November 2020 - Santa Barbara Treasure
Written by by Rhea Hayes
Friday, 30 October 2020 01:38
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September show is milestone in remarkable equestrian community effort to revive the Earl Warren Showgrounds.

by Rhea Hayes

When Earl Warren Showgrounds debuted in 1958 with the annual Horse and Flower Show, the state-of-the-art amenities and the ambiance of Santa Barbara proved to be an intoxicating combination. The first-class venue quickly earned nationwide attention amongst the equestrian community, and it was highly regarded for decades. The Dome arena was the place to be, where patrons showed off in evening dress and paid entry fees to be wined and dined on a Saturday evening of thrilling competition and performances. At that time, the “big three” were Madison Square Garden, Devon and Earl Warren!


In the past, generations of families held Thanksgiving dinners down the barn aisles …rain or shine, in order to support their riders in the National Amateur Horse Show (the “Turkey Show”). A plethora of other events filled Earl Warren with activity; from the Santa Barbara Fair and Expo, to Christmas tree lots and flea markets, gem shows, car shows, antiques shows and more. In the 1960s, Earl Warren was also the site of nearly 300 live concerts featuring rock and roll royalty including The Beach Boys, Neil Diamond, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, and Jim Hendrix Experience.

Mike Nielsen, CPHA’s 2020 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient in his early days.

But If you’ve visited or shown at Earl Warren in recent years, you’d be hard pressed to imagine its former glory. The property seemed stopped in time. In a state of decay, the footing was alarming and bordering on dangerous… a problem that has sparked outrage with trainers and exhibitors since the late 1980s. From  the Old Spanish Days Fiesta Rodeo, California Dressage Society, The Santa Barbara National, and the Arabian Horse Association to the critical services provided by Santa Barbara Equine Evac, Earl Warren has had a deep and loyal following.

But despite multiple fundraising attempts, efforts again and again resulted in dashed hopes.

Now in its 65th year, the showgrounds and facility has had its share of drama, political malfeasance, and alarmingly disparate visions for the property’s future. The 19th District Agricultural Association receives no state funding, and with competing visions for the way the facility should be operated, there was a perceived notion that horse shows were of less importance and upkeep of the arenas and barns was not a priority. Opportunities to compete in modern elegant settings had nicked away the desire to travel to Santa Barbara. Ambiance could not always deflect attention from the conditions.

Advocates for the horse community went unheard and the various disciplines fought amongst themselves. Rumors abounded that the facility would succumb to urban development. Getting  a cohesive message to an overstressed board and management team was not easy. Already consumed by chasing revenue to keep the lights on, there was no equestrian specialist on Earl Warren’s staff. Change would require a new approach, a way to control how improvements were handled and donations managed.

Tackling The Challenge

In August of 2019, the  local groundswell of equestrians became fearful of the certain demise and possible closure of the fairgrounds.  Numerous emotional voices created a cacophony at long drawn out board meetings and concerned equestrians of all disciplines bombarded the board of directors with ideas and pressure. An unofficial leadership team started to form. It wouldn’t be long before the Hunter/Jumper/Western/Dressage/Breeds/Rodeo factions would organize, compromise, and come together like never before. An approved plan and Memo Of Understanding in December 2019 was a huge hurdle, and Earl Warren’s rebirth was on the brink of becoming reality.

Karen Christensen is Treasurer and past president of the Santa Barbara Chapter of the California Dressage Society. Putting together a show last summer, she was dismayed to find dangerous footing, scattered trash, dirty bathrooms, a broken drag and no water truck. Her project management experience stood out over others and she would become the key leader of the technical team to rebuild the equestrian facilities. A geophysicist  by day, Karen envisioned a business plan that would be fully researched, prefunded, and would be independently executed by a trusted non-profit… a plan that could be presented to and approved by the Earl Warren Board of Directors. She pulled together the technical team key to the representation and support of the various disciplines critical  to the future success.

