David Wyatt

January 19, 2009

A Pony Club, An Olympian, And A Cause For Open Land



Northeast Ohio farmland is especially threatened by the housing and retail development that's sweeping across the once pristine, rural landscapes of the

Medina County, the fastest-growing county in Ohio for several years running, is situated approximately equidistant between expanding Akron and Cleveland. Its considerable eques-trian community suffers annually as farms and stables give way to the more profitable but culturally barren housing subdivisions, shopping malls, and seas of pavement. Many dispirited horse lovers have acquiesced and moved away or gotten out of the business altogether.

Occasionally, though, a success story inspires us to stay put and work for land preservation.

In their continuing effort to perpetuate equestrian sport in Northeast Ohio, the leaders of the Bath Pony Club have under-taken major improvements to their outdoor riding facility, a 200-acre portion of public land in the Medina County Park District.

The Bath Pony Club was established in 1963. From about 1978 until his death in 1994, Raymond C. Firestone, who owned more than 3,000 acres in the area, generously allowed the Pony Club exclusive use of the present facility for its instructional programs and fund-raising horse shows.

In 1979, a group of parent volunteers, assisted by Firestone's Lauray Farm employees, constructed the area's first significant cross-country course on the property, at the preliminary level. Throughout the 1980s the course was the club's base of operations and the site of many horse trials, rallies and other competitions and events sponsored by the club.

But, after Firestone's death, the estate was marketed for sale and the Bath Pony Club's future became uncertain. Without use of a large parcel of open land, the club would not easily be able to continue its instructional programs.

In The Public Interest
Fortunately, the Medina County Park District acquired the portion of Firestone's property used by the Pony Club to expand an adjacent park. The park district's directors have allowed the Pony Club to continue using it, along with various other local groups.

Tom James, director of the Medina County Park District, explained how the Pony Club's use of the facility has served the public's interests.

"When we acquired the land, the Bath Pony Club had a dependable group of dedi-cated volunteers maintaining the property, and their work has reduced operation costs for the park district. And they have cooperated well with hikers, wildlife conservators, and area residents sharing the facility," James said. "We view the club's involvement as an asset to the community."

To maintain the property, the club's parents and other volunteers spend approximately 1,000 hours a year mowing, trimming, restoring turf, repairing jumps, and assuring access to other groups sharing the site.

The most recent improvement is a new cross-country course designed by John Williams, a former member of the Mendon (N.Y.) Pony Club, professional course designer, and two-time international medalist. He led the U.S. team to the gold medal at the 2002 World Championships and earned the team bronze medal at the 2004 Olympics.

The course cost approximately $55,000 to build. Members, former members, and other interested organizations donated the necessary funds during a two-year campaign that began in 2003.

Jump It, an equestrian facility contractor based in Middlefield, Ohio, built the course according to Williams' specifications.

Since 2003, Williams has conducted several clinics for Bath Pony Club and other event riders at the facility. From his first visit to the area, Williams saw potential in the site.

"The property has varying topography, which makes it a fun and interesting challenge for a course designer," said Williams. "The basic course makes best use of the property's elevated areas and rolling terrain. The lower, wet areas on the property did present a challenge, though."

He had to design special passages through these areas.

With this understanding of the land's natural assets, Williams recommended course improvements to Connie LaSalle Wyatt, Bath's instructional coordinator, in 2003. Subsequently, the club's leaders approached park district officials with a detailed proposal to remove and replace the original cross-country jumps with new ones to conform to new safety standards. Once the park district officials approved the proposal, the Pony Club commissioned Williams to design the improvements.

"The cross-country phase has become significantly more refined in the last 30 years. In the 1970s, courses like Bath's tended to reward the bravest horses and riders, but today's courses demand a different level of technical skill and training," said Williams.

An additional challenge for Williams was designing a course that complemented other public interests. For example, to preserve the notable meadow bird population on the land, park district regulations require that large, open areas be mowed only once each year. Williams responded by designing jumping lanes that don't disrupt the birds' natural habitat.

More Than Just Horses
To be successful in gaining permission to use public land, it's critical for equestrian groups to dissolve the general perception that horses are playthings of the wealthy. Williams' demonstrated sensitivity to other public uses proved to area residents that equestrian groups can accommodate other outdoor interests, rather than exclude them.

Bath Pony Club members have been fortunate to get to know Williams throughout the planning.

At the 2005 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in Lexington, Ky., Williams took several hours out of his day to walk the 4.5-mile cross-country course with about 15 Bath Pony Club members. Throughout the walk, Williams shared his knowledge of course design and riding those challenges with a rapt group of young riders, encouraging them to dream big equestrian dreams.

"I started riding at age 13, which is a fairly late start. Fortunately, I joined the Mendon Pony Club at 15, because I wanted to participate in games competitions," recalled Williams. "By attending the regular weekly meetings, my skills kept improving, and I became interested in combined training. At some point in my Pony Club experience, I decided that I would become a lifelong rider and competitor."

Remarkably, Williams earned his A rating at age 18, just five years after he first began riding. His willingness to share his time with younger riders proves his commitment to Pony Club ideals.

The course was completed in late 2005. The public will be able to participate in equestrian events at the site according to a schedule agreed on by leaders of the Bath Pony Club and the Medina County Park District, which will add to the public support the group has already achieved.

Observed Karen Hooser, the Bath Pony Club district commissioner, "As open space in this country disappears, equestrian interests will come to depend on public land to accommodate them. I hope the relationship between the Bath Pony Club and the Medina County Park District serves as a model for other groups needing open space to perpetuate their interests."