Summer Festival marks 20th anniversary at Beebe Farm

EAST DORSET - The Vermont Summer Festival kicked off the 2013 season on Tuesday and in the process reached a milestone in the history of the event.

This year marks the 20th anniversary that the show - which takes place over a six week span and ends on Aug. 11 - has been held in East Dorset on the farm owned by Harold Beebe and his wife. According to Beebe, it all happened by a stroke of luck.

"The owner (John Ammerman) was looking for a place around Manchester, Dorset that could accommodate the horse show. He has a house up in Waitsfield and he lives up there some of the time and he drove by my farm and he said that was a place to have a good horse show," said Beebe. "He stopped to talk to me and we agreed on having the show and it's been that way ever since."

It had been years since the farm had been active because they could no longer afford to farm it, Beebe said. At the time he realized that holding the horse show on his property would not only allow he and his wife to keep the farm in the family, but to keep it as agricultural land as well. So, within a day or two Beebe and John Ammerman - the organizer of the show - reached an agreement.

The horse show was a bit simpler in the early going. In its first year at the Beebe Farm there were only three show rings instead of the five that they have now. At the time, all of the rings - including the Grand Prix ring - were grass instead of the crushed limestone that is used today. The show was initially held solely on the Beebe Farm, but after a couple of years it expanded onto the neighboring farm owned by Clyde "Jack" Frost - the owner of Frost Wells & Pumps Inc. Expanding onto Frost's farm allowed five or six more stabling tents to be added - or about 400 to 500 additional stalls - according to Ruth Lacey, the marketing director for the summer festival.

Perhaps the biggest difference though, was the number of weeks that the festival was held on the Beebe Farm in the beginning.

"When it came to East Dorset, the show spent two weeks here, three weeks in Waitsfield, and two weeks in Stowe, and sometime in the 1990s the Stowe dates were dropped and then in the early 2000s we switched to three weeks here and two weeks in Waitsfield," said Lacey. "In 2002 we went to five weeks here in East Dorset and then about six years ago we added a sixth week."

Lacey said that it was a "business decision" to move the entire show to East Dorset as having it in one venue would not only be easier, but it would also make it more accessible for many of their clients - many of whom came from the south. With several dining, shopping, lodging and recreation options in the neighboring town of Manchester, Lacey said they decided to commit to holding the show in East Dorset.

Increasing the number of weeks did not happen easily though. According to Beebe, there were some issues that had to be addressed before the entire festival could be held on his farm.

"[There were] a few, [but] nothing very serious that we [couldn't] work out," said Beebe. "Environmental problems; that was the biggest one I guess and land use problems with the state. I'm not sure just what they all were, but there was nothing that we couldn't work out. We did spend some time in Montpelier in the legislature. They kind of said that a horse show wasn't an agricultural business, but we worked that out."

The show was originally held in Killington and Lacey said that according to Dottie Ammerman the competition at that time was a little different.

"In the early days there was a Vermont competitors day and so the Vermonters were just competing against each other and the decision was made to just eliminate that and have everyone compete together," said Lacey. "She [Dottie Ammerman] said initially it was sort of a tough hurdle because it upped the competition for the locals, but now we're seeing some Vermonters really excelling and doing really well in the mix of all the other competitors. So in the end that was a good thing."

The prize money has also increased over the years and Lacey said that more professional groups of riders have been coming to the event in recent years. Another change from the early beginnings, Lacey said, is that more competitors now travel in large RVs and travel with an entourage, which might include their farm manager, their groomers and their clients that ride.

While nothing is being done differently to celebrate the 20th anniversary, Lacey said there are some changes this year.

"Our competition has changed a bit. We're introducing some thoroughbred divisions. So, basically they're retired race horses that are entering the jumping world. So that's new for us and we're introducing Tuesday competitions," said Lacey.

Lacey said offering Tuesday competitions gives riders extra opportunities to earn points to compete in the year end final.

The number of riders and horses that the Vermont Summer Festival sees varies from week to week, but they are setting up 1,170 stalls and Lacey said that there are a "handful" of weeks that are just about sold out. However, she said the trend is that there are always more competitors in the middle weeks of the show.

"It's largely just because of the natural show calendars. There are many shows that happen at the same time. [There is a show] happening at Lake Placid right now. They had one show last week and they have one show this week," said Lacey. "So some of our competitors are going to be at Lake Placid this week and then next weekend they come here and that sort of overlap has always existed."

For the past few years somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 horses have competed in the Vermont Summer Festival and Lacey said that the last three years have shown "a slight increase every year."

Although this year's Vermont Summer Festival has just gotten underway, Lacey said that they have already been licensed for the 2014 Vermont Summer Festival, which is scheduled to begin on July 1.

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