BY LAUREN AUBERT
Nestled behind the rolling acres of Sonoma Valley grape vines and the “Emerald City” at the end of long, winding road lies a facility home to 25 acres of many barns, gorgeous arenas, and a notable fanbase. Established in the beautiful wine country of Petaluma, California in 2010, Sonoma Horse Park (nicknamed SHP or Sonoma by show aficionados) offers a unique show experience complete with brightly colored fences, proud sponsors, and ribbons four feet tall. A scenic destination attracting riders from the Northern California region, this wine country wonder offers seven shows, one of them deemed a World Champion Hunter Rider (WCHR) week.
SHP offers classes much different from other shows across the United States, such as its Equitation Team Challenge offered annually at the HMI June Classic where riders compete in pairs, and the Les Talents Hermes challenge offered at the SHP Season Finale. The generous prizes available to the lucky winners range from Asmar Equestrian riding jackets and shirts for the championships to Winston show coats and Monaco tall boots for the special equitation classes. The venue boasts an elevated VIP area parallel to the Wells Fargo and Equine Insurance arenas complete with excellent, locally-sourced food and drink and a splendid view of the action below. Although the show venue is a relatively new addition to Northern California, it is a long time favorite of many riders across the region.
“There are so many incredible aspects of the show that I have fallen in love with but the best part personally is the community,” says Olivia Blake, a native of San Francisco, Calif. “I was instantly pulled into the Sonoma Horse Park world.” Sonoma Horse Park strives to bring together a community of people with a common love with great food and a spot to watch the Grand Prix or hunter derby in the spacious VIP area, or with the long, wooden ringside benches furnished with their signature blue throw pillows where pony parents, adult amateurs and junior riders alike congregate to cheer on their barn mates in classes from the leadline to the Grand Prix classes.
“My favorite aspect of the show… [were] all of the kind competitors in the classes,” says Lauren Ervin, a junior rider from Sonoma, Calif. Blake’s words above ring true as the close-knit Northern California community is keen on encouraging each other, even after friendly competition. Friends are seen giving each other high-fives as the top-eight of the flat equitation are announced, as are local trainers joking with the long-time gate starters. Blake notes that her favorite memories made at the show were made while spectating the famous Grand Prix classes. “Throughout the years I have so many unforgettable memories of sitting in the VIP or on the berm watching my idols all compete!”, she excitedly says. Blake has been frequenting the show since 2010, since her beginnings in the walk-trot. “Over the years I have gone from walk trot, to canter cross rails, all throughout the pony division and children’s pony [hunters]… [and am] now in the Large Pony Hunters.”
“My first impression of the show [was] that it was super organized,” states Ervin, who has been showing at SHP since June of 2017, a relatively newcomer. From the perfectly arranged flowers adorning each jump in the arenas to the neatly folded ribbons awaiting an owner, every since aspect of the Horse Park, every single aspect of SHP is carefully planned and curated to please the eye. Clara Bonomi, another junior rider out of San Francisco, Calif, has an identical opinion; “One of the things that I love about Sonoma Horse Park is that everything is so carefully thought out. From the jump decorations to the ribbon style, every detail is thoroughly inspected.” Ashley Herman herself, the proud owner of Sonoma Horse Park is seen floating around the grounds to ensure every single aspect of the show is kept in order, from the condition of the splendid jumps to the presentation of the classic ribbons.
One of the most notable aspects of the show circuit is indeed the lavish Pony Hunter Classic ribbons. From first to tenth place, each lucky rider is adorned with the hallmark larger-than-life prize, decorated with the colors of their respective sponsor, from local NorCal company Charleigh’s Cookies to Smartpak. Young riders from all across California compete in the two-round event to win one of these 4-foot keepsakes. “You can always count on Ashley [Herman] to take your breath away with all of the gorgeous ribbons,” says Olivia Blake. In fact, many young riders have fond memories of nervously awaiting the classic results and soon being rewarded with the victory gallop, ribbon-in-hand. “At the end of a victory gallop, my friends and I sang and danced to our favorite songs while on our horses,” Avery Kalafatas, a 13-year old rider from Ross, Calif, remembers. “SHP has created many memories like these that keep me loving this sport.” Camaraderie between competitors is no stranger to the pony ring, especially on classic day.
With the help of eager competitors, wonderful sponsors, and a great management team, Sonoma Horse Park has blossomed into a booming establishment, the shining highlight of the Northern California show circuit. Its many competitions offer a wide range of classes to suit riders of every kind, and many attractions invoking fond memories of riders across the board. SHP is the place many riders will flock to for a unique show experience, complete with great competitors, amazing prizes, and a friendly atmosphere. Always and forever, SHP is the place to be!