Friday, March 19, 2010

Robert Kellerhouse: How the West Won

Robert Kellerhouse makes things happen. It's sort of as simple as that. Galway Downs? Yeah, that's him. That Preliminary Challenge that created ripples across the 3-Day Eventing world? Him. Nominated as one of only six from the US to the FEI Eventing Committee? I think you know it's Robert. So I suggest you read more about this man who's not only defining West Coast Eventing, but is undoubtedly behind the future of our sport.

Q. Tell me a little bit about the work you do in eventing.

A. To develop nice events for people to compete at for all levels is my only goal. In 1995 I started assisting running a competition with my mom and Bert Wood who had helped a local hunt run a benefit competition in the late 70’s. They said, “Let’s run a horse show.” I was busy riding and doing my job, which was in finance. They started doing things and in our area we needed a level that wasn’t offered anymore. One of the organizers stopped running the version of the one star, which you had to do in order to do a two star. We started running it that week in October 1995. We developed that into a two-day event, which was a full phase: a one-star over two days. That would qualify you for a two star in the 1990’s.

photo courtesy of Robert Kellerhouse

Long story short that’s where we started and every year since then we’ve added every level that riders needed. We ran first a CCI one-star and two-star in November 1999. In 2000 we built Advanced. In 2001 we offered a CIC in the spring. In 2003 that CIC Advanced became the first World Cup qualifier in the Western US. In 2004 I started the Woodside Horse Trials and we ran our first event in May 2005 and we run three shows a year through Advanced. We run four shows a year down at Galway up through Advanced. From 2005-2007 we kept the same schedule and in 2008 we got rid of the World Cup qualifier but kept it a three-star. We added the three-day training competition and that was hugely successful. We took the team already coming for the CCI and had them run the classes for the training three-day. That’s become very popular in '08 and '09. We had about 50 riders.

In 2009 at Woodside I added the Preliminary Challenge class with $15,000 in cash and $15,000 in prizes. We had advanced but we ran the cash prize for the preliminary group for multiple reasons. It was an opportunity to let the adult amateurs and professionals ride against each other. It allowed the professionals to ride their young horses in restricted classes. We had about 1,000 people watching the evening show jumping. This year at Galway for November we’re hosting the first CCI three-star. It’s the first one in the Western United States. We’re doing it because our riders out here need it. And because my course designer is ready and we got a piece of property that’s suited for a CCI-length course. And we have fantastic sponsors that have stepped up. And all the rider support and we get unbelievable entry support.

We have one other huge reason that we’ve been able to keep our even successful: Trainers and riders have run a fundraiser for us. The trainers donate their time and use their professional services in clinic format. We had 150 people participating with Ian Stark as the headliner. That helps us make critical changes on cross-country and keep it fresh and interesting. You’re always trying to reinvent yourself every year. That’s been the last fifteen years of my life just chipping away.

Q. Where does your inspiration come from?

A. I like eventing. I always loved this sport even when I was a little kid. We used to spray the penalty zones around each jump. That was my job. It was always fun and the eventers were always down to earth and very normal people. I enjoyed the people and competition. I still ride and there’s something to be said for the kind of person who gets involved in the sport. It is a risk sport and it requires a certain amount of courage and skill to negotiate a cross-country course. It’s not so much about you against the person next to you. It’s about you and your horse against the element in front of you. It keeps you grounded. I just like it. It’s a great sport.

photo courtesy of Robert Kellerhouse

Q. Where are you taking the competitions?

A. It’s not any particular goal other than to continue to offer what the riders need and to keep doing a good job with that from beginner novice to the highest level. Our country deserves to have good events not just on the east coast. When I was younger I saw and stream of riders that were going to big extremes in order to be competitive. They were driving all over the place; it was ridiculous. I always thought if we had a steady group of successful events people could do it easier. We could develop our talent and keep them around. When I was competing back East in 1990 everyone said you had to go to England to be successful. Several people had training barns in Great Britain. Then when we were starting out events in the west the constant themes was, oh you gotta go to the East coast to be a good event rider. I bet you the sport is evolving more and more as we go on. That was 20 years ago and now we have Rolex doing a four-star and it’s fantastic, one of the best in the world. You’ve got this great event that gets people ready for World Games and the Olympics.

