By Katherine O. Rizzo (first published in the September 2022 Equiery)
In 1989, Trish Gilbert was part of a small group of event organizers looking for a new location for the Chesterland Horse Trials. After considering several locations, they reached out to the Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area, run by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and found the perfect location for a world class event. Thus, the Fair Hill International was born in October 1989.
Now, 33 years later, Fair Hill International continues to offer top horse trials and three-day events. With Gilbert’s help, Fair Hill became the second location in the U.S. to hold a CCI5*-L, the top level of eventing competition in the world. But Gilbert’s involvement and dedication to the sport of eventing is not restricted to Fair Hill, and it is because of her decades of hard work that she is being inducted into the U.S. Eventing Association Hall of Fame this December.
Gilbert was born and raised in Virginia. Her mother passed away while she was quite young, but “My father and grandmother both foxhunted and my grandmother was very influential in keeping me involved with horses,” Gilbert stated. “She hunted sidesaddle ‘til she was 75!”
Gilbert’s first exposure to the sport of eventing was through U.S. Pony Club as a member of the Blue Ridge Hunt Pony Club. “We went up to GMHA (Green Mountain Horse Association) in Vermont in 1957 and I was hooked,” she said. “Eventing is much more exciting than other horse sports… really it’s the most exciting to be a part of.”
For many years, Gilbert continued her eventing education and rode up through the Advanced level. At the time, she was one of the incredibly few female eventers in the country and had considerable success at the national level. She was once invited to a U.S. team selection trial and though she did not make the team that year, she went on to make a career that revolved around the top riders of the sport, all while raising six children from the family farm, first in Virginia, and then moving to Churchville in 1983. Gilbert continued to be involved with USPC through her children, serving as District Commissioner of clubs both in Virginia and Maryland.
In addition to being an event organizer, Gilbert was an international course designer, USEA’s young rider chairman, a U.S. team selector, technical delegate, and member of many USEA boards. “I really enjoy course design and being a TD,” she remarked. “It has taken me all over the country and abroad as well.”
Gilbert served as an official at the Olympic Games in both South Korea (1988) and Atlanta (1996). “Korea was certainly an adventure!” she added. “We were there for three weeks, and I was one of the stewards for all the equestrian events.”
Gilbert also worked on cross-country course designs for events in Mexico and Guatemala.
Gilbert first set foot on the Fair Hill property in the mid ‘70s when her kids were competing there for an Event Rally. “Back then the course would have them jumping into the woods and then they would just disappear for a while before coming back into view at the end of the course,” she explained. “I went up to Mickey Skipper, who was Regional Supervisor at the time, and offered to help make a better course for the kids.”
Fast forward to 1989 when Gilbert and others founded the Fair Hill International. Gilbert has been involved with the organization ever since, serving in a variety of capacities but mainly as co-president, and now sole president. By the time Gilbert made it to Fair Hill, she was no stranger to organizing events. She and her husband, Bill, ran the Blue Ridge Horse Trials and spring three-day U.S. Equestrian Team Championships in Virginia for many years.
At Fair Hill, the horse trials grew over the years to include the U.S. Fall Eventing Championships for the then CCI2* and CCI3* levels. In 2003, Gilbert and her team successfully ran the Pan American Games Eventing Championships at Fair Hill as well. “I am just so proud of what we’ve been able to do at Fair Hill,” Gilbert said, adding, “It’s like the Energizer Bunny… just keeps going on and on and on!”
In 2017, Gilbert was part of the team that created a proposal, first to the U.S. Equestrian Federation and then to the Fédération Equestre Interationale (FEI), to bid for a five-star (which was actually a four-star based on the FEI’s star ranking system in 2017) event to be held at Fair Hill. The proposal was accepted by the FEI in 2018. At the same time the FEI granted approval for a new international event in Maryland, however, they were working on changing their “stars” ranking system. Fair Hill International decided to wait until the FEI released the new ranking system and in 2019, they announced that their new event would be a CCI5*-L to be held in October of 2020.
Though the new five-star is run by the Fair Hill Organizing Committee, not Fair Hill International, Gilbert remains heavily involved. When the organizing committee decided to postpone the inaugural event in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gilbert was in full support, and said, “Fair Hill International supports its partner The Fair Hill Organizing Committee in its decision to postpone the inaugural Maryland 5 Star to next year. There are too many challenges to overcome this year related to the pandemic. With this decision, we can move forward with the planning for 2021 and work together to create the best event possible, building upon the legacy FHI has established at Fair Hill over the last few decades.”
In October 2021, the Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill debuted, becoming one of two CCI5*-Ls on U.S. soil and one of only seven in the world.
Full Speed Ahead
On June 28 of this year, fellow USEA Hall of Fame members and longtime family friends Drs. Tim and Nina Gardner, and USEA CEO Rob Burk surprised Gilbert with her USEA Hall of Fame induction announcement at her farm in Churchville. Surrounded by Gilbert’s friends and family, Dr. Tim Gardner said, “It was an enthusiastic and unanimous agreement. We all agreed that there is no one more deserving than you. And we also agreed that it was long overdue.”
Also in attendance that day was U.S. Olympian and Hall of Famer Jim Wofford, who said, “I don’t know of anyone who has dedicated their life to the improvement of eventing in the way that you have. I hope you know that your sport is a better place for your efforts. Congratulations again and thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“It really is humbling to think I’m even part of that group of [Hall of Fame] names,” Gilbert told The Equiery. “I personally know every one of them on that list. We have become an eventing family.”
So you might think that at this point in Gilbert’s life, at 81 years young, she’d like to sit back and retire knowing she has made a difference in the sport. Not the case for Gilbert! “I’m still involved with Fair Hill International and I love riding through my children and grandchildren,” she said. “We’ll all keep going and going …”