Aug 06, 2020

USEA Events A-Z: Whidbey Island Horse Trials

By Jessica Duffy - USEA Staff
Photo courtesy of the Whidbey Island Horse Trials.

The Whidbey Island Horse Trials take place in Oak Harbor, Washington (Area VII) in early July of each year and offer Beginner Novice through Advanced/Intermediate horse trials. The Whidbey Island Horse Trials lost their venue in 2019 but are working on finalizing a new venue for 2021.

The Whidbey Island Horse Trials was born on Seaplane Base in Oak Harbor, Washington more than 40 years ago. U.S. Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, which is comprised of Ault Field and Seaplane Base, was commissioned in 1942 and served a critical defense role protecting the Pacific coastline from enemy attack during World War II. Seaplane Base remains the only WWII-era base in the Pacific region that has not been extensively altered.

In the 1960s, Seaplane Base was used to train soldiers for the Vietnam War. Nearer to the end of the war, in 1971, an officer at the Naval Air Station named Steve Johnson procured a lease on a portion of Seaplane Base’s survival area with the goal in mind to host a horse trials. Johnson was also a Pony Club father with children involved in the Whidbey Island Pony Club and ran a boarding stable in the area. He would make trips up to Canada to go fox hunting and it was there that he came across eventing.

A competitor at the Whidbey Island Horse Trials in 1977. Photo courtesy of the Whidbey Island Horse Trials.

Linda Chatfield, the event’s current organizer, was just a child at the time of the running of the first Whidbey Island Horse Trials. “It was like a wonderland, going out there and playing in the fields,” she recalled. “Steve built miles and miles of trails and built jumps out there. We started to have regional Pony Club rallies in 1972 and the first unrecognized event was in 1973.” The very first Whidbey Island Horse Trials was held in 1974.

Johnson invited Neil Ayer, who was the president of the United States Combined Training Association (now USEA), as it was known at the time, to come visit the new Whidbey Island Horse Trials. “He brought him out and showed him the event and convinced him to start a new Area,” Chatfield explained. “Johnson created Area VII and was the first Area Chairman.” Johnson was also involved with the Equestrians’ Institute Horse Trials and the Bainbridge Island Horse Trials.

A few years later, Whidbey Island Horse Trials was host of one of the U.S. Team selection trials for the 1978 World Three-Day Event Championships, which were held at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Whidbey Island was the first horse trials in the Pacific Northwest to offer the Preliminary level and hosted the first FEI events in the region.

In the early 1980s, members of the Whidbey Island Horse Trials organizing committee voted to take some of the profits the event had garnered over the years and build all-new cross-country courses up through the Intermediate level. Chatfield said it was around this time that she remembers becoming heavily involved with the event, helping to construct the new fences. She was still competing at the time and remembers riding in the Intermediate level competition at the first event with the new courses. The following year, she took over as the event’s organizer.

Photo courtesy of the Whidbey Island Horse Trials.

In 1995, the Navy rescinded the Whidbey Island Horse Trials’ lease on the survival area on Seaplane Base, forcing the event to relocate. “It was very controversial,” Chatfield said. “People wrote in from all over the country, and they ended up calling a meeting and trying to get us to come back, but at that point they’d already ripped up all of our jumps.”

The event took a hiatus in 1996 as they formulated a new plan, and part of that new plan was a 300-acre property owned by Chuck Arnold. Arnold allowed the Whidbey Island Horse Trials to lease a portion of his farm for the event, with the Horse Trials cooperating with surrounding land lessees to utilize adjacent farmland for stabling, dressage rings, and cross-country courses. This agreement stood in place for another 20-plus years, with Chuck’s son Fred continuing the lease to the Horse Trials after his father’s passing.

However, in 2019, new proprietors over the surrounding land were no longer willing to allow the Whidbey Island Horse Trials to use any portion of their land for the event. With just 60 acres to work with, the Whidbey Island Horse Trials was forced to cancel that year and look for another location. Plans had been in place to bring the horse trials back in 2020, but agreements with the new venue fell through, leaving Whidbey Island no choice but to cancel for the second year in a row. Chatfield explained that they are in talks with another prospective location and are hopeful that the Whidbey Island Horse Trials will return for its 43rd running in 2021.

Photo courtesy of the Whidbey Island Horse Trials.

Despite the Whidbey Island Horse Trials’ current lack of a venue, the team behind the event remains as strong as ever. “Our event is run almost exclusively by women and children,” Chatfield said. “Kit Maret is our secretary/treasurer/do-everything – she’s amazing and super-cool and super-positive and really helps facilitate everything running smoothly. Margot Carter organizes the dressage and the show jumping and she has her support crew that helps with all of that. Janet Kurtz is our course builder and she does an amazing job working with our course designer, Jay Hambly. Trenna Atkins has been super instrumental – when we made our transformation in the early 1980s she was a big part of that and she has continued to contribute. I know I’m leaving people out – there have been so many incredible people.”

Many of the volunteers for the event are kids that are part of the Whidbey Island Pony Club. “We have such a good core group that is so dedicated and love the event,” Chatfield said. “To me, I do it because of what the event does for our kids – you’ve never seen kids work as hard as these kids do! They’re weed-eating, they’re moving dirt – they’re doing things most kids would never be doing.”

“There are people that have come for 20 years to jump judge – they’re not Pony Club, they’re just people from the community that know the event. We do have a lot of people, businesses too, that have helped with the event over the years.”

Action Taken Photography Photo courtesy of the Whidbey Island Horse Trials.

One of the highlights of the weekend, besides the competition, is the competitor dinner hosted by the Pony Club. “We have a complimentary (to competitors) salmon dinner that the Pony Club parents put together with a scrumptious fresh local berry shortcake dessert. It’s the best party – people come ready to dance and have fun. It’s usually Mardi Gras or disco-themed and folks dress the part!”

“What’s fun is knowing you’ve provided something people enjoy,” Chatfield concluded. “We want people to come and feel good and have such a fun weekend. We’re friendly, we’re low-key, it’s a well-run show, we have nice prizes and we have beautiful jumps. We try to make it a good experience for people and we’re doing it for the love of it. The people who put this event on really care about putting on a good, fun, safe show for riders and horses. We want people to enjoy the sport and enjoy the island and come away with a good and positive feeling.”

“Oh, and I can’t think of another event with an awesome pirate ship cross-country jump and a purple Prince-themed triple combination in show jumping. We also have a pretty cool purple Prince-themed corner on the Training cross-country course, complete with a metallic gold Prince symbol painted on it (yes, we love Prince!)”

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

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