Dawn has broken over the broad fields and patches of woodlands that unspool in all directions. Stable lads scurry about delivering the morning feed and toting sloshing water buckets then tacking up the horses. Ruddy-cheeked stable lasses are legged up, their mounts blowing steam in the chilly morning air. In Unionville another working day has begun.
This gallop-and-jump terrain first attracted foxhunters, master horsemen and distinguished racehorse owners from Long Island, N. Y. near the turn of the 20th century. Among the leading lights of that sport horse movement in southern Chester County were Cuyler Walker’s ancestors.
His grandmother Carol married W. Plunkett Stewart who brought his pack of English foxhounds to Unionville full-time in 1929. Stewart helped establish the famed King Ranch division near Doe Run in the late 194os. Stewart’s step-daughters later assumed prominent roles—Nancy Hannum was the legendary master of the hounds, while her sister Avie Walker (four years younger) became a renowned racehorse owner and breeder, and was Cuyler’s mother.
“The respect and appreciation of the land was instilled in them by their parents, that their lives should make a difference,” relates Walker, trustee of the Cheshire Land Preservation Fund. “Those early horsemen were attracted to this spectacular land that wasn’t much different from when Native Americans and the first settlers lived here. For those horsemen it was a means to an end. Today, the means is the end. The preserved land is the key to growth and promotion of our multi-discipline horse world.” Traveling out Rt. 82 past the elegant stone kennels that house Mr. Stewart’s Cheshire foxhounds, visitors come upon a vast, sloping emerald hillside. Primarily the property of Cuyler and Katie Walker, it’s a stunning mix of meadows and wooded cover as well as a historic stone foundation ruins encompassing about 300 acres of conserved land.
It is also the site of the fourth Plantation Field International Horse Trials, September 16-18. A triathlon of equestrian events, the prestigious Plantation competition is one of a handful of three day CIC*** events in the United Sates. Spectators at its sprawling cross-country course will get a birds-eye view of many of America’s elite cross-country competitors. Two years ago Phillip Dutton, a four-time Olympian who operates True Prospect Farm near West Grove, triumphed aboard Inmidair who exhibited a range of gears and a superb jumping ability.
“Phillip is an eventing legend so we were proud to have a world-class champion and other elite riders competing this year,” said Denis Glaccum, Director of Plantation Field International Horse Trials. "But none of this would be possible without the support of the Cheshire Land Preservation Fund and the use of additional acreage to the north we are using for dressage, stadium jumping and stabling at our expanded venue.”
Loss of open land has been identified as the greatest threat to the future of equestrian sports, recreation and industry. Development pressure is a constant threat. Not so here. It is still a place remarkably unchanged from a century or two ago when riders galloped across the open spaces.
Encouraging partnerships with conservationists and like-minded groups, scores of equestrians and local land owners have been mobilized to work for open space preservation and land access, achieving a kind of symbiosis beneficial to the community.
Nearly three decades ago the Brandywine Conservancy recognized the significance of the local natural resources and began a concerted long-term effort to have permanent conservation easements placed on large tracts of land. Through their efforts, and those of the Cheshire Land Preservation Fund and other conservation organizations and land trusts, there are now over 30,000 contiguous acres subject to easements and deed restrictions that will permanently preserve their rural character and agricultural use.
“If land owners are under pressure to raise capital or sell, conservation easements and county open-space preservation programs have proved workable options,” says Walker, a partner at the Pepper Hamilton law firm in Berwyn, Pa.
“We have the largest contiguous mass of conserved land from Washington to Boston,” Walker reports. “Some of the vistas take your breath away. We’re lucky enough to follow in the footsteps of Lammot du Pont, Plunkett Stewart, Robert Kleberg and Frolic Weymouth. We’re continuing to preserve this special land that God created.”
Up a twisting country lane, Walker’s restored 1850 farmhouse sits atop a steep knoll. He grew up here when his mother Averell Penn Smith Walker operated Rolling Plains Stable, and bred top-flight racehorses. Today, the old barn is home to his wife Katie’s prospective eventing horses, Cuyler’s mother’s last champion racehorse Mort the Sport, now 26, and a smallish chestnut rouge named Charlie who is known to flip the electric light switch next to his stall off and on most of the night.
Inside the comfortable farmhouse a pack of five yellow and black labs eagerly greet a pair of newcomers who tour a wonderful collection of photographs that tell much of the region’s horse world story. Silver trophies and cups are perched on a mahogany table, including a championship trophy won at the 1912 Devon Horse Show. Vintage equine and family oil portraits abound, including Cuyler’s great-grandfather Edward Henry Harriman.
By the 1890s the Harriman name had become synonymous with "railroad." Harriman gained control of the Union Pacific Railroad, and later was president of the Southern Pacific. His railroad lines eventually connected three continents. Harriman’s son, William Averell Harriman, was elected the 52nd governor of New York and was later tapped as U. S. ambassador to the Soviet Union and Great Britain. In the racehorse world, Cuyler’s grandmother Carol Averell Harriman Smith Plunkett was the owner of outstanding broodmares and stallions that produced a string of stakes winners. Her colt Pasteurized triumphed in the Belmont Stakes of the 1938 Triple Crown series.
Avie Walker was known as a sharp judge of horseflesh and a tough and creative bargainer. An amateur timber rider, she suffered a tragic a fall on the old Cheshire Point-to-Point course in 1961 that resulted in paralysis from the waist down. Cuyler was one year old.
“After her accident she still traveled to Europe a few times and would drive her specially equipped car alone up to Saratoga for the racing and the yearling sales,” Walker relates. “The logistics were very complicated but she was determined to stay involved in the thoroughbred business. On the other hand, Mrs. Hannum (Avie’s sister) never left this region due to her responsibilities of tending to her horses and hounds.” On a sunny morning several years ago, Cuyler and Katie were summoned by a persistent banging by Denis Glaccum at their front door. A trainer of event and show horses for four decades, Glaccum spoke about his idea of launching the Plantation Field International Horse Trials on the Walkers’ property off Rt. 82. Glaccum’s pitch: spectators would enjoy the elite competition at a gorgeous venue that offer unobstructed vistas that incorporate natural elements including the well-known stone foundation ruins located on the site.
This year a new arena has been constructed with a Tapeta synthetic surface that will be the site of dressage and stadium jumping.
Katie Walker handles the marketing duties for Plantations.
“There are a lot of kid-friendly activities and a nice selection of vendor shops and food stands,” she says. “Beyond land preservation our beneficiary is The Barn at Spring Brook Farm that changes lives for the better. Their horses and ponies have a profoundly positive effect on children that have physical and mental disabilities. We’re thrilled to have them as our beneficiary.”
Plantation Field hosts four nationally recognized USEA horse trials and three starter trials each year. The latest tenants are a dozen horses from the mounted police unit in Philadelphia that are stabled at a barn on the property as they’re trained for crowd control during street celebrations. It’s a perfect marriage. Thousands of acres in the region used for breeding, raising, training and riding horses have been preserved by locals involved with horses and their neighbors as a result of their appreciation and commitment to the land.
"Equestrian sports have been critical to the success of the efforts to preserve open space,” observes Walker, “and that preservation, in turn, has enabled equestrian activities to continue to flourish in the area."