Friday, May. 24, 2024

Sand Castles Come To Derby Finals

Course designer Bobby Murphy is bringing some flair to this year's course.


We got the email the week before USHJA International Hunter Derby finals. The subject line: “125 Tons of Sand Create First-of-Their-Kind Jumps for Equestrian Event at Horse Park.”

We were intrigued, to say the least.

The email was from USHJA’s Megan Lacy, asking if someone from the Chronicle would like to come take a look at what course designers Bobby Murphy and Danny Moore were cooking up for The USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship—many of the fences on this years course will be flanked by gargantuan sculptures made entirely of sand.

Being a 2-year-old child at heart, I jumped at the chance to make taking a tour of giant sand castles part of my work day. We were on site at the Kentucky Horse park for U.S. Pony Finals, so I walked over to the Rolex Stadium, camera in hand, to find USHJA’s Lacy and Kristin Rover packing down sand with their bare feet in skirts.

From left: USHJA’s Megan Lacy and Kristin Rover and Murphy’s crewmen John-Clay Curtis and Nic Chafin hard at work stomping some sand. 

In the ring around them were four or five piles of sand in various stages of sculpting—two were entirely finished and looked totally awesome, and right away I had about a million questions.

 What were these awesome sand creations doing here?

They’re the brainchild of USHJA Hunter Derby Finals course designers Bobby Murphy and Danny Moore. As what I’m sure will soon become a legend goes, Murphy saw an example of a sand sculpture at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games, and has been wanting to incorporate sand sculpting into a hunter course ever since.

One of the finished sculptures, “Fun On the Farm.” 

Ok, but how do you make this happen?


Murphy found a team of professional sand sculptors (aka the coolest job ever) in Sarasota, Fla., by the name of Team Sandtastic. He hired the team and sent them ideas for inspiration on the sculptures: a USHJA ribbon, the George Morris perpetual trophy, and coincidently pictures from the Chronicle’s American Horses In Sport issue to model a massive sculpture of American Pharoah. (When I showed up, one of the sand builders literally had a copy of the Chronicle tucked into his bucket of sculpty tools. No lie.)

Murphy pulled this very well worn copy of the Chronicle out of the bucket to his right to find the picture of American Pharoah the crew is working off of for this sculpture.             

The sculptors in turn called ahead to a sand dealer in Lexington to have, as the email indicated, 125 tons of sand dropped off at the Rolex stadium to serve as their blank canvas.

Hard at work stomping some sand: from left, USHJA’s Megan Lacy, the Chronicle’s Ann Glavan (me), USHJA’s Kristin Rover. 

So how does one go about building a sand sculpture?

The sculpting sand is dumped in these massive piles all around the ring on top of a sheet of plastic, because we need to protect the sand footing from meeting and mixing with its more beach-like sand cousin. Then, something eerily similar to the scene from The Ten Commandments movie takes place, where you take a hose and mix water in with the sand and stomp on it to pack it down into a hard sculptable surface.

Team Sandtastic (made up of sculptors Patrick Harsch, Larry Hudson, Steve Schomaker and Dean Arscott) then spends 10 hours a day molding and shaping the sand into the fantastic creations I’m starting to see in the ring already. To give an idea of the time commitment, Megan told me it took two sculptors the full 10 hours to make the cow and farm house sculpture.

Sculptor Patrick Harsch works on making a sand ribbon jump standard—Murphy says this will be the first jump on course!

Ok, but what happens if it rains?

There is a special spray the sculptors cover the sand with when they’re done that forms a sort of hard outer shell to make the sculptures less delicate, and Murphy says they have thin sheets of plastic to lay over them as well.


What happens if a horse refuses a fence and runs into one of these beauties? Other than me crying?

Murphy said he plans to line the bottom of the sand sculptures with logs and different ring decoration (see the picture of the sand mountain) to hopefully dissuade any naughty ponies from taking a leap into the sculptures. 

Murphy is hoping ring decorations like these logs will keep any frisky ponies from getting into the sand sculptures.

We have all these sand standards, are we going to have a sand jump?

To quote Mr. Murphy, “Oh, they’re going to jump sand in the final round.” He wouldn’t get into logistics, as the details haven’t been entirely hashed out. Suffice to say that you’re going to want to watch the handy round of the derby to see how some of the bravest hunters in the country feel about jumping a sand sculpture of who-knows-what. Hopefully another woodland creature imbibing or strumming a banjo. 

Bourbon beaver. Aka my spirit animal.


Banjo squirrel totally rockin’ out.



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