AMER­I­CAN EVENT­ING’S FIELD OF DREAMS

How a re­mote Mon­tana crop field grew into a world-cla•• de•tina­tion event

Practical Horseman - - The Ride of Your Life - By Les­lie Wylie

If you build it, they will come” was the guid­ing mantra as the Brous­sard fam­ily first set to work de­vel­op­ing Re­becca Farm. When they pur­chased 640 acres of Kal­ispell, Mon­tana farm­land in 2000, it was a blank can­vas ripe for pos­si­bil­ity: a true field of dreams, car­peted in bright-green bil­low­ing grass and framed by laven­der moun­tains, the most dis­tant of them capped in snow year-round. Orig­i­nally from Louisiana, Jerome and the late Re­becca Brous­sard, who passed away from breast cancer in 2010, moved to north­west Mon­tana in the mid-1980s, drawn by its warm Western am­biance, spirit of in­de­pen­dence and rugged beauty. The area they set­tled in, Flat­head Val­ley, is a gate­way to Glacier Na­tional Park and its res­i­dents tend to­ward strong con­nec­tions to the nat­u­ral world—horses in­cluded.

In the val­ley there was a small but pas­sion­ate event­ing com­mu­nity, the heart of which was based at Her­ron Park, a pub­lic park en­joyed by the lo­cals—horse­back riders, bi­cy­clists, dog walk­ers and other out­door en­thu­si­asts. Re­becca, or “Becky” as she was known to her many friends, be­came deeply in­volved with the park, which reg­u­larly hosted U.S. Event­ing As­so­ci­a­tion-rec­og­nized horse tri­als. But it was a county park, in­hib­ited by var­i­ous re­stric­tions, and its beloved Her­ron Park Horse Tri­als was fast out­grow­ing the venue. Al­ways a vi­sion­ary, Becky be­gan the search for a space wideopen enough to al­low her dreams for Big Sky Coun­try event­ing to grow.

“My mom wanted to cre­ate a world­class event on the West Coast and knew that wasn’t pos­si­ble at Her­ron Park, so she and my father started to look at prop­erty in Kal­ispell,” says her daugh­ter Sarah, a keen and ac­com­plished rider her­self. The Brous­sards were able to stitch to­gether a few dif- fer­ent parcels of land in Kal­ispell, near their home, and Re­becca Farm was born.

De­spite its close-knit event­ing com­mu­nity, north­west Mon­tana is hardly an epi­cen­ter of the sport. The ef­fort the Brous­sards put into the cre­ation of an event that is hun­dreds, even thou­sands, of miles away from most riders may have seemed crazy from the out­side look­ing in. But Becky’s en­thu­si­asm for the project was in­fec­tious, and since then her legacy has lived on in in­cred­i­ble ways that per­haps even she might not have imag­ined pos­si­ble.

And Then They Came

Barns, are­nas and cross-coun­try cour­ses through In­ter­me­di­ate level emerged from the ini­tial flurry of con­struc­tion. By 2002 the venue was event-ready, and the first edi­tion of the Event at Re­becca Farm at­tracted some 200 lo­cal and re­gional com­peti­tors.

In the fol­low­ing years, that num­ber steadily rose as word got out about the venue with its crys­talline sum­mer skies, imag­i­na­tive cour­ses, sparkling com­peti­tor par­ties and free-spir­ited aura. The Brous­sards’ hos­pi­tal­ity is sec­ond to none; they blur the line be­tween horse show and hol­i­day, wel­com­ing com­peti­tors to the farm as though they were guests in their own home.

By 2010, in ad­di­tion to horse tri­als, Re­becca Farm was of­fer­ing two- and three­star FEI level di­vi­sions, a huge ben­e­fit to West Coast riders with lim­ited ac­cess to up­per-level events. To help fa­cil­i­tate par­tic­i­pa­tion from the coun­try’s top riders, the Brous­sards of­fered gen­er­ous travel grants and even flew se­lect East Coast horses to the venue via a char­ter air­plane dubbed “Air Horse One.”

With Novice through In­ter­me­di­ate horse tri­als, USEA Young Event Horse and Fu­ture Event Horse qual­i­fiers and clas­sic-for­mat Train­ing and Pre­lim­i­nary Three-Day Events on the menu, run­ning si­mul­ta­ne­ously with the FEI di­vi­sions at the an­nual event, Re­becca Farm has some­thing spe­cial to of­fer com­peti­tors of all lev­els. This year’s event, held July 19–23, at­tracted about 650 riders, some of them driv­ing a full two days across the coun­try to get there.

