From the Sustain Your Horse Parks Series
By Jennifer M. Keeler
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 their treasured 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.
Nestled in the foothills of Tryon, NC is a nature and equestrian treasure – the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center, otherwise known as FENCE. Owned by a non-profit organization which, as stated in its mission statement, is “dedicated to providing facilities and focus for education, recreation and preservation in nature studies and equestrian activities with the aim of enhancing these endeavors to enrich the quality of life for the community”, FENCE came into being in 1985 as a non-profit nature education and outdoor recreation center, built around an original land grant of 112 acres generously contributed by the Mahler family. Now governed by a volunteer board of directors working with a small salaried staff, FENCE’s property is protected by a conservation easement and therefore will always be available, free from development, for future generations to enjoy.
Since its founding, FENCE has grown to its present 384 acres and six miles of trails through hardwood forest, meadow, and wetland and serves some 65,000 people each year with programs in nature study, outdoor recreation and equestrian competition. Dedicated to educating the public about nature, FENCE offers a variety of programs and amenities for hikers, birdwatchers, gardeners, and astronomers, and also helps educate future generations by working with local schools in their “Project FENCE” natural history curriculum and hosting summer day camps. Gretchen Verbonic is a FENCE volunteer who also serves on the Board of Directors, as well as Chair of the organization’s Finance Committee. “First and foremost, the focus of FENCE is on nature and education, although we offer a variety of other activities which include our equestrian center and therapeutic riding program,” she notes.
Since holding its first event in the late 1980’s, FENCE’s equestrian center has gained a reputation as one of the finest facilities of its kind in the Southeast. Comprised of three lighted show rings with all-weather footing (including a covered arena), stabling for over 300 horses in eleven barns, and spectator seating, the FENCE Equestrian Center hosts events in all disciplines year-round, including hunter/jumper competitions, cross-country events, dressage, carriage driving, and the famous Block House Steeplechase. In addition, FENCE offers a therapeutic riding program which teaches horsemanship skills to adults and children with physical and developmental difficulties.
Kay Whitlock has managed dressage shows at FENCE for over twenty years, and is a strong supporter of the non-profit organization. “I manage competitions at several different facilities in the region, and FENCE is one of the best groups that I get to work with,” Whitlock explains. “Facilities with different organizational structures, such as state-run properties, seem to fall victim to budget cuts and don’t have necessary funds for maintenance, equipment, or staff. Some parks are burdened by tremendous debt from the land which they can’t get out from under. Others don’t have extensive community involvement and have to fight a perception of elitism. None of these are issues with FENCE.”
Verbonic explains that FENCE primarily relies on grants and donations, which may be earmarked by donors for a specific purpose such as a new building or arena. “Our biggest challenge at this time is that with the tough economic times, our donations are down,” says Verbonic. “Our equestrian center facilities are rented out to various groups to hold shows and events, and the money generated goes back into the property for maintenance and to further support the nature programs. We also hold community events such as a golf tournament and a wine and art festival in the fall to help generate additional revenue.”
But without support from volunteers, serving in a myriad of roles in both the nature center and equestrian facility, FENCE would not be able to continue serving the community. Verbonic, a busy licensed dressage judge by day, makes time to serve in multiple volunteer capacities for FENCE and is committed to the center’s success. Her dedication and active involvement sets an example for horse lovers everywhere to help preserve the venues they utilize and treasure. Become educated about the organizational structure of equestrian facilities in your area, understand the challenges facing them, become an advocate for these sites, and find out how you can help beyond simply attending the occasional horse show. Yes, writing a donation check is important, indeed. “However, even if someone doesn’t have the funds to donate to a facility, they may have the time to contribute as a volunteer,” says Verbonic. “Every bit helps.”