Changes at Desert International Horse Park
Since its inception in 2007, the horse park in Thermal, California has become famous for its phenomenal weather, amazing sunsets, and for the international-level hunter/jumper shows it hosts between October and March. Encompassing 239 acres, the horse park has more competition space than any facility in the United States but, up until recently, it has always lacked the extra sparkle that makes competitors and spectators flock to it like they do to the east coast destinations.
Then, in 2017, four West Coast families joined together with one mission: “We came together for the simple reason that California lacked a great national destination horse park,” explains Steve Hankin, President and CEO of Desert International Horse Park (DIHP). “Our aspiration is to create a facility and a competition program that is a catalyst for making equestrian sport truly great in California—which is the way it should be.”
The new owners, with a new management team, took over in August 2019 after they succeeded in acquiring the horse park from HITS, Inc.. For the last 15 months, they’ve been busy at work ushering in a series of improvements to the facility, improving the hospitality, and building a new show schedule. “We have received enormous support from trainers, exhibitors, and the industry for what we are doing. People recognize that we are just getting started, but they like what we have done so far,” says Steve. “Importantly, we have seen an improvement in the level of competition already!”
“We have an extraordinary team and you can tell that everyone has a strong vision and is willing to do what it takes to get the horse park where it needs to go,” added Emily Kerr, the marketing director at DIHP. “I think the team behind us is really what sets us apart. We’re always striving to be better and to do better so we can bring the horse park to the place where we want to see it. It’s an exciting time to be part of this group.”
With a laser-focus on horse and rider safety, the team is taking a data-driven approach to improving the footing. “We’ve brought in a best-in-class team to improve the footing and I’m very excited about it.” That team includes Kyle Gould of Four G Surface, who led the footing program at Traverse City; Bill Hawe from iEquiTek, who has been heavily involved with the footing design and analytics at Tryon International Equestrian Center and Wellington; and Travis Gould from JTWG, Inc., who worked on developing the WEF Hi-Pro™ Ultra Competition arenas in Wellington and Tryon.
“We’ve made consistent changes to the footing across all 12 competition rings,” explains Steve. “So far, the response to the footing in the rings has been positive and we’ll continue to invest significantly in the footing over the next several years.”
Recently, the team has added three new, 300’ x 280’ schooling rings, an addition of just over 250,000 square feet of riding space. These new rings have sand footing and were added to address the shortage of space available for flatting and lunging.
In addition to changes to the competition space, the horse park has undergone a lot of changes to stabling. Emphasizing quality over quantity, the number of stalls hasn’t increased. “Our goal isn’t to make it bigger and bigger. 2,100 stalls is about all we can handle and people are getting used to the fact that we’re starting to sell out.” Bringing in new clear span tents has added almost 700,12’ x 12’ stalls, including 125 stalls for FEI stabling. They’ve also recently reduced the number of stalls in the pole tents from 96 down to 72, creating spacious, 14’ aisles. Coupled with their proximity to the new schooling rings, the pole tents now provide a very exciting, cost-effective stabling option for competitors.
Hunter / Jumpers
The schedules were redone almost entirely from scratch this year. The team took the feedback from the 2019/2020 season and worked to create a schedule that worked for riders of all levels. “We wanted to strengthen the high-performance element of the sport for jumpers, hunters, and equitation. We started a great derby program last year, which we’ve now expanded. This year we’re running five weeks of FEI competition for the jumpers at Desert Circuit. We’ve also added more prize money.”
Starting in 2020, DIHP has a new December circuit on their show calendar. Desert Holiday is a three-week circuit that includes five days of showing every week and a Grand Prix every Sunday. In total, that brings the number of show weeks up to 17, rather than the 10 they’ve historically hosted. “It gives people more options,” explains Steve. “This is the first year that a substantial number of horses will stay at the horse park all five months. Like Florida, people are starting to see this as a destination to come to and stay through the winter instead of just coming for 10 weeks of competition.”
