‘A true international event’: Course designer, Olympian David O’Connor

Gold medal Olympic rider David O’Connor and world-famous British course designer Michael Etherington-Smith partnered to create the different designs of the six levels of the cross-country challenge. It’s the fifth year they’ve worked together on the course.

The duo drew out the course with an audience in mind, and O’Connor said it’s a “great spectator course.” From the sidelines, non-riders can get close to the jumps and horses, laying out picnic blankets or bringing folding chairs.

O’Connor has represented the United States in two Olympic Games, where he won team silver at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, GA, and won both an individual gold medal and team bronze at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.  He was president of the United States Equestrian Federation from 2004 – 2012.  He was inducted into the United States Eventing Association’s Hall of Fame in 2009 and two of his horses have been granted the same honor.  

O’Connor has himself competed at Red Hills and he feels that Red Hills has always been a fantastic place to come and compete your horse. 

“From the mossy southern live oak trees to the ambiance of the crowd, Red Hills creates one of the best atmospheres for challenging horse and rider teams,” O’Connor said. 

Etherington-Smith, who designs the higher divisions at the Trials, is a former professional eventer and show-jumping rider. He lives in the U.K. and has been designing courses at all levels around the world for many years, including two Olympic Games (Sydney 2000 and Beijing 2008), the World Equestrian Games in 2010, Rolex (now Land Rover) in Kentucky, Adelaide in Australia, and Luhmuhlen in Germany, which also is a qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Eventers spend the winter months preparing for competition and Etherington-Smith believes that Red Hills is a great way to start the season and is designed very much with the aim of getting horses going for the rest of the year with a positive experience. 

The City of Tallahassee maintains the grounds, called the “footing,” at the park year-round, and both course designers say it makes the competition favorable to horses.

As a course designer, Etherington-Smith says it is important that the course has a good balance to it, challenges the teams, and sets horses and riders up in a positive and enthusiastic frame of mind at the beginning of the season for what lies ahead. 

Each year, the design duo also consider how close spectators can get to jumps, and where to put certain obstacles so that non-riders can get a sense of participating.

As a philosophy in designing a course, O’Connor expresses that it is important that riders and horses go away from Red Hills believing that they have improved their skills and gained a positive experience for use later in their careers.  With that in mind, he describes the course as starting off in a way that hopefully gets horses and riders going forward and jumping with a positive attitude.

“It’s one of the more special places,” O’Connor said of Red Hills. “This is a true international event.”

Each year, the two designers consider how close spectators can get to jumps, and where to put certain obstacles so that non-riders can get a sense of participating, he said.

Cross-country always is the second phase in eventing. The day is considered a cornerstone of the competition and tests a horse and rider team’s speed, endurance, courage and agility.

Obstacles on course range from large, solid fences and intricately-painted jumps, to water ponds that horses must gallop through, leaping up banks or fences on the other side. The course is timed and the goal is that competitors get as close to the set course time as possible.

There will be two water jumps on the miles-long course. Riders in the highest divisions will ride through the second water challenge twice.

Course builder Tyson Rementer recommends spectators set up near any jump they prefer, but at the highest level of the combination, the second water challenge will offer the “biggest bang for your buck.”

Rementer has worked to build the Red Hills cross-country course every year since 2007. His personal touch is to add an artistic flair to his jumps, with carvings and designs laid into the wood.

He said his goal is to create a jumping course “that a horse should be able to see and understand,” but also one that is entertaining to the spectators. He said people will enjoy the thrill of watching their favorite riders gallop past at 20 mph.

The community event is supported by nearly 600 volunteers, many of whom return year after year to help make the weekend a memorable experience for everyone.

Volunteer Kristy Carter has worked with the Trials for a decade, and helps coordinate services for people with disabilities.

She says the weekend always offers a “warm, welcoming environment” to everyone who participates.

“We greet them with our Southern hospitality and charm,” she said. 

The outdoor event is wheelchair-accessible, and organizers will coordinate with attendees who would like to be driven by golf cart to preferred locations on course.

“I enjoy ensuring that individuals of all abilities feel welcome at the event,” Carter said, adding that the weekend is a great opportunity for people to learn about the sport.

Organizers also set out each year to increase awareness and educate the public about eventing. In addition to the competition, Red Hills educates and promotes the idea of resource protection, land preservation and management, and raises funds to benefit educational and environmental purposes.

A 501(c)(3) organization, the Red Hills Horse Trials partners with Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, a leading land trust with the mission to foster exemplary land stewardship.

Tickets for the event may be purchased online or at the gate before entering. Tickets are $40 for a three-day pass, $15 for a single day. Chilren 12 and under are free. For more information, visit https://www.rhht.org/.

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