The Fox River Valley Pony Club Horse Trials are held once a year in late June at the Barrington Hills Riding Center in Barrington Hills, Illinois (Area IV) and offer Beginner Novice through Intermediate/Preliminary levels. This event serves as a fundraising event for the Fox River Valley Pony Club.
The Fox River Valley Pony Club (FRVPC) was established in Barrington Hills in 1963 as an educational, not-for-profit, volunteer organization to teach children to ride and care for horses while developing good citizenship. Emily McHugh not only founded the FRVPC, but she also started the Horse Trials in 1970. The Fox River Valley Pony Club Horse Trials has been held as a USEA recognized event every year since, and in 1973 the FRVPC Horse Trials served as a United States Equestrian Team Selection Trial.
McHugh was a “B” Pony Club graduate from Middle Tennessee Pony Club and moved from Nashville to Barrington Hills in 1962. She had ridden and trained with many of the Olympians who competed at the Middle Tennessee Pony Club Horse Trials and she loved the experience of being in Pony Club. It was a struggle at first to get people in Barrington Hills involved and to try eventing because most either were trail riders or fox hunters, but she nevertheless founded the Pony Club and began to host small one-day unrecognized events. As eventing caught on in the area, the FRVPC Horse Trials became a USEA recognized competition. Eventing is what brought the equestrian community of Barrington Hills together as everyone, including the fox hunters and trail riders, helped out by volunteering at the Horse Trials. McHugh, who at 79 continues to volunteer and to fox hunt, says she is amazed at what this event has grown into compared to the small event she organized almost 50 years ago.
FRVPC does not own its own facility, so the Horse Trials are held on public land at the Barrington Hills Riding Center, which falls within the Barrington Hills Park District. FRVPC has a cooperative agreement with the Park District, which owns 15 acres of land with two barns housing a total of 52 permanent stalls, an indoor arena, an outdoor sand arena, and a grass show jumping arena. In exchange for providing an equestrian educational program which teaches riding and horsemanship, providing and maintaining cross-country jumps and show jumps for use by the community throughout the year, and various other volunteer services, the Park District allows FRVPC to rent the facility for the Horse Trials as well as for camps, clinics, and schooling events. Keeping the FRVPC Horse Trials alive all these years has required the investment and cooperation of multiple organizations and the dedication of the Fox River Valley Pony Club and our horse-loving volunteers and stewards.
Adjacent to the Park District is the Spring Creek Forest Preserve, a 3,900-acre nature preserve which is just a small part of the 68,000-acre body of public land belonging to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. The Spring Creek Forest Preserve consists of rolling terrain, some native prairie and oak savannas, and acres of invasive species such as buckthorn. FRVPC obtains permits from the Forest Preserve to clear invasive species and maintain the cross-country paths and jumps, as well as to host the Horse Trials on this beautiful public land. A majority of the temporary stabling for the Horse Trials and some of the dressage rings are set up on the Forest Preserve, and the cross-country course runs entirely on Forest Preserve property with access directly from the Park District and stabling.
When the event first started, McHugh and a couple of friends traveled England, Ireland, and Scotland and brought back course and jump designs from what they saw overseas and volunteers built those first jumps from her designs. If you know where to look, remnants from those first obstacles can still be found by trail riders on the riding paths that surround the current cross-country course. In 1998, 28 years after the first Horse Trials, the cross-county courses were totally redesigned with new paths, a water complex, and two different bank complexes. This endeavor involved a major fundraising campaign, requiring financial and time investment by local donors and volunteers, and resulted in the FRVPC Horse Trials receiving the honor for multiple years from Area IV of “Horse Trial of the Year.”
It is interesting to note, and can be a challenge to address, that some of the footing has a sandy base, while other portions have clay-based footing. Weather and precipitation play a huge part in how the courses are prepared and maintained. Knowledge of the impact of rain and hot weather on each type of footing has been very important for the preparations of the courses prior to the event to ensure good footing for our competitors. Our volunteer cross-country crew works tirelessly to control invasive vegetation, aerovate and seed throughout the year, add screenings in the shaded tree-lined areas, and protect the turf in the sandy areas from being torn up by too much aerovating.
Having been organized and sponsored by the Fox River Valley Pony Club for nearly 50 years now, there have been many, many people have contributed to its longevity and success. Throughout the years, in addition to the members and parents of FRVPC, members of other local organizations such as the Riding Club of Barrington Hills, the Fox River Valley Hunt, and the Fox River Valley Bassett Hounds have helped out by volunteering and contributing financially to the event.
The event’s founder, Emily McHugh, continues to this day to volunteer every year at the Horse Trials. If you have competed at FRVPC Horse Trials, you have seen her timing at the finish line! McHugh credits her mentor, Margaret Lindsay Warden, founder of the Middle Tennessee Horse Trials. Any time McHugh had a question about either Pony Club or the Horse Trials, she would call on Warden. Jan Nestrud was one long-time organizer of the event who served in that role for about 15 years. Carolyn Springer, mother of international eventer Allison Springer, served as the event secretary for many years, and other club parents have filled various steward jobs over the years.
