During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when horse shows were temporarily cancelled, five-time Olympian McLain Ward and his family spent some of the downtime watching old VHS competition videos. One tape included footage of a 15-year-old Ward placing second at a grand prix at Old Salem Farm.
“This field, this arena, has been wonderful to me over the years. And my friends and family have been able to be part of it because it’s in our community,” said Ward, now 46, of the competition venue in North Salem, New York.
Fond memories are one reason Ward last year approached Scott Hakim, whose family has owned Old Salem Farm since 2001. Ward’s idea was to renovate the grand prix field. After much discussion and debate, the decision was made to replace the 4-1/2-acre hilly, grass arena with state-of-the-art, all-weather footing. The renovations debuted at the two-week Old Salem Farm Spring Horse Shows, which concluded May 22.
A Better Experience
Though some were sad to see the turf go, the goals of the upgrades are to be able to expand the events at the facility and create a better experience for exhibitors and spectators. Possible future plans include holding bigger, more prestigious international events there.
“The name Old Salem and the farm are a little bit iconic. … and it really went hand in hand with the grass field. But technology changes in sports, and like every other sport, equine technology is constantly changing from footing to tack to clothing,” said Hakim, co-chair of the spring shows with Ward.
“I looked at the field, and we put so much into getting it ready for last year’s competition. And I thought to myself, ‘Am I really putting all my money into the right technology and keeping us on the cutting edge of what’s going on in the horse world?’”
Hakim had a lot of confidence going forward with support from Ward and longtime Old Salem Farm show manager Allen Rheinheimer. So he decided the changes to the grand prix field were needed.
A Venerable History
Located an hour north of New York City, Old Salem Farm was built in 1964 by a group of retired policemen. Since then, ownership of the 120-acre property and 85,000 square-foot stable has changed hands. Owners have included actor Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, in the 1980s. They made the first set of renovations, which included adding the grand prix field.
The Hakims bought the property in 2001, and the facility underwent additional major renovations to the stable and event grounds. In addition to the building, these included improving the temporary show stabling areas, carving out a larger parking area and renovating two smaller hunter arenas.
With all of the improvements over the years, Old Salem Farm has hosted prestigious events, including the 1990 World Equestrian Games selection trials and the 1992 AHSA National Hunter Pony and Pony Medal Finals. It also has held the 1993 Rolex/USET Medal Finals–East competition and one of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics selection trials. More recently, the farm hosted the American Gold Cup for several years starting in 2010.
Over the last few years, though, the show entries had started to decrease for the spring shows. A big reason was the grass arena. It was uneven and in bad weather became difficult to ride on or classes had to be cancelled or postponed. “Grass is probably the best surface a horse can ride on when it’s perfect. It’s a natural feel for them,” said Rheinheimer, who has managed the spring shows for 18 years starting in 1997.
But “in the spring, it’s hard to keep the grass,” Rheinheimer continued. “You’re coming off of winter, so you’ve got a big challenge coming into the spring shows every year. And if you have a wet spring, you could have a wet ring.” Ward added that the economic realities of maintaining a grass field to the standards competitors now expect is “astronomical.” When you want a facility to run multiple-level events, multiple rounds, in many different climates, repeatedly, “the recipe just doesn’t work.”
Ward, whose Castle Hill Farm is only a few miles away in Brewster, New York, said he thinks New York and the surrounding areas are some of the greatest places in the world for equestrian sport. The area has always been a horse community, and before the explosion of competition in Wellington, Florida, the best show jumpers and hunters came from this area, he said.
“I think we can do it as well here as anywhere in the world. So I really felt I would regret dropping the ball on pitching the idea and trying to lend my support in any way possible to make it happen,” he said. “And I think this is just a springboard. This is the beautiful spec house in an incredible development.”
Once the team decided to make the change, Hakim said there were critics—“a lot of riders, a lot of people who are fans of the farm that come here just to watch the show. And I understood where they were coming from because in my head and heart, I was also reluctant. But I knew I had control over the project, and I knew what it had to be.”
Old Salem Farm Facelift: Modernize Yet Maintain Aesthetics
The challenge was coming up with a modern surface and a ring design that allowed for hundreds of horses and hundreds of rounds in various weather yet maintain the charm and aesthetics of the hills and trees that were in the grass arena. The question was “how are we going to meld [the ring] into the hillside and aesthetically keep it beautiful? Because we didn’t really just want a big square sandbox,” Ward said.
The group worked with the North Salem government on permitting changes. Then they broke ground on the new arena footing in November. Lawton Adams of FootingFirst™, who did Ward’s arena at Castle Hill, was the head contractor. Hakim said they had to dig down 12 feet to even out the ring and make it stable to build up the footing.
The team worked on the arena for four months leading up to the spring shows. The end result is a much-more level arena with the new footing. Adjoining the all-weather footing is a grass area that includes a pond, the trees and a sunken road. Future plans include using the grass section along with the new footing area as part of hunter derby and jumper classes.
Rider Reaction to Old Salem Farms’ Facelift
Hakim said once online entries were opened for the spring shows, they were filled to capacity within two weeks. He added that there was a waiting list of more than 200 horses, which had never happened before. “What it tells me is that people were waiting for something like this in this area,” he said.
Competitors at the Old Salem Farm shows, held May 10-15 and May 17-22, had positive things to say about the arena.
“I was sad to see it without grass. But since jumping on it the last two weeks, I think we’re all really, really happy,” said grand prix competitor Brianne Goutal-Marteau. “You can compete every day. We’re not having any rain switches. From the competitive level, you are able to go faster. You’re able to kind of turn and burn a little bit more than you are with grass.”
Brazilian Olympian Rodrigo Pessoa, who lives in North Salem, said grass arenas such as those in Dublin, Ireland, and Hickstead, England, require a huge amount of work to maintain. And they have only a few competitions a year at venues like that. “It’s fantastic for the area,” said Pessoa, who competed during Old Salem Farm’s spring shows. “They did a great job to keep the June Road aspect and the main tree is still here. It looks good, and it’s jumped unbelievable. The footing was perfect right from the get-go. It’s very equal for all the competitors.”
A Venue That Will Continue to Grow
From his perspective, Rheinheimer said, “You can always tell the tension in the air when it’s not good. There was not much tension here. People have been happy, with smiles on their faces, excited to be a part of it.”
Ward, who won Sunday’s $200,000 Empire State Grand Prix and several other classes, said he thought the footing was very good the first week. By the second week, the horses were “flying off of it,” he said, adding, in his experience, the footing gets only better with time.
“The [farm’s] following has been so supportive that it’s going to make it, in an economic situation, so we can continue to make further improvements and develop the events at all different levels throughout the year,” said Ward, whose 7-year-old daughter, Lilly, competed in the Small Pony Division the second week and whose 2-year-old daughter, Madison, competed in the first week’s leadline class. “Everything from what I hope are five stars and Nations Cups, possibly even championship-type events to lower-level regionals and national and grassroots because we now have the venue to service all of that.”