Sep 14, 2017

USEA Events A-Z: Coconino Horse Trials

By Jessica Duffy - USEA Staff
Amanda Chance and Happenstance in the 2016 Novice Three-Day at Coconino. Photo courtesy of Amanda Chance.

The Coconino Horse Trials hosts three USEA recognized events a year: their Spring Horse Trials and their back-to-back Summer I and Western Underground, Inc. Summer II Horse Trials and Novice/Training Three-Day Event at the Coconino County Fairgrounds in Fort Tuthill County Park in Flagstaff, AZ (Area X). Coconino Horse Trials offers Intro through Intermediate level competition in addition to hosting YEH, FEH, and USEA Classic Series competitions at the Summer II Horse Trials.

Now in its 26th year, the Coconino Horse Trials was first held August 29-30, 1981 at what was then called the Flagstaff County Fairgrounds. Pulling entries from as far away Las Cruces, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas, the event had 34 starters that competed in Pre-Training, Training, and Preliminary divisions. The inaugural event was organized by Andrew Popiel and Jerry Martin, and the venue’s original cross-country course was built Popiel, Martin, and course designer, Shawn Flynn.

Alice Sarno moved to Arizona in 1983 and was a competitor at the Coconino Horse Trials for a few years before Popiel passed the management of the event on to the High Country Hounds. They then approached Sarno, Amy Barrington, and Nathan Martin about taking over the organization of one of the two events. “It’s just sort of evolved and gotten bigger and better,” said Sarno, who has now been organizing the event for nearly 20 years and has watched the event change and grow over time. “Having professional course builders and designers has really improved everything.”


Devon Belding and Sandretti, winners of the 2015 Training Three-Day at Coconino, pictured here with Organizer Alice Sarno. Photo courtesy of Devon Belding.

The Coconino Horse Trials are held at the Coconino County Fairgrounds in Fort Tuthill County Park in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Most of the cross-country course was actually on state property until just recently when, two years ago, the county purchased the grounds from the state, so it’s under [new management],” explained Sarno. “Right now, the management is really phenomenal, they’re really helping us along and helping us do things to make it better. Before, a lot of times [the park management] said, ‘Oh, no, it’s a park, leave it alone, don’t do this, don’t put a track here, nope you have to stay on your original track,’ so it’s really very nice that they’re cooperating with us and working well with us right now.”

The park itself is at an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet and the majority of the course runs through a forest of pine trees. “They are in the process of thinning the forest so [the course is] going to have a totally different look next year,” said Sarno. “When we were there this summer they had put pink tape on trees that were going to be taken out and it’s going to be totally a different venue up there. I think it’s going to be more park-like, it’s going to be more open with grass, so it’s going to be really nice.”


Cross-country at Coconino winds in and out of the forest of trees at the Fort Tuthill County Park in Flagstaff, Arizona. Karen Bjorn Photo.

The County Park also provides excellent camping opportunities that many of the competitors take advantage of. “The camping is really good right around where the barns are,” described Sarno. “Many people have living quarters trailers and then it’s all open for tents also. There’s a lot of camaraderie.”

The forest of trees and the elevation in Flagstaff yield temperatures that have made Coconino a destination event for the entire southwest during a time of year when the surrounding areas can’t hold events because of the heat. “It’s hot in Phoenix, it’s hot in California, it’s hot everywhere [that time of year], but it’s about 80 degrees [in Flagstaff] in the month of July so it’s really a nice place to be…We have people coming now from all around us, [California], a couple of groups from Texas, Utah, Colorado, Idaho, and a couple from Nevada.”


Competitors waiting for their turn in the show jumping arena. Karen Bjorn Photo.

Beautiful weather isn’t the only reason that eventers flock to Coconino. The back-to-back events provide a unique opportunity for riders to compete in two events in a single trip. “People plan their vacations around it,” said Sarno, “and we’ve got so much to do between the two events. The Grand Canyon is [an hour away], in Flagstaff alone there’s the lava tubes and Meteor Crater, which is the largest crater in the United States. Sedona is about 30 miles south of us and that’s a beautiful red rock canyon, very touristy area. There’s plenty of things for people to do so it makes it good for a family to come. It doesn’t have to be just horsey!”

Sarno is enthusiastic about making sure that competitors have a fantastic experience competing at the Coconino Horse Trials. “[Every year] I look forward to it being better, new jumps, working on the footing constantly, wanting everything to be just right. Word of mouth is your best advertisement so I’m hoping that every time we make it better that it’s going to attract more people…I am very competitor-oriented. I want it to be the best it can for the competitors. I think that’s the most important thing. I feel like they are why we’re doing it so I’m always open to suggestions and ways to make improvements.”

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