SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Organizers are calling it a "huge transformation", the equestrian riding event had a successful restart to the year using new equestrian rings at the Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara.
The first test this past weekend involved The Santa Barbara County Riding Club. The organization hosted its "Back to School" show with 140 members and horses.
Riders were limited by COVID-19 rules. They could only travel with a small group of people and had to maintain a social distance from one another.
There was also a checkpoint at the gates for temperature documentation, a release form and sanitation.
Horse Show Manager Lance Bennett is a former exhibitor who routinely came to Santa Barbara from San Diego.
He says, "It is a historical landmark at this point for Santa Barbara. I think it is crucial for this community."
He joined in with the current team, "so I could try to make a difference for the facility up here."
The rings were the first step in the changes, the barns are next.
There have been improvements to the footings, speakers, announcer booths and fencing.
Karen Christensen a horse rider and part of the design team said the changes, "Make an excellent footing surface for the show, we put in this new beautiful fencing, the middle section is removable to have derby's and other events."
As soon as the word was out that the showgrounds needed help, many community members came together in 2019 with a renovation plan.
It wasn't going to solve the big picture issues, but it targeted the horse facilities.
The equestrian supporters raised thousands of dollars in donations, and began to improve the arena and rings to a competitive level again.
A Thousand Oaks rider who took a first place Saturday was thrilled.
Taya Wykert was with her horse Commander posing for photos with a blue First Place ribbon.
"It's really fantastic to be here. This is a really historical riding place. You look back at all the historic riders and they are all riding here," said Wykert.
There's also an economic boost.
"It's good for the community. It represents hotel revenue, restaurant revenue revenue, the facility revenue," said Bennett. For the equestrian community, "a horse show creates a whole economy structure from the trainers to the haulers to the shoers and the grooms, everybody benefits."
The next phase of improvements involve the barns. They are worn out and one section is going to be taken out for a new ring.
"We can remodel these barns, we can fix them up slightly or we can do significant remodeling. It's just a question of how much money can we raise," said Christensen.
The Equine Evacuation and Assistance non profit has coordinated the donations to make the current improvements possible.
"Equine Evac decided that we needed to support this facility otherwise it wouldn't be here for emergencies. And we have been here 30 years," said Kathy O'Connor with Equine Evac. They set up barns and shelters for large animals in community emergencies.
At the weekend event, there were no spectators and there won't be for awhile. For the riders, the ability to compete and use the upgraded facility was vital for their sport and their horses. That included the youngest riders who were using smaller rings which have also been built out.
"These people are here to compete and train our horses and are working towards year end goals and long term goals that really don't require spectators," said Christensen.
The Earl Warren Showgrounds was developed for the Santa Barbara National Horse and Flower show. The equestrian facility was built in 1958 and the exhibit building was finished a year later. Part of the 19th Agricultural District land was used for the community golf course and Adams Elementary School nearby.
To make donations for the future improvements go to: Equine Assistance and Evacuation Team Inc.