By: Ambassador Hayley Lofgren
I think I can speak on behalf of all my adult amateur peers and say that if there is one thing we envy of our professional equestrian counterparts above all else is their ability to avoid winter. Every year when the weather begins to turn, professional equestrians flock to the sunny, warm havens of Aiken, Ocala, and Wellington. There, they are free to train and compete outdoors nearly year round, unhindered by the forces of nature that send the competitive season to a screeching halt for the rest of us. Meanwhile, we adult amateurs are stuck daydreaming of cantering through fields of palm trees while we make our post-work trek to the barn, in the pitch black, to pick ice balls out of our horses feet and ride monotonous laps around the indoor. For most of us adult amateurs, tight work schedules and even tighter budgets make the idea of a winter training trip closer to a pipe dream than a reality.
In addition to blogging about my overall experience in Aiken, I wanted to disclose some of ways I was able to get the most out of my brief southern training adventure on a limited budget. First and foremost, I realize that the stabling and living arrangement opportunity offered to Lucia and I was truly unique and even more so that not everyone is into 'roughing it.' That being said, I strongly advise that if you do find yourself presented with the option to keep your horses on turnout for the duration of your trip or to camp, to consider it. The amount of money we saved on boarding and hotel fees was astronomical, and in the end was probably the largest factor in making the trip possible. Obviously not all horses are content with being left out all night; but at least for our horses we found they really seemed to enjoy the change of routine.
The second largest cost factor of the trip was transportation. Chicago is a long haul away from Aiken; while most people embarking on similar trips are tempted by the convenience of having horses professionally transported and flying separately, for most the cost of doing so is not an option; we were no exception. Consequently, Lucia and I decided we would be hauling our horses ourselves and thanks to her reliable rig and well-seasoned road trip skills after years of transporting her horse back and forth from college at Auburn University, we were able to drive the full fifteen hours in one day. Being able to avoid a layover by opting to drive straight through was both a money saver as well as a timesaver as we were able to spend one less day en route and one more enjoying riding in the sunshine. While I would like to say that it was my angelic singing voice and superb dancing skills that pulled us through the exhausting hours of the drive, I have to admit that the true hero of the trip was a case of Coke.
This leads to my next tip: pack plenty of food and shop for groceries instead of going out to eat every meal. I feel like this component of a long trip is often overlooked; but to me, it is the most obvious. If you are planning to stay in any location for more than a few days, especially in a tourist-dense destination such as Aiken, dining out for every meal begins to add up quickly. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t enjoy some of the local landmark restaurants. We were sure to hit up TakoSushi, a fusion Mexican/sushi restaurant that made number four on the list in Eventing Nation’s article 4 Things You MUST Do While in Aiken, which did not disappoint. Sushi AND margaritas, need I say more? However, most nights we enjoyed grilling around the campfire with a few beers, the sky lit up with stars, our horses happily grazing nearby, and honestly those were the nights that made the trip.
When confined to the limited time of a short nine-day trip like ours, it can be hard to figure out ways to squeeze in the most quality riding time and make the most of the time you do have. The land surrounding Matt and Jenny’s property is connected to miles gorgeous hacking trails on which we spent numerous hours each day. Matt also had previously brought down a decent amount of stadium jumps and fillers earlier in the spring that we were able to school over without leaving the property. However, we intended to make a point of taking advantage of the numerous cross country schooling opportunities Aiken has to offer. After some research of the facilities in the area, we decided to spend an afternoon at the Vista Schooling and Event Center. All I can say is that this facility is stunning. The Vista was designed solely for schooling purposes and for a very affordable daily admission fee you can school anything from beginner novice to advanced, complete with gorgeously-manicured footing and gallop tracks. We were lucky enough to have the entire facility to ourselves and finished our first cross country outing of the season with huge smiles across all of our faces.
Despite the numbered days we had available for riding, we decided to spend one day volunteering at the Stable View Horse Trials. Matt scribed for dressage, Lucia was stationed at the cross country start box, and I was rotated between fences as a jump judge out on the cross country course. It was a blast to help out and watch fellow riders compete at such a beautiful new venue. To our surprise, we found out at the end of the day that while Stable View does not allow anyone to school the cross country courses in order to keep them pristine for competition purposes, they were offering schooling vouchers to the volunteers as a thank you gift. Additionally, each volunteer received a handwritten thank you card at the end of the event from the Stable View staff. I felt this was such an exceptional way to show appreciation for volunteers and was a wonderful unexpected reward for our efforts. Thanks to the generosity of the staff at Stable View we were able to spend our last full day in Aiken schooling the cross country competition courses and actually ended up gaining a day of quality affordable schooling rather than sacrificing one. I feel like this speaks strongly to the power of paying it forward and how many great opportunities seem to arise when you put yourself out there and are willing to help out.
In the end, choosing to 'rough it' during our Aiken adventure was the best thing we could have done. Besides the fact that the training I was able to accomplish while in Aiken will allow me to start my show season a whole level ahead of what would have been attainable if I had stayed home, I gained so much more than just a competitive edge from this trip. From chasing our horses around their multiple-acre fields in the dark wearing headlamps trying to put their blankets on; to getting rail-side seats at the Aiken Steeplechase thanks to the generosity of our kind neighbors; the fondest memories we made would never have been possible if we were cooped up in a hotel room. This experience brought me closer to my Baythorne Farm family as well as provided me with wonderful new friends. I am excited to look back in the years to come when Baythorne Farm South is a fully-functioning facility and be able to say I was one of the original pioneers. Until then I look forward to the next episode of #AikenAndAfraid.