Courtney Cochran, had grown up at Earl Warren, a rising star who has served for years as President of The Santa Barbara County Riding Club for years and is now Trainer/Owner of Ridgewood Farm.  Courtney’s unrelenting desire to save Earl Warren matched Karen’s vision of a privately funded plan.  It became clear that this was the key to retain control of the outcome, and had been the missing element of past fundraising efforts.

With so many areas to address, millions of dollars would be needed, but many amazing members of the community donated nearly $600,000 before Covid hit. Karen rallied donations and discounted services from local businesses, a load of DG here, a used tractor there. Lisa Novatt led the western crowd and earned support from the Fiesta Rodeo. Michele Bandinu, a dressage competitor and owner of Custom Hardscapes is a passionate and generous team member who donated thousands of dollars in heavy equipment and labor.

Kathy O’Connor is the founder and President of Santa Barbara Equine Assistance and Evacuation Team, and her team was the key to the project’s success. SBEquineEvac is a respected 501 (c)3 organization that benefits the entire community, not just the various recreational equestrians. It’s a volunteer organization that orchestrates the year-round emergency services provided to large animals evacuated to Earl Warren when displaced by fires, floods and earthquakes. Earl Warren’s  600 permanent stalls have provided ample room for emergency shelter of animals of all kinds including alpacas, goats, and chickens. By day Kathy is Physical Education Department Chair at Santa Barbara City College, but when she spent “53 days in a trailer” at the showgrounds during the 2018 Thomas fires and subsequent debris flow that devastated Santa Barbara, she gained a more thorough knowledge of the shortcomings of the facility, the barns.

The technical team lead by Karen donated countless hours of research, phone calls and coordinated vendors and donors. Horse Show Manager Lance Bennett, having revived the Santa Barbara National Multi-Breed Show in 2019, as well as expertly managing SBCRC shows, was the voice for the hunter jumper shows as was Penny Wardlaw for the Arab shows. Lance is excited about the revival of the Hunter/Jumper week in July 14-18, 2021.

Encouraging Developments

Unlike other state and county fairgrounds, Earl Warren Showgrounds was specifically built as an equestrian venue. Through the efforts of the Parks family, a local Santa Barbara ranching family, Earl Warren was supposed to have been protected from change of use. But it’s clear that Earl Warren is more than just a horse facility enjoyed by generations of riders, it has become an invaluable community asset that could not be allowed to perish. Its spacious parking lots serve as emergency disaster relief assemblage areas for Fire and Police, and most recently Earl Warren was the go-to place for large capacity COVID testing.  

Most of Phase One was completed just in time for the lifting of Covid rules to reopen the facility. The success of the SBCRC Back to School show and the Camelot Classic in September, 2020  showcased the base and footing in the main arenas and innovative new fencing that allows two rings to be merged into a larger arena suitable for Derbies. Also new are the judges and announcer stands, water truck and drag, and a sound system donated by the Earl Warren Showgrounds Foundation. The excitement of the exhibitors return to the showring was palpable. Amid record attendance and positive reviews, patrons were understanding of the efforts  made and any concerns were quickly addressed.  

Now the challenge is directed towards completing Phase One; building a new arena with fencing, updating three barns, funding future maintenance and initiating Phase Two: renovating the rest of the barns, landscaping and other outstanding needs. The ask for critical additional funds is priority. It’s still a long road, and this is where support is needed from the horse community, to ensure that  Earl Warren will be taken to the next level.

Nobody could have predicted that both Earl Warren and The Santa Barbara County Riding Club’s Fall Hunter/Jumper season opener would coincide just in time to provide hope for both their futures…despite an international pandemic, changes and support would arrive just in time to salvage the waning interest in showing at the historic Earl Warren even though more  attractive alternatives  called from all  over Southern California. And for the first  time, donors can be confident that their donations are being properly utilized.

Continuing renovations will further the mission to allow Earl Warren Showgrounds to become a self-sustaining premier show ground able to hold all types of equestrian competitions and events. Please support this effort with your tax-deductible donation.

Author Rhea Hayes is a volunteer with the Santa Barbara County Riding Club. To contribute to this important effort, visit www.sbequineevac.org and click on “Showgrounds Equestrian Restoration Project.”