Park City equestrians fight to be heard
Charlotte Dunn is a 14-year-old equestrian who has known since she was a little girl she wanted to be involved in the sport. She started when she was five and living in North Carolina, and when she moved to Park City, practicing equestrian became much more difficult. Her mother, Katy Dunn, said it is a sometimes exhausting pursuit. They travel 500 miles, one way, to get to her competitions. Even getting to practices isn’t easy.
"It’s been pretty tough. There aren’t a lot of opportunities here," Dunn said. "And it’s taken a while to determine what Charlotte wants to do with her horse career. She sort of went through a phase where she was into eventing, and at that time we kept her horse in Morgan. We drove five days a week all the way to Morgan and back so that she could have an eventing coach.
"So to be having to drive and do all that in the middle of the winter was tough. Now she has switched fields but it would still be the same kind of thing. There are so few instructors and so few opportunities here in the whole Park City region."
Dawn Vibert Bowes, who competes in the equestrian discipline of eventing, moved to Park City 12 years ago. She also travels quite a bit to compete in her sport — 5,000 miles last year, by her count. She helped start the Park City Pony Club last year, along with Courtnay Gray, in part to try to make the barrier to entry for kids interested in equestrian a little less daunting.
"We just found that we weren’t creating the next generation of horsemen and horsewomen," Bowes said. "There was no educational opportunity for kids to learn about how to ride horses and how to take care of horses."
Gray, who is the instruction coordinator for the club, said equestrian options for kids are limited.
"So we’re not necessarily providing a riding school but an opportunity for education for these kids," she said. "To start with learning how to brush a horse, lead a horse, all the way up to major veterinary care, Olympic-level riding — it’s a broad spectrum."
What became apparent to Bowes and Gray in the last year, they said, is that the passion for equestrian is there, and now they believe it is time for the amenities to catch up.
"The Pony Club’s success has been beyond our wildest imagination," Bowes said. "We’re getting more and more parents who just want to give their kid an opportunity to learn how to ride and see if they actually like it. And right now there’s really not an affordable or accessible opportunity for kids to learn how to ride a horse.
"So now we are growing beyond our expectations and we have limited access to facilities at which to provide these educational services."
Bowes said when she heard about the Mountain Recreation Facilities Master Plan, which held its first public meeting March 2, she rallied support from the equestrian community and began organizing the different disciplines. The Master Plan is a collaboration between the Park City Municipal Corporation, Snyderville Basin Recreation District, and Park City School District to assess the recreational needs of the area, and to determine possible locations and cost estimates. Bowes wrote a letter to the Master Plan’s advisory committee and asked that equestrian amenities be factored in as well.
"We have a lot of challenges for equestrians in our area," she said. "And as development grows and more fence lines go up and communities go in, it’s loss of land and loss of access. So I think it’s really disproportionately affecting the equestrian communities that are already here. We become islands. We lack trail access and recreational opportunities in addition to sporting and educational opportunities, for kids and for adults."
Bowes and the coalition of equestrians of different disciplines she helped to form, the Park City Equine Partnership, met with the advisory committee and outlined their proposal for a multi-phase growth of equestrian amenities. Phase one would focus on recreational trails and competition courses; the second phase would create backcountry trails and designate open spaces, as well as build outdoor arenas for competitions; finally, the third phase would be all about the construction of an indoor facility. The plan as Bowes describes it would play out over a period of about six years.
"We are advocating for a public facility that would support equestrian sport, recreation and educational aspects to grow the sport and kind of protect and preserve our equestrian heritage and way of life in this area," Bowes said.
Bowes added that the amenities they are pushing for would be multiuse — outdoor equestrian tracks could be used for Nordic skiing in the winter, she said.
"Or cyclocross or snowshoeing," Gray said. "There is also an interest in bringing snow polo to the area."
Having facilities that could host equestrian events would be a new economic driver for the community, Dunn said.
"We’re not really sure whether winter sports are going to be sustainable with climate change," she said. "We don’t know for how many more decades the ski areas are going to be the primary financial focus that they are now. And so this could be a way to help offset some of that, were climate change to be really taking its toll.
"And it just makes sense to me, the idea of Park City as an Olympic destination for both winter and summer sports."
Bowes pointed to Rebecca Farm in Kalispell, Montana, as an example of the kind of economic activity equestrian sport can generate. The University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research said that the Event at Rebecca Farm in 2015 generated $4.4 million in one week.
"And they generated that much money out in the middle of nowhere in Montana," Gray said.
Gray thinks Park City is the kind of community that will embrace equestrian when they learn more about it.
"We are a resort community," she said. "We support Winter Olympic-level sports. And I think we could provide that same venue for year-round sports, as well. [The indoor facility] is definitely down the road. I think we’ve got a crawl-walk-run approach."
Dunn said her group is adamant about being included in the Master Plan process currently taking place because waiting until the next opportunity might mean waiting until it is too late.
"We feel this is probably 20 years overdue," she said. "But to let another 10 years go by and not try to make this push — if we don’t start it now, I don’t see it ever happening. Because the land will have been used for something else and the opportunity will be gone."
Bowes pointed to a decade ago when she said ice sport enthusiasts got together and advocated for an ice sheet. Now, the Park City Ice Rink is so popular that a second ice sheet has been identified as one of the community’s biggest needs. Bowes said she believes the same will happen with equestrian amenities.
"A group of hockey players, skiers, curlers, they got together and they got loud," she said. "They had to educate people. But it happened."
Dunn stressed that the equestrian community does not want to frame itself as being in opposition to other recreational pursuits. They are not pushing for equestrian to get preferential treatment or to be funded at the expense of anything else.
"We are not interested in competing against these other activities," she said. "We are supportive of them, and we are hoping they will be supportive of us."
For more information on the Park City Equine Partnership, visit http://www.ParkCityEquinePartnership.org . To learn more about the Mountain Recreation Facilities Master Plan, go to http://www.RecFacilitiesMP.org .
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