Staying the Course
Maryland’s Fair Hill International puts horses, riders and designers to the test.
Three-day eventing began as military training for the war horse. It was designed in the 19th century to compare and test cavalry horses. The idea was to ensure that only the fittest animals, both mentally and physically, would make the cut and become dependable battle mounts. The three things that comprise the test—dressage, a cross-country race against the clock, and show jumping—were all intended to determine the best all-around horses for battle.
These days, Fair Hill International in Maryland is the ideal place to see the modern version of this daunting test of both horse and rider. Fair Hill’s course designer is Derek di Grazia, who won this three-day event back in 1991 with Our Busby. You won’t see him there now, though. “Obviously, I’m not allowed to compete,” he says.
Di Grazia is one of a precious few international course designers living in the U.S. “I was asked to design a course for a friend, and after that, word spread,” he says. “It helped that I also knew people in the industry.”
Each March, di Grazia goes over the Fair Hill courses to make revisions. “I walk the grounds to come up with new ideas,” he says. “We try to change the courses so participants aren’t always riding the same one.”
In 1912, when eventing became an Olympic sport, only military horses and their personnel riders were involved. By 1952, large numbers of civilians were competing successfully at the Olympic level and at all levels that led up to the world championship. Enthusiasm for the sport has grown to the point where the United States Eventing Association estimates that there are over 250 events each year involving 42,500 participants. The USEA boasts a membership of nearly 12,000.
There are now six levels a horse and rider must pass through on their way to competing at the highest level: beginner/novice, novice, training, preliminary, intermediate and advanced. At each point, competition in all three phases of the event is required.
The cross-country course for the beginner/novice class involves a series of 14-18 jumping efforts, and riders are expected to maintain a speed of 300 meters per minute. If horse and rider make it all the way to the advanced stage, they will encounter 32-40 jumping efforts at almost twice the speed of the beginner/novices over a slightly longer course.
The term “jumping efforts” is used because each one may have multiple parts that must be executed in combination—a jump into water, a fence in the water, a ride up the opposite bank with another fence right at the top. This is a true test of the trust and partnership between horse and rider.
Fair Hill International Inc. began in 1989 on part of the Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area in Maryland. Prior to the Cours Complet International levels two and three (CCI ** and CCI***) at Fair Hill, there had been lesser events run at a different location on the property. But when the Chesterland CCI*** in nearby Pennsylvania ceased operations, Trish Gilbert and several others thought they could hold one at Fair Hill. They got organized, and FHI’s big fall events began in 1989.
Gilbert says a location like Fair Hill is ideal because it’s state owned and operated and makes long-term leases available. As such, a prestigious event like a CCI*** is much easier to establish and maintain. Currently, it’s one of only four three-day CCI*** eventing competitions in the U.S. The three-star CCI’s are where you ride to qualify for the international events, for the Olympics, and for the World Championships in three-day eventing.
There is one CCI**** competition in the U.S. It’s held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington in April. All other four-star three-day eventing competitions take place internationally.
Fair Hill runs both training and lower-level competitions all season long, beginning in April and culminating in the CCI** and CCI*** events in October. The two-star event is designed for horse and rider to qualify to compete in the three-star version. In essence, the CCI** and CCI*** events are two separate three-day competitions. CCI *** riders jump slightly larger fences and have a more challenging dressage test. The cross-country course is nearly four miles long and has a series of 32-40 solid jumps and water hazards. Unlike stadium jumping, which is in a ring on a flat surface, the this format is much more challenging for horse and rider. The course must be designed and constructed to give them a true endurance test.
Once he’s designed a course, di Grazia gives the builder a list of instructions and the drawings for the jumps and dimensions. “I’ll also include the decorating instructions for each jump,” he says.
In Fair Hill’s case, the drawings and instructions go to Eric Bull. “I graduated from college 20 years ago, and I’ve been making my living doing this ever since,” Bull says.
The construction of a cross-country course is similar to other construction in that the same kind of equipment is used. “The difference is that the modification of the landscape is pretty minimal,” says Bull. “You’re working off an undulating landscape—not like building a house, where you impose on the landscape.”
Bull has a few long-time employees, with as many as 15 working for him while building all over the world. Most recent was a course for the Pan American Games in Canada. “I grew up riding,” says Bull. “Now, building courses has taken over. It’s so great that I get to do what I like [for a living].”
This year’s Fair Hill International CCI** and CCI*** three-day events will take place Oct. 13-16. The veterinary exam of CCI horses is held on Wednesday. Competition begins on Thursday with dressage for the Young Event horses (four- and five-year-olds) and some CCI competitors. Friday is the jumping phase for the Young Event Horse East Coast Championship, and the final day of dressage for the CCI competitors.
Saturday is the most popular cross-country day, when horses and riders complete the di Grazia-designed course of solid fences and water obstacles. The course is the ultimate test of endurance and stamina. Not only are there fences, water hazards and other obstacles, but horse and rider must also beat the clock. CCI** horses run the course in the morning, jumping slightly lower and smaller fences and obstacles. CCI*** entrants run in the afternoon.
The final day of this grueling test is Sunday, when horse and rider compete in show jumping. Here, penalties are assessed for knocking down a rail, falling, refusing, or exceeding the allotted time. This test determines the ultimate shape of the horse and the strength of its partnership with the rider. It should be noted that all three-day events begin with a veterinary examination of the horse to determine fitness to compete.
Faithful spectators at Fair Hill can be assured that, with changes year after year, the course is always a bit more of a test—and a bit more exciting to watch.