Jim Brandon Equestrian Center: Worth the Wait
Through the years and through the hurricanes, the equestrian community of Palm Beach persevered to see the Jim Brandon Equestrian Center become a reality. And it was worth the time and effort.
This astounding equestrian facility sits on 111 acres in the heart of Florida horse country and surrounded by the beautiful Okeeheelee Park. It cost the taxpayers of Palm Beach County $15 million, but no one is complaining – not the taxpayers who footed the bill and not the competitors making use of the center.
“I’ve not heard one complaint about the place,” said Monica Fitzgerald, show secretary for this weekend’s Gold Coast Opener Dressage CDI, who said that from a show secretary’s perspective the facility is a dream. “It’s wonderful. I’ve got a great office and everything is really close. I can look out the window and see everything going in.”
With two permanent barns holding 128 stalls and plenty of open space, she said it was even easy to organize stabling for this weekend’s show.
“I had to put up one stable tent, but there was plenty of space for that. They’re building two more barns and when those are complete, there will be plenty of room.”
The equestrian center has only been open for a year, but it’s already so popular that it’s booked solid through all of 2007, despite the fact that it has eight available rings.
“We’ve got a day park with two rings. That area is mostly used by local groups – kind of like the sandlot league,” said facilities manager Shelley Van den Neste. “And then there are six more arenas for hosting licensed shows and breed shows.”
The center is named after the late Jim Brandon who was instrumental in making sure that land within Okeeheelee Park was set aside for a future equestrian center. It was nearly two decades ago that citizens of Palm Beach County began their push for a community equestrian center. Van den Neste remembers the time well. She herself is an FEI-level rider and for many years was a dressage trainer and instructor living in the Palm Beach area.
“I actually moved away from the area because there was no place to show horses around her. Yes, there was Wellington but it was just too crowded,” she said.
It was three years ago that this dream equestrian center began to take form when ground was broke for construction, but then Mother Nature intervened. The center was 80 percent complete when Hurricane Wilma passed through the Palm Beach region taking roofs with it, including the new roofs on the barns, the covered ring and various other buildings at the equestrian center. It was a major setback – the covered ring alone takes up two acres and that’s a lot of roof to lose. It didn’t help that Hurricane Katrina followed on the heels of Wilma. “As you can imagine, roofing material was hard to come by,” Van den Neste said.
But the Palm Beach equestrian community and the county trudged on, rebuilding what was lost and in 2006 the doors opened on their 20-year effort to create a community equestrian center. And what a center it is. All total, there are 21 buildings at the center. Everything one could possibly need to hold a major equestrian event is available – restrooms, covered vendor areas, offices with phones and faxes and copy machines, concession stands, a building for medical emergency personnel, wash stalls, picnic areas and plenty of trailer parking. There are even riding trails. And just about anything else show organizers might need, they can rent directly from the equestrian center, including tents, tables, dressage rings and jumps.
Fitzgerald said equestrian center staff are even on hand during the show to keep the grounds clean and maintain the rings.
“And they’re doing a super job,” she said.
As difficult as it is to please everyone in the equestrian community, the Jim Brandon Equestrian Center is certainly making an effort. It was designed by a committee of citizens who sought to create a center that would provide for the needs of all equestrian groups – English and Western, competitor and trail rider and the various different breeds.
“Last week we had a Paso Fino breed show. This weekend it’s dressage. Next week is a Quarter Horse show,” Van den Neste said.
One of the most difficult aspects of the multiple use is the footing. What’s good footing for a dressage rider, isn’t necessarily so for a Western rider or a show jumper or the rider of a gaited horse. Hence, the equestrian center doesn’t have the same footing in every ring.
“We have kind of a different mix of footing in all our rings so that we can sort of meet the needs of all. And we can also change the footing a bit in the rings to meet the needs of the different breeds and riding styles,” Van den Neste said.
Granted, the footing for, say, a dressage show at the center isn’t of the same quality one might find at a dressage world championship, but it’s pretty darn good. Van den Neste said she’s not heard complaints yet.
She’s certainly not getting any from Noreen O’Sullivan, president of the Gold Coast Dressage Association, sponsor of this weekend’s show.
“It’s a beautiful place and we’re really excited about hosting our show here. I can honestly say that we’re looking forward to holding more shows here in the season. The county and the facility’s managers have just been great to work with,” she said.
The show grounds and amenities are certainly phenomenal, but we can’t forget to mention the sitting. The equestrian center sits on the southern portion of the 1,700-acre Okeeheelee Park and within the park itself are 800 beautiful acres of woods and lakes with a winding network of riding trails.
“That land has been set aside forever for trails and it’s a beautiful trail system,” Van den Neste said. “So when you’re done with your work session, you can go off for a nice trail ride.”
What more could one ask for?
High Point Highlights
Among USEF-level rides, the title of highest scoring horse at a show goes to Donavan for his 77.222 percent in the USEF First Level Test 2 Open class. Earning the high score title is becoming a habit for 5-year-old Oldenburg that is co-owned and ridden by Cesar Parra. “The horse is unbelievable,” Parra said.
“He’s shown five times and he’s won each time. Four of those times he was the high score of the show.” Donavan, by Diamond Hit, was a champion before he even set foot in the U.S. He was the 4-year-old champion in the five-year-old reserve champion at the 2006 Budeschampionate (German Federal Young Horse Championships). “This guys is really, really special,” Parra said.
This was only their second show together but already Courtney King and Mythilus are garnering ribbons and titles. Mythilus earned the highest score of any horse in a non-freestyle FEI class when he and King received a 73.55 percent in the FEI Intermediaire I CDI*** competition.
Can he score higher? King certainly thinks he can saying his Intermediaire ride “was a really solid test but there are certainly improvements that can be made.” Improvements will come, she said, as Mythilus becomes stronger and the two of them gain more confidence in each other.