Four-legged fun: Competition, good times had at Aspen Farms Horse Trials

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In a triathlon-like venue, Aspen Farm’s multiphase three-day eventing showcased obedience, resilience and courage between 300 horses and riders from throughout the Pacific Northwest and other regions.

Set on 240 acres just outside of Yelm, Aspen Farms Horse Trials — which debuted in October 2007 — was Friday through Sunday. The entrants — 12 live in Yelm, Roy, Tenino or Rainier — competed in dressage, cross-country jumping and show jumping for more than $20,000 in cash and prizes.

The majority of the riders were from Washington, but they also came from Idaho, Oregon, Montana, California and Canada, said volunteer media coordinator Chesna Klimek. Jonathan Elliott, show organizer and owner of Aspen Farms, thought the event went about as well as possible.

“The courses rode well, which is always important … but overall everything went smoothly,” Elliott said. “The weather was ideal and we had a great turnout, so I was quite pleased.”

Of those 300, an additional 50 were on a waiting list due to a good circuit in the Northwest. Elliott said there’s been a waiting list every year the event has been held.

“We try and put on a really good show,” he said. “We have really good prizes for the competitors from a lot of good sponsors that support the show. As it’s grown over the years, we try and do some improvement for everybody, and they seem to like it so it’s doing well.”

Divisions included beginner novice level (jumps as high as 2 feet, 6 inches) to intermediate level (jumps as high as 3 feet, 11 inches). Riders represent various age groups and levels of riding experience such as junior and amateur riders.

The horse and rider combination was the same throughout the three phases of competition, and the final placing was not determined until the end of show jumping. Dressage consists of ballet-like movements ridden in an arena. Judges look for balance, rhythm and obedience of the horse.

The following phase, cross-country jumping, requires the rider-horse partnership to be in great shape, as well as communicate and trust each other through the course’s 20-30 jumps. Solidly-built fences are placed on a long outdoor circuit, which represent natural objects that would occur in the countryside.

Show jumping, on the other hand, tested technical jumping skills among colorful fences set up in a ring. Unlike the cross-country obstacles, show jumping fences can be knocked down, resulting in a penalty.

Lower-level participants had up to 11 jumps while intermediate had 13, Elliott said. Aside from obedience and suppleness, the event tests endurance since it normally occurs after the cross-country phase — the most popular draw. Aspen Farm’s cross-country course is unique, sporting rolling terrain and gorgeous, large, solid fences.

“For sure, the meat and potatoes of the sport is cross country,” Elliott said. “Everybody does the dressage … but what makes the sport unique is cross country, and that’s typically the most influential day of the three-day competition. It’s what everybody who comes to the show is excited about and that’s kind of the thrill of it.”

Klimek wholeheartedly agrees, saying cross country is “unlike any other equestrian discipline out there.”

“It really tests the bond between horse and rider,” she said. “You have to have a lot of trust, you have to have a lot of athleticism and excellent navigation skills to be able to navigate these pretty difficult obstacles.

“Not only that, you’re doing it at speed over natural terrain. … It’s just truly an overall test of your horsemanship skills and the relationship you have with your particular horse. I think it’s one of the most exciting equestrian events out there.”

And not to be forgotten, 75-80 volunteers covered every aspect of the three-day event from keeping score to the training facility and everything in-between. Elliott said the horse trials could not function without their help.

“I think it boils down to a general love for the sport itself as well as the eventing community,” said Klimek, who has volunteered at Aspen Farms for four years. “The people who event are a wonderful bunch of people, very supportive of one another. I think the horses are what bring us together.

“It’s so fun to come together in an outdoor setting for these horse trials and … really just create this fun, exciting and successful show environment,” she continued. “I think it’s more just a sense that the work they’re doing is important, and without it this sport really wouldn’t be able to thrive.”

Travers Schick is another integral part. Schick, who has built Aspen Farms’ jumps for five years, is one of three course builders. Whether it’s a humongous salmon, saw or ax, every nuance helps make the event be that much more special.

Depending on the design, Schick said most jumps take a day or two or, like the salmon, up to seven eight-hour days.

“When it comes to setting up the event, typically we’re here for about two and a half or three weeks before to get everything ready,” he said. “It takes quite a bit to get everything cleaned up and looking decent.”

He and everyone else continues to help not only because they like the sport, but Elliott and his wife Suzy ensure the event is memorable.

“Whether you’re coming into work or coming into compete, they’re just very welcoming and it makes it much more enjoyable to be here,” Schick said. “Also, I’ve been involved with it for a while and I feel that I’m really a part of putting the event on at this point, and it’s nice to feel like you’re a part of it.”

Of the 12 local riders, Kelsy Smith was the top performer. Smith, a 2009 Tenino High School graduate,  placed second in the Preliminary Rider division (jumps up to 3 feet, 7 inches).

“It went really well,” said Smith, who got her first pony at age 5. “It was an awesome event, great weather and my horse was really good.”

This was her second time going to Aspen Farms and she intends on returning for the Sept. 6-8 event. Her horse Huxley Heights, whom she’s ridden for seven years, finds dressage “a little tedious” but excels in jumping events. For instance, she said they completed cross country in 5 minutes, 10 seconds — a mere 2 seconds under the optimum time.

“There’s more to focus on and for him to actually see a reason to do something,” Smith said of her horse’s affinity for those events. “There’s a jump in front of him, so he needs to be paying attention, looking ahead and looking for the next obstacle.”  

Although Huxley Heights has his unabashed favoritism, his owner prefers the trio.

“(I like) the diversity and challenge,” Smith said, “of putting three separate disciplines into one and trying to get the horse ready and in gear to do all three of those and succeed.”

While last weekend’s event was for beginner to intermediate riders, the Sept. 6-8 Aspen Farms Horse Trials goes up to advanced, which is the same level as the Olympics and the three- and four-star level international events, Elliott said.

September’s event is one of 11 in the country that are qualifiers for the championships at the end of the year. And even though eventing is in the Olympics, the sport doesn’t get mainstream notoriety.

Other sports such as football and baseball take a lot of practice and dedication, yet so does one on a four-legged friend. Not only do riders have to be in good enough shape to control the animal, the intermediate-to-advanced level have to do so for more than 2,700 meters in cross country.

As Elliott said, it only looks easy when a skilled rider is at the helm.

“I think a lot of people don’t know about it, and a lot of people compare it to a triathlon but with a horse,” he said. “It’s like any sport: There’s a skill set in what you’re doing and a fitness level for the rider and the horse.

“It’s growing in popularity but I think people don’t understand it and there’s not the same culture behind it.”

However, it may not matter if the sport ever gains mainstream notoriety. At Aspen Farms, hundreds of riders will continue to enter to hone their skills, have a great time and avoid the dreaded waiting list.

“I thought it went perfectly,” Klimek said. “It was really fun to be a part of it. Everyone we spoke with seemed very pleased and that included riders, volunteers, staff and spectators.

“Everyone had a really fun time and overall it was a great success.”

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