You’ve got a reason to keep the riders East and hopeful you’ll be able to keep them West. The biggest example is Gina Miles who took her horse start to finish out West and would travel for four stars, that’s it. She knocked out a silver medal in the process. It’s unbelievable: us having a silver medalist from California. And two years our Area 6 Young Rider won silver and gold. It’s been a lot of fun watching these guys do their thing. And our teams won. Amy Tryon went back to Burghley and did a fantastic job on her young horse. In 2009 she spent her whole spring in California instead of North Carolina and she did well so I was happy about that. Then we’ve got Derek Di Grazia doing courses at Woodside. It’s a tricky piece of property and he knows it like the back of his hand. We have Ian Stark at Galway who is fast becoming a very popular course designer in eventing. He’s doing his first CCI three-star at Bramham, in England. It’s their big CCI three-star in England. He was named course designer of the Year by USEA, which was a lot of fun. At the time he got named that he was only designing Galway. He takes his job, as does Derek, very seriously. Which is what makes them both such good course designers. We have a fantastic crew. We fly in guys from England and Canada. They’re all helping to make our events really good. And of course our scorers, our volunteers. We have an unbelievable group of volunteers and coordinators at Galway and Woodside. You get this gigantic team together and there’s nothing more cool to do than organize and event when you have that.

photo courtesy of Robert Kellerhouse

Q. How do you come up with these ideas? What’s your process?

A. People come to me with them. The Preliminary Challenge was Chris Shaw who wanted to sponsor a class with his riding apparel company. He owned a tack shop in Northern California and he wanted to sponsor a class and appeal to the masses. The calendar at Woodside, it’s worth running Advanced for sure but it’s not the best spot for the horses that will go back to Rolex or Bromont or Jersey Fresh because it’s in May and August. The August show is a fantastic event for it but it’s run concurrent to hunter jumper show that’s Penlow’s Circus Club Charity Horse Show. By process of elimination we placed it on Memorial Day weekend that was screaming for something special. We wanted to give them something to hang their hat on. Equine Insurance, Mushroom Matrix, CWD Saddlery, Sonoma Saddle Shop, and Custom Saddlery all sponsored. All these guys stepped forward and said we’ll help you do it. We never really had anything for adult amateurs. The reality is that preliminary is their Olympics. And it should be. Anyone who does prelim and does it well is a damn good horseman. That idea came from Chris like the idea for fundraiser clinic. $150,000 towards cross-country and that idea came from the trainers. They approached me and Bert, my course builder, and said, “How can we help?” Bringing Ian Stark in was Burt’s idea. Our clinic doubled in size.

These ideas evolved from having a bunch of people who are into the sport sitting around talking about it. My job is to try and implement it and not be scared. It’s always expensive to implement. Even the fundraiser, if it was a bust, would have cost me 7,000. I don’t want to do something once that is a waste of time. To be able to repeat it is the only way to go. If I can’t sustain it I won’t do it. There’s too many variables; the last thing you need is something that can’t repeat itself. We have land use issues and threats from the sport that happen so the number one thing you have to rely on is that it will work. We’ve been fortunate in making it happen.

Q. What do you think about when implementing your ideas?

A. I think about:

1) Will the riders receive it? Will you get an entry for it?

2) Can we run it without making the rest of the classes not as good? Will we make one class great and everything else suffer? That can never happen.

3) Can I pay for it? Can it support itself? That’s huge. There’s no doubt I’ve covered some big shortfalls from some shows that are still running. You can’t pretend that everything will pay for itself all the time. Some shows are money losers but you can’t just call it a day. You have to keep moving forward. If I feel like I can pay for it and the riders are motivated then we do it.

photo courtesy of Robert Kellerhouse

Q. Are there any successes that stick out in your mind in particular?

A. Even watching my wife’s own business flourish and watching her clients enjoy going to my shows. That’s gratifying. The shows that are successful. The staff and the volunteers. I like working with all of them honestly or I wouldn’t work with them. That’s the most rewarding thing. The consistent group of great people you run into in eventing. The one thing I’m most proud of is that we’ve been able to keep it going in a positive direction for so many years. That stands out in my mind. When you look back and how many ways I’ve been doing this. I had a normal job before I started doing events. 2004 was a big year. I got married. Woodside was coming down the road. Galway was going through a bankruptcy (the property not the competition). Do I keep doing the finance thing? But that’s boring. I may have made more money but it was not as fun. 2004 was a pivotal year for me. I’ve been fortunate to be able to go all in and have it work.

Q. What kind of people do you enjoy working with?

A. People that are into the sport. That’s the biggest thing. We work with all kinds of personalities, believe me. Everyone involved has a passion for the sport. That’s the number one thing. They could be someone who’s really mellow or stressed or whatever but as long as they have passion for the sport and they follow through on the things they say they’re going to do they usually work well with the group. Following through with the things they say they’re going to do is a huge one! That separates the people who like to talk about it and the ones who do it. There are a lot of doers in our group.

Q. Anything else?

A. I look forward to seeing riders come out to events and kick some butt at the World Equestrian Games in the US!

Robert Kellerhouse’s Galway Downs is coming right up this March 26-28th. If you’re a West Coaster I bet you’re already going. If you’re not, you should! And if you’re not riding why not go and check it out first hand? This is a competition of the highest caliber and creativity. Hey, maybe you could even lend a hand and be part of that incredible volunteer group!

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