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Saving Ground: Fair Hill’s Equestrian Community Unites to Grow and Preserve Land for Horse Sports

In this occasional series, we look at equestrian facilities’ strategies for sustainable growth and their role in preserving green space for horse sports.

by Glenye Oakford | Aug 15, 2017, 12:00 PM EST

There has been a variety of horse sports at Fair Hill in Elkton, Md., since at least 1925, the year William DuPont, Jr., established his property in Cecil County with thoughts of using it as a cattle farm, nature preserve, and equine sporting paradise for his beloved Thoroughbred racing and foxhunting.

Today, Fair Hill offers high-quality three-day eventing, endurance, combined driving, flat race training, and steeplechase racing, among other things, at the 5,600 acres now owned by the state of Maryland. By rallying together around what is literally their common ground, Fair Hill’s varied equine-related interests—and other groups who use the property—have developed a cooperative spirit that cuts across disciplines and has smoothed the way for a major facilities improvement project. That could be a model for other equestrian areas hoping to develop facilities and preserve horse-friendly green space.

The Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International is one of several events hosted at the multi-faceted venue in Elkton, Md. (Shannon Brinkman Photo)

“The wonderful thing about our project is that it’s not just us,” said Carla Geiersbach, executive director of Fair Hill International, which hosts The Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International CCI2* and CCI3*, the USEF National Two- and Three-Star Championship, and the USEF Young Horse National Championship, among other titles. “It’s us, it’s steeplechasers, it’s the training center across the street, it’s the Cecil County Fair, it’s Fair Hill Races. There are a whole bunch of us who are working together on the improvements to the special events area of Fair Hill.”

One thing that helped pull the group together, says Geiersbach, was their service on a task force that evaluated a study of Maryland’s statewide system of horse parks. As part of that study, Fair Hill also earned official status as a field event zone for the state’s equestrian sports.

“We all got to be good friends,” Geiersbach said of the task force members, who were drawn from different equestrian and sporting backgrounds. That has helped at a time when Fair Hill is undertaking an estimated $8 million to 10 million in improvements, including reconfiguring the racecourse and irrigating it, renovating the racecourse grandstands, and building tunnels under Route 273 to make crossing that busy road easier and safer. Fair Hill International estimates an additional $3 million will be needed to build arenas and move the cross-country course from its current location to a new venue; the new cross-country course will include land on the steeplechase and timber courses, the old roads and tracks course, and the Saw Mill field, where recognized horse trials are held now. 

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to use the renovated grandstand?’” recalled Geiersbach. “The problem was that the infield of the steeplechase track, as it stands now, is too narrow to put in an arena. And because we had all worked together on the task force and our offices share a building with the National Steeplechase Association based here at Fair Hill, I just walked next door and talked to [NSA director of racing] Bill Gallo.”

Geiersbach said Gallo told her the NSA wanted to widen the steeplechase course’s turns, which presented an opportunity. “Once we had that open dialog going, we thought, ‘This means we can make improvements for the steeplechase and then the infield will also be wide enough for an arena? This is awesome!’” said Geiersbach. “And if we reconfigure the track so that it’s better for the steeplechase folks, how does that affect the fairground space for the Cecil County Fair? Well, it actually gives them more room, which is a good thing. We realized that we could all benefit from the improvements if we all worked together.”

"What's Good for one Discipline is Good for the Others"

The Fair Hill Training Center’s flat racing trainers, who are located across a busy road from the property and use the steeplechase course for training, were also supportive of the reconfiguration, says Geiersbach. This kind of multi-use thinking can help lift all the equestrian endeavors collectively, Fair Hill supporters believe, and also serve to promote each sport to new audiences. 

“What’s good for one discipline is good for the others,” Geiersbach said. “Because of the configuration of the property, with the timber racing course, the steeplechase course, the old roads and tracks course, and the old Sawmill Field—which is where we hold our regular recognized horse trials—all of that terrain is configured so that spectators can see 50% to 60% of the cross-country course from the grandstands. So now we think we’ll be able to cast a wider net and welcome a whole new group of people to the sport, without sacrificing the heart and soul of eventing: those long gallops and terrain that make cross-country so spectacular. And if you love to watch steeplechasing, you’ll enjoy watching three-day eventing.”

The fact that Fair Hill is a public park also helps, Geiersbach points out, because it allows non-equestrian visitors to encounter horses and horse sports, too.

“It is state land, and the Department of Natural Resources does a phenomenal job of maintaining this property. They’ve been great to work with,” Geiersbach added. “We’ve also been very lucky to be working with the Maryland Sports Commission. The depth and breadth of their knowledge about everything from engineering studies to construction to how you run a major event has been fantastic as we work on these infrastructure improvements. There’s a continuity and a flow that just really works.”

As Fair Hill and other horse sports facilities show, equestrian sports can aid rural development without sacrificing community green space.

“Fair Hill is a beautiful property, and it was started for equestrian disciplines,” she said. “One of the reasons we’re so excited about having been designated as the field event zone is that it really maintains the true nature of the area. We’re not building a coliseum in the middle of beautiful steeplechase country. We’re taking advantage of the natural beauty and terrain and keeping with the nature of what the land was intended for.”

Geiersbach points to the American Horse Council’s 2004 economic impact study, which found that Maryland had more horses per square mile than any other state; when those equestrians band together to preserve open land, the larger community also benefits, creating a virtuous circle that equestrian communities in other places have also seen from their own efforts.

“This is a fantastic group of people, and we’ve all been brought together on this amazing project, on this beautiful piece of property,” she added. “It’s nice to be working with people who collectively have a bigger vision than just one race a year or one event a year. We all realize that this is going to benefit horse sports.”

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