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Whidbey event tests horses and riders

Riders return year after year to the Whidbey Island Pony Club Horse Trials, proclaiming it “the best kept secret of Whidbey Island.” The competitors list of the local horse show reads like a Who’s Who of the equestrian world, drawing Olympic riders, local trainers, and amateurs to compete in a three-day horse triathalon.

Competitors began arriving on Wednesday afternoon and by Friday morning, Whidbey Island was crawling with equestrians.

Three-day eventing, the “complete test of horse and rider,” is a three-phase athletic competition of the horse. Dressage, the first phase, is a combination of stretching, balancing, and obedience that is judged by certified judges. Cross country, the second phase, tests fitness and bravery of the horse as riders guide them through water, brush, and woods at blistering speeds. Stadium jumping, the third phase, is a set course of jumps which horses must jump without knocking them down.

For over 30 years, the Whidbey Island Pony Club Horse Trials have dominated as one of the largest of only 11 horse trials in Area VII of the United States Eventing Association. The area spans Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and parts of Montana and Idaho.

Coupeville local Louise Mueller founded the Whidbey Island Pony Club in 1964. The club is active today, instructed by Linda Chatfield, the organizer of the horse trials. The event is nonprofit and relies upon hours of volunteer work from club members, their families, and support from community members and local businesses. Chuck and Fred Arnold, local farmers, generously allow the use of the land each year.

“Land like this is hard to find,” said Todd Trewin, 1992 Barcelona Olympian, who was at the event last weekend. “The next event like this is in Kalispell, Mont. It’s lovely out here. It’s a family event.”

Local club members include Tanya Bowden, Adam Hosmer, Aidan Keefe, Brittany Keller, Taryn McKee, Kate Petersen, Madison Petersen, Lisa Pfeffer, Jessica Purcel, Rachel Rigby, Kate Ross, Anna Statz, and Shawna West. Most competed in the horse trials in addition to making sure things ran smoothly for other competitors.

With over 300 competitors and more than 1,000 people in total, it is unusual to have no injuries or mishaps, but this year’s hard work paid off for the volunteers.

“I’m happy,” said Chatfield at the close of a hectic second day of competition. “It’s always a good day when the sun is shining, nobody was injured, and everyone gets home safe.”

She credits the success of the event to a hard-working team of volunteers. “I’m always amazed we can pull this off with as few people as we have,” she said.

Local club member Kate Ross, 14, revealed a sunburn to prove her dedication.

“We work hard, even in the hot and sticky weather,” she said. “Since I’m younger, I raked, stained jumps, and killed hornets nests. I’m tired, but it’s still fun. It was worth it.”

Ross, like most of the club members, competed in the event.

The course required a major overhaul before the July competition. Inspected by Olympic gold medalist and world-leading, three-day-event rider Capt. Mark Phillips, the course needed multiple mowings, ditch-digging, weed-eating, and decorating to prepare it for the hordes of competitors and spectators. Local sponsors donated flowers, equipment, and money to fund the event, but the manpower is ultimately volunteer.

Suzette Keller, secretary, sorts through a mountain of paperwork each spring to manage the list of competitors begging to be moved off of the waiting list to attend the show. This year’s staggering 100-competitor waiting list proved its popularity.

The competition is not without wrinkles. Spectators, dogs, children, and loose horses can threaten to mar a perfect ride, but Marcia Statz, safety coordinator, wrangled volunteers to watch every jump to assure that competitors made it over every fence safely.

The day’s most traumatic event was a rider’s fall into a patch of stinging nettles. The biggest loss was a rowboat that was destroyed when a horse ploughed into it.

“We don’t have a lot of events in our area or in Washington,” said Amy Tryon, bronze Olympic medalist in 2004. “Linda and her crew do an excellent job. It is a labor of love. Every year, it improves so much: the footing, the fences, the flow of the course. This year was by far the best.”

Chatfield echoed that sentiment by crediting the competitors that the show brings to Whidbey Island.

“Todd Trewin, Amy Tryon, and so many other high caliber riders being here really raises the level of the sport. It is the biggest equestrian event on the island,” she said.

The event is truly a unique opportunity for riders and community members to enjoy Whidbey’s scenery, feel the excitement of high level competition, and brush shoulders with seasoned world class competitors.

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