From the first Fair Hill International win by Karen Lende (now O’Connor) to last year’s victory by Canadian Selena O’Hanlon, FHI has hosted fierce and top-notch international competition. The team working behind the scenes at FHI each year brings together high quality competition as well as a great spectator experience complete with demonstrations, vendors and food! This year’s special anniversary year celebrates 30 years of FHI at the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area in Elkton, October 18-21.
Why Fair Hill
When the Chesterland Horse Trials was losing its home at the Davidson farm near Unionville, PA, organizers started searching the surrounding areas for somewhere to move the area’s biggest fall event. Chesterland’s organizer John Ryan pointed out that many didn’t want the event to leave Pennsylvania, but Fair Hill looked like the best location for an event of that scale. It had varied terrain and enough room for all three phases in a fairly centralized location.
The State of Maryland purchased the land now known as the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management from the expansive William duPont, Jr., estate in 1974. The preserve spreads out across 5,633 acres. The first FHI in 1989 used up much more space than the current version as the early events still used the long format of eventing with roads and tracks. Cross-country day started and ended near the fair grounds and used the steeplechase course, Saw Mill fields and many of the areas used for the current cross-country courses.
For that first event, Ryan reached out to course designer Michael Tucker of Great Britain about coming out to Maryland to check out the location, and the rest is history. Ryan, Trish Gilbert and a few others from the first FHI team met Tucker at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. When Tucker got a look at Fair Hill, “he loved it,” Ryan stated. Fran Loftus, also part of that first FHI team, said of Tucker, “he really got us going and was able to help keep us going.”
According to Ryan, it is the cross-country course that makes FHI Fair Hill. “This course is unique compared to what is happening at other venues in the states,” he said. “The use of the natural terrain is what makes Fair Hill special. It is a true cross-country course.”
Tucker told The Equiery in a 2013 interview, “This really is the most exciting piece of cross-country that I’ve even been able to design on.” At the time of FHI’s 25th anniversary, Tucker, who passed away in January of this year, reminisced,“I remember we were beating away the bushes to find everything we needed and then the challenge was linking it all together.”
Current FHI course designer Derek di Grazia said in that same 2013 article, “The thing about Fair Hill that you appreciate after riding it is how much the terrain affects the horses.” Before becoming FHI’s course designer in 2000, di Grazia had competed several times there and won aboard Our Busby in 1991. That same year, Eric Bull, also a top event rider, became FHI’s official course builder. Ryan believes it is FHI’s cross-country course that makes competitors come back to FHI year after year. “Phillip and Boyd and riders of that level have said it over and over again… If you get around Fair Hill, you are ready for a four star,” he said.
The First Family
That first FHI team was a mix of Chesterland organizers, local pony club organizers and trainers who already were familiar with the Fair Hill grounds.Nearly all were purely volunteers with a passion for eventing. John Ryan. Trish Gilbert. Fran Loftus. Bodgie Reed. Michael Tucker. Judy Thayer. Diane Trefry. Charles Colgen. Mary Coldren. Rupert Rossetti. Derek di Grazia. Eric Bull. Sally Ike. The list goes on and on. Trying to generate any sort of list of the first FHI family is next to impossible. So many people, so many volunteers. So little time!
“It’s a big family,” said this year’s competition manager and long-time show secretary Mary Coldren. “The family. That’s what has made Fair Hill so successful for so long.” Coldren’s first exposure to FHI was as the official “mower of the tracks,” she said with a laugh. “I was a student of Judy Thayer’s and all her students volunteered at Fair Hill. I was the one on the tractor with the bat-wing mower out there grooming the courses.”
Later, Coldren became treasurer for a few years and then sat on the Board of Directors before becoming FHI’s event secretary and stable manager. “I remember the years when stabling was grouped by the Davidson tent, the Dutton tent and the O’Connor tent,” she remarked, commenting on the way competitors liked to be stabled together. This year, Coldren has fallen into the competition manager role. “They needed someone who knew all the players to step into the role and I just seemed like the logical fit,” she said.
“It really is a whole family affair,” Loftus said. “Mowing and weed-whacking, painting jumps….” When asked about that very first FHI, Loftus stated, “I was very amazed how it all came together. What was just fields and woods and hedges turned into a magnificent course.” Loftus started out as organizing show jumping and manned the in-gate at times. Over the years she has also run the horse inspections and been a VIP shuttle driver. “That is a lot of fun! You meet a lot of interesting people driving the shuttles,” she stated.