Team USA vet­eran Bruce (“Buck”) David­son, Jr., is one rider who has made mul­ti­ple treks to Re­becca Farm over the years from his sum­mer base in Penn­syl­va­nia. In 2010 his ride My Boy Bobby, with whom he fin­ished sec­ond in the CIC***, was among a his­toric flight of 18 horses from the East Coast or­ga­nized by Becky. Other years his rides have ar­rived “by bus,” in­clud-

ing last year, when he won the CCI*** with Cop­per Beach and the CCI** with Hal­imey.

“I’ve been very for­tu­nate to have some re­ally good own­ers who see what the Brous­sards do for the sport and they want to get be­hind that and sup­port what they’re do­ing,” Buck says. “It’s a great venue and the Brous­sards do so much, so if I can do my small part to help event­ing in this coun­try then I try to do it. We’re lucky to be able to come here.”

Erin Sylvester, who won this year’s CCI*** with Paddy the Caddy, was one of 16 riders awarded a USEA Foun­da­tion Re­becca Farm travel grant this year. She says the fund­ing helped off­set the costs of her and her horse’s jour­ney from Penn­syl­va­nia to Mon­tana, mak­ing their maiden voy­age to the event fea­si­ble.

“Re­becca is even bet­ter than ev­ery­one de­scribes it,” she says. “The ef­fort that they put into go­ing above and be­yond for riders, spec­ta­tors and own­ers is re­ally spe­cial. Ev­ery event has its ‘thing’ they drive home, and Re­becca tries to nail it and make it an amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The trek can be long even for West Coast com­peti­tors, many of whom re­turn each year. It’s a solid 24-hour drive for Tamra Smith of Te­mec­ula, Cal­i­for­nia, who won the CIC*** this year with Fleece­works Royal, but as usual she showed up to sup­port the event with mul­ti­ple horses and stu­dents in tow. “The changes ev­ery year are huge, and just when you think it can’t get any bet­ter, it al­ways does,” she says. “Leave it to Sarah and Jerome to make it that much bet­ter ev­ery time. It’s a spe­cial event.”

The Dis­ney­land of Cross­Coun­try Cour­ses

The sig­na­ture cen­ter­piece of any event venue is its cross-coun­try course. Re­becca Farm’s track is un­like any other in the world, a tech­ni­cal yet artis­tic gaunt­let of ques­tions de­signed to chal­lenge and show­case the brav­ery and ath­leti­cism of those who tackle it.

To bring the course to life, the Brous­sards turned to ex­pe­ri­enced four-star de­signer Capt. Mark Phillips. Sarah says, “Mark Phillips was very in­stru­men­tal in the be­gin- ning. He cre­ated the vi­sion for the course.”

In 2012 or­ga­niz­ers wanted to give the course a fresh feel. They brought on an­other leg­endary course de­signer and for­mer Olympian, Ian Stark, for the task. “It’s such a beau­ti­ful place and it’s got a lot of scope for me to let my imag­i­na­tion run riot,” Ian says in his lilt­ing Scot­tish ac­cent.

It’s been called the “Dis­ney­land of Cross­Coun­try Cour­ses,” with Ian play­ing the role of Walt Dis­ney and builder Bert Wood and his dream fac­tory work­ing to bring Ian’s imag­in­ings to fruition. Each jump is a work of art, cre­atively de­signed and dec­o­rated.

From jumps in­spired by Mon­tana’s land­scape and wildlife to a minia­ture Wild West vil­lage to a Juras­sic Park-themed vi­gnette, the course is a roller-coaster ride that is en­ter­tain­ing just to walk, much less ride. Sev­eral vari­a­tions on a theme ap­pear year af­ter year, like the bayou wa­ter com­plex that is a nod to the Brous­sard’s for­mer home in Louisiana. Horses jump logs carved into gi­ant craw­fish, beavers, wa­ter moc­casins and al­li­ga­tors, as well as Canada’s own Loch Ness mon­ster, Ogo­pogo. Re­becca Farm’s course decor, clearly, is not for the faint of heart.

Ian is known for his bold gal­lop­ing cour­ses, and Re­becca Farm is no ex­cep­tion. His tracks re­ward at­tack­ing rid­ing and a for­ward step. Long gal­lop stretches snake their way through vivid green soy­bean fields, al­low­ing horses to re-es­tab­lish rhythm and mo­men­tum be­tween more tech­ni­cal com­bi­na­tions. “If riders come out of the start box feel­ing pos­i­tive, it usu­ally works out OK,” he says. “I don’t want horses to come out and be con­fused or off-put. I want them to come here and fin­ish the course with con­fi­dence.”

The com­mu­nity shows up in droves on cross-coun­try day, set­ting up chairs and blan­kets on a big hill over­look­ing a large, ex­cit­ing wa­ter com­plex and much of the course. Last year’s event drew more than 10,000 spec­ta­tors.