Every family involved with FRVPC takes part in supporting and volunteering for the Horse Trials, and many others in the community lend their time and talents as well. Through the generations, the torch has been passed and carried by the next dedicated families of the FRVPC. Some spend hours upon hours doing the course maintenance while others use their talents in communication, fundraising, or other creative endeavors.
In 1990, catastrophe occurred when the Forest Preserve came in and, without warning, bulldozed 36 permanent cross-country jumps. In spite of yearly applications, proof of insurance and issued permits, some Forest Preserve officials were unaware of the presence of the cross-country jumps. Several meetings ensued with the Forest Preserve superintendent and ultimately the FRVPC was allowed to rebuild the cross-country courses and hold the horse trials that June. Springer, who was District Commissioner of FRVPC at that time, and Nestrud initiated negotiations between the Forest Preserve, the Park District, and FRVPC to attempt forming an agreement, but nothing was codified at that time. For 15 years the Horse Trials continued utilizing the permitting process with the Forest Preserve.
In 2005, the Forest Preserve determined that a number of private entities throughout Cook County were “encroaching” on Forest Preserve property by erecting buildings and other structures. The existence of the FRVPC Horse Trials was once again threatened when the Forest Preserve deemed the cross-country jumps to be “encroaching structures” and demanded that they be removed.
The Park District stepped up to begin negotiating a resolution of this dispute with the Forest Preserve. As a result of these negotiations, an Intergovernmental Agreement was reached between the Barrington Hills Park District and the Forest Preserve, followed by a cooperative agreement between the Park District and FRVPC that ultimately allowed the continued existence of the cross-country course on Forest Preserve property. Fred McMorris, a local attorney who was also a Park Board commissioner, a Pony Club dad, and a long-time Horse Trials volunteer, was instrumental in those negotiations.
The result of those negotiations was a requirement that all permanent cross-country jumps, except the bank complexes and water complex, had to be removed from the Forest Preserve and replaced with portable jumps and the portion of the Forest Preserve on which the Horse Trials are held was designated as an Equestrian Preserve. A major fundraising campaign was once again needed to raise funds to build portable obstacles to replace the permanent jumps, but the upside of this occurrence is that now the event can easily change the courses on a yearly basis and to open new paths and revitalize old ones.
It was around this time that Nestrud stepped down as organizer and the FRVPC Horse Trials Advisory Committee was formed. Their first task was to do some strategic planning and tackle the massive fundraising needs in order to replace the cross-country jumps. Over the years this group has evolved into a very active working and organizing committee, and several members of the original Committee have remained consistently involved. Some of the people who have taken on major roles over the past decade include Stu and Laura Clarke, Maria and Shawn Comstock, the entire Foos family, Judy Freeman, Barb and Fred McMorris, Jennifer Rousseau, Dawn Stavropolous, Kristy Yashinsky, Lisa Schroeder, and Megan Mosier. One of the members even declared that the cross-country course was her dad’s “third child.”
The FRVPC Horse Trials is the longest running event in Area IV and is certainly one of the longest running events in the United States. It has been the training ground for many a Young Rider who came up through Pony Club, learning to ride across the land in Pony Club lessons and camp and competing at our schooling events before moving on to Beginner Novice at the Horse Trials, and many of those riders have moved on to compete at the highest levels of the sport.
The excitement of everything coming together to put on a spectacular event in a special, beautiful place in our community is extremely rewarding, as is the satisfaction that comes from teamwork and overcoming obstacles (and not just the cross-country kind!) Our small but dedicated group does it again and again! There is also a joy in watching our youngest Pony Club members tackle their first horse trial, and then seeing them progress to compete as Young Riders with their eyes on the North American Junior/Young Rider Championships. Friends return year after year, connecting with each other from near and far.
FRVPC would like to extend a thank you to all those who have supported the Horse Trials over the past 48 years, through your entries, your time, and your feedback. It takes an incredible amount of community investment and dedication from all sides to ensure the continuity of the event, and there are challenges and expenses involved in tackling the FRVPC Horse Trials entirely on public land with just a small group of core volunteers.
Having the privilege to continue using the public land at the Park District and in the Forest Preserve is contingent on everyone respecting the land. In 2005 we forged a 20-year agreement that is due for reconsideration in 2025, and we hope we will be able to renew for another 20 years! So, if you come to compete at the FRVPC Horse Trials or school the cross-country course, help us by being good stewards of the land. And if you can, please volunteer! As with any event, it doesn’t happen without the volunteers.
The USEA is profiling the history behind all USEA recognized events in the series, USEA Events A-Z.
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