Nov 15, 2018

USEA Events A-Z: Mystic Valley Hunt Club Horse Trials

By Sally Russell - Mystic Valley Hunt Club
Moments In Time Photography Photo.

The Mystic Valley Hunt Club Horse Trials runs once yearly at the end of May in Gales Ferry, Connecticut (Area I), offering Starter through Training/Novice level horse trials with combined tests at the Beginner Novice, Novice, and Training level. Mystic Valley Hunt Club is a year-round boarding and training facility that hosts dressage and hunter/jumper shows, horse trials, and summer camps.

My father was from a farm in West Texas and my mother was from New Jersey before the Navy deposited our family in Southeast Connecticut. My father wanted land and my mother wanted horses, so we advertised for a farm within six miles of downtown Mystic of 50 acres or more.

The parents of the family that owned the land that would become Mystic Valley Hunt Club had passed, and each of their seven children had taken three-acre house lots along the road for their homes. They called and said that they would rather live next to a horse farm than a housing project, so our family bought it in 1983. The property had been a dairy cow farm and orchard. We converted the cow barn and chicken coop into stalls, then added more stalls and an indoor arena. Over the years we have progressed to two indoor arenas and six outdoor arenas. There are times when I want one more outdoor, but I think that I will stop with what we currently have!

We are fortunate to have a 172-acre farm with 26 acres of hay fields. My father saw hay fields as a crop, and I envisioned jumps scattered all over with horses galloping in between them. Well, they do say that dads give into their daughters . . . I did compromise in that the permanent jumps had to not be in the way of the hay cutter and baler!

In Stride Photography Photo courtesy of Sally Russell.

We had always wanted to have a boarding barn and take hunter/jumper show horses on the road. Hosting horse shows was a natural progression. Our friends in eventing and dressage were the ones that helped get us interested in hosting shows for those disciplines on the property. It works out really well, and we get to meet different groups of people that we wouldn't otherwise have had the opportunity to.

We started our event in 1985 and became USEA recognized in 1988. My friend Kyrena Parkinson was an eventer and said, “Let's help you to host one.” Ignorance is bliss! Back then, first year events were assigned Technical Delegates, and we were assigned Neil Ayer. Kyrena said that would either be very good or very bad as he was such an esteemed official and held in such high regard.

Neil stayed at our home, became friends with my parents, and was a huge help with the event. He brought a BIG box filled with radios, stop watches (remember no cell phones then), clocks, whistles, pens, etc. He was ready for our enthusiastic but uneducated group of volunteers. We borrowed dressage rings from Vicki Hammers O'Neil, pinnies from the local Pony Club, and much labor from family and friends. We even named one of our cross-country jumps Father's Folly as our two engineer fathers took six hours to build one jump. It did last for years though, to give them credit!

In Stride Photography Photo courtesy of Sally Russell.

Kyrena still helps out as a vendor, and her parents bring their tack shop to the grounds and provide high score awards of the day. They are great folks! Donna Grott one year volunteered to become my volunteer coordinator, a job she did for 18 years. She would not accept anything for taking on the emailing, phone calling, and constant changing by the 60 competitors needed before the actual day and sending timing out to everyone. I asked her once why she did it, and she said that I’d told her I was quitting if I had to keep organizing the volunteers (She must have caught me at an extra tired moment!)

Her husband still is my courier, and I meet her various grandchildren as they are enlisted to be dressage test runners. These are amazing folks. All of my boarders become jump judges, scribes, and starters. They tell me it's because I answer all of their endless questions over the year and that this is their way of saying thank you.

We are lucky with the property in that all but two or three of the cross-country jumps can be seen from the three different fields. It makes it easy to coach and watch the competing horses. Our stadium started out in a back turnout pasture and has evolved into a great ring and warm up area on good footing that can be jumped in any weather. The way the property is set up, all three phases can be seen from the others, yet are separated by the natural landscape. It is a beautiful piece of land with rolling hills, many trees, and several streams.

Moments In Time Photography Photo.

I love hosting the event because the riders want to have fun. We host over 30 shows a year, including hunter/jumper, college and high school, dressage, and schooling shows. This is the most fun one. It is fun to watch, fun to run, and folks come to enjoy their horses. They cheer each other on, whoop on course, console each other on a less successful day, and in general just have a blast. I have riders that come every year and share stories with me. They have become part of my heart and I appreciate their support.

The event takes a lot of time and effort on many people's parts. Several show officials have become favorites as they have reached out to help me over the years, including Jim Gornall and Ray Denis, just to name a few. I have never met Sharon Gallagher at the USEA in person, but she has been a huge help in being a guiding light and resource. The officials are a special group of folks that are correct, quality folks, yet understand budgeting and team building, and provide emotional support to exhausted organizers.

Hosting an event is like hosting a wedding. It takes a lot of work leading up to it, but the final day one can just enjoy, especially since computer programs were invented!!

The USEA is profiling the history behind all USEA recognized events in the USEA Events A­-Z series.

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