Thomson, Ga.—Feb. 23
Glenn and Janet Wilson, organizers of the Pine Top Horse Trials in Thomson, Ga., have a lot to celebrate this weekend.
Not only is it their 37th wedding anniversary, but they’re also commemorating more than 25 years of hosting horse trials at their historic farm.
“It’s become a way of life for us to be event organizers, and it’s opened a lot of doors over the years, meeting lots of people and Olympic riders. It’s made our life a lot richer, as opposed to just running a cattle farm, and it’s made it possible for the farm to support us, which would not have been the case with just cattle and agriculture,” said Glenn.
Pine Top was established in 1770, and has been a working farm since then. Glenn is the eighth generation of his family to work the land.
The Wilsons began hosting events on the property after eventer Cindy Smith, who trained their son Robert Alan as a teenager, suggested they try it.
Janet had ridden Western and English, while Glenn show jumped competitively in the 1970s. The couple also trained and sold foxhunters, so the progression to hosting events occurred naturally for them.
The first year, the Wilsons set low expectations for the event, which hosted beginner novice through training level.
“We were told, ‘well you might get 60 horses if you’re lucky,’ but we had some really good PR, the land is so good, and the word got around, and we doubled that to 120 the first time we ran,” said Glenn. “We took in $21,000, and my dad [James Wilson, Jr.] was amazed. He loved the farm, but it’s not always profitable to own a farm. He saw a potential income stream, and we added levels year by year. By 1995 we were running advanced.”
Pine Top hosted top international horses in 1994 for the Fédération Equestre Internationale study on how heat affected horses, in 1995 for the Olympic test event, and in 1996 for the Olympic Games held in Atlanta.
Glenn believes that when Phillip Dutton began wintering in nearby Aiken, S.C., after spending time there with the Australian Olympic team, the area became a “winter snowbird” paradise, and Pine Top was there to serve the needs of top riders and lower level competitors alike.
The farm hosts four U.S. Eventing Association-recognized events each year, and added CIC** and CIC* divisions in 2013. They added a CIC*** last year to serve the needs of upper level riders when FEI tightened the qualification system. They added Derek Di Grazia as course designer three years ago for the upper levels, and Rob Mobley works as builder, although Glenn built many of the jumps that are still in use.
Adding FEI levels hasn’t been easy, but the Wilsons are proud to offer open, galloping, early-season courses.
“It’s been challenging. Janet is the one that has to deal with the organizational complexities, the rules, the entry forms, paperwork. Luckily I can just concentrate on dirt, wood, trash and manure; that’s my tow. It’s been successful. It’s challenging now because there are more competing events with prize money, and that’s a big deal, and we’re not giving prize money yet,” said Glenn.
The blossoming Aiken calendar also means riders have more choices. Entries in the FEI divisions this year are lower than last year, but that’s not getting the Wilsons down.
“I think it’s the lack of prize money. Meanwhile we feel like we’ve got a marquee designer in Derek, and hope that would help overcome the lack of prize money, but we’ll see,” said Glenn. “That’s been our niche all along—simple, no frills. We’re not in the position, like some other organizers, to build multi-million dollar facilities and have all the prize money. But we still think we have some of the best ground anywhere. It’s a nice, quaint atmosphere that people like to come to because it’s peaceful. One lady told me at the last event, ‘You know, when we pull into some other places I can start hyperventilating, but when I pull in here, it’s like…ahh.’”
It’s a family affair at Pine Top, with children, cousins and grandchildren helping out. Robert Alan, who now owns a successful trash hauling business in town, brings his two young daughters, who have ponies of their own on the farm, and his wife Virginia, who helps with media.
Glenn’s father died in 2002, but organized and served as master of the local Belle Meade Hounds, and his brother Epp is a professional foxhunter.
“It’s really neat to have generation 9 and 10 right here and ready to carry on,” said Glenn.
Glenn does all of the earthwork himself and was even out on the tractor on Thursday before competition started making last-minute improvements as his head of 60-plus cattle looked on from the other side of the fence. During the year, beef cattle and hay help keep the farm running.
While Pine Top has historically endured mud, cold, ice storms and a storm that dumped 7″ of snow the night before, this year’s weather is just about perfect, which can let the Wilsons relax just a bit.
“It’s almost too good to be true,” said Glenn. “We always seem to get it done. That’s a good feeling to get it done even when you’re stressed out.”