From the Sustain Your Horse Parks Series

By Jennifer M. Keeler for ELCR

Every weekend across the United States, equestrians gather at a variety of facilities for a show or event in their favorite discipline. But beyond the trophies and ribbons, many horse lovers may not consider the importance these public and private venues have in ensuring places are available for training and competition. What is most important regardless of how they are structured and managed, every equestrian has a stake in helping ensure their future.  “Without the active involvement of equestrians speaking up for these special places, and supporting them with their time, talent and treasure, these beautiful and vital competition venues may be lost forever,” notes Deb Balliet, CEO of the Equine Land Conservation Resource.  In this issue of The Resource and on our website www.elcr.org, ELCR is profiling several horse parks around the country which demonstrate various organizational structures, community involvement, and efforts to ensure places are available for equine use. 

lay of the land courtesy John ToddHorse parks spotlighted in previous editions of ELCR’s “Sustain Your Horse Parks Series”, such as Masterson Station Park in Lexington, KY, and the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center (FENCE) in Tryon, NC, serve as successful models for what many horse lovers hope will be a future equestrian venue on the West Coast.  The Monterey Horse Park (MHP) in Salinas looks to preserve pristine Central California land for equine activities and community recreation alike, and will demonstrate how land conservation and equestrian sport work hand-in-hand.  Although still in a pre-construction phase, ambitious plans for the park include construction of a multi-discipline equestrian facility located on approximately 210 acres of land (including 90 acres of habitat reserve) in Parker Flats, on the decommissioned military base of Fort Ord.

Between 1945 and 1975, the Fort Ord Army Base housed and trained some 1.5 million troops on its lands within Monterey County.  When decommissioned in 1994 and placed under the authority of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority Plan (FORA), mandates were made to allow for 25% of the site’s 28,600 acres to be used for development, while 75% would remain as permanent open space with specific provisions for establishment of a “high-quality equestrian center”.  In 2000, the concept of an area horse park received a boost when San Francisco submitted a bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.  The Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee (BASOC) worked with equestrian experts from around the country and recognized the value of the former Ford Ord site as a possible equestrian venue for the Olympic Games, as well as international, national and regional competitions.  Although San Francisco was not awarded the Olympic Games, the productivity generated by the bid led to the incorporation of the Monterey Horse Park under California law in 2001 as a 501(c)3 nonprofit public benefit corporation, with a 16-person Board of Directors and bylaws patterned after BASOC’s governing documents with a commitment to environmental sustainability.

While looking to host 60 shows per year in all equine disciplines, including dressage, driving, endurance, eventing, reining, show jumping, vaulting, breed shows, pony club events and others, MHP’s plans also include a Thoroughbred training center; hosting an intercollegiate equestrian team and curriculum; establishing a horse rescue/adoption center and a therapeutic riding program; camping facilities; and conducting events for youth groups.  An added advantage to the Monterey Horse Park location is 15,000 acres of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) open space adjacent to the MHP property.  In addition to providing opportunities for trail riders, eventing, and endurance competitors to enjoy the territory, the MHP looks to work in partnership with the BLM to build access to the acreage and educate hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians about safety and responsible use of trails.

planning meeting courtesy John ToddLoris Henry of Fresno, CA, a former member of the ELCR Board of Directors, first became involved with the Monterey Horse Park concept more than a decade ago while serving as President of the U.S. Eventing Association.  Despite a busy schedule as an internationally-licensed eventing and dressage judge, Henry has devoted countless hours as a volunteer member of the MHP Board of Directors, a project she passionately believes in.  ” Why do I do it?  It’s for the future generation,” said Henry.  “I feel strongly about protecting land.  When you look around and see the lack of agricultural space due to urbanization, the younger generations aren’t being exposed to horses so they don’t have the opportunity to develop the passion that we did.  So many kids have never even had an introduction to a horse.”  Henry also feels that large horse parks such as the proposed Monterey Horse Park are the way of the future for equestrians.  “Because of development and government restrictions, many private and smaller equine facilities are closing,” she explained.  “As development closes in around a horse farm or facility, the problems which arise in dealing with close non-equine neighbors can become insurmountable.  So I think the demand for facilities which have the size and infrastructure to host large events will be the way of the future as more and more private facilities unfortunately disappear.”

