After 12 years of being ‘show parents,’ Donna and Gary Stegman embarked on a journey to build Poplar Place Farm in Hamilton, Georgia, a sprawling 188-acre dressage and eventing facility that quickly became a premier venue in Area III. Sixteen years after the first horse trials at Poplar Place, the Stegmans elected to hang up their organizer hats and sold the farm last October.
“We built Poplar Place Farm because we love eventing – the sport, horses and people,” the Stegmans told EN. “Our first event in May 2001 ran on the date that had for many years been the Midland Horse Trials weekend. For their final event in 2000, they printed a bumper sticker that said ‘We didn’t get rich, we just got old—so Midland Horse Trials is going to fold.’ After 17 years, we share this sentiment. It was time for us to retire and enjoy other interests.”
As organizers, Donna and Gary set the bar high and inspired new and existing venues to rise to their standard. It is truly the end of an era as we bid the Stegmans farewell.
“Eventing is a great sport — caring for the horse’s welfare and demonstrating great sportsmanship. We hope it will retain these qualities for many years to come. We have many fond memories to take with us and friends that we will cherish for life. We wish the best to the eventing community.”
Donna and Gary have passed the torch to the facility’s new owner, Launa DesPortes. Launa has loved horses since childhood but never had the opportunity to ride regularly. She made aviation her career, as both a commercial pilot and manager of a fleet of charter aircraft.
Launa recently reduced her workload so she could focus on the horses. She and her husband were considering building a barn on another property, but the timing seemed right to purchase Poplar. Launa said, “It’s hard to explain. I don’t know why I was drawn to do it, but there was a drive to buy the place. I wasn’t even thinking about running the shows and then I thought I can’t be the one responsible for that going away.”
Recognizing the venue’s importance on the Area III calendar, Launa has pledged to continue running events. Her vision for the future focuses on facility upgrades and active community involvement. Work has already begun in earnest.
Launa started by building a team to help her navigate unfamiliar territory as a horse show venue owner. She’s hired Shelley Page and Rick Dunkerton as organizer and secretary, respectively. FEI course designer John Williams will revamp the cross country with Tyson Rementer and Rob Mobley building fences. Jan Brodkin will continue as the show jumping course designer and utilizing a brand new set of show jumps from Jumps by Fuzzy.
“I’m used to having a lot of moving parts and a lot of things going on. I’m not out of my comfort zone, but I’m having to learn about everything and on a timeline,” Launa said. “I have good people on board to help me with shows and then I can focus on doing what I like to do, which is getting the community involved.”
Launa has already drawn up a long list of plans to bring more of the local community to Poplar Place as spectators and volunteers. The venue has a dedicated following of volunteers, but Launa is communicating with area school systems about enabling students to earn community service hours working at shows.
Increasing spectators is also a priority. “My vision is to make it something for the whole family. Spectators feed our sport. Exposure through word of mouth and social media will get them here, and once they see it they will make a point to come back.”
Schooling show and horse trials attendance will be bolstered by family-friendly vendors, demonstrations and activities. Launa also hopes to increase the venue’s popularity across more equestrian disciplines. “By broadening the base, the spectators will follow.”
This year the focus will be to invest back into the property and build upon the already solid foundation of the farm’s infrastructure. To ensure adequate preparation for Poplar’s debut under new ownership, the first two horse trials of the year (January and February) were cancelled. Nationally recognized competitions will begin in March, and FEI levels will return to Poplar Place in 2019. Going forward, competitors will see only four annual horse trials on the calendar, a significant decrease from the previously scheduled seven.
“To me the horse trials need to be more of an event that happens and not just a place to go for qualifications,” Launa said. “I consider Red Hills an event. People plan their calendar around Red Hills. That’s what I’m hoping to do by only running four really nice horse trials. I want to make it a special place that people want to plan their calendar around.”
The 2018 competition season at Poplar Place officially begins next weekend with the first of several unrecognized schooling shows, for which Launa has very special plans. Every future Poplar Place schooling show will highlight a different local charity, and the entry fees from one unique division will be donated to that charity.
For the February schooling show, Begin Again Farms Equine Shelter will receive the proceeds from the creatively marketed Seasoned and Sexy Amoeba Challenge. In this division, teams of various age groups from 35 to over 50 will compete at the Amoeba (Starter) level. From what we hear, competitors are taking this production to the next level with team costumes, stable decor, roaming beverage carts (genius) and general hilarity.
My own mother is traveling across three States to “groom” for friends and has agreed (or rather, insisted) to report on the Seasoned and Sexy Amoeba Challenge for EN. We’re going to cut her loose with a camera and notepad, so stay tuned for what will surely be some of the most entertaining coverage in EN history.
Launa’s vision for the future is to take Poplar Place to new heights, but she also hopes to contribute to strengthening the sport of eventing as a whole. “There are new places being built, but I don’t look at other venues as being competition. We are really all competing with the other things people spend their disposable income doing. We have to stick together as a horse community, build each other up and make it good for the sport overall.”
Launa added, “I am so thankful the Stegmans built this place because if they hadn’t I wouldn’t have this opportunity.”
From all of us at EN and on behalf of the eventing community, from the bottom of our hearts, thank you to Donna and Gary for your many years of service to the sport. Thank you also to Launa for keeping its spirit alive at Poplar Place. Go eventing.