A collaboration with West Palm Events has created a new circuit for the jumpers which includes an extra $100,000 in prize money. “That’s created a ton of excitement and will make December a big circuit.”
The entry-level side of the sport is also being cared for at DIHP. “It’s really important to the partners to make sure that the sport is focused on new riders in the sport and the core group of amateur athletes,” explains Steve. “Catering to the adult amateur competitors is critical to our success. For example, the adult equitation riders didn’t really have anything at a higher height once they finished competition in the Children’s so we’ve added an Adult Equitation Class.” Other unique additions are a hunter hack class, and two favorites from the 2019/2020 season: the family class and lower height hunter derby classes.
The California Reining Horse Association (CRHA) Challenge is one of the exciting changes to the DIHP calendar this year. Run concurrently with the National Sunshine Preview, the CRHA Challenge created a fun, cross-discipline weekend of events for all competitors and it was largely made possible due to the addition of the new schooling arenas. “When we put in the sand rings, we knew that the facility could handle a reining event.”
Earlier this year, the CRHA approached Steve and asked if they could host their event at DIHP since they could no longer hold it in Los Angeles; Steve said yes and the CRHA Challenge made its debut the horse park.
Managing the footing between the very different disciplines created a fun, new challenge for the team. “CRHA gave us a sample of footing that they wanted us to use so we got a local facility to design a sand for the new rings. We learned a lot about hosting these events during the week they were here and it was nice having the opportunity to help build the sport at this facility.”
In November 2020, DIHP hosted its first Dressage circuit, rounding out the changes to the new show calendar. “We’re excited to host three FEI disciplines this year and I’m particularly excited about the two Dressage shows we’ve added since they’re both World Cup qualifiers. Dressage needs a home in California so we’re hopeful that this is it.” The team for this two-week circuit includes Thomas Baur, Sports Director of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida and Monica Fitzgerald, current Competition Manager of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival.
“The response to this change has been super,” says Steve. “It’s disappointing to see FEI Dressage really only taking place in Florida so now we can start a circuit here which will hopefully help build up the sport on the West Coast.” Both weeks feature an FEI Dressage World Cup™ Qualifier combined with a CDI and a national show.
Making events possible during the pandemic is very important to the DIHP team. “We are fortunate that we probably have the best facility in the country to handle the pandemic. We’re very spread out and we have a limited number of entrances so we can create a controlled environment. Plus, all of our aisles are at least nine-feet wide.”
“We have an extremely rigorous approach to our COVID-19 protocols,” explains Steve. “USEF has been super throughout this and Dr. Mark Hart, the USEF Medical Director has been very involved in our planning. People need some fun right now. We’re doing everything we possibly can to be safe while creating a fun environment.”
“California has never really had a national destination. And we’re going to build a national destination,” says Steve. The team has set a goal for next year: host two 5* jumping events. With that goal in mind, the biggest piece of work is to create a ring that can be certified. “We’ll likely make some big changes to the Grand Prix ring over the next six months in anticipation of that.”
They’re also planning to add one more ring and two grass fields over the winter. At some point, the team would also like to add a covered arena in order to ensure that the horse park has the broadest appeal to the types of events that competitors like to have.
And finally, since they would ultimately like to create a space where people want to spend their winter, the team is in the process of building a bridle path around the horse park and working on beautifying the property in general, including changes to the ring’s aesthetics and the landscaping. When asked what makes the horse park so special, Steve laughs, “It’s simple: the desert is beautiful and I’ll take our sunsets over any place in the country.”
Written by Corie Traylor. Corie grew up riding horses on her family’s small farm near Portland, Oregon. After spending most of her childhood barrel racing, she discovered a passion for eventing and hunter/jumpers in her early teens. She currently lives in Portland, where she works full-time as a writer and is retraining her OTTB, Bess, to be a dressage horse.