West Coast Eventing Spotlight: Meet Course Designer Alessandra Allen-Shinn

Photo courtesy of Alessandra Allen-Shinn.

Alessandra Allen-Shinn is outstanding in her field.


As in, she’s happiest while out standing in the field – ideally, a cross-country field. Designing the course, building the obstacles, working the ground or galloping across it, the 3* eventer and USEF and FEI certified course designer and course builder is a rising star in the West Coast eventing world. She’s set on building 5* tracks and has the talent, determination and industry respect to get there.

“Ali” lives in Kalispell, Montana, where she is assistant trainer for Olympian Jil Walton. Jil’s stable, JARBA Farm, winters at Galway Downs and Ali comes with, caring for the horses, including her own. When she’s not riding or tending to them, she’s plotting new tracks, building new obstacles, and helping horse and property owners with range of small construction tasks.

Building jumps and related materials falls under Ali’s Ride-Sharp enterprise.

While based at Galway Downs, Ali loves her daily mix of running the barn, then hopping out onto cross-country with venue manager and competition organizer Robert Kellerhouse to plot next steps and possibilities.

Having earned her small “r” course design license from the US Equestrian Federation in 2018, Ali has been creating Preliminary and lower-level courses for Galway Downs for three years. Last fall, she earned her FEI Level 1 credentials, allowing her to design at the CCI1* and 2* levels, too.

She’s a regular in USEA Area VII, too, where she builds and designs for Arrowhead Horse Trials, Herron Park and private facilities. The Spring Gulch Horse Trials in Colorado and the Mill Creek Pony Club Horse Trials in Missouri are more events for whom Ali is designing courses.

At Galway Downs, Ali is excited about new fences for the lower-level tracks. The FEI routes have undergone constant additions and upgrades in the look, type and construction of the fences and now it’s the lower levels’ turn. Look for horse head rolltops to match those on the Advanced and Intermediate tracks this season and more nice additions.

One of Galway Downs’ ongoing missions is to make the “lower part” of the property – the cross-country course – as nice as the “upper part,” the Grand Prix Arena, VIP Pavilion and surrounding amenities. Ali’s ongoing work is a big part of that transformation.

How It Started

Ali in competition mode. Photo courtesy of Ride On Photo.

Course design and building doesn’t often arise as a career dream for kids. However, Ali knew what she wanted to do even before she knew it was a professional option.

She traces the earliest inklings for her career path to tagging along with her mom who volunteered as a steward. “I often went with her, putting out flags, whacking weeds and all that stuff. I loved that part of it, but I didn’t realize courses were actually planned. I kind of thought you just threw jumps out in a field and went and jumped them.”

As her riding advanced through lessons and clinics, she began to see the rhyme and reason behind the placement of fences, the tracks between them and the construction, materials and look of the obstacles. “Especially riding with course designers and others who were serious about it, it all started to make sense.”

As she realized that “This was a thing!,” Ali investigated the educational and certification path to becoming a course designer. The more she pursued educational tracks, “the more I got into it.”

Earning certification is not for the faint of heart or the impatient. “It takes a long time because you have to get apprenticeships with different people,” Ali explains. “You ask if you can follow them around while they’re working and ask them questions, and they must fill out paperwork afterward.” In the early days, Ali was sometimes mistaken for a not-very dedicated applicant looking to pad their resume. A few apprenticeships in, however, word got round that she was the real deal and getting “yes” from licensed designers became easier.

Over The Hump

“I feel like I might be over the hump,” says Ali with her characteristic self-effacing humor. “The course designer I’ve ask to apprentice with might call a contemporary and ask, ‘This annoying girl is bugging me. Is she worth it?’ Now, they hear, ‘Yes, let her hang out with you.’”

Adri Doyle is one of Ali’s favorite mentors. “It’s nice to have another girl to talk to and it’s unusual.” Adri is also a technical delegate, which increases the odds of working together. “We help each other setting stuff up and that’s fun. And she’s always honest with me.”

Rob Mobely, FEI course builder, USEF licensed designer and Galway Downs builder, is another favorite mentor.

Shadowing Olympic course designer Derek DiGrazia at the Land Rover Kentucky 5* last year was a learning curve high point for Ali. Given the option of tagging along several weeks before the event or during the week before set-up, Ali chose the latter and was thrilled with the experience.

“That week before, they are adjusting things just a tiny bit. Like the placement of trees as a visual element on the course. Even just by a couple of feet. It’s awesome to know all that information, then watch what happens during the competition.”

A View from the Saddle

Alessandra Allen-Shinn and Fool Me Once. Photo by Sherry Stewart.

Like most of her course design colleagues, Ali rides and competes herself. So she has no problem when riders inquire about some of her decisions. “They always say, ‘Why the heck did you do that? How could we ever make it from here to there?’ But actually, it’s often the case where I’m setting the course up to do something for them. When I set something off a turn, that is just balancing the horse for you. If you are going to a coffin jump, you need a packaged canter, so that turn has stopped you from having to haul on your horse’s mouth. I did that for you.”

Ali began plotting her tracks for the Kick Start Horse Trials this weekend back in November, during the Eventing Championships at Galway Downs. At every competition, she prioritizes changing things up. “I don’t want anybody – horses or riders – to think, ‘Oh, I just did that three months ago.’”

She happily puts plenty of thought into every detail – especially during the months based at Galway Downs. “I know the property well and I think about it a lot. I spend a lot of time on the tractor working on the footing, too. Between that and visualizing everything, I like to change my plans for each event as it gets closer. Sometimes riders try to find out what’s in store for an upcoming course, but until I’ve set it and it’s staked, it could still change.”

In her own riding, Ali’s main horse now is 7-year-old Banksy, who she is prepping for his first CCI2*. As a course-designer, builder and rider, it can be hard to focus on riding while competing, especially over a track designed by someone else. “Sometimes it makes me crazy because I over-analyze elements of the course as I’m going around.”

On balance, however, Ali loves her life of juggling related activities. It keeps her beyond busy, which reflects the constant demand for her many talents.

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