Riders on horseback at Paradise Ridge have galloped across gravel arenas, over steep terrain and across buried missile silos for years since the former military base was turned over to the island in the 1980s.
Much of the grounds of the former Nike missile site were once paved over and reinforced with steel rebar. It’s a different picture today, with a cross-country equestrian jumping course built around the wooded perimeter of the 43-acre property.
Last Saturday, The Vashon Hunter Trials & Pace brought out members of the Vashon Rock Riders 4-H Club, ranging in ages from eight to 19, for a day of friendly competition with the island Olympus Pony Club, all to fundraise for improvements to the cross country course. Island equestrian and 4-H club leader Marie Bradley said the event was also a celebration of the progress in the making at the park that transformed it into the riding destination it is now.
“We have to fix it and keep getting new energy into it,” she said, standing near a grassy, flat section of the property that was once paved over. The area was used on Saturday for the first time for the competition. “Now the turf is good enough that we can ride on it.”
Many of the jumps on the surrounding cross country course — rising two feet or so off of the ground and improvised by volunteers with logs, old tires and wine casks — are showing their age and are deteriorating, posing a hazard to both riders and horses. Some need to be avoided by riders entirely.
Bradley noted that most of the infrastructure at the park, from the wood fences to the announcers stand where judges watch the horses perform dressage routines, were all built by volunteers donating their time using materials sourced from wherever they could get them. Visages of the former base remain, including portions of the old cyclone fencing and an old dog kennel where Bradley said German Shepherds were kept. Now it is used for storage.
In the center of an open field is a large covered riding arena that volunteers campaigned for, raising funds after many years to build it a decade ago, fulfilling the hope of many in the island’s equestrian community. Runoff water from the roof of the metal structure is collected in a tank and used for irrigation to keep the gravel arena underneath from becoming too dusty.
Turnout for the Trials and Pace event was low — Bradley said that’s part of a growing trend but one that doesn’t bother her. When her daughter joined the 4-H club years ago, all of the members had horses at home. But now, Bradley said privately owning a horse doesn’t work for many families anymore, though she noted that doesn’t mean interested members can’t find ways to ride, with some animals available for lease or lessons. No one who joins the Rock Riders has to own their own horse.
There is also a 4-H club closet — it can cost $500 or more to outfit a child for an average riding season, so the closet contains show clothes that members can use throughout the year.
Bradley said that parents are different today, as well. Some don’t know a thing about horses, she said, but their children want to learn more.
“It’s just wonderful when I have a parent that knows which end of the horse the bridle goes on,” she said. “It really has changed over the years.”
Bradley said that joining 4-H provides members a number of opportunities, from taking part in public speaking and record-keeping to judging contests and participating in horse bowl and groom squad competitions, citizenship, mentorship and community service. She added that the program emphasizes goal setting both as a rider and in the personal lives of children in 4-H.
“One of the 4-H mottos is to take the best and make it better,” said Bradley. That goes for both the rider and the horse.
“I’ve seen kids take some really average animals and make them really [great].”
For the animal, physical conditioning is essential — Bradley said there is so much to teach and train the horses so they understand what the riders are trying to communicate to them, and that can mean a world of difference for both.
“You see kids grow so much with their interest with horses. They go from kids that don’t have a lot of self-confidence to being able to control a 1,000-pound animal. You see a lot of success.”
But Bradley said she is concerned that their growth, and everything that Vashon’s equestrian community has built at Paradise Ridge, is under threat in the event that the Vashon Park District’s November levy fails to pass “and we can’t get in and use this place after everything we’ve put into it.”
The Park District was created as a King County park and recreation agency in 1985 specifically to acquire the Paradise Ridge Property, which was owned by the county at the time and nearly returned to the federal government until islanders intervened and formed the district.
If the district’s attempt to pass a levy fails next month, it will have two more chances in 2020 to do so, though it will not be funded by tax revenue for the year. Levy funds account for about 80 percent of its annual revenue. As a result, the 18 parks the district owns will be closed due in part to the fact that they would not be insured against liability.
That includes Paradise Ridge, where executive director Elaine Ott-Rocheford said the gate would be locked, though because the situation is unprecedented, she did not know specifics beyond that.
“It would depend upon what the public, what voters, decided what they wanted to have happen with those properties,” said Ott-Rocheford. “[Paradise Ridge] — and all of the park district properties — ultimately belong to the Vashon community.”