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  • Caylie Gnyra

New Dirt Brings New Events To Town

Volunteer Oren Nafziger runs Lakeland College’s tractor and groomer at the ABRA jackpot at the Vermilion fairgrounds. Photo Caylie Gnyra

“The dirt started all of this,” says Nicole Templeton, Office Manager of the Vermilion Agricultural Society. “Horse people won’t do anything without good dirt,” she attests.

Ashley Kelts, Carla Pocock, and Lindsay Westman have been busy organizing four consecutive weekly barrel racing jackpots at the Vermilion Agricultural Society’s fairgrounds for the Alberta Barrel Racing Association (ABRA). The first jackpot, held September 6, was the third event to test out the new dirt—an investment that the Agricultural Society is hoping will pay off in attracting new events and visitors to the town. This $60,000 ground improvement project received generous community support, for which the Agricultural Society extends its sincerest appreciation.

The dirt quietly made its debut at the Vermilion Fair this summer. It was next used at the Alberta High School Rodeo, which was held at the fairgrounds September 3–4 and attracted over 300 kids and their parents to Vermilion for the weekend. This rodeo—the first held on the grounds in about 30 years—was organized by Lori and Jared Harder, owners of the local clothing and tack shop Branded Western Wear.

The Harders have been instrumental in bringing new dirt into the grounds. With kids in rodeo, the Harders had visited riding arenas across Alberta and knew that Vermilion’s fairgrounds had some of the best event infrastructure around, but that its dirt was an issue. They approached the Agricultural Society with visions of hosting events, but explained that the ground needed to be replaced to reach its full potential for equestrian performances.

Jared’s brother Jason Harder owns OCD Earthworx, a company based out of Carstairs whose slogan is “Dirt matters.” Known across Western Canada as “THE dirt work guy,” Jason had developed a passion for safe and fast footing after seeing arenas across the province up close with his barrel racing daughter. He had been approached years ago to build some equestrian arenas and saw a need for safer ground, recognizing a niche to be filled. He even went to “dirt school” in Florida in 2017, where he learned the intricacies of riding arenas’ materials and maintenance.

The Agricultural Society hired Jason to consult on this project, and the work was completed just days before the Vermilion Fair this summer. There are two main components of this project: the dirt itself and its regular maintenance.

First, the original dirt was scraped and then replaced: the base layer is now a silty clay material, while the top two inches consist of five-millimeter screened sand. When mixed with moisture, they create a texture that holds shape and creates safe footing for all equine contestants. Hard ground can create slippage that is dangerous to both horses and riders; with moisture, there is a cushion, which is much safer for horses’ joints and tendons, and traction, which leads to faster race times.

The second aspect of the dirt work is its ongoing maintenance. Doug Stewart expressed his gratitude on behalf of the Agricultural Society to Lakeland College for providing access to the right equipment to maintain the dirt.

The college owns a Conterra Arena Quantum groomer, which the Harder brothers describe as very user-friendly and one of the best ones manufactured. Its unique design features a three-point-hitch mount with an independent pivoting feature. Jared explains that a simple three-point-hitch will create a swale when turning corners, but the independent pivoting feature allows the groomer to follow the tractor like a trailer while still being able to lift. The teeth are hydraulically lifted and can reach to different depths. Finally, the groomer has two different packing features, scraper bars, and a watering system, all of which allow for the operator to manipulate the dirt in various ways for different events and weather. At the end of an event, the groomer will put the dirt to bed, sealing it by packing it so the ground is level and any rain water will drain off evenly.

Kelts’ partner Oren Nafziger is one of the local volunteers learning the ins and outs of the groomer. During the barrel racing events, he rakes the ground with the machine every five runs, ensuring consistency for all of the racers. Operators can make immediate changes to the ground based on conditions and events. Jason Harder admits there is a significant learning curve in making these adjustments, but volunteers have been keen to learn.

Safety for the riders and their horses is critical to Kelts. “I want to do my due diligence to maintain the integrity of the dirt the Agricultural Society has invested in. It’s just a way to go above and beyond to provide barrel racers with some incentive to enter these jackpots and peace of mind that horses won’t get injured running,” she says.

Vermilion’s second barrel racing jackpot of the month, held on Wednesday, September 13, had 74 entrants—so many that Kelts had to arrange to borrow light towers, generously provided by Snelgrove Construction, to ensure racers could continue to ride safely as the sun set. In this series, the first set of girls run at 4 p.m. and the second set starts at 7 p.m., with a break between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m.

Prior to this series, local barrel racers would have to travel an hour or two to compete in the closest jackpot. These events provide not only an opportunity for racers of all levels to compete together, but also for young horses to have a safe, low-stress first exposure to travel and events off their home farm. Kelts gratefully acknowledges the direction from ABRA district director Kami Bowers and support from enthusiastic volunteers that keep the events running smoothly.

The barrel racing jackpot series will continue at the Vermilion fairgrounds September 20 and 27, with Roxann Nafziger’s concession on site. ABRA members can enter on the Vermilion Barrel Jackpots Facebook page after 6 p.m. on the Sunday immediately preceding each event. Pre-entries close the Wednesday of the jackpot at noon. Entries will also be taken on-site and will be put at the bottom of 7 p.m. draw.

Jared Harder hopes this is just the beginning of an era of new events hosted at the fairgrounds, bringing more economic opportunities to the area. “It’s endless to what you could put in here,” he says. “Some people have suggested we could host provincial events here. You could have a concert out here. You just have to work the dirt differently.”

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