The first weekend in March, thousands of spectators, both local and out-of-towners, braved the elements to watch 35 of the world’s top event riders – including Aiken’s own Phillip Dutton, Boyd Martin and Doug Payne – and their horses perform remarkable feats of grace, skill, courage and athleticism. It was nothing short of breathtaking.
Thanks to the foresight and meticulous planning of the Aiken Horse Park Foundation, the success of the showcase was so much more than the sum of its equestrian parts – it also provided an opportunity to benefit the entire community in ways that extend far beyond the event itself. On Friday night, the Aiken Land Conservancy hosted a cocktail party in the VIP tent during the Stadium Jumping competition – appropriately named The Mane Event – to benefit the 2019 South Boundary Live Oak Protection and Preservation Project. In his remarks to the crowd of 400 excited spectators and participants attending the event, Mayor Rick Osbon said it best: horses, trees and generosity are three of the defining hallmarks of the Aiken community.
Truer words were never spoken. The guests that attended The Mane Event were enthusiastic and passionate about the showcase, Bruce’s Field and the sport of eventing, and they were generous without reservation when it came to supporting the City of Aiken and the Land Conservancy’s efforts to protect one of the most iconic views in Aiken: South Boundary and the 190 grand live oaks that line the street – the view that graced the cover of Southern Living magazine when Aiken was selected as the Best Small Town in the South last year.
The story goes that those 190 live oaks are the product of an earlier, visionary public/private partnership between Henry Dibble – the then-president of the Bank of Aiken – and Mayor Julian Salley in 1905. The two men agreed to share the cost and the work of planting the live oaks along the carriage path that ran through the treeless, reclaimed farmland upon which so many new homes were being built by the winter colonists. Ever since, generations of citizens and visitors to Aiken have been wowed by the serene beauty of the magnificent oaks' canopy arching over the street.
Those trees provide so much more than beautiful scenery and photographic opportunities; they are also hard workers. They provide shade from the grueling heat of summer, remove carbon dioxide from the air and absorb excess stormwater that causes localized flooding and damaging erosion to the Hitchcock Woods. It is hard to imagine Aiken without them, but it could happen. Like people, the aging process takes its toll on century-old trees, making it more difficult to survive the harsh urban environment and the effects of increasingly severe weather events, like the devastating ice storm in 2014. That is why the city and the Aiken Land Conservancy are so committed to keeping them healthy and beautiful for many more years to come.
By Sunday night, the champion riders and horses had all moved on, the VIP tent on Bruce’s Field had been taken down and all of those spectacular jumps replicating Aiken’s historic landmarks were being stored away for safekeeping until next year, but the benefits to the Aiken community resulting from the success of the inaugural Grand-Prix Eventing showcase will continue to accrue over time in so many direct and indirect ways. For this, the community has the Aiken Horse Park Foundation to thank for their vision and hard work.