This year I was invited to the 25th Anniversary of the Vermont Summer Festival to help a client set up horses. Uh, sure, I thought. Why not? Only a week away didn’t sound too bad. I entertained the idea of hauling my own horse up there, but hesitated, I couldn’t quite embrace the idea of bringing my good horse to a show 7 hours north of me, a show I hadn’t attended before, and a show which received an ungodly amount of bad press on the internet in 2017…. for (of all things), bad footing….
So, I left him home and decided to judge for myself what the heck was going on up there in the mountains while riding other people’s horses.
The drive is not difficult, especially in a car, but there are parts where you simply cannot time yourself out of a bit of traffic, unless you choose to drive overnight. Night driving is not a fun option for me, because I constantly want to know what I am missing in the dark, so I just left at 6 am Monday morning and by the early afternoon, I was already in a lovely scenic, mountainous part of Southern Vermont, known as Manchester. A couple of miles just north of Manchester, in East Dorset, the show abruptly appears on the side of a road, 1/4 mile North of the General Store, with very little fanfare on the approach.
No signs, no flashing lights, no highway beacons screaming “Event Ahead Use Caution”. Nothing, nada, you just know you are there because of the dozen or so iconic blue and white roofed tents which makes it look like a circus has come to town and planted itself in a random valley between two mountains in the middle of a field, with three entrances, one by tent 12 and a couple more further up by the show rings. I am reminded of Upperville, with a vastly more narrow framework. The whole horse show is a rectangle, long and sloped, with a paved road one side and a railroad on the other side. It is soooooo much smaller than I expected. I immediately started to feel cramped in, the spaces between most of the barns were minimal, and I soon realized we were lucky to be in tent 12, a good 15 minute walk to the hunter rings, but more spacious to work in. There was no other tent too close, only paddocks and the hay trucks behind us.
Later, after the horses arrived, I found the house, one of those perfect summer homes, a duplex, complete with a deck, a creek, and air-conditioning (thank the lord) just bordering the town of Manchester, which I soon discovered might be the whitest of white towns I have ever seen in America. I am not kidding. I have never seen so much whiteness, I felt like I needed to make a poster starting with the phrase, “Dear White People….why is it so white?” I mean I guess it’s fine, whatever, I don’t know a lot about Vermont, but damn, this girl comes from BALTIMORE, I like a little diversity. Nope, not here. This town is all about Lilly, Talbots, Orvis, Antiques, J. Crew, and all other little fancy, boutiquey shops chocked full of items I cannot even come close to affording, or basically, what I would surmise ’Nantucket on the mainland’. It is pretty weird.
Golfing, Fly Fishing (wtf is that?), shopping, and eating at expensive restaurants are apparently what people in Manchester like to do before the skis or snow boards come out of the garage and everyone basically freezes to death for six months.
Houses which were often summer homes for people coming out of NYC or Boston, are organized carefully through the town, there is no trash on the sidewalks, teenagers scoop and sell you your ice cream, and a dozen traffic circles replace the need for stoplights, of which there is only one, and it switches to a blinking light from 10 pm to 7 am. There are no loiterers at the Rite Aid (soon to be Walgreens), and every one has a favorite restaurant, of which there are many. Maybe my biggest shock was discovering the town had a Starbucks. I like to think this mega company hasn’t hit rural places like a small resort town in southern Vermont, but I guess progress knows no bounds.
I finished exploring and went to bed.
Tuesday brought around very warm temperatures and the rest of the horses to our barn. It was busy all day. I jumped in every hunter ring and every schooling area, and waited on pins and needles for a horse to trip and fall down. I was guarded, to say the least, but nothing happened. The water trucks and drags were running around without breaks, consistently hitting every area, and to my genuine surprise I suddenly caught sight of one of my favorite tractor operators sitting atop one very large green monster…. Ricky Rollins. I’ve never been more excited to see a tractor pilot in my life! I have watched him all up and down the East Coast (including Gulfport) working his magic (mostly with Alan Reinheimer) to get the desired cushion level for us picky show people. And I am not being a creepy stalker, so don’t report me, but I damn well know a good footing expert when I see one. Never take for granted someone who has years of experience listening to all of the complaints from horse people and works extra hard in the toughest conditions to keep those complaints non-existent. This man has more knowledge about footing maintenance than almost anyone I know. He is tireless. A close second would be Johnny Barker, III. I could actually relax and ride now.
In between classes Wednesday I sought out Ricky to ask questions…Of course I wanted to know if he was staying through circuit and if he had plans to return next year. He told me yes, so I hope it works out for him. I already knew about the overhaul in all of the rings, (not just one or two rings but all of them), and the 750 tons of sand hauled in and the re-grading that happened earlier this year by Alan, but I wanted to know what else was different. All the drivers had to be trained up? Amount of water changed? What exactly was it? One of the things Ricky pointed out was knowing when to seal or roll the rings. Leaving rings ‘open’ overnight could cause a disastrous morning, and if there is one thing I have seen in Gulfport (where it freaking rains more than any other place in the country), if you tighten those rings up overnight, it won’t matter if some crazy down pour dumps 2 inches of rain, or 6 inches of rain, you are showing by 8 am the next morning. With no puddles. I learned a lot in Gulfport, and I don’t think there is any more exemplary team than what Alan Reinheimer and Bob Bell have created down there.
