Dig It: Elmer’s crafts special blend of dirt for Horse Shows by the Bay

WILLIAMSBURG – Here's the dirt: The finest equestrian grounds in the nation – among them Florida's Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, home to the world-famous Wellington horse show, and Kentucky Horse Park, annual host to the tony Rolex Concours Complet Internationale – aren't surfaced with dirt. They're surfaced with specially made synthetic material, generally dust-free crumb rubber or fiber that, when mixed with certain sands, create a stable but cushioning effect for the performing horses.

Alex and Dean Rheinheimer, owners and operators of the annual Horse Shows by the Bay in Williamsburg, wanted a special blend of their own. Understandably. Each July, many of the best equestrians in the world descend on their Horse Shows' Flintfields Horse Park in Williamsburg to compete.

The problem? Those blends can be enormously expensive – especially if the sand that best suits your choice of synthetic material must be shipped in from out of state. And, says Alex Rheinheimer, it's crucial that the sand suit the synthetic perfectly: "If the synthetic doesn't combine well with the sand, it just won't work."

So the Rheinheimers approached Team Elmer's, a Traverse City-based construction service company, with a challenge: develop a cost-effective, comparable product that utilizes local sand and works well with one of their preferred synthetic footings.

"[HSBB] did the research and told us the parameters, says Tonya Wildfong, co-owner of Elmer's, and we went out and found the sand product."

The pairing was perfect – a synthetic product from South Carolina combined with a particular Michigan sand pulled from a pit source – but arriving at it wasn't a snap, says Wildfong: "It's more time consuming than it is an intense process."

Rheinheimer says she respects the process on a number of levels. "It's a science and an art, getting the footing to be absorbent enough so it's not too dusty, but also not too soft, too deep, or too hard. We're hoping to create more cushion for the horses without compromising the stability of the surface." All that should be good news for horses, owners, and riders alike.

Team Elmer's is equally complimentary of the team at HSBB. Wildfong says they've been partnering with the organization since the beginning, helping to put in the show rings and gravel when the show started out on U.S. 31 south of Traverse City.

"We love partnering with Horse Shows by the Bay. They're innovative and great to work with," says Wildfong. "The new footing in the arena is one way to do that, and it's something we wanted to be a part of. We want to help make the event a great thing to promote for people coming to Michigan. Hats off to them for as hard as they're working. They're amazing people for bringing what they do to our area."

For Rheinheimer, it's a win-win solution. "It's a local product, instead of shipping it in from out of state. We're using local resources. And riders and horses should notice a remarkable difference with the footings."

The new footings were installed in both the main competition areas and the practice venues in early June, and after some fine-tuning, will be ready to go for events in July.

While the footings are the major project for the season – that's not the only change at Flintfields Park. Elmer's also excavated and re-graded the stable areas, improving the drainage. Rheinheimer says that should be a big improvement in the stables, especially if it happens to rain. They also installed a new irrigation well dedicated to filling the water trucks, which will keep the dust down in the riding