Cross Country at a Gallop
For one day next summer, the eyes of the Americas will be on Mono’s Will O’Wind Farm, site of the cross-country phase of the Pan Am Games three-day event.
Halfway down a dead-end gravel road in the town of Mono, amid gently rolling hayfields, stands a modest red-brick farmhouse and a weathered barn. Four or five horses graze happily in one of several paddocks. A pretty brindle dog bounces out to greet visitors. This is Will O’Wind Farm, home of Geoff and Ann Morgan for the past 35 years. It is also the site of next summer’s Pan American Games cross-country competition, the jewel in the crown of the equestrian three-day event, aka “eventing.”
Mono’s Graeme Thom, who served as chef d’équipe of Canada’s eventing team from 2007 until he stepped down in July, calls the sport “a triathlon for horse and rider.” Peter Gray, another Mono resident and chair of Equine Canada’s eventing committee, describes it as “the ultimate test in equestrian sport.”
The event’s three phases combine the discipline and movement of dressage, the speed and endurance of cross-country, and the power and spectacle of stadium jumping. Extremely popular in Europe, where as many as 100,000 spectators turn out to watch the action at major events such as the Badminton and Burghley horse trials, eventing remains relatively unknown in North America. But if the Morgans have anything to do with it, that’s going to change.
At next summer’s Pan American Games, the dressage and stadium jumping portions of the three-day event will take place at the Caledon Pan Am Equestrian Park in Palgrave on July 17 and 19 respectively. But the most exciting of the three phases is the cross-country, which will be held July 18 at Will O’Wind. This thrilling 4.8-kilometre course over 30 to 35 obstacles is designed to challenge the intelligence and athleticism of both horse and rider.
Will O’Wind is the ideal venue for the cross-country phase because the Morgans have been holding eventing competitions here since 2001. Geoff Morgan is justifiably proud of the work he has done to keep his property in good shape, especially the footing on the jumping course. “Without good footing,” he says, “you don’t have a course.”
“Will O’Wind is a fabulous site for the cross country,” says Gray. “It’s a rolling property with lots of undulations. The soil is sandy loam with very little rock and good drainage. Morgan keeps his property in tip-top shape.” At each of the two or three events held here annually, the hoofs of as many as 300 horses pound over the soft soil. To keep the course in optimum condition, Morgan aerates and rolls every year and top dresses and seeds as required.
The cross-country venue is different from most other Games facilities because it’s on private land. Mark Nelson, the Ottawa-based eventing director for the Pan Am Games committee, also called TO2015, explains that officials “are used to dealing with things like soccer fields on public lands.” Because of the large area required for a cross-country course, he says, “the event is mostly held on private property.”
According to the Morgans, TO2015 has leased their 100-acre farm from March 14, 2014, to August 15, 2015. No money has changed hands. The Morgans are, in effect, lending their property to the Games. During the lease period, the Pan Ams have exclusive use of the site, except for events that had already been scheduled.
Building a cross-country course on a 100-acre property is more complicated than installing a soccer field or a track and field facility. In addition, TO2015 is averse to using public money to make capital investments on private land, Nelson says.
As a result, negotiations over the use of Will O’Wind have not always gone smoothly. But agreement has now been reached. The infrastructure needed for the cross-country phase – the bleachers, the tents that will be used as stables and so on – will be temporary. They will be removed after the Games. For Will O’Wind, the only physical legacy of the Games will be the obstacles, which will stay.
Like nearly everyone associated with Pan Am eventing, including Gray and Nelson, the Morgans have volunteered to help Toronto successfully host this high-profile international event. So have many on their roster of 80 to 100 experienced volunteers, who will act as jump judges, timers, scribes, crowd controllers, veterinary assistants and parking attendants – but only after they have gone through the rigorous vetting process set up by Pan Am officials.
Contracts for the course designer and builder were put out to tender and awarded to the lowest bidders. The winning designer, Wayne Copping, is from Australia. He travelled to Will O’Wind late last year to draft a preliminary design for the course and returned this summer to fine-tune his plan.
The contract to build the course was awarded this summer to Eric Bull, an experienced American who built the cross-country courses for three previous Pan Ams: Fair Hill, Rio de Janeiro and Guadalajara. Bull’s low bid beat out others, including that of Jay Hambly of Fergus. Hambly, too, is highly qualified and has designed and built cross-country courses at Will O’Wind for the past eight years.
