WILLIAMSBURG — Changes are underhoof — in some ways literally — at the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival.

The fifth annual Equestrian Festival features six weeks of show-jumping competitions, with shows Wednesday through Saturday and a prestigious Grand Prix — offering the biggest purse — each Sunday. The 2019 festival began July 3 and runs through Aug. 11 at Flintfields Horse Park in Williamsburg.

A new bar, a new park layout, upgraded show rings and more interactive family fun are among the attractions visitors will notice this year. The park also has new owners — Morrisey Management Group, which owns the festival, bought Flintfields from former owner Karin Flint.

Great Lakes Equestrian Festival took the place of Horse Shows By the Bay, a similar equestrian show which ran from 2007 to 2014.

“In Europe, (horse shows) are like their football — it’s very popular,” said Cody Brown, director of marketing for GLEF. “I think it can be just as popular over here. It’s just getting people over here and educating them.”

The festival attracts some big names in the equestrian world, such as Margie Goldstein-Engle — a 2000 Olympian and 10-time winner of the American Grand Prix Association Rider of the Year award.

What is show-jumping?

Show-jumping is a professional sport many people aren’t familiar with, but it’s one that’s incredibly easy to understand, Brown said.

“I think there’s been a big misconception that it’s hard to understand,” he said. “Everyone that comes out here to watch, they leave here with an understanding of the sport. Everyone really gets on the edge of their seats.”

There are three main types of show-jumping: hunter, jumper and equitation.

In hunter competitions the horse is being judged on its traits and style, according to the United States Equestrian Federation’s website. Equitation turns the focus to the rider, with their ability and style being judged.

Jumpers compete in negotiating a series of obstacles where time and cleanliness of jumps are judged, the federation’s website explains.

Jumping is an Olympic sport and one of the few in which men and women compete on equal ground, said Brown.

Making a festival

Activities like face painting, balloon artists, a pop-up farmer’s market on Grand Prix days and other shopping opportunities on boutique row help make GLEF a more family-friendly event, said Brown.

About a dozen local vendors are locked in for the farmer’s markets, which will open at noon and run till 2 p.m., when the Grands Prix begin, he said. As for food and drink, “you name it, we have it,” said Brown.

T-shirt tosses will take place in between competition rounds and video interviews will be shown on the scoreboards, he said.

For adults, there’s Mammoth Outpost — a bar by Mammoth Distilling — and the Southern Arches Pavilion. The festival has a liquor license this year, so there are fully functioning bars, Brown said.

Passing the baton

One of the most notable changes this year is the ownership of Flintfields Horse Park.

MMG in January purchased the property from Flint, who developed the property in 2007 and rented to Horse Shows by the Bay before the Equestrian Festival took over.

“You get to a certain point in your life and it’s time to hand the baton to someone else,” Flint said. “(The property) looks absolutely wonderful. They’re doing great things. I couldn’t be happier.”

Flint no longer is involved in the competitions or day-to-day management — that’s left up to MMG, which has been doing so since 2015 — but she said she’s happy to do help out in any way necessary. But it’s OK if they don’t need her help, Flint said.

“When new people come in, they’re going to do new things and that’s fine too,” she said.

Facility upgrades

The Jumper Annex and the VanKampen rings were redone and a new space — the Williamsburg Ring — brings the total competition spaces to six and meant the property’s layout had to be restructured, said Brown.

The ground inside the rings is one of the biggest improvements, he said. Having secure footing for the horses — which can be jumping 6 feet in the air — is critical, considering the horses are valued from tens of thousands to millions of dollars, Brown said.

“If I have an expensive horse and I went to a show with bad footing, I’d turn right back around,” he said. “I wouldn’t take the risk.”

Adding a new ring should shorten the time needed for each show, which will give people a chance to enjoy the area, Brown said.

It’s something the newer generation of riders look for — competitions in destination locations.

“In Kentucky, it doesn’t matter if the days run long because it’s not a big deal if you have to get something quick for dinner,” Brown said. “In Traverse City, people love the town so much they don’t want to show until 6 or 7 p.m.”

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