“The view­ing is spec­tac­u­lar,” Ian says. Spec­ta­tors can choose their own ad­ven­ture, whether it’s sit­ting back and watch­ing while en­joy­ing a pic­nic or press­ing up against the gal­lop­ing lanes, so close that they can hear the horses’ hooves pound­ing turf as they thun­der past. “Ev­ery­one watch­ing can see nearly all the track from the top of the hill, but there’s noth­ing quite like get­ting the horses close to the spec­ta­tors so they can see these in­cred­i­ble an­i­mals gal­lop­ing and jump­ing right in front of them.”

Ian is con­stantly seek­ing new ways to strike a bal­ance be­tween spec­ta­tor en­gage­ment and ath­lete ex­pe­ri­ence. He un­der­stands what the event means to the com­mu­nity and wants to keep them com­ing back for more, year af­ter year.

“The crowds here are amaz­ing,” he says. “There are masses of peo­ple on the hill, stream­ing in all the time. The lo­cals re­ally get be­hind the event, which is bril­liant.”

It Takes a Com­mu­nity

The Event at Re­becca Farm isn’t just some niche spec­ta­cle tucked away in the coun­try­side. It’s a true com­mu­nity gath­er­ing, with free ad­mis­sion and a fam­ily-friendly at­mos­phere. For the young­sters, there is a Kid Zone with pony rides, face paint­ing, arts and crafts, bounce houses and horse­man­ship 101 classes. Adults can run a 5K, en­joy a lo­cal craft brew and food truck fare or shop in the multi-in­ter­est trade fair.

“They say it takes a vil­lage, but we changed it a bit and say it takes a com­mu­nity,” Sarah says. “Re­ally, this event would not be pos­si­ble with­out their sup­port.”

Lo­cal com­mu­nity in­volve­ment was al­ways close to Becky’s heart. In ad­di­tion to her pro­lific ac­tiv­ity in the eques­trian realm, she was in­volved in the Flat­head Fes­ti­val, Glacier Cho­rale Sym­phony, Back­coun­try Horse­men, Hu­man Ther­apy on Horse­back and White­fish Win­ter Clas­sic. She es­tab­lished a mil­lion-dol­lar schol­ar­ship fund at the Flat­head Val­ley Com­mu­nity Col­lege and was a beloved sup­porter of dozens of lo­cal char­i­ties, such as Shep­herd’s Hand and the United Way.

In turn, the com­mu­nity has em­braced Becky’s dream of host­ing an in­ter­na­tional event in their back­yard, and it’s a syn­er­gis­tic re­la­tion­ship. Last year’s event re­turned $5.5 mil­lion to the lo­cal econ­omy.

“I think that over the last 16 years the com­mu­nity has started to re­al­ize that this is more than just a horse show over in the west val­ley,” Sarah says. “What we have cre­ated here is def­i­nitely a boon for the

econ­omy. We bring in 650 horses and 650 riders and all their en­tourages, and they are go­ing out into the com­mu­nity for lodg­ing, food and ne­ces­si­ties.”

Some of the jump judges and vol­un­teers have been help­ing out at the event since the days of Her­ron Park. “They want to con­tinue their sup­port of their event. They’re quite proud and they take some own­er­ship of it. They want to see it suc­ceed,” Sarah ex­plains.

The lo­cal event­ing com­mu­nity is a ben­e­fi­ciary as well. Jil Wal­ton, who was the high­est-placed U.S. even­ter at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, moved to Kal­ispell from Cal­i­for­nia in 2006 and has wit­nessed Re­becca Farm’s rip­ple ef­fect first­hand.

“It’s got­ten big­ger and big­ger and more pro­fes­sional,” she says. “Its place on the cal­en­dar and the lo­ca­tion and the big-time way it’s run make it a real desti­na­tion event. And there are so many other things to do here, there’s some­thing for ev­ery­one.”

It’s not un­com­mon for riders and their fam­i­lies to stick around af­ter the event to visit Glacier Na­tional Park or for dads and hus­bands to sneak off on dres­sage day to do some fish­ing on Flat­head Lake.

Jil hosts prep camps be­fore the event and had 20 horses and riders con­test­ing this year’s com­pe­ti­tion, from Novice through the three-star level. “It’s a big deal,” she says. “It gets ev­ery­body very mo­ti­vated.”

Halt Cancer at X

The event­ing com­mu­nity at large mourned the pass­ing of Becky in 2010, fol­low­ing a bat­tle with breast cancer. Seek­ing a way to honor her mother, Sarah founded Halt Cancer at X in her mem­ory. In the years since, the ini­tia­tive has raised and con­trib­uted over $250,000 to na­tional cancer re­search and lo­cal sup­port ser­vices for cancer.

