Virginia Horse Trials: Upholding Tradition and a Focus for the Future

VHT organizer Andy Bowles and FEI course designer John Nicholson. Photo by Brant Gamma. VHT organizer Andy Bowles and FEI course designer John Nicholson. Photo by Brant Gamma.

On Halloween weekend I took my first trip to the Virginia Horse Trials, anxious to see for myself what everyone had described as a gorgeous venue with a 360-degree view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I intentionally left my camera at home, however, because for the first time in a long time, I would be attending a competition as a rider instead of a photographer.

I had simple expectations for the weekend because I was just there to have fun. Beginning from the moment we drove in, however, the experience exceeded my expectations. For starters, every competitor was given a windbreaker jacket with VHT embroidery on it, a nice surprise from organizer Andy Bowles.

The barns are set up on a grid, and it is fairly easy to find your building, unload, then swing back around and up the hill to park. The riders participating in the Adult Team Challenge, of whom I was one, were all stabled together in barn 6, complete with hot water and an indoor schooling ring.

The Adult Riders were treated to two meals, one reception hosted by the Area II Adult Rider program on Friday — when we received a second jacket from AR Coordinator Donna Bottner — and a dinner on Saturday hosted by VHT for all competitors.

With a horse trials from Beginner Novice through Intermediate, a well-attended CCI* and CIC2*, the Area II Championships and an Adult Team Challenge, there were nearly 500 horses on the property over the course of four days, and never once did it feel crowded. There was plenty of space to hack and hand walk and quite a few rings, both indoor and out, to school or warm up.

This lengthy intro is all from the perspective of a person who was a first-time visitor to the Virginia Horse Center and, quite frankly, terribly out of practice when it comes to showing. The lovely weekend went perfectly thanks to the efforts of a dedicated team that has worked all year to provide a top-notch experience, meeting the needs of both the upper- and lower-level riders and going above and beyond (did I mention the free jackets?) to make everyone feel welcome.

Carrying on a Legacy

When Andy Bowles took over as organizer of the Virginia Horse Trials, he had big shoes to fill, as Brian and Penny Ross had spent 25 years developing the event. As his first year as organizer comes to a close, Andy was kind enough to take the time to look back on the progress made this year as he looks towards a promising future.

When is was first announced that the Rosses would be stepping down, Andy told EN that his objective in this new role was to carry on the tradition created by Brian and Penny, work with the riders to grow the show and involve the community.

“Our passion for the sport is very similar,” Andy said of the Rosses. “They’ve been very supportive over the year … to me, it’s about keeping their legacy going and continuing to develop their legacy.”

Andy wants VHT to continue on for another 25 years, and the way he will do that is to make it a friendly, customer-focused event while keeping up with the changing times. Next year he says he will focus on three things: further developing the horse trials cross country course, building a CCI2* track and streamlining show office duties.

Penny Roland and Northwinds Breeze on the CCI* course at VHT. Photo by Brant Gamma.

Penny Roland and Northwinds Breeze jumping one of the new fences on the CCI* course at VHT. Photo by Brant Gamma.

Modernizing a Traditional Course

There are two cross country courses at VHT, with the FEI divisions plus Intermediate horse trials running on the “Oak Hill” side of the property — named for the still standing historic plantation home built in the 1800s — and Preliminary and below running close to the main complex. Jonathan Wells designed the horse trials courses, including for the Championships, and Andy brought in New Zealander John Nicholson to design the FEI courses, which debuted a number of new fences this year.

Andy does not want to reinvent the courses altogether, but instead aims to update and modernize them to keep up with the changing times. However, it’s clear he has an interest in honoring eventing’s roots.

“Some of the feedback I had on the FEI side this time was that the course was more old fashioned, more like a true three-day course. It was flowing, you could gallop down to fences but in a safe way. John had a number of fences off turns, but still flowing. It’s about keeping tradition but modernizing,” Andy said.

