Winter Sun Horse Park sits nestled between mountains and a stream, the only facility of its kind in the Wood River Valley. As the Valley has lost one public riding facility after another, this nonprofit park stepped in to pick up the slack, opening officially in May 2016.
The Valley is full of passionate equestrians, enjoying everything from simple rides to Olympic-level competition. However, in the past 15 years, this community has seen their options shrink, with at least five public riding facilities closing.
“We have a strong equestrian community here, but a lot of the places to practice in the Valley have closed … We want to give people the opportunity to practice, to enjoy the course, and to get their horse ready for competition,” said Nadia Novik, a member of Winter Sun Horse Park’s board.
Many of the Valley’s equestrian facilities are private, meaning a rider has to be a student of the trainer to practice there, Novik explained. Winter Sun is open to independent trainers, and riders can hone their skills for a small fee or with a membership.
The 50-acre park hosts a plethora of facilities, including a cross-country jumping course and a trail obstacle course, a combination that is not often seen together.
On a field of hard-packed mud and dry grass, Heather McMahan, president of the Winter Sun board, and her team have set up an obstacle course of rolling wooden hurdles, small ponds and tall benches. Some pieces are adorned with flowers or pine boughs. Everyone from young children to seasoned professionals fly through the course, practicing their cross-country skills at the top-of-the-line facility.
McMahan is particularly proud of their water jump. “Not many courses of our size offer a water jump like this. So, it’s great to be able to offer this to people in the Valley,” she said. “It’s great because there are different levels; every level of rider can use it.” Beginner equestrians can simply walk their horse through the water, while advanced riders can practice jumping off and on to the wooden banks built on two of the corners of the jump. These types of jumps are encountered often in competition, but few Valley facilities have the space to build one to practice on, making Winter Sun’s a valuable addition.
Across the stream, Winter Sun is building a trail obstacle course, or Western trail, where horses confront exaggerated versions of common complications such as having to walk over bridges, through water or over trees. There are all types of bridges: teeter-totters and suspension bridges, as well as bridges that narrow, and tires filled with cement that are arranged as steps. All of these obstacles are designed to help both riders and horses familiarize themselves with tricky maneuvers.
“These courses help riders of all disciplines, as they are a great way to build confidence in young horses,” Novik said. “No one around here has a course like this, and, as extreme trail competitions become more popular, I’m excited that we can provide one.”
Many of the obstacles and jumps are sponsored, donated by passionate families or organizations. Donors work with Winter Sun to design a particular jump or obstacle, infusing their personal style into the piece. One family added hidden coolers filled with refreshments to their jump for riders walking the course before a competition.
McMahan noted, “The sponsored obstacles and jumps are really important to us as a nonprofit. It would be impossible to run a public, nonprofit facility of this size without grants and donations, and the jumps are a fun way to involve families and riders.”
Without the equestrian community, the park would not be possible. Novik believes the small size of the sport helps foster a sense of camaraderie. “I find that eventing is one of the most supportive sports because everyone seems to know one another,” she said. “Everyone helps out, and we are so happy to be able to provide a place for the community, a place to come and enjoy with your horse.”
Winter Sun Horse Park welcomes everyone, from casual to competitive riders from all over the West. Many of the riders frequenting the facility are children. McMahan believes riding horses teaches kids valuable life lessons. “Horses are a good influence on kids; they teach responsibility and dedication, and help build confidence.”