Jun 27, 2019

USEA Events A-Z: River Glen Horse Trials

By Jessica Duffy - USEA Staff
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The River Glen Equestrian Park in New Market, Tennessee (Area III) hosts four events a year, one each in April, June, August, and November, offering Starter through Advanced/Intermediate levels. For the first time this year, River Glen also offered FEI CCI2*-S and CCI3*-S divisions at their June event.

Bill Graves purchased 192 acres of lush pastureland 30 minutes outside of Knoxville along the Holston River in 1984. “It was just such a beautiful piece of property – I was smitten,” Graves recalled. Shortly after purchasing the property, his neighbor, Joni Abney, approached him about running an event on the farm. “She had the initial idea and organized and ran the first event in 1987 and for several years after that,” Graves said. “When I bought the property I had no idea – I didn’t even know what a horse trials was.”

About 10 years after the River Glen Horse Trials first began, Graves moved from where he had been living in Chicago to River Glen and took up the organization of the event. “I had to make a decision at a certain point whether I wanted to stay with it or do something else,” Graves said. “For me, it was always one show to the next, that’s how it’s evolved.”

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Graves has continued one show to the next for more than 30 years, always learning and making improvements along the way. Graves said that has actually given them an advantage when it comes to setting up the infrastructure of the property. “If we’d had money to make a serious investment [at the beginning] we would have put some things in the wrong places, but by virtue of the fact that it was just one show to the next we were able to observe traffic flow patterns and I don’t think we made any serious mistakes with regards to where we built barns and arenas.”

River Glen has 210 permanent stalls in centrally located shed-row style barns with additional pads for temporary stalls to accommodate up to 400 horses. Right next to the barns are 20 RV hookups that can handle more than 30 RVs. Situated around the barns are three large jumping arenas and three full-size dressage courts, and the cross-country start is also close by. “In terms of convenience, I’m just really pleased with how it turned out . . . It’s not a huge barn complex, [so] we were able to do it this way.”

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Getting the River Glen Horse Trials off the ground was not without its challenges, but the early team behind the event had a great impact on the event’s success. “There have been several people who have contributed to River Glen over the years, but in the beginning Joni Abney and Roger Haller were instrumental - Joni, for the idea and organizing and Roger for developing the courses. Captain Mark Phillips brought standardization to the sport which benefited River Glen greatly.”

“We made all the mistakes that everybody makes when they start doing something like this, particularly when they don’t know anything about it when they start, but I think we’ve learned a lot from our mistakes,” Graves continued. “We still make them, but we get more and more efficient with our use of our resources. You never stop learning. I learn something every time we have a horse trials.”

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This year River Glen hosted their first ever FEI classes, offering CCI2*-S and CCI3*-S divisions at their event in early June. “I felt like we had to become a place where the upper level competitors [who were asking for FEI divisions] could come,” Graves said. “We [got it] done, it was very well received, and I think we’re going to do it again next year . . . The event probably grew 20 percent this year with the FEI classes.”

Graves stated definitively that the event would not be possible without the support of their volunteers, many of whom are local to the area. “They’re from what I would call the Knoxville equestrian community, for the most part,” said Graves. “There are [also] people who are friends of River Glen and they’re just here every time. For whatever reason, they have a loyalty to the place and they like doing it.” Graves explained that, in addition to keeping the volunteers well fed, they also give out schooling passes to River Glen as a way to say thank you for all their hard work.

Photo courtesy of Kathy Graves.

The cross-country course at River Glen has been both built and designed for the last several years by Canadian course designer and builder Steve Buckman. Graves stated that he prefers working with designers who are also builders because of the efficiency. “I’ve done it the other way and it’s just so much easier and more efficient if you have one guy that does both . . . He knows how to help us help ourselves. We do a lot of building over the winter and he leaves all the plans and everything we need and supervises our building, but he makes it possible for us to do a lot of that ourselves. It’s been, I think, the most productive design-build relationships I’ve had since I started this.”

It was the beauty of the property that drew Graves to the land in the first place, and he’s created an event that keeps riders coming back again and again. “I’ve seen all the properties in the Southeast and I wouldn’t trade River Glen for any of them. The peaceful setting and the beauty of the place [make it special.] I look forward to the genuine friendships we’ve developed over the years with competitors, families, and officials. We appreciate each and every one them.”

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

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