Distance, Wildfires and the Occasional Moose Can’t Keep Area VII Eventers Down

A beautiful sunset in Area VII. Photo by Kimber McKay.

The Area VII 2021 eventing season finished up in superb fashion at Spokane Sport Horse Farm, September 30 – October 3. Area VII, which includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska, has a unique vibe to it. For starters, a moose casually passed by the dressage arenas on Friday morning in Spokane. A few competitors were worried about how their horses would react, but the moose was unimpressed and continued on his journey into the woods. Take a look:

Aside from wildlife appearances, we also have a short window of (sometimes) decent weather (May – early October), long travel distances, and an active wildfire season. Northwest eventers rise to the occasion, despite these challenges. Area VII member Kimber McKay put it well: “We have lots of long-distance travel which can be tough or prohibitive on amateurs who work and for junior riders during the school year. Yes, everyone knows that smoke and long winters can shorten the already-short season, and that can be a challenge. In the Eastern part of Area VII we don’t get our footing until mid or even late April, so the first few events of the season can be a little hard to prepare for… but we have awesome venues, wonderful clinicians, many incredible pros, and an overall friendly and supportive vibe.”

Area VII has a total of eight venues that host recognized events, three of which host two per year, for a total of only 11 events on our yearly calendar. Despite a short season and relatively few venues, we have three events that host FEI level competition: Aspen Farms in Yelm, WA, Rebecca Farm in Kalispell, MT, and most recently, Spokane Sport Horse Farm in Spokane, WA.

Chistel Carlson, M.D. is the property owner and event organizer at Spokane Sport Horse Farm. She, her daughter Cyra Carlson, and Gail Mackie have worked tirelessly to develop the property since they began running USEA recognized events in fall 2015. With the addition of CCI2*-S and CCI3*-S courses this fall, Spokane now offers an FEI destination in the fall that is much more doable for most Area VII riders aiming to compete at that level (previously, competitors would have to travel to Southern California for a fall FEI event). The new FEI courses, designed and built by Adri Doyal, proved challenging but successful for riders. Ella Kurtz and Sportsfield Harley Davis won the CCI2*-S with a final score of 37.7, while Stephanie Cooper and Sketchy Past won the CCI3*-S with a final score of 46.2.

Home for the weekend at SHHF! Photo by Sarah Haff.

One of the most amazing things about Spokane Sport Horse is that, in addition to FEI levels, the event also offers basically everything else: Future Event Horse 1 – 4-year-old divisions, Young Event Horse 4 and 5-year-old divisions, Intro through Intermediate horse trials, and Beginner Novice, Novice, and Training Level Classic 3-Day Events!

Kady Ellifritz and Yankee Bay won the Beginner Novice Classic 3-Day Event with a final score of 29.7. Kady expressed her gratitude to Christel and the SSHF team for providing the opportunity to compete in the long-format event at the Beginner Novice level. She said it was an incredibly unique experience to condition and prepare for, and then complete the endurance phases in partnership with her horse. Typically, Kady walks her cross country course a minimum of three times to be sure she is fully prepared for her ride, but with the additional length of the roads and tracks and steeplechase phases, she wasn’t able to commit the time or mileage to that much walking. That put her out of her comfort zone, but her coach, Kelsey Horn of Pinnacle Equine Training, told her “Kady, you need to trust your training.” It turns out that was excellent advice because Kady and Yankee had their best cross country ride ever and both ended the weekend with more confidence than they began with.

Kady Ellifritz and Yankee Bay compete in the Beginner Novice Classic Three-Day. Photo by Kim Johnson.

You won’t find basic logs at Spokane Sport Horse — the Intro and Beginner Novice cross country courses look like miniature versions of the upper-level courses! Competitors love the challenge provided by open oxers, corners, and trakehners even at the lowest levels. For horses and/or riders hoping to move up, the courses provide experience with the types of questions they’ll see later, so they aren’t a surprise. For riders who intend to stay at the lower levels, the courses provide enough of a challenge to keep things interesting!

Krista Rexin described her experience, “I love Area VII because everyone is so welcoming, and the atmosphere is about having fun! Christel Carlson and her crew at SSHF have worked tirelessly to build an amazing event. I have come here almost every year (barring horse injury and one year there was too much smoke in Montana to prepare) for about 6 years. This year I brought my baby OTTB Hurricane Gisselle and had a great experience running Beginner Novice… I was worried that I would be disappointed after running Training and Prelim with my other horse for several years but I was pleasantly surprised that the course was challenging and super fun for the level! I love the environment and the camaraderie that surrounds Area VII events!”

Tacos, please! Photo by Cindy Covington.

Christel and her crew maintain a good sense of humor too. By the end of our season in early October, the days are short. The mornings are cold and foggy, but absolutely beautiful. Stunning sunsets lead to full dark by 6:30 p.m. Christel, show jumping course designer William Robertson, and a small group of dedicated volunteers set most of the stadium course by moonlight to prepare for an early morning of jumping!

In the northwest we’ve traditionally had four distinct seasons, as the weather varies a lot throughout winter, spring, summer, and fall. Over the past few years, people have started referring regularly to our unfortunate fifth season… smoke season. Increasing annual temperatures and decreasing precipitation have led to drought and severe wildfires year after year, which threaten the homes and livelihoods of many people. The smoke from the fires also drifts long distances and often settles into a holding pattern for days or weeks at a time.

Personally, I didn’t know what “AQI” was three years ago. I learned that it stands for Air Quality Index, and that a number below 50 is considered “good.” Many people now have AQI monitoring apps on their phones, which can be used to track the smoke forecast as well as determine how unhealthy the air is. The AQI levels fluctuated from “unhealthy for sensitive groups” (101-150) to “unhealthy” (151-200) to “very unhealthy” (201-300) for several weeks in 2020 and again in 2021. There were bouts of air in the “hazardous” range above 300, which led many riders to withdraw from fall competition in 2020. I expect smoke season to present a continual challenge from here on out, but Area VII eventers are nothing if not adaptable and able to pull together as a community!

The night shift! Photo by Brian Smentkowski.

The long distance we travel for events helps contribute to our sense of community. People don’t haul in and out. We don’t have one-day events (except local unrecognized events in some places). We typically commit at least five days to attending one event. As Erin Storey of Storey Tails Eventing in Boise, Idaho put it, “our closest event is 7.5 hours away. That is two full days of travel and three for competition. It takes planning from the beginning of the year to get to the events you need for experience/MERs. Not to mention the added cost of the travel.” Many people camp on-site, which makes for festive evenings filled with happy hours, cook-outs, and tales told under the stars. Horses visit the taco truck and order their own coffee.

These fond memories will remain in our hearts as most of us prepare for a long, dark winter of indoor riding. We’ll come together again in May at Spokane Sport Horse for the 2022 season-opener. Until then, Area VII!