VHT has been approved to run a CCI2* at the October 2016 event, which will give East Coasters another chance at a CCI2* after Fair Hill. “John’s courses were well received, and I think he did a phenomenal job for his first time in the U.S.,” Andy said. “I look forward to continuing to develop the courses on the Oak Hill side, and he’s going to have a look at the horse trials courses as well next year to make sure that we go in the right direction.”

On the horse trials course, Andy hopes to mirror the progress made across the road, with a number of new permanent fences around which to build themes, much like the new “kiwi” and “mushroom” complexes on the Oak Hill side. On both courses there has been a concerted effort to better work with the terrain to create a flowing course.

Developments unrelated to the cross country course include bringing in foreign officials to give riders the experience of riding in front of different judges and increasing the prize money through sponsorship. Andy has also reached out to a local group of equestrian enthusiasts who will raise awareness of the horse trials and use the old house as a historic link.

A Focus on Teams

Another area that Andy wants to further develop is the multiple team competitions hosted at VHT, including Young Riders, Intercollegiate and Adult Riders team challenges. Andy will be hiring extra office staff  to focus solely on growing and managing the team competitions. “That person will own the whole team process of the event, from when you enter through getting final results,” he said.

The first formal Area II Adult Team Challenge at VHT this October had a total of 12 teams from Beginner Novice through Preliminary (click here to see final team results). About half of the participants were also riding in the Area II Championships (congratulations winners!), and there just happened to be a Rolex-qualified rider on the Preliminary team due to a last minute substitution when a rider fell ill. In the future, Andy and AR Coordinator Donna Bottner are considering opening the team challenge up to surrounding areas in order to increase participation.

Readers may remember that there used to be annual Eastern, Western and Central Adult Team Challenges sponsored by the Chronicle of the Horse. Now with a national Adult Team Championship being held in conjunction with the USEA American Eventing Championships, Adult Rider coordinators have been coming up with other team activities in their own areas to “fill the void,” as Donna puts it, for riders who can’t travel to the national championships.

Courtney Sendak and DGE Kiss Prints on the Preliminary course at VHT. Photo by Brant Gamma.

Courtney Sendak and DGE Kiss Prints on the Preliminary course at VHT. Photo by Brant Gamma.

“For the past two years Penny and Brian Ross helped us run a ‘friendly’ ATC with mixed level teams. This year I asked Andy Bowles about hosting a more traditional ATC and he was all for it and very enthusiastic in his support,” Donna explained.

“Because VHT was also hosting the Area II championships, we had to figure out how to allow riders to compete as individuals in the championship divisions as well as being part of a team. Andy and his team organized the schedule to be sure everyone on a team rode for the same dressage judge to keep the scoring consistent, and we presented awards following each division of stadium jumping.”

The awards were given inside the coliseum, down the hill from the show jumping. Although it was fairly informal, it was still a special occasion for myself and my team members, as we got to do a victory lap with beautiful neck ribbons and medals to show off to friends and family while thinking about what we would buy with our VTO Saddlery gift certificates.

In the future, Andy plans to run two show jumping rings in the October horse trials so that the ATC and the Area II Championships (which he’s hoping return to VHT in 2016) have an atmosphere for prize givings without the pressure of a packed schedule in a single ring.

Donna would like to up the ante with group activities and a compelling team atmosphere, like social hours and stall decorating, to make a year-end Adult Rider gathering even more appealing. One very special aspect of this year’s ATC was having Carol Kozlowski available as coach for all the Adult Riders, including those competing in Championship divisions with scores counting towards a team result. She did course walks and was available to warm riders up in all phases of competition. Thanks, Carol!

“We are just happy that Andy is so supportive and taking steps to make next year’s competition even better,” Donna said. “I’m hoping to have more riders interested in being on teams and getting more sponsorship for prizes in 2016 as well.”

There is much to look forward to at the Virginia Horse Center, as Andy and his team take the competition to new heights while carrying on the legacy of Brian and Penny Ross. “I’d like to thank all of the riders and owners for choosing to come to VA this year,” Andy said. “I look forward to seeing them next year.”