Morgan acknowledges that he had hoped the contracts would go to Canadians, at least in part because of their experience with and awareness of the damage that winter can do to obstacles and course footing. Eventing’s cross-country phase may be thrilling to watch, but it is risky for horses and riders under the best conditions. Taking winter damage into account when designing and building a course helps minimize that risk. The safety and well-being of human and horse is always uppermost in his mind, says Morgan.
The tragic death in late June of Mono eventer Jordan McDonald may underline the risks associated with the sport. The 30-year-old, who aspired to make the Canadian team on a horse owned by Jorge and Mandy Bernhard of Mono, died when his horse suffered a rotational fall while competing in a novice cross-country event at the Nunney International Horse Trials in England. Only hours earlier on the same day, another rider, Benjamin Winter, had died in a rotational fall at a cross-country event in Luhümhlen, Germany. (A rotational fall occurs when the horse hits a fixed obstacle with its front legs causing the animal to somersault and, in many cases, fall on the rider.)
To enhance safety, devices such as frangible pins, which release the sturdy logs used in the construction of many jumps if the horse hits them, are routinely installed at international level competitions. The choice of materials, construction and placement of obstacles also has a bearing on safety.
There is still a long way to go before Will O’Wind is ready to welcome international crowds to the Pan Am cross-country phase. “We are behind in terms of scheduling,” says Gray.
But an observation event was held at the farm in July to allow Pan Am and Equine Canada officials to assess the venue. And construction of the Pan Am course is now under way.
Jurisdictional issues between Equine Canada and Pan Am officials are also being sorted out. “It’s going to fall into place soon,” predicts Nelson, who runs three-day events in the Ottawa area. “Organizing eventing for the Games has a lot of bureaucracy involved. But there’s also a lot of support.”
With just 60 horses and riders from the Americas expected to compete at next summer’s Games, hosting should be a relative breeze for the Morgans, who are used to accommodating five times that number at a single event.
For her part, Ann Morgan hopes that next July 18, lots of people will pack a picnic lunch and come out for a day in the country to watch the horses and riders in action. “My joy is when they come, they compete, they go home at the end of the day smiling,” she says. “And no one gets hurt.”
The Cross-Country Course
A primer for the neophyte
“Eventing is like golf,” says Graeme Thom, former chef d’équipe of the Canadian eventing team. “The lowest score wins.” A rider’s goal is to finish the course as cleanly as possible without incurring penalties that add points to the total.
Competitors are penalized 20 points for one refusal and 40 points for two at the same fence. A third refusal means elimination. Breaking an obstacle draws a penalty of 21 points and “dangerous riding” adds 25 points to a score. A fall by a rider or a horse or both means automatic elimination.
The optimum speed is 550 metres a minute, which works out to an optimum time of 6.5 minutes on a 3,500-metre course. Exceeding the optimum time incurs penalties, and exceeding the overall time limit, which is set at twice the optimum time, results in elimination.
Here are some of the challenges horses and riders may face at international cross-country events. On a two-star course, which is the rating of the course at Will O’Wind Farm, the maximum height of jumps is 1.35 metres.
Banks require the horse to jump either up or down from one level to another. In some cases, several banks are positioned like a staircase.
This is a solid fence with several feet of brush, usually evergreens, rising out of it to a height of up to nearly 2 metres. The horse is expected to jump through the brush portion of the obstacle.
The horse jumps down a bank or over a fence into about a foot of water.
A wide jump with a flat surface on top. The horse should jump over the table, but may accidentally touch down on top (i.e., “bank” the top).
A wall of stones. Logs are sometimes placed on top.
The horse must jump over one corner of a triangular obstacle while avoiding the centre, which is usually too wide to clear.
A difficult combination requiring the horse to jump over a ditch and onto a bank, then over a fence that drops to lower ground on the other side.
Built of solid logs, these fences can present a hazard if the horse hits the fence and the logs are fixed in place. For safety reasons, most log fences in competition are equipped with devices that cause them to give way if hit.
The horse jumps a rail fence, takes one or more strides downhill to a ditch and then strides uphill and over another rail fence.
A combination of two fences placed so that less than a stride separates them. This means that the horse must land after the first jump and immediately take off to clear the second.
The jump is so narrow from side to side that horses are strongly tempted to run out. These jumps are sometimes placed in combinations of two or three.