WINONA, Ohio – When Dave and Jackie Smith bought an 80-acre farm outside Hanoverton, Ohio, nearly 21 years ago, they knew rehabbing Stone Gate Farm would be a long-term commitment.
The barn had shifted off its crumbling foundation, the house needed attention and the fields and woods were ragged.
It hardly looked like a retirement investment for a veterinarian and an equestrian, but the young couple saw past the rough edges. Rolling hills, mature woodlands, good drainage and a lightly-traveled back road formed the base for their dreams.
“We bought the place for the land,” said Dave Smith, gesturing across the neatly brush-hogged acres surrounding the renovated century house.
While the property may not have evolved into a “working farm” in standard ag-speak, the couple has put plenty of effort into creating a new life for an old operation.
On track. With Dave set up as one of two vets at the Winona Clinic practice, Jackie went about expanding her equestrian career. Riding her own horses in horse trials and three-day events since the 1970s, she is licensed with the United States Equestrian Federation and officiates at competitions throughout the country as a dressage judge or technical delegate.
She is also licensed as a cross country course designer, but limits her designing to the two sites where she and Dave host events.
Chairwoman of the U.S. Eventing Association’s organizers committee, she is also on the association’s board of governors and on the U.S. Equestrian Federation eventing committee. Locally, she is the instructional coordinator for the 35-member Western Reserve Pony Club based at Stone Gate Farm.
Her experience and teaching talent draw students who haul their four-legged partners to Stone Gate for lessons. She also trains her own event horses and helps to train those of their sons, Kevin, 15, and Kyle, 18.
Eventing course. From the beginning, the Smiths planned to turn the farm’s terrain into an eventing cross country course. To date, they figure they have built more than 200 cross country jumps – solid obstacles horses and riders negotiate during the cross country phase of a three-part event.
The jumps, of various sizes and difficulty for four levels of competition, are strategically placed across the hills and through the woods, giving the competitors a fine gallop up hill and down dale.
The dressage rings and stadium jumping areas, where the rest of the competition takes place, are located on 13 acres down a steep hillside.
Tag team. The Smiths share the credit for contributing ideas, motivation, know-how and labor.
“Nobody could start this up without her background,” Dave Smith said. “She dreams up these things, and I have to do them.”
But his careful planning and step-by-step technique break down the largest projects into bites that can be managed, physically and financially, by the minimum number of people.
Between raising a family, farming, eventing and working full-time, the couple completed some complicated and long-term projects.
“I call it the ‘law of little bits,'” Dave said.
They work from a list, breaking the projects into parts that can be started and finished according to weather and time limits.
Dave’s large-animal veterinary practice is busiest in the spring, which is when Jackie’s first event is scheduled. So the ventures they undertake are planned around those that don’t have any flexibility to them.
Barn raising. One of the first was to repair the main barn and build the stable under it.
The barn was completely off its foundation, Jackie said. It had crumbled away since being built in the 1950s.
“We had to jack it back into place.”
Parts of the rounded roof had to be replaced and some of the upper floor had to be rebuilt. They built eight box stalls below with a run-in area and turned the milk house into a tack and feed room. The upper portion is used primarily for equipment storage.
Several older buildings on the property were demolished, but they saved a big-timbered, three-bay machine shed that was set too far away from the rest of the yard by about 75 feet. The 30-foot-by-45-foot ‘garage barn’ had to be totally stabilized before it could be shifted into location.
“It took us three months to get ready to move it and three hours to actually move it,” he said.
House repairs. The house was in desperate need of repair, as well. Smiths actually hired a contractor to do a lot of the work, a big change for Dave.
“My uncle and grandfather did everything on the farm,” he said. “We built buildings and poured our own concrete. It wasn’t until I got out that I realized you can hire people to do some of those things.”
But not everything. They laugh over an episode when they were falling cherry trees in the hilly woods. They wanted to turn the 24-inch diameter logs into flooring for the house. When Dave cut one length free from the trunk, it started rolling down the hill – right into the neighbor’s parked car.
Game day. On event weekends, Dave wears several hats. He keeps everyone out of the hayfields. He is the vet on call in case a horse is injured or ill. And he is in charge of making sure everyone pulls their truck-and-trailer rigs into the well-mowed field in an orderly manner.
“The worst part is being the Parking Nazi,” he said. With 150 horse-rider teams arriving for the weekend, he was militant about how people needed to arrange their vehicles.
“Nobody’s lived until you do parking detail,” he said.
Hay crop. Smith’s crop farming makes use of the property in a more conventional way. About 30 acres of the farm are planted in alfalfa hay, most of which is sold right out of the field when possible. They keep enough first cutting for the horses.
On a rotating schedule, each hay field is plowed every few years and sown in wheat, Jackie said. After harvest, it is planted back to hay.
Hay baling occupies Dave and their sons, who earn money toward their college education for the work they do on the farm.
Overall, converting a farm into an eventing facility may strike some as an uncertain investment strategy, but Smiths figure if they can have the property paid off by the time they retire, the venture will have been worth their while.
Until then, they can have fun hammering their dreams into reality.
“Basically,” Dave said, looking out over the rolling acres, “You do it as a hobby.”
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