Jul 25, 2022

The History of Town Hill Farm Horse Trials

Photo by Brian Wilcox of Connecticut Photo

Town Hill Farm sits on 450 acres of open, rolling land in Lakeville, CT, nestled in the Litchfield Hills of the state’s northwest region. The town is probably best known for the Hotchkiss School, located less than a mile down the road from Town Hill. Both establishments have been deeply rooted in this idyllic corner of New England since the 1890s and share an enduring commitment to keeping alive their respective traditions.

The farm has been in Ward Belcher’s family for generations and over the years has served myriad functions including raising beef and dairy cows and growing corn. “We’ve always had horses on the farm,” says Belcher who has run the horse trials on the property since the 1990s. He now offers one schooling trial in late July and one recognized event in late August, with Starter through Preliminary levels of competition. The farm also opens its cross-country schooling course in early May.

Photo by Brian Wilcox of Connecticut Photo

“It’s really an ideal property for the amount of terrain it offers,” says John Williams, who took over the course design for the farm last year after Tremaine Cooper’s passing. “Not too much; not too little. Just right.” Course builder Jamie Gornall – who follows Eric Bull in the role - emphasizes the beauty of the landscape and the care with which it is maintained. “Town Hill is a classy, grassroots New England event that offers good value to all competitors,” he notes.

The course includes all the obstacles a competitor would expect to encounter from Elementary to Preliminary levels including a water complex, ditches, and sunken road combined with inviting, open gallops. Event organizer Molly Bull notes that the venue serves as an ideal confidence builder later in the competition season. Stable manager Susan Beddingfield, who has been managing the farm for 14 years and serves as the event’s on-site coordinator, describes the atmosphere as laid back and welcoming.

Despite the family-oriented nature of the competition and the organizers’ modesty, Town Hill has played a significant role in Area I eventing. From 2016 to 2018, the farm hosted the Area I championships, welcoming over 300 competitors from throughout the region for the 2-day event. As the sport of eventing evolves, Town Hill continues to take a lead. For the past several years, the farm has participated in the USEA Frangible Technology Grant Program, which provides funding for frangible fences at recognized competitions throughout the country. The frangible corner kit from this year’s grant joins the gate kit from last year and an existing frangible table. In addition to advancing safety measures, the organizers are also committed to updating amenities for competitors’ convenience. This year, in answer to the ongoing challenge of finding stabling, the event is adding 40 tent stalls for its August competition.

Town Hill’s evolution as an eventing venue and the pressures that it faces to compete with larger events such as Millbrook are carefully balanced with Belcher’s sense of history and his goal of keeping “an element of fun” in the sport. He reminisces about the days when horse trailers would pull up to the event drawn by family station wagons. He takes pride in the competition’s appeal to riders who are getting comfortable and confident competing in the lower levels and places a priority on helping to develop the area’s young riders.

Photo by Brian Wilcox of Connecticut Photo

In the decades of its running, the event has always been defined by a sense of community. This was vividly demonstrated during the 2018 running of the Area I championships, which took place after two weeks of solid rain. The dressage had originally been planned for the sand ring and the show jump was to take place in the grass ring. However, after the Preliminary division had finished with show jumping, everyone quickly realized that the footing in the grass arena was no longer tenable for jumping. The organizers decided that the show jump would have to be moved to the sand ring while the dressage would take place on the grass and in the indoor. Various adjustments would also need to be made to the cross country course to ensure everyone’s safety. These changes would, of course, involve a monumental and labor-intensive effort in the middle of a competition day but they were made efficient and manageable with the help of competitors and volunteers. “All of these people came out of nowhere to help out,” Beddingfield remembers. “We didn’t even have to ask.”

This example of community involvement, generosity of spirit, and appreciation for the safety of all defines Town Hill Farm and epitomizes the best of the eventing world as a whole.

The Town Hill Farm Recognized Horse Trials takes place this year on August 28. Entries are open until August 9. Access the USEA Omnibus here.

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