May 23, 2019

USEA Events A-Z: Poplar Place Horse Trials

By Jessica Duffy - USEA Staff
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The Poplar Place Horse Trials are held four times yearly in Hamilton, Georgia (Area III) in March, May, June, and September, offering Introductory through Intermediate levels. Poplar Place is also the host of the Area III Championships at their June event. Poplar Place is a full-service boarding facility that hosts schooling shows in addition to their USEA recognized events.

In 1997, Donna and Gary Stegman opened their 188-acre Poplar Place Farm to the public. With a 20-stall permanent boarding barn and 224-stall show barn in addition to numerous arenas and a complete cross-country course, the facility was outfitted both as a full-time boarding facility and as a show venue. In the spring of 2001, Poplar Place Farm hosted their first USEA recognized horse trials. Since then, Poplar Place Farm has hosted multiple shows per year and over the years has offered all levels from Introductory to Advanced as well as FEI divisions.

Launa DesPortes, Poplar Place Farm’s current owner, knew next to nothing about eventing when she took over the property in November of 2017. “My parents weren’t particularly horsey people and I was the kid driving them bananas about it,” she recalled. “When I was 16, I went to flight school and I flew for years. At 50, my younger daughter, who did event a little bit, looked at me and said, ‘You need a horse.’”

“I was just going to buy the farm as my personal spot, because my daughter rode and I hadn’t ridden in many years,” DesPortes continued. “The community asked me if I was going to run shows, and I said, ‘I don’t know the first thing about it.’”

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While inexperienced in the land of event organization, DesPortes is no stranger to managing large projects. “I used to manage 40 airplanes with 38 pilots and lots of moving parts and I think sometimes things happen for a reason,” she said. “The company had just been bought out and I was going to have to look over a lot more airplanes and pilots, traveling all over the country, and I thought I wanted to slow down a little. I told them I would consult for them but that I was going to stay a little closer to home. So, I had the time unexpectedly, and here we are!”

What DesPortes may have lacked in experience, she made up for with enthusiasm. She called well-known event organizer Shelley Page and Rick Dunkerton of EventEntries.com and enlisted their help to continue offering events at Poplar Place. “They helped me get it all together,” she explained. “I really think it’s not a single person effort – it takes a whole village, it takes a team. Shelley brings to the table not just her abilities – she’s been around forever and I can look to her to guide me and that’s worked well. Rick has really stepped in, and Hannah Stocker does my schooling shows as well. [Shelley and Rick] are common names in the industry, but that’s because they’ve earned it. I don’t think I would be doing it without them.”

Last year, DesPortes hired Madelyn Dudley as her Barn Director, and the two of them are the only full-time staff at the farm. “She grew up right down the way and then went to Auburn University and then to Middle Tennessee. There’s a lot of hats to wear considering we also have a 20-stall boarding barn that’s full. She’s really taken the reins on stuff and we’re on the same page about wanting the cross-country course to look like a golf course. I know we’ll get there, but it’s not going to be overnight.”

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Overhauling the cross-country course has been a passion project for DesPortes and she has been focused on making improvements to both the fences and the footing. John Williams now serves as course designer at Poplar Place and has been assisting with bringing DesPortes’ vision for the property to life. “He was one of my first calls because he had already visited the property and he’s been there since the beginning when I knew nothing. I know a whole lot more now!”

“We’ve tried to prioritize all of the above – new jumps and improving the ground,” DesPortes continued. “I have an aerator and we’re working really hard on the management of the grounds themselves. It’s going to take some time – it’s not an instant fix. Aesthetics you can change overnight but as far as the actual quality of the ground, that’s a process.”

“My goal for the property is to have that place where people can have an encouraging course, where people can move up,” DesPortes elaborated. “For my vision for 2020 and beyond is that Poplar will probably add a Modified before we add an Advanced. Our direction is really making a special destination event for the Intermediate level and below. I think there’s a need for all different types of places. Our biggest divisions are Training and below. I’m trying to find our niche and I think that’s where it’s going to be.”

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Above all else, DesPortes wants to focus on maintaining the tight community feel that the nature of the venue has fostered. With a completely self-contained show venue that’s separate from the boarding barn, the events have a close-knit feeling that DesPortes wants to preserve. “I think the property can only absorb so many and keep the feel that I want,” she said. “I’m here and I see everybody and I talk to everybody, so it’s a very personal space with everyone all close together. You can’t get that feel if I start putting temporary stabling on the other end of the property – that’s just not where we’re going to fit in.”

“Personally, what I look forward to is watching it all come together and seeing people doing what they love to do,” DesPortes concluded. “I enjoy the property and enjoy seeing people compete. I’ve always loved horses and I’ve always loved being around it and I enjoy this a lot more than I thought I would!”

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

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