But Loftus is best known for her paintings of the cross-country fences that illustrate each year’s courses in the FHI program. “Its really interesting to talk with the course designers and walk around the courses with them while they are setting fences. I’ve learned a lot about the sport just from doing those paintings,” she said.
Bodgie Reed runs the dressage phase, but like so many others on the FHI team, does so much more than that, pointed out that “there are a lot of people who the spectators don’t even see getting the rings set and changed quickly.” Because all three phases of competition use the main arena at FHI, Reed said the dressage rings get set up typically the Sunday before the event, are taken down as soon as the last rider finishes on Friday and then the cross-country jumps are moved out of the way and all of show jumping is set up well into dark on Saturday. “And then we take it all down right after the event is done on Sunday!” she added.
Celebrating 30 Years
Over the last 30 years, FHI has evolved in many ways. From being a fall three-day event before there were “stars” to becoming the official U.S. Eventing Association Fall Three-Star and Two-Star Championships, one thing has remained the same… top quality international competition.
For a time, FHI weekend not only hosted the CCI3* but also an international Combined Driving Championship. “Those were great years with course designers from both sports having to work together to intertwine their courses,” Reed said. Driving was dropped in 2008 due to lack on entries but promptly replaced with a CCI2* championship that filled quickly.
In 2003, FHI hosted the eventing portion of the Pan American Games. “That probably is the most memorable Fair Hill for me,” said Loftus of the 2003 event. “We had driving, endurance and eventing all running over the same week. It was truly an international experience.” That year, di Grazia had already set the CCI3* courses before the Pan American announcement had been made so he went back to create options for the Pan American riders at many of the complexes. “We wanted to make it a little different from the regular three-star and wanted to have as many teams as possible make it to show jumping so that many countries were represented,” he said. Reed added, “I remember all the international riders having a grand time! They seemed to really enjoy their time here and had a blast.”
To celebrate 30 years of top class eventing, this year FHI is raising the bar even higher. There is a new Select Event Group sponsor tent replacing the old VIP tent on the top of the hill overlooking the arena. The new viewing area is a fully enclosed glass structure complete with a floor. “It’s very fancy! Lots of glass and a floor so people are not walking on wet grass” said Reed.
After cross-country concludes on Saturday, the new enclosure will be the site of the official FHI 30th Anniversary party. Tickets are open to everyone and the emcee of the evening will be the legendary Jimmy Wofford. “We have lots of special guests planning on attending and it really will be a way to mingle with the past and present stars of eventing,” Loftus said.
Also new this year is a new electronic score board in the main arena throughout the competition. Competitors will be treated to new and improved stabling that consists of covered pods of stalls versus big tents. There will be a special Volunteer Tent set next to the main arena. “We want to honor all the volunteers that work so hard to put this event on,” said Loftus. “The tent will be a great place for them to take a break, eat some food and watch the competition.
The general format for competition remains the same this year with the first horse inspection on Wednesday afternoon. Dressage for the CCI2*, CCI3* and Young Event Horse Championship (4- and 5-year-olds) takes place on Thursday with the dressage for the CCIs wrapping up on Friday, while the YEH horses jump across the road in the Saw Mill.
Saturday is the big cross-country day with the CCI2* riders hitting the course first, then a lunch break followed by the CCI3* riders. In addition to plenty of competition, Saturday spectators will be treated to the Kids’ Corner, live performances by the Juggling Hoffmans and the Magical Illusions of Kyle and Kelly, Dog Agility demonstrations, the Chincoteague Pony Drill Team and Frisbee Dogs.
Sunday wraps up the CCI competition with the final horse inspection and show jumping phase. This year, Mark Donavan joins the FHI team as the show jumping course designer. Long-time course designer Sally Ike has “aged out” due to FEI rules on the maximum age of international officials.
The Vendor Village with plenty of shopping and food options will be open throughout the week. There are also many other food option areas spread out throughout the grounds for cross-country day.
Finally, don’t forget to visit The Equiery on Saturday at our annual tailgate. Great viewing from spot B1 right at the start of the main galloping lane.