The cloud over last weekend’s Plantation Field International Horse Trials wasn’t in the sky.
Picture-perfect weather for eventing ‒ crisp temperatures and sunshine sparkling down on an impeccable carpet of green turf ‒ underlined the special nature of the event in Pennsylvania’s horse country. But the occasion took on a poignant air with the knowledge that it could be the last time the competition is held at the scenic site.
A controversy involving political correctness resulted in the landowner ending his lease with the organizer of the event. Cuyler Walker was upset by the implication that his family had a link with racism when the Eventing Nation website cited the event’s “troubling associations inherent in the name Plantation Field. Specifically the word ‘plantation’” and called for the event to have a name change.
In an editorial, the website maintained that “Asking people of color to come visit, to spectate, volunteer, or compete, at a place called Plantation is insensitive at best and works against our efforts to implement more diversity in the sport.”
The issue led to a headline and story in the local paper, another dagger to the landowner, who has been active in municipal governance and chairs the local East Marlborough Township planning commission.
Then the U.S. Eventing Association got into the act, with its executive committee announcing the day before the event started that it would not use the name Plantation in press releases. After a furor erupted on social media, USEA walked it back, issuing a statement from CEO Rob Burk and president Max Corcoran that stated: “Having this historic competition close isn’t the right result for the sport, and the USEA is working hard to find a solution. The organizer and landowners operate exceptional events on a beautiful piece of land.”
They noted “We are deeply sensitive to the history of the word ‘plantation’ and its connection to slavery; however, this property has no known connections to slavery. and was instead named after ‘plantings’ on the property.” As of midday today, there was no story about the event on USEA’s website.
Riders interviewed at the event were saddened by the thought they may not be able to ride again at Plantation Field, with its wonderful terrain, testing cross-country courses and arenas.
“It’s such a huge loss for us,” said Canadian rider Lisa Marie Fergusson, who is based nearby and came in 21st with Honor Me in the 4*-Short field of 53. “It’s the best event ever,” she observed. “It’s so much fun.”
It was the first time at the venue for Elisabeth Halliday-Sharp, who won the 4-star on Deniro Z and wants to return to the facility.
“I think it’s wonderful and it just breaks my heart that it won’t happen again. I hope with everything in me that it does, because what a wonderful venue and a big proper course, which is great. Just an awesome place. I loved every second of it. I hope it happens again.”
Announcer Brian O’Connor, noting he had been told that the property owner was quite emotional about the situation, felt at the very least Cuyler should be thanked for allowing the property to be used for the last 20 years. He suggested that if Cuyler, who had been staying away from the event would come over, the riders could thank him. But organizer Dennis Glaccum said that wasn’t in the cards.
“What about if we bring the mountain to him? I’ll rally the troops and we’ll go do it,” asked Brian. So more than 50 riders were loaded into vehicles and went to Cuyler’s house. When the riders were all on his front lawn, he came out to accept a round of applause.
“He was quite surprised and very moved,” said Brian, who told him, “What you’ve been reading on line is not what people think about your event. These are the people who want to thank you, these are the people, the boots on the ground, who care about this event.”
As Brian recalled, “He was very appreciative. He said, “I’m sorry we had to make this decision. It hurts my family, that’s why we had to make this choice. We didn’t want to make it. It was basically an insult to his family history to have this miscommunication about the name and whether it’s racist.”
Like others who know the history of the situation, Brian pointed out, “You need to have a conversation” about something like this. He explained the name was taken out of context and that the word Plantation “has nothing to do with Tara. This is not a plantation where that kind of thing happened. It was based on a history called a planting field.”
The name, which is based on a dictionary definition of plantation, stems from the Boy Scouts planting trees there in the 1930s. There were never slaves on this acreage and it is in an area where the Underground Railroad worked with slaves who came north to seek their freedom. Plantation Field benefits several charitable organizations, including Work to Ride, a program for disadvantaged urban youths that offers them an opportunity to ride and work with horses.
Canadian rider Holly Jacks-Smither, who said Plantation Field is “my absolute favorite event” was in the group that went to Cuyler’s house.
“I think he was touched,” said Holly after finishing fifth in the 4-star on More Inspiration, who also got the award as the top-finishing thoroughbred.
“It’s sad to lose this venue. I don’t think he was being hard, I think he was being hurt,” she said of the land owner.
“He genuinely doesn’t want to be called something he isn’t,” added Holly, who doesn’t mind having to spend two weeks in quarantine on her return to Ontario as the price for coming to the U.S.
“I want to thank him so much for having us here. I think we’re behind him and would love to come back.”
Eventing legend Bruce Davidson, who lives in the area, was angry at anyone in the sport’s governance who “was supportive of this problem,” contending they, “should be dismissed…and find new jobs.” Their purpose, he said, should be “to promote the sport, not to interfere with it. To take some of the best sport we have in the country and do this to it is not a very intelligent thing to do.”
As time goes on, Brian hopes there can be a real discussion about the situation “and maybe it can change.”
His brother, former U.S. Equestrian Federation president and Olympic eventing gold medalist David O’Connor commented about the event, “Hopefully we haven’t lost it.” He thinks people have “probably learned a lesson, being a little too quick and hasty and aggressive. There are ways to do things. I think everybody lost in this one. Politics takes time, you have to convince people. But it’s up to the owner, it’s his legacy.”
Olympic medallist Phillip Dutton, a member of the event’s board and runner-up with Z in the 4-star, said the property owner’s reaction is “understandable from Cuyler’s point of view,” but also pointed out it’s only a small number of people who want to change the name. He thinks the riders as a group may come out with a statement this week showing their support for the event and he added, “Hopefully, Cuyler can reconsider.”
Dr. Kevin Keane, a veterinarian from the area who rode in the event, called the prospect of the competition being discontinued “devastating.”
Then he added, “I think it’s probably all very early on. Why don’t we all just take a little bit of a deep breath and be hopeful for the future of this event?”