By Karen Briggs

Once seen as the salvation of horse trials, public lands may offer wonderful competition opportunities — but they come at a price.

Horse and Rider Jumping over ObstacleItching to build a brand-new, shiny cross-country course — but you just don’t have the land to do it? Want to make your competition accessible to riders and spectators alike — but you just don’t have the right facilities? Well, just 20 miles away is a splendid 10,000 acre conservation area, just crying out to be used. It has everything you long for: rolling hills, sandy footing, ample parking, public washrooms …. and ooh, that pond would make a fantastic water complex. You can see it all now. You would provide all the labor, the volunteers, the maintenance, and the clean-up, and all the landowners need do is give their blessing.

Seems like a match made in heaven, right? Alas, it’s seldom as simple as it sounds.

Many a worthy proposal for using public lands for horse sports has been shot down in its prime, either because the idea just wasn’t well thought-out, wasn’t presented in a way that sounded profitable to the landowner or local government, because it clashed with other plans for the land, or because it sounded dangerous and difficult to insure. Overcoming these obstacles isn’t easy, particularly when most landowners don’t have a good understanding of what’s really involved. Nonetheless, using public lands to host dressage shows, horse trials, or three-day events is a popular option, and some arrangements work like good marriages. Three women who’ve been involved with competitions hosted on public lands say compromise and tact are the keys.

Trish Gilbert, who organizes the very successful Fair Hill International Three-Day Event and Advanced Level Combined Driving Event, in Elkton, Maryland, says, “It’s sort of like being a Master of Foxhounds. You’re constantly dealing with the landowner, and it’s essential to keep the communication lines open.

“We have a renewable five-year contract with Fair Hill. We lease the property for the duration of the competition (held in October), not before or after it. And we have a fee structure set up for the use of the facilities (washrooms, stables, and so on).. We maintain our own galloping tracks. The state of Maryland profits from our presence, making money from stall rentals (Fair Hill has 150 stalls), and from mowing the grasslands of the park for hay and mulch throughout the year.” She adds, “We do have to remind them every year to remove the bales before the competition!

“Our contract also stipulates that we can’t cut any trees down, and we can’t do ground work (for instance, building a bank or a water complex) without prior notice. It’s been a good relationship, but we have to work at it.”

Dressage credit Becky Young smaller

Photo credit: Becky Young

Many public lands, including Fair Hill, are multi-purpose, welcoming everything from mountain bike marathons to dog obedience trials over the course of a year. That requires compromise. At some sites, for example, cross-country fences must be constructed so as to be completely portable — and are only set up for the event and then removed immediately afterwards. Listening to the needs of the landowner, and accommodating them wherever possible, may be the key to success.

Kate Jackson, one of the unsung heroes behind the production of the three-day event for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, describes some of the pitfalls involved in using public lands. “The Horse Park (in which all the equestrian sports were held) was owned by the city of Conyers, Georgia, and they didn’t know how to maintain it for horses. The city’s interest was in making money. At one point shortly before the Games, in June, they decided to hold a rock concert right on the arena footing! There was so much garbage and debris afterwards that we had to take all of the footing out, screen every inch of it, and then put it all back.

“There were also some pretty strange decisions made; they wouldn’t allow the course designers to drive on the track, which of course made it next to impossible to access the fences in progress. And now, sadly, the course is not being maintained. One of the fences has already been burned down by vandals.

“The down side (of using public lands) is that you have to answer to someone else. You can’t make all the decisions about the land — and sometimes the people calling the shots don’t understand the sport or its requirements.”

For Katie Lindsay, organizer of the Wayne DuPage Horse Trials in Illinois, using the Forest Conservation Area for her event has been a careful balancing act. “I deal with DuPage County in the shadow of Chicago, which has its own kind of bureaucracy. There is a ‘green belt’ around the city and we use part of it, based on an agreement 25 years ago with the Pony Club. The horse trials have evolved from there.

“We operated for years on a yearly contract, which always left us feeling unsure of the future; but we have finally negotiated a three-year contract, which is very exciting. Our arrangement is that we build, maintain, and insure the fences (each one for $3 million), and the county owns them. We have to get permission for anything new that we build — and that includes submitting sketches. In total, our contract is 10 pages long; it looks like a negotiation between Washington and Beijing!”

On the whole, however, Lindsay says the relationship has been very cordial, because “we know the use of their land is a privilege, not a right. Politicians,” she points out, “like to have dinners and have their birthdays remembered — and you absolutely have to do it.” Provided you keep on their good side, however, “politicians really like the positive public relations angle of the horse trials. It’s a great way to get people using the land.”

Selling the idea of using public lands for equine competition may take some strategizing, says Gilbert. “Politicians want to see opportunities for money and VOTES. So point out the number of riders in your area — they’re all voters (or the children of voters). Fair Hill International is a non-profit organization; it always looks good to ally yourself with a community hospital or a local charity. That way, there’s mutual benefit. And you can also pitch the benefit to the land. Maintaining galloping lanes, cutting weeds, regular clean-up — all these are a plus to the landowner.” Playing up the appeal of your project might just get you an agreement and a handshake — and if you play your cards right, a long-term relationship from which everyone profits.