FAIR HILL – The sprawling, 5,613-acre grounds at Fair Hill leaves little to be desired and everything to be soaked in.
Whether it’s the village of pop-up shops selling everything from horse saddles to miniature dog coats, the miles-long stretch of tailgating tents bringing together equestrian novices and veterans alike, or the high-level competition taking place over the span of four action-packed days, there’s something for everyone at Fair Hill.
Over the weekend, Fair Hill was the focal point of the equestrian world when it hosted the second-ever MARS Maryland 5 Star, a four-day equestrian eventing competition at the sport’s highest level, consisting of a mixture of dressage, cross-country riding and show jumping, with nearly 25,000 people in attendance.
The Maryland 5 Star – labeled a CCI5* event by Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the sport’s highest distinction – is one of only two events of its kind in the country, and one of seven in the entire world. It attracts some of the sport’s biggest names, including New Zealand’s Tim Price, ranked the No. 1 rider in the world, who took home the crown at this year’s competition with a total score of 28.2 after finishing No. 1 in both cross-country riding and show jumping.
But for many, making the trip to Fair Hill is less about the competition’s final results and more about the spectacle of it all – the atmosphere, experience and, of course, the view.
“It’s pretty wild,” said Barry Morrison, a Cecil County resident who attended the cross-country portion of the competition on Saturday with his wife – a Fair Hill veteran – and kids. “The kids love it because they see the animals, the vendors are great and it’s a beautiful course. … Last year was awesome. We had a blast, so we came back.”
Morrison was one of thousands of people taking advantage of the grounds’ tailgating tents, placed strategically along some of the cross-country course’s most exciting jumps.
For new attendees, like those representing Rising Sun Baseball Club, a vintage baseball team based out of Rising Sun, simply getting a glimpse of riders and their horses hurdling obstacles mere feet from their tent is enough to keep them coming back.
“It’s a major event in Cecil County and none of us had been before,” said Greg Rodenbaugh, a local resident and founder of the club. “We all felt like it was a good time to come out and make it a team-building kind of thing. … We’re waiting on the 5 Star because it’s going to be (right in front of us) and it’s going to be awesome.”
Plus, the beautiful weather made it a perfect venue for folks to bring their puppies, too, some of which were a little more familiar with the horses than others.
“I’m sure you noticed a lot of dogs there, that’s sort of what I’ve pushed out, as well,” said Cecil County Executive Danielle Hornberger, who attended all four major days of the competition. “There’s food, there’s dogs, there’s horses, there’s shopping, and it’s just a beautiful venue, a beautiful vista for people to come and visit.”
With such a prestigious event taking place in Marylanders’ backyard, many veterans in the equestrian community aim to take newcomers to Fair Hill as a trial run, using it to convert them into fans of the sport. And, with a show as diverse and exhilarating as the one Fair Hill puts on, it’s typically a success.
Take Alex Abella, for example.
Abella is the programs manager for the EquestrAsian Sports Association of Maryland, a non-profit group focused on expanding equestrian sports in the Asian-American community in Maryland, doing so through both education and training.
On behalf of the association, she brought a group of 50 Asian-Americans from around the state to Fair Hill on Saturday in an attempt to show them why she’s so passionate about the sport.
“One of the things we want to make sure to do is follow the generous nature of the horse, which is so inviting of everybody,” Abella said. “Horses don’t care what color you are, what accent you have, whether you’re tall or short, or where you come from. All they care about is, ‘Are you a kind predator? Are you going to approach me with kindness?
“The fun thing about this association is that none of these people had an interest in equestrian sports, they have never even considered joining equestrian sports,” she continued. “The Asian-American community is very focused on academics, and they look at academics in a very traditional way. … What they’re learning is that there’s a lot of academics — and a lot of everything in life — in horse sports. If you’re going to approach these jumps, you better know the arcs and geometry, you better know your physics.”
The key to Fair Hill’s success is the venue’s ability to cater toward all levels of horse enthusiasts.
For the attendees with little to no experience with horses, there are plenty of food trucks, wine tastings, book signings, retail vendors, oversized games and Instagram-worthy opportunities to keep them busy as they venture into the world of equestrian sports for (likely) the first time.
Then, for those who have been riding for years and enjoy both the competition and the large supply of equestrian-related shops, Fair Hill has it all: top-notch performances by the best of the best, along with rows and rows of stores carrying gloves, saddles, boots and traditional dress-up apparel.
Courtney and Cindy Bradford, a mother-daughter duo that has been riding horses for decades, were two of the many passionate equestrian fans in attendance, visiting the grounds to not only see a friend of theirs – Sarah Cousins, who competed in the 3-Star event just before the 5 Star – but soak in the entire experience.
“We’re horse enthusiasts and we both ride for fun and for pleasure, so we just like coming and spectating and cheering people on,” said Courtney Bradford, who lives in Bel Air and has been coming to Fair Hill off-and-on for 10 years. “There are really incredible things that they do at this level with the horses, and it’s just kind of amazing to take it in and watch. And, of course, it’s always beautiful out here. Fair Hill is a great place to hike around, it’s a great time of year to hike around and run into people and mooch off of a couple of different people’s tailgates.”
Fair Hill is a facility rich in history, having hosted high-level FEI eventing competitions dating back 33 years to 1989.
For decades, Fair Hill operated at a 4 Star level, but in 2019, FEI updated its designation system, creating the 5 Star level. The Maryland 5 Star hosted its inaugural competition in Oct. 2021, which was won by Boyd Martin of the U.S. in a comeback victory on the final day.
In just a couple of short years, according to many attendees, Fair Hill has already upped its game to make the Maryland 5 Star one of the premier equestrian events in the world.
“We’ve been here since it used to just be the Fair Hill International,” said Courtney Bradford. “I don’t mean to say, ‘used to just,’ it was always a fun festival, but they took it up a notch with the 5 Star and added a little bit to it. Cross-country day’s always a bunch of fun.”
Even some of the sport’s top riders — who have competed all over the world in countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Japan and plenty more — praised the cross-country course at Fair Hill, which was designed by legendary course designer and Olympic medalist Ian Stark.
“To be able to come here to Maryland to have this atmosphere, we don’t always get that,” said Elisa Wallace, the 3 Star competition winner and rider of Renkum Corsair, during her post-cross-country press conference on Saturday. “And there are a lot of people here, so it was really great to have that championship feel and to get this experience with this horse.”
Though, perhaps the most crucial impact of the Maryland 5 Star is the effect it has on the area around it, with 5 Star week culminating in a special moment for Cecil County as a whole.
“There’s definitely an economic impact (on Cecil County), for sure. Not only in what people are purchasing at the event … but also, venturing out in our municipalities,” said Hornberger. “This just puts Cecil County not only on the national stage, but on the world stage. It’s pretty exciting stuff.”