Apr 11, 2019

USEA Events A-Z: Pine Hill Horse Trials

By Jessica Duffy - USEA Staff
Pine Hill. Photo courtesy of Pine Hill

The Pine Hill Horse Trials run twice yearly in Belleville, Texas (Area V) offering Starter through Preliminary levels. Pine Hill is a boarding and training facility that offers eventing, dressage, hunter/jumper, Pony Club, and driving competitions and is available for schooling and clinics.

It all started in 1978 when Phil Sawin purchased a 16-acre piece of property in Belleville, Texas. “He wanted a place to keep his horses on nice sandy soil after boarding in Houston for many years where the soil was referred to as ‘gumbo clay,’” explained Ruth Sawin, Phil’s wife and current organizer of the Pine Hill Horse Trials. “Two of his horse friends had been to Kentucky for the World Three-Day Event Championship in 1978 and talked Phil into building his first cross-country jumps. In 1979 he held his first schooling horse trials.”

Phil purchased additional land when his neighbors sold their property and continued to expand the property’s amenities. He built a covered arena where 70 temporary stalls can be set up during events and built a large all-weather lighted outdoor arena where show jumping takes place. “It was really his baby,” Ruth recalled. “He was working full-time as well. So, he’d commute 50 miles into Houston [for his job as a computer programmer], come home, and when he got home from work he’d be out building jumps. It was a labor of love.”

A map of Pine Hill's first cross-country course. Photo courtesy of Pine Hill.

By the mid-1980s, Phil was ready to host his first USEA recognized event. “While the first event was held in torrential rain with the footing none too good—the eventers of the 1980s ‘kicked on’ and completed their first event at Pine Hill,” Ruth said. “Phil often said that he thought this first event could easily have been his last with all that went awry. Fortunately for Texas, Phil also ‘kicked on.’ Now, in 2019, Pine Hill has been the longest, continuous running USEA event in Area V.”

“He wanted a place for young horses and new riders to learn about the sport of eventing,” Ruth continued. “He provided Pony Club opportunities for camps and rallies, taking great pleasure in watching young riders discover the joys of cross-country. He enjoyed seeing ‘graduates’ of the Pine Hill events go on to compete at the national and international levels.”

Now, Pine Hill Horse Trials runs over 90 acres of fields and forest atop sandy soil perfect for cross-country. “The cross-country runs through the woods and out in the field—so there is a lot of variety,” Ruth shared. “Pine Hill is a small facility compared to many—but Mark Phillips referred to it as ‘a little gem’ when he did a cross-country course site visit a few years ago.”

“The facility was designed back in the day when few people had living quarter trailers so RV parking is limited. Parking and stabling are also somewhat limited, so the event is run as a one day show and limited to no more than 120 entries. The small size of this event enables it to remain . . . inviting, friendly, and affordable for new competitors and young, green horses.”

Phil Sawin and his horse, Rascal, competing at the Camino Real Three-Day Event in the late 1990s. Jim Stoner Photo courtesy of Pine Hill.

Phil met Ruth in 1994 when both were on a trip to the World Equestrian Games in The Hague, Netherlands and convinced her to come see what he had created at Pine Hill. She had fallen in love with eventing at college in Virginia and particularly enjoyed the smaller mom-and-pop events in Area II like Flora Lea and Pleasant Hollow. When she arrived at Pine Hill in 1995, it reminded her of the events she had loved back in Area II. For the next 16 years Ruth and Phil ran the events together. Each had their own area of expertise and division of labor and it all worked well. Pine Hill ran, and still runs, a spring and fall USEA recognized horse trials along with five unrecognized schooling events and a derby every year.

In 2011, tragedy struck and Phil died suddenly in an accident on the farm. Ruth was faced with a tough decision. Could she keep Phil’s legacy going? The horse community was incredibly supportive and so far, with lots of help from Area V’s amazing eventing family, she is headed into her ninth year of running the event without Phil.

“Many, many people have contributed to the success of Pine Hill and we are thankful for everyone that has played a part in making Pine Hill what it is today,” Ruth said. “Of course—without the vision, hard work, and dedication of Phil Sawin, there would never have been a Pine Hill.”

Jim Stoner Photo courtesy of Pine Hill.

Ruth credits Irene Doo and Jorge Cervantes in particular with helping her keep the event afloat after Phil’s passing. “She helped me become computer literate - helping design the website, helping me switch into using the new programs like Startbox Scoring, Coursewalk.com, and all other things ‘tech.’ Making me tech-worthy was no easy task - Irene has been a patient and wonderful teacher. Irene also became the Volunteer Coordinator Extraordinaire, and in the process created the volunteer training videos and manuals found on the USEA website that led, in turn, to her producing the jump judge videos and other training videos for the USEA. She has cultivated and trained a very happy and dedicated group of volunteers for Pine Hill.”

“Phil had hired Jorge and several of his friends to help him with projects around the farm for several years,” Ruth continued. “When Phil passed away, Jorge offered to help me with the maintenance piece of the property. He realized that I didn’t know one end of a hammer from the other and I knew he was the one person that knew more about the property and the business than anyone else other than Phil. Jorge has done an outstanding job of maintaining the facility and it turns out his has become one heck of a cross-country jump builder. His Pine Hill Train series, among others, is truly remarkable.”

Ruth said she looks most forward to newly painted fences and fresh flowers at their spring event held in April, one of the first events on the Area V calendar each year. “We are small but mighty, we are committed to providing a great and relaxed atmosphere for people and or horses just starting out in the sport, and we have the best volunteers!”

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

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