This weekend 500 horses and riders will compete in the 11th annual Richland Park Horse Trials. Bob and Kay Willmarth started dreaming about hosting a horse trial more than 20 years ago. After the Willmarth's finished acquiring some 400 acres of farm land in Richland, they worked with a top designer to create their cross country course.
The 200 acre cross country course includes jumps, a water complex, a sunken road and ditches, as well as sprinklers to get the ground ready for the horses.
“Then these are out here to water the course so that the footing is good for the horse," Kay Willmarth says. "It’s nice and soft, you don’t want it too hard, but it’s been so hot and dry this summer.”
Kay says the horse trial has three phases. First each horse and rider demonstrate their precision moves in the dressage ring. Dressage has been described as rider and horse dancing together.
“They get a score there and then the next thing they do is the cross country course and again, each level has a certain number of jumps and a certain distance of the course and their object is to negotiate the course within their time and without having penalties,” says Kay.
As the course tour continues we pass huge jumps made out of wood. The show jumping test is the final phase of the trial.
“Now this is called the coffin complex and what they have, each level has a different question so on this one they jump that rail and then they have one stride and then they have to jump over this ditch and then they have another stride and they have to jump over this narrow fence," says Kay. "So on this, you have to be real accurate and the horse has to be bold because he won’t even see this ditch until he lands from the first jump.”
Kay says bravery is a must for horses on the course.
“They’ve got all different kinds of obstacles, from picnic tables and ditches with logs over them and they jump over and through water, a sunken road," Kay says. "There’s all sorts of really tricky obstacles. The course is about three miles long for the longest one and it’s timed so they have a distance and a time they have to make. And the object is to go through the course without having any stops or any rider fall or horse fall.”
Bob says horse and rider really have to focus together on these obstacles.
"It’s a companionship that has taken many years to develop and the horse trusts the rider and the rider trusts the horse," Bob Willmarth says. "And, it becomes a real bond. To do the sport the horse has to trust because there are tons of distractions."
"The rider gets to walk their course, they get a map when they get here and they can walk the course four or five times," Kay says. "But the horse never sees the jumps until he’s jumping them. That’s part of the braveness that you test the horse on.”
Safety is important in horse trials, for both rider and steed. Bob Willmarth says some of the most advanced horses in the sport have been training for up to ten years, becoming incredible athletes.
"The hardest part is to get the horses to slow down and be sensible. Horses love to run," says Bob. “You can tell how excited they are in the starting box because they know they going to get to run and gallop.”
The Richland Park Horse Trials run Thursday through Sunday. The park is located at 8651 North 30th Street in Richland. Spectators can mingle with horses and riders, view dressage events and walk the cross country course. And, young riders can meet and learn from some of the top riders, which Bob says, helps insure the future of the sport.