History of a Horse Show: The Oregon High Desert Classics

MAY 2020 ISSUE.

by Eva Gill

Life with horses builds bonds: The connection between human and horse grows through groundwork and time in the saddle. Lessons build more than skills, they nurture trust between a rider and their trainer. Events create spaces for equestrians to gather and meet, where exhibitors exchange stories during breaks and shared meals, growing friendships. 

Central Oregon’s largest horse show, the Oregon High Desert Classics, not only brings a highly ranked USHJA show to Bend, it has become entwined in the culture of the community. It expands the circle of bonds beyond those who are immersed in the world of horses, connecting horses with those who are not. Showing hundreds of spectators a glimpse into equestrian life, and the beauty of the bond between horse and human. 

Today, the Oregon High Desert Classics draws hundreds of competitors from all over the West. World class hunters and jumpers square off in each week’s $25,000 Grand Prix and International Hunter Derby. The event has become a tradition, and was even awarded the USEF Heritage Competition designation for its ‘substantial contribution toward the development and promotion of the sport by achieving, maintaining and promoting the equestrian ideals of the sportsmanship and competition.’ 

This premier event began small, on the polo field at the Stevenson Ranch. Called the High Desert Horse Fair, it was the vision of Diana Davis to raise money for a project her life-long friend Don Kerr was building: The High Desert Museum. Diana and Don drove to Bend together in his old VW van from Portland, along with his two owls as passengers, to walk the property where he envisioned a place fashioned after the Living Desert Museum in Tucson. Sparked by his excitement about this project, Diana planned his initial big fundraiser: a horse show. 

The High Desert Horse Fair drew competitors from around the Northwest. Bend was a small town, but the desire for a hunter jumper event was clear. They even managed to attract a few professionals, including Gary Henley, a renowned trainer who lived in Washington at the time. The weather didn’t cooperate that first year, and Diana recalls the judges sitting on the back of a flatbed in the downpour, huddled in horse blankets while watching competitors. It was so wet, she considered cancelling the final events, until Gary told her “stop fussing about and let’s run the grand prix!” The show ran in that location for several years during the 80s, and became the Michelob Classics. 

Jennifer Steeds on Huck Finn 1983

In 1989, youth from the J Bar J Boys Ranch began providing much needed labor, and the event became a fundraiser for its parent company. The J Bar J Youth Services board agreed to provide a permanent home and became responsible for the show. The organization worked to laser level the fields on the Boys Ranch, build up the substrate, and plant the lovely grass arenas used to this day. Each July, on that open field, a show ground arises. Rings are defined with fencing and jumps brought in to build courses in them. Tents, judging booths, and stables for 600 horses are raised. Flowers, tables, a service kitchen all appear where there was only grass the week before. 

Decades later, a horse named Capilano became a hero at the Oregon High Desert Classics, winning Grand Prix events for four years in a row, along with his owner and trainer Lindsay Garner. The two of them are also the completion of a circle for Gary Henley, the same trainer who told Diana Davis the show must go on. Although Gary passed away in early 2017 and he wasn’t here to see, his legacy also left their indelible mark, as he had been Capilano’s breeder and Lindsay’s Mentor. 

Lindsay Garner on Capilano Grand Prix 2019

In 1997 Stephanie Alvstad, the Executive director of J Bar J Youth Services, hired Dianne Johnson to manage the equestrian side of the show. Dianne was a world class rider, and had a deep history with the USHJA. In her younger years, she had won the Grand Prix of Calgary twelve years in a row. She continued as OHDC’s show manager for over 20 years, through 2019. Dianne’s connection with the sport and vision helped to build the Oregon High Desert Classics to the world class event it is today. This coming summer, J Bar J Youth Services will be holding a reception to honor Dianne during the show. 

2020 will mark the beginning of a new era at the Oregon High Desert Classics, with the arrival of Paul Jewell as show manager. Paul is a much sought after course designer, judge, and a respected show manager. He is well known at shows from Vermont to Chicago, with 30 years in the industry. 

While most people who participate in the Oregon High Desert Classics know the J Bar J Boys Ranch, few understand that it is just a piece of a much larger organization. Each year at the horse show, the same question surfaces in various ways: “How do you choose what non-profits to support?” or “What is your relationship to them?” Simply put: We ARE them. 

J Bar J Boys Ranch was founded more than 50 years ago. From that start of helping boys who had made poor choices sprung other programs for kids in jeopardy around central Oregon. 

J Bar J Youth Services is a non-profit company who helps youth at pivotal moments, those points when changing thoughts and beliefs can have the greatest impact. 

We are here for youth like Anna, who found herself pregnant, homeless, alone, and constantly hungry when the father of her child left. She found Grandma’s House, and with it safe shelter, resources for childbirth and transition into self-sufficiency, and caring support. Anna is now a full time college student, working, and raising a strong daughter. 

Or Justin, sent to the J Bar J Boys Ranch thought the juvenile justice system, whose GPA had been 1.4 before he arrived. During his time at the ranch, he re-engaged in school, made honor role, was awarded Student of the Month, and made plans for college. 

And so many others. The teen girl struggling with anxiety and spiraling downhill, with suffering grades and relationships. Or the victim of human trafficking who needs help rebuilding her life. The kid living on the street, alone and without a place to go after his mother was hospitalized and he couldn’t afford to pay for their hotel room. Families at risk of losing their children into foster care due to crisis are also supported by our program. 

J Bar J Youth Services has helped thousands of kids over the years move toward self-sufficiency and wellness. Our programs include: J Bar J Boys Ranch and J5, The Academy at Sisters, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Oregon, Cascade Youth & Family Center, at: project, Grandma’s House, and Kindred Connections. Our Learning Center offers a high school diploma track as well as GED training and testing. For kids who have been in our programs, scholarships are available through an endowment. And, of course, many people know us for our largest fundraiser of the year, the Oregon High Desert Classics: a fundraiser where the love of horses empowers youth. 

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