The concept for Red Hills was the product of a dinner party hosted by Colin Phipps in 1997. When Captain Mark Phillips was visiting Colin in Tallahassee, Colin invited several couples, all of whom had daughters who evented, for dinner. Colin asked Capt. Phillips to design a course on his property, and assigned the job of creating the event to three of us, Sallie Ausley, Sylvia Ochs, and me. Red Hills began as a Training and Preliminary horse trials, recognized in its first run thanks to the superb guidance of Trish Gilbert during the planning stages. Advanced was added in the third year. Shortly thereafter the organizers were asked to run the FEI divisions, which is where we are today.
The first event in 1998 had to be canceled in the middle of cross-country because of violent weather. We had monsoon rain and extremely high winds. Trailers were stuck so deeply in the mud that the City of Tallahassee tractors were pulling rigs to paved ground, loading the horses, and heading them out. We were unable to contact some of the riders who had ridden early on Saturday and who had gone to their hotel for hot showers and lunch. We had begun loading their horses on two trailers to take them to safer, permanent stabling off-grounds. The riders, fortunately, reappeared just as we were about to pull out, we reloaded their horses on their respective trailers and sent them safely on their way home. That was clearly in the days before widespread cellphone use or texting!
Key contributors to Red Hills over the past twenty years have been Colin, the City of Tallahassee's Department of Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Affairs, the Leon County Board of County Commissioners, and the team of more than 600 volunteers. Sallie's and Sylvia's visions and their continuing support certainly set Red Hills on the path to success. In addition, numerous individual and corporate sponsors support the event annually. We could not host Red Hills without their generosity!
Red Hills is held in a 670-acre tract of dedicated green space on the shores of Lake Jackson, the Elinor Klapp Phipps (EKP) Park. This land was donated to the community by Colin in honor of his mother, Elinor (Clippy) Phipps, to be held in ownership by the Northwest Florida Water Management District (NWFWMD) and maintained by the City of Tallahassee Department of Parks, Recreation, and Neighborhood Affairs. Colin's gift of the land stipulated that Red Hills would be permitted to be run in the park for a period of 25 years, with the option to renew for an additional 25 years.
Initially, dressage, show jumping, stabling, and the sponsor tent were housed in EKP Park. Capt. Phillips designed the cross-country courses on Colin's private property, land adjacent to the park. On Saturday, Red Hills volunteers would shuttle spectators back and forth from the park to the courses in open trailers. Seven years ago a new course was designed in EKP proper. All phases of the event currently have venues in the park.
We have an extremely close working relationship with the NWFWMD, Tallahassee Parks and Rec, and Leon County. Red Hills absolutely could not offer the services that we do without the tremendous support from the City of Tallahassee and Leon County. The phenomenal crews of the Parks and Recreation Department maintain the park and the cross-country courses year-round and offer services that we are incredibly fortunate to have available. Leon County affords Red Hills funding through a Tourist Development Grant and provides Fire, EMS, and services of the Leon County Sheriff's Department leading up to and during the event. Red Hills is truly a community effort!
EKP is open greenspace dedicated to passive use except during the month leading up to and through the event each March. There are no permanent structures in the park. We start from bare ground and build the infrastructure for the event every year. Carl di Salvo and his crew from Beachview Event Rentals and Design build an entire village of tents, from the Sponsor Tent to the tailgate tents to the Avenue of Shops to the tents for all auxiliary functions. Three massive stabling tents are erected, then pressure washed and disinfected before the first horse arrives. Our stabling volunteers have shavings in the stalls, carrots hanging on the stall doors, and Krispy Kreme Donuts and coffee waiting for the competitors to arrive. It takes the Red Hills Team three weeks to set up the event, and less than five days to break it down again. That is well-orchestrated teamwork!
Literally, over 600 volunteer work year-round to make Red Hills a success. We have no paid staff. Marvin Mayer and I, the current organizers, lead a team that is volunteer-organized and volunteer-driven. Some of us see each other year-round as we work on the upcoming event, but others only come together once a year. Red Hills becomes a huge family reunion. It is amazing to have the opportunity to work with a group of such dedicated volunteers, one that includes the phenomenal folks from the City and the County who have all become part of the Red Hills family.
Across the board, Red Hills strives to engage officials who are at the top of the sport, who are incisive but fair, who want to educate the rider but make the weekend fun as well. We work to rotate officials so that competitors receive fresh evaluations of their performances from year to year.
Red Hills is unbelievably fortunate to have Michael Etherington-Smith and David O'Connor designing the cross-country courses, and Tyson Rementer and Levi Ryckewaert building the complexes. They are an extremely talented and well-respected team that holds the horses' welfare foremost in their designs and construction, an approach that is extremely important to Red Hills! With Mike E-S, it's all about footing, footing, footing! They are a delightful group of professionals with whom to work. Their perspectives and senses of humor help us get through the rough spots that every event is bound to encounter.
The Red Hills courses run through the park’s natural setting, which includes two large, open fields and stands of gorgeous live oaks and stately pines. There are two major water complexes on the courses. These courses have long gallops through the open fields and stretches where the wide tracks run through stands of pines. Several complexes are designed around the majestic oaks. This is very different from the majority of cross-country courses in the U.S. which are primarily run in much more open fields. The courses are designed to be challenging, but appropriate for the level of training of the horses, and to educate the horses and challenge the riders. Mike's goal is to have every horse cross the finish line smiling. Again, footing is everything. We work on footing year-round.
People make Red Hills special: our volunteers, the City crews, the safety and security folks from the County, and our nearly 25,000 spectators. Red Hills works diligently to bring spectators to the sport, and to Tallahassee! The vast majority of competitors do not have the opportunity to compete with fans cheering them on. That Red Hills is a community event in every sense of the word is unusual in our sport.
Red Hills is also special because it is the first real test of the year for the horse and rider combinations striving to be selected by the USET to compete for the United States. Red Hills serves as a proving ground for our international competitors, both because of the caliber of Mike ES’s courses but also because the competitors will meet judges whom they will encounter at international events in addition to the U.S. judges for whom they will ride at other U.S. events.
We want the eventing community to understand how much we at Red Hills love the sport and respect the efforts that they as competitors are putting into their relationships with their horses. The safety and welfare of the riders and their horses is of paramount importance to Red Hills. Everyone involved in organizing Red Hills wants the weekend to be challenging but fun, educational and safe, and enjoyable for competitors, volunteers, and spectators alike. We run Red Hills once a year, so we try to put our all into the event!
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