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Kansas and Canada for her trials in Masterson Sta-tion Park, an open area near her farm.

Masterson is one of very few parks left in the United States where folks can unload their horses and ride, and Wiggs hopes to keep it that way. Residential development keeps encroaching, but the multifunction facility has kept its equestrian flavor so far. According to Wiggs, equestrian activities take up approximately two-thirds of the park’s 650 acres, but the space is shared with soccer, Bluegrass fair grounds, a dog park, Keeneland Pony Club, and general users.

Robert Kellerhouse, president of Del Mar Eventing Inc. in California, is in charge of two competitions that garner annual thunder – Galway Downs in the northern part of the state and The Event at Woodside in the southern. The two sites “complement our California schedule,” he says of the nine months spent at Galway and three at Woodside.

Competition & more

Horse eventing is not just about the competition, it’s also about the spectators. At Fitch’s, special spectator activities included dog agility demonstrations, the Blue Jean Ball dinner-dance, shopping at Fitch’s Market, a collector car parade, and, Kellogg’s most popular activity, the Spectator Luncheon.

The 2007 luncheon, with proceeds benefiting the local fire department’s Rescue Squad, coupled rich meats with fresh crops in a lovely setting. Guest chef Bill Telepan brought his organic expertise to the table and teased diners’ palettes with flavorful tastes of summer that included assorted cheeses; wild striped bass; mushroom, arugula and fresh pea salad; grilled fingerling potatoes; and blueberry blondies, among many other delights.

Next year!

With another successful Horse Trials under her saddle, Kellogg has a rare moment to breathe. “Next year, our 15th anniversary year, we will expand into a three-day format with the traditional schedule of dressage on Day One, cross country Day Two, and stadium jumping on the final day,” she says. And of course, the spectators will be well looked after, too.

The 2008 Fitch’s Corner event will be held July 25 to 27. For more information visit www.FitchsCorner.com or call 845-677-5479.

Rachel Epstein is a freelance writer in New York whose work has appeared in national newspapers and magazines. Until last year, she was terrified of horses.

Published on Apr 29, 2008

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