Deep in the lightly touched countryside of Yelm, Washington, stretching across 240 acres of rolling hills, lush hay fields and pristine woodland there lies a veritable haven for eventers here in the Northwest.
Since its first event in 2007, Aspen Farms Eventing, owned and operated by accomplished 4 star eventers Jonathan and Suzy Elliott, has become one of the premier eventing destinations in the Northwest.
Initially, the cross country course at Aspen was built to range from Beginner Novice through Preliminary levels. An Intermediate course was later added and this September marks the much anticipated debut of the brand new Advanced course that Jonathan and course designer, Tremaine Cooper, have been planning and developing for the last several years. I had the privilege to chat briefly with Jonathan as he and Tremaine set the massive fences for the advanced track.
I met up with Jonathan as he was preparing to remove the stakes that anchored in place, a giant wooden rolltop. With only a few exceptions, all of the XC obstacles at Aspen are portable, allowing for an endless array of course changes, as well as to give the footing some recovery time between competitions and in the off season. I had just inquired as to how on earth the fences, some of which weigh in at an estimated 1500+ pounds, can simply be moved when, as though on cue, a small bobcat driven by course builder, Travers Schick, buzzed up behind us, hoisted the rolltop onto its fork as though it weighed nothing and zipped away to the new resting place for the giant obstacle, leaving behind it a somewhat perturbed family of bees who had evidently made a home beneath it.
Leaving the bees to their tantrum, we followed the bobcat to a brand new set of corner fences awaiting their positioning. Each of the solid fences at Aspen are built from timber actually harvested from the farm and milled there on site. A portable mill is specifically brought in for this task. The individually themed and more intricate fences are hand carved by Travers and his talented crew before each fence is assembled, stained or painted and finally placed on course.
The massive corners, set opposite one another and a few strides apart will form a combination to add a necessary element of difficulty required by the Advanced level of competition.
Jonathan is optimistic about the potential of the Advanced course to lure much needed support from those competing at the upper levels elsewhere. With the addition of the Advanced track, Aspen Farms is now the only venue in the Northwest capable of hosting a 3 star CCI event!
Due to the close proximity of CCI events at Rebecca Farms (Montana) and Galway Downs (California), as well as the Woodside (California) International CIC shortly following the September event at Aspen, there are not immediate plans to host a specific FEI event at Aspen. However, Jonathan believes that their Advanced track will offer competitors on their way to and from each of those competitions an exceptional opportunity to evaluate and further develop their skills.
I wandered the course alone for a bit, examining the features, new and old, trying to decide which obstacles to declare my favorite. A second water complex had been added this summer featuring a beautifully hand carved fish obstacle that, once finally placed, would rise out of the water as though it were swimming across it. The ever-present pirate ship, always a crowd pleaser, loomed proud and majestic with its two Douglas Fir “masts” towering high above.
I’ve always been especially fond of the military-themed portion of the course, in honor of nearby US Military facility Joint Base Lewis-McChord (Army/Air Force). It features a bunker dug into a hillside and a gun turret (ie. A table obstacle constructed of logs) with a nearly 5 foot deep passageway (ie. a ditch obstacle) linking the two as well as a couple of tanks, the “guns” of which act as the operative jumps.
When I met up with Jonathan and Tremaine, I was admiring a beautiful gate and arch obstacle that had been installed for the Advanced track. Tremaine pointed out that the gate, as well as several other obstacles, include state of the art breakaway features keeping Aspen on the leading edge of on-course horse and rider safety.
Jonathan added that they employ two separate breakaway technologies for their obstacles. The first are a set of frangible pins that, when a certain amount of downward force is applied to a log, will break and give way. The logs are also secured with ropes that give and allow the log to fall downward, out of the way of a scrambling horse giving it the leeway it needs to get free.
The second feature in use at Aspen are Mim safety clips, like those installed on the gate I’d been admiring. Jonathan explains the Mim clip as “basically a hinge that when hit with enough force, the clip will activate and lower the height of the fence to help prevent a rotational fall of the horse which is where the more serious accidents happen.”
The future of upper-level eventing at Aspen Farms looks ever bright though Jonathan remains adamant about appealing to the lower levels in order to draw exhibitors, particularly amateurs, to fuel interest and the growth of the sport.
He recognizes that Amateur exhibitors essentially drive the sport here in the Northwest, particularly at the lower levels, and that the necessity of appealing to and incentivizing those amateurs is a key element in not only hosting a successful event but also encouraging the future growth and development of the industry.
To that end Jonathan has included Amateur focused, prize winning classes for the September event designed specifically to showcase and reward amateur competitors.
The Newton Amateur Classes came about after Jonathan ran the highly successful Zeit Challenge at the Aspen event earlier this summer which awarded prize money to exhibitors competing at the Training level and below.
Currently the only program of its kind, the intention of the Newton classes, which will offer prize money to the Beginner Novice through Preliminary levels, are to add further incentive for the highest majority of competitors.
“The upper levels get most of the good stuff, but the highest number of competitors are at the lower levels.” Jonathan says. “John Bramblet of Newton approached me, having seen the Zeit Challenge and wanted to do the same thing for Amateurs in the fall.” This foresight, it seems, has proven fortuitous. At last entry count, the Newton Amateur classes appear to be the most popular and currently boast a prize purse of $5,000.00!
The Aspen Farms Horse Trial and Area 7 Championships commence on September 7th and though I’m now kicking myself for not entering my own horse and taking advantage of those Newton Amateur classes, (maybe next year!) I will certainly be a fixture on the sidelines to witness the very first running of the new Advanced track!