In addition to horse shows for a variety of breeds and disciplines, the Monterey Horse Park plans include the possibility for a variety of non-equine events for the community, such as music festivals, dog and cat shows, and auto shows, as well as establishment of a museum to celebrate the horse and local history and educate park visitors about equestrian activities.  With a mild climate, easy access via interstates, and an estimated four million Monterey Peninsula-area tourists each year, the MHP would operate year-round and derive revenue from rental of the facilities in each component of the park, including shows, horse camping, and community events.  A recent MHP analysis determined that the positive economic impact on the County of Monterey generated by the facility’s operation could reach $65 million per year, and add valuable jobs and tax revenue to the local economy.  “The park site is in a high-tourism area, and because there is such a variety of local activities, it encourages entire families to come because there are plenty of non-equine things to do too,” noted Henry.  “In addition, plans are for this facility to be used for many other things besides horse shows for the public to enjoy right in their back yard, so they can enjoy the park’s amenities and still be exposed, directly or indirectly, to horses.”

However, the establishment of the MHP is not without some controversy due to development of some portions of the property associated with the future equestrian facility.  Under the original FORA plan, 25% of the former Fort Ord property is allowed to be developed, and current plans include a possible 1500 homes and a mixed-use town center that will include restaurants, shops and a farmer’s market surrounding the horse park.  Projected costs for the new housing and equestrian center are estimated to be $750 million, and the impact of this overall expenditure as well as the proposed development itself has sparked some public outcry.  While plans for the MHP continue to be under scrutiny by community leaders, the issues facing this project illustrate the ongoing tension between allowing controlled development of certain lands which can in turn support preservation of additional open land for equestrian use and future generations.  “It’s a controversy because there are many people on the community who would like the land to simply be left the way it is,” explained Henry.  “But it can’t be used at all, not even for basic hiking trails, without some clean-up anyway.  Everybody has to learn to live alongside each other, make some concessions, and work together on this project for the common good.”  Henry emphasizes that equestrian ventures like the Monterey Horse Park need active support and involvement by equestrians in order to educate the general public about the benefits of horse facilities.  “With a project like this, there is a very real need for the equestrian community to find out when public meetings are happening and attend.  We need more visible support from horse people, and also the community in general, as in our case there is quite a lot of new opposition to the horse park plan from those who wish to leave the property as it was, and also other groups such as bikers who want to use trails just for their own use,”  she explained.  “If the equine public would just support the concept and send letters, or get out to meetings, it could help a lot to further the cause.”

rolling landscape courtesy John ToddThe Monterey Horse Park project has been more than a decade in the making, and still has a long way to go to become a reality.  “It’s been an incredible monetary struggle, and also the community buy-in aspect has been a challenge,” noted Henry.  “I would say the two are very much intermingled.  If you have the public buy-in, then the donations follow.  But of course fundraising in this economy is very difficult, and every charity and worthy cause is also looking for money.  There’s just not enough to go around.  So it’s taking a long time, and sure, it’s frustrating, and it’s been a very complicated process trying to get through the last of the political red tape so we can move forward.”

Despite the challenges of championing a visionary project such as the Monterey Horse Park, volunteers such as Henry are devoting their time and energy to make a difference for the future of equine land, and she hopes other equestrians will do the same.  “How do we get more horse people involved in missions such as this?  I think that’s the million dollar question,” Henry said.  “If we had an answer, we wouldn’t have a problem making things happen!  I feel that if people would do something as simple as just writing a letter for their cause, it would help, and it only costs them a stamp.

“We need people to step up to the plate and show their support for projects like this and say, ‘we believe in this’,” she continued.  “If it wasn’t for the fact that you believe in it, a lot of people would just say, ‘it’s never going to happen’.  But it has to happen, because the future generation has to have someplace to ride.”

For more information about the Monterey Horse Park, visit their website.