From cattle grazing to horse racing, Plantation Field is the work of one remarkable couple.
Photos by Jim Graham.
Denis Glaccum was just 19 when he received an invitation that changed his life. It was 1960, and he’d been riding horses with the Junior Essex Troop, a New Jersey-based cavalry auxiliary started eight years earlier by a chapter of the state’s national guard. His family was paying $75 a year for the privilege—real money in those days—and Glaccum was pretty good.
In fact, he was so good that he received an invitation to the U.S. Olympic Trials in California. He was just a kid, and he wasn’t able to overcome the talents of more experienced, accomplished riders. But it was a great experience. “That invitation got me more education and training,” Glaccum recalls. After the trials, he found work teaching children to ride horses. “I didn’t know a lot about numbers, but I could teach four kids to ride for $6 an hour,” he says.
While Glaccum taught, he also rode—longer than anyone else in U.S. history, from 1956 to 2012. After surgery to remove an aneurysm in 2013 cost him his sight in one eye, Glaccum had to stop. Otherwise, he might still be competing now at age 79.
Glaccum and his wife, Bambi, operate Plantation Field Equestrian Events in Unionville, a 300-acre site that hosts competitions drawing some of the nation’s top riders. “Fifty-one people who’ve ridden here have competed in the Olympics, world championships or Pan American Games,” says Glaccum. “That makes riding here like skiing in Vail, Colorado.”
In the area since 2001, the Glaccums also ran Fair Hill Equestrian in Maryland for 15 years. During their time at Plantation Field, they’ve made substantial improvements to the competition, training and stabling areas, not to mention the infrastructure of the place. Running water and electricity may not seem like a big deal to some, but to add those amenities to what was basically a hayfield is quite an accomplishment. And the sport’s best competitors have noticed. “It’s the near highest quality venue in the sport,” says Cuyler Walker, who owns the Plantation Field property and is also on the board. “We attract the top riders, who use it to prepare for the Olympics and other major events.”
Denis Glaccum might’ve spent the majority of his professional career working for IBM, had he not received a call from a member of the Maryland equestrian community back in late 1980s. In 1976, he and Bambi started what would eventually become the Pennsylvania-based Chesterland Three-Day Event, which lasted 12 years. By 1989, he was balancing riding with his business career when he headed to Elkton, Md., to help build an equestrian hub on a nature preserve at Fair Hill. The 7,600-acre tract of land was owned by William du Pont Jr., who used it for fox hunting and steeplechase riding.
At the end of 1997, the Glaccums’ relationship with management at Fair Hill was “less than ideal,” so Denis and Bambi moved back north. They spent a few years looking for the right opportunity before connecting with Cuyler Walker, who owned land that had been in his family for more than century. Walker’s family had used it for a variety of purposes, even renting it to the Texas-based King Ranch for cattle grazing. In 2001, they started work on the site of what would become Plantation Field, taking the name from the hedges planted around the property. “Denis figured out how to turn it into an equestrian venue,” says Walker.
Often in concert with renowned designer Michael Etherington-Smith, the Glaccums have created a top-flight course with excellent terrain and a challenging layout. They and their staff run competitions in April, May and June, along with a series of summer events for less accomplished participants. Each September, Plantation Field hosts an international event that brings in riders from all over. “Most of it is due to Denis’ incredible vision,” Walker says. “He saw how