Throughout the week I watched every ring, hunter or jumper, and saw a sh*t ton of horses going around and around. I saw falls everywhere, equitation, hunter, jumper, GP ring, but I did not see any fall which was not pilot error. The footing simply did not cause a fall. Riders repeatedly made bad decisions, or, worse, no decision, like when I watched a girl creep into a 2-stride in an eq class on a 17 hand horse and he tried, but couldn’t get out and crashed through the oxer, or when I watched a .9 jumper rider attempt to leave a stride out and go flying over his head when he was like ‘not today Susan’. I watched a jumper rider in the open class make a really bad call and his horse tried and failed, but not one time did I see the footing slip in any way which would have caused a more dramatic end to any of those falls. The base never showed, the horses stayed up on the turns, and the take off and landings were constantly being monitored, stayed tight, and kept the horses afloat. The child/adult jumper classic proved to be the most dramatic class of the week, but when I asked the trainers of the kids who fell if they felt it was footing or pilot error, they all said ‘unfortunately, pilot error’.
I counted three trips on my rides through the week in the schooling area. They all tripped the same way, slightly catching a toe and stumbling forward for a step before recovering. Whether this was the horse or footing, I couldn’t actually tell. Three different horses, three different places, but identical movements. The thing about the middle hunter show/warmup rings, is that they slope. There is an uphill and a downhill which follows the natural path of the mountainous terrain, and while I actually like the challenge of keeping the horses balanced, the horses aren’t accustomed to it on their own. So every once in a while you feel them lose track of where they are because of the slope. Capable riders can manage this, green riders have to learn it. The tripping I experienced is not enough to warrant real concern, but it was duly noted. It will be interesting to see what four more weeks of showing brings.
What does concern me is other parts of the show. I have a built in safety radar which I can’t turn off, and when the radar goes off my head goes bananas.
My immediate observation of the grounds was the simplicity of it all and the massive amounts of temporary enclosures, for everything, including the rings. But the lunging areas and most schooling areas were not enclosed. So I started to ask myself why, there must be some sort of reason this is not a normal set up. Trailer parking had to be a few miles off premises, hidden in some small corner of Manchester, where no one could see the blight of vehicles parked in a field. It was all very weird. So I pulled out the tools in the Google.
Holy Over Regulated Restrictions On Land Batman.
Vermont is whacked. What started out as legislation to stop developers from sneaking around mountain roads and building houses with no septic or sewer solutions (other than a plastic pipe into an open ditch) turned into one of the most highly restrictive development plans I have ever seen in my life. Act 250 was passed in the 70’s and it contains well over 200 pages of what you can and cannot do in communities and basically if I chose to live in Vermont, I would just find a trailer or a cave dwelling and keep my fingers crossed. Harold Beebe’s farm, which John and Dottie Ammerman lease for the circuit, has to basically be turned back into the field it was prior to the show and look the same until the next year. No permanent fixtures, no buildings, and IF you apply for a permit to change the code, every property under that same owner, regardless of where it is in the state will be affected and pay a penalty. As far as the water goes? Vermont is about as obtuse toward groundwater management as a Sumo wrestler is to playing baseball. You wouldn’t think Vermont would never suffer from wells running dry, but apparently denial leads to harsh life lessons, even in Vermont. So now it was all starting to make sense, but I wanted to verify what I found out with John himself.
Walking into a show office and announcing you have questions and want to write a piece about the show can go one of two ways. Bristly or not bristly. I was expecting bristly. I actually received the opposite, and within a few hours all my questions were answered and more helpful information was provided. I had only heard rumors about what John and Dottie were like to work with, but I set my predisposed assumptions aside and simply asked for what I wanted. I could not have ended up with a nicer reception. I had done my homework prior and it was appreciated. No one was defensive, and I was quite relieved, to say the least.
I learned that John had worked for the horse show for years supplying jumps before taking it over (with partner Eddie Davis) from Stadium Jumping. It used to bounce around to different venues from Killington to Sugarbush to Stowe, and finally John decided enough bouncing, while it is nice to have the circus travel from town to town, this place needs a permanent residence for 6 weeks. Manchester boasted enough various activities, restaurants, and shopping to satisfy the most people. There is an estimated 20 million dollar economic impact to the community, which I would imagine the area is pretty tickled about.
I also confirmed that the state of Vermont does offer exemptions for horse shows which clears them to operate under Act 250, as long as the land is properly secured to it’s original format once the show leaves. There are still many restrictions, but the state tries to be compliant with our desire to show in a pretty atmosphere.