“Af­ter my mom died, I came up with this idea that I felt would get a lot of sup­port be­cause my mother was so beloved by event­ing and the com­mu­nity,” Sarah says. “And ev­ery­one has some con­nec­tion to breast cancer: a mother, a sis­ter, a daugh­ter, a grand­mother, a friend. It has no bounds.”

When the ini­tia­tive launched it was largely de­pen­dent on pledges and do­na­tions but has since adopted a more di­ver­si­fied ap­proach. To­day there’s a place for ev­ery­one to par­tic­i­pate dur­ing the July event, whether it’s con­test­ing the Re­becca Farm to Mar­ket 5K Fun Run, mak­ing a $10 park­ing do­na­tion or bid­ding in a silent auc­tion.

The Halt Cancer at X Chal­lenge, fea­tur­ing slightly rusty celebrity even­ters, has be­come a big crowd-pleaser. This year, rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the USEA, USEF and Re­becca Farm faced off in a wildly en­ter­tain­ing, su­per­hero-cos­tumed mini-event held af­ter each day’s com­pe­ti­tion.

Ad­mit­tedly, the rules were a bit hazy: It’s a three-phase event­ing com­pe­ti­tion— that much is clear—but in this case it was more of an in­ter­ac­tive sport. Spec­ta­tors’ on-the-spot do­na­tions went to­ward co­erc­ing the com­peti­tors into com­plet­ing tasks (re­mov­ing one’s shirt dur­ing the dres­sage test, for in­stance) or adding/sub­tract­ing points from their score.

“It’s taken on a life of its own,” says Sarah, who helped lead Team Re­becca to vic­tory in this year’s chal­lenge. Dressed as Won­der Woman, she and Bert “Thor” Wood were the only pair that didn’t take a spill cross coun­try and their fi­nal showjump­ing trick was jump­ing the awards podium. “We’re just out there hav­ing fun.”

“Halt Cancer at X con­tin­ues to be very suc­cess­ful,” Sarah says. “I’m awed by the whole thing and the way peo­ple have come to­gether to sup­port it.”

Becky’s spirit per­me­ates Re­becca Farm, es­pe­cially dur­ing the one week in July each year when even­ters and event­ing en­thu­si­asts from around the coun­try flock there to revel in the sport they love. And for the Brous­sard fam­ily and those who knew Becky, the event is more than a com­pe­ti­tion—it’s a cel­e­bra­tion of her life.

“When you talk about com­mu­ni­ties that sup­port us, I would be re­miss if I didn’t men­tion our ‘Re­becca Farm fam­ily’ that in­cludes the peo­ple here who make the event run as well as ac­tual fam­ily mem­bers,” Sarah says.

From im­me­di­ate and ex­tended fam­ily to her par­ents’ high-school friends, the event is a gath­er­ing place for the Brous­sards’ dear­est con­nec­tions. It’s yet an­other way that Becky’s “if you build it, they will come” prophecy has played out at Re­becca Farm.

“The fam­ily has re­ally come to­gether to sup­port this—it’s al­most like a fam­ily re­union for us, too,” Sarah says. “They’re in­vested in this project that my mother cre­ated, and we take it very se­ri­ously. It’s very close to our hearts.”

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP RIGHT:

An even­ter pi­lots her horse across the cross­coun­try course; 2016 CCI** win­ners Buck David­son and Hal­imey sail over one of the cross-coun­try jumps, a moose-shaped ob­sta­cle that pays homage to the area’s wildlife; Rachael McGre­gor and Catch Me If You Can IV hop over the Ogo­pogo jump; young Tay­lor McFall cel­e­brates af­ter her cross-coun­try round with Kil­barry Prince; CIC*** com­peti­tor Haw­ley Ben­nett-Awad guides Jollybo over an artis­tic show jump.

CLOCK­WISE FROM LEFT:

The late Re­becca (“Becky”) Brous­sard, the farm’s name­sake, was a phi­lan­thropist whose in­no­va­tive vi­sions cre­ated a world-class event; spec­ta­tors seated on the fa­mous cross-coun­try hill re­ceive front-row seats to the ac­tion as Alyssa Phillips and Bliss III gal­lop by; Nikki Ay­ers and Ru­bi­con nav­i­gate a key­hole jump.

Mackenna Shea and Lan­dioso clear the trout jump, one of the many carved ob­sta­cles on course.

Or­ga­nizer Sarah Brous­sard (left), course de­signer Ian Stark (mid­dle) and course builder Bert Wood in the 2015 Halt Cancer at X fundraiser

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