September 2019 - Rebecca Farm Reflections

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First time visitor shares the lore and allure of unique eventing competition in Montana.

article & photos by Alice Chan

Coming from parched California to ride on the green field of dreams that is the Event at Rebecca Farm in Montana is an annual pilgrimage for many West Coast eventers, and a rite of passage for others.

Each year almost 600 horses and riders converge from across the country for four days of nail-biting competition. And the excitement is only increased by the fact that the North American Young Eventing Championships (NAYC) run in parallel.

Whether you’re a junior rider, a seasoned pro with a young horse, or an amateur, this is a proving ground in the eventing calendar. Spread across 640 gorgeous acres, just outside of Kalispell, the highlight is the turf cross-country course, designed by Ian Stark in 2012, with its challenging and technical layout.

Deemed by many to offer the most challenging courses in any division from Novice to 4*; the stories and friendships you take home from “Rebecca”—as it’s fondly known—are just as important as the ribbons and photographs. Outside of Kentucky, this is probably the most photogenic backdrop to any eventing show in the USA, thanks to the dramatic Montana skyscape and landscape.

Jennifer McFall warming up for dressage on Hallelujah DF.

My son, Benjamin Heckman—a budding eventer who is just moving up to Novice level—and I were lucky enough to go to Rebecca with Jennifer and Earl McFall of Dragonfire Farm. Representing the next generation of this familial eventing dynasty in the making, their daughter, Taylor, aged 16, was selected for Area VI’s NAYC FEI 2* team, which made the whole thing even more fun to watch.

In our role as spectators providing occasional barn support to the McFalls, we got to drink in the atmosphere, observe all the hard work it takes to have a successful show, understand what a true 3-day event comprises, and in Benjamin’s case, decide whether he’d like to show here next year. The answer was a resounding yes!

(left to right) Daniela Zarate, Taylor McFall and Benjamin Heckman.

A Full Three-Day Option

The Event at Rebecca Farm is generously hosted by the Broussard family, who built the facility in honor of Rebecca Broussard, who lost her battle with cancer in 2010. It is one of the few shows that offers the true 3-day eventing experience at Novice and Training level, in addition to the now more common horse trials format.

The full 3-day event goes like this:

The day before the competition starts, there are the ‘jogs’ i.e. the vet checks. Horses are trotted up and down for inspection and have to be ‘accepted’ to participate. Their riders are typically dressed in their finery and it’s a real treat to watch, especially as some of their mounts can get pretty excited!

Day One is dressage. Establishing a strong position from the start with minimal penalties is always desirable, but there is no assurance of holding onto your lead.

Day Two there are four phases designed to test the horse’s fitness. Two phases include trotting roads and tracks, then there is a galloping steeplechase and finally, the full cross-country element. There are two vet checks throughout to test how quickly the horse’s heart rate recovers from the exertion
The third and final day is show-jumping in the stadium. The horses (and riders) are tired, and a pole or refusal at this stage can cost you the competition.

Taylor McFall leaves the jump ring to place 4th with her parents Jennifer and Earl McFall.

All of this entails a ton of preparation during the four days of the show—and of course, months of training in advance. From braiding to cooling, putting ice on the horses’ legs, walking the courses, and learning how to optimize your rides, we were exhausted just watching everybody.

Add to this the expense of shipping horses, renting a place to stay, the entry fees, coaching fees, and so on, why does Rebecca have so much allure?

Chatting to Natalie Koopmann, from the Sacramento area’s Wilton, I asked her exactly that.

“It’s just the most beautiful show,” Natalie told me. “I get to do what I love doing and be with my friends in an amazing atmosphere. I didn’t come expecting to win [Natalie has a young horse], but to have a great time.”

In fact, Natalie only found out she had gotten in off the waitlist—it can be hard to get online fast enough to snag a prized competing spot—one week before her horse, Soul Twain DF, made the big trip from the West Coast to Montana.

Jennifer McFall & Hallelujah DF on Novice XC.

The NAYC Experience

For the young riders representing their Areas and Canada, the show was a little different. Stabled in a heavily secured area—only those with approved credentials are allowed inside—and rooming with their team and chaperones, their schedules were carefully managed and designed to build team spirit and camaraderie. For many of them, it was the first time being selected to represent their region and the pressure was on. It was truly inspiring to watch how accomplished these teenagers are.

While the Area VI (California and Hawaii) team didn’t have the best of luck with two riders getting eliminated, our individual Area VI riders did phenomenally well. Charlotte Babbitt and 2 A.M. took first place overall finishing on their dressage score of 24.0. Taylor McFall took fourth place on the legendary High Times—a super accomplishment given that she did her first preliminary event just a few months ago; and Meg Pellegrini took seventh place on her super Connemara pony, Ganymede.

Caroline Dein with Tropic Star warming up for jogs.

While he didn’t ride, Benjamin volunteered as a dressage runner (taking scores from judges to the office) and as a cross-country jump judge. He learned a lot listening to the dressage judges and watching how over 100 horses and riders tackled the same jump over five hours was pretty insightful, too.

Volunteering is another great way to experience the phenomenon that is Rebecca Farm and to give back to the sport.

All in all, we had a really amazing week in Montana, cementing friendships, making new ones, and reveling in the wonderful community that is eventing. Put Rebecca Farm on your calendar for next year if you can.

Author Alice Chan is based in Northern California. When she’s not riding or being a show mom to her son Benjamin, she continues her work as the founder of the Flock Marketing Collective.

 


Californians represented US Eventing Area VI very well at The Event at Rebecca Farms.

Lauren Billys and Castle Larchfield Purdy were second in the CCI4*-L, virtually locking up their spot representing Puerto Rico in the 2020 Olympics. Right behind them were James Alliston and Pandora in third, and Andrea Baxter and Indy 500 in fifth. East Coaster Jenny Brannigan and Stella Artois took top honors.

Bec Braitling and Penhill Celtic continued a great year by acing the 2*-L division, and Bec was third there with Dassett Ricochet and fourth with  Caravaggio II. Bruce Hill and Bossinova were boss indeed, winning the Junior Open Preliminary division.  

On the North American Young Rider front, Charlotte Babbitt and 2 A.M. won individual gold as winners of the CCIJ2*-L. She and Taylor McFall and High Times finished on their impressive 24 and 27.3 dressage scores, respectively. Meg Pellegrini and Savannah Gwin and Glock Pullman had a tough time on cross-country, so the team wound up in 8th place. Lots learned, much fun had and much more to come from these talented, hard working youngsters.