John has complete confidence in the overhaul, and I have to say I was impressed with his actions after last year. He didn’t disregard complaints like other show managers have become famous for, but actually did something about it. An hour and a half south in New York, it is a very different story. His remarkable staff is incredibly cohesive, and I listened all week as the ring crew kept track of trainers throughout the show grounds, never got upset, never made rude barn calls, and seemed generally proactive and smart. John does say if there is something which get missed or overlooked it is because he doesn’t know abut it and encourages people to help make suggestions.
Well, I may have something there, and hopefully he won’t take offense to me blurting this out in my blog.
There are so many options out there for temporary fencing, I would love to see more of an attempt to stack portable post and rail around at least one side of the lunging areas. It is so scary to see a loose horse run out of the lunging arena, jump INTO the jumper arena, and proceed to jump the jumper jumps…. Even the smaller portable dividers are a good idea so at least you are providing sections of a big area, and not letting people lunge into one another. I know you can’t regulate dumb people, but I just think that anything there on the edge instead of railroad ties would be an improvement.
I am not a big fan of those metal stakes with clap boards around the show rings, but if that is the only option, so be it. I just wish it wasn’t the only option. I know you can get the post and rail on platform stands, which is so, so much nicer looking. And safer.
Also, no one knows what a horse path is, and the teeny tiny sign marking the horse path was far from helpful. People need neon sings these days to pull their heads away from their cell phones, and big arrows pointing to the path “GO HERE DUMMY” so golf carts are not sharing the same road would be most valuable.
The train to me is not so much an issue, it comes twice a day, same time every day, creeps slowly adjacent to the show, and everyone stops what they are doing to make sure the beast they are holding doesn’t freak out and run away. Some people smartly dismount and hold their beast. You are not required to show in the ‘train ring’ (Hunter 3), or any ring really, when there is a train passing, you simply wait 2 minutes to enter and complete your course.
Irony in the lack of brush. Coming from Maryland and Virginia, I am obsessed with brush. We all think making the jumps all brushy makes the horses jump better, makes the rings look better, and gives an overall appearance of hunting through the woods. So when you are literally in a valley surrounded by forests of pine and the jumps don’t have brush, everything looks stark and weak. I am sure there is some permit required to obtain brush in Vermont, but the derby courses would greatly benefit from some more foliage. I might look into how to obtain brush, but that’s just me. I do know you cannot simply take an axe to the trees out back, you would be slapped with a fine within the hour.
(I am sure there are other people with suggestions, but hopefully they will file them in a competition evaluation form, but these were my own thoughts throughout the week I was there. I try to pay attention to chatter, but it was really challenging for me to find bitter comments, and believe me, you attend a shitty show, and the bitter chatter is unmistakable.)
The prizes were beautiful, and Jane Gaston’s artwork was prevalent everywhere, on the cover of the program, on the awards, and I cannot think of a better way to celebrate a talented horsewoman within our own community.
There are people who stay for the entire 6 weeks, and those lucky people have the distinct advantage to take part in the best part of the VSF…..the exhibitor parties. These parties are not normal.
When we pulled into the Week 2 venue of the exhibitor party, I was like omg what in the literal heck am I going to do now, besides explode. Rock climbing, swings and omg there is a mountain slide! My inner child busted out and I basically ignored every other activity except eating to gain access to the mountain slide. I was insane with excitement.
So was Greg Best….
Each week offers a different location, hotels, restaurants, and ski resorts, and every party is exceptional, you lucky dogs, I may return just for Wednesday of week 5 when it returns to Bromley…no one will notice, right? and taking that Land Rover ride up to the top of the mountain was super sweet. good times.
I never saw Bullwinkle, however. I even got up early every morning to roam through the hills looking for him, but other than a close call with a deer and near death experience for two chipmunks, I drove in vain. One morning, Mary Babick wisely quipped to me it is almost impossible to find what you are looking for when you WANT to find it. so true.
Apparently the day I left, one of the mom’s viewed a momma moose and a baby coming down the hill toward the horse show and hurried to the grounds to collect the girls and drive back to the spot she saw them. There is no photographic evidence of this sighting, but I am happy at least one person may have caught a glimpse Mrs. Bullwinkle.
My experience in Vermont was a pleasant one. I would for sure return, and I do regret not bringing a horse with me. There are generally cooler temperatures with a few hot days thrown in to keep you humble, but the horses seem to fair well there. I don’t know if other exhibitors shared similar experiences, but there were not a lot of people complaining directly to me, so I can only pass along my own thoughts. The combination of John and Dottie Ammerman, Doug Russell, Ricky, William Aguirre, and the rest of the talented staff they have pulled together seems to be working incredibly well, and it is obvious no one is being lazy about his or her job. The numbers show they are at capacity and have a couple of weeks likely maxed out and a waiting list utilized. Even though there was one more empty tent behind us during week 2, this was all pre-arranged to drop the numbers slightly to give exhibitors time to enjoy more than just the horse show, and allow for some shorter show days. I can understand why. There is a lot to explore in Vermont. Best of luck to the summer exhibitors, I am curious and remain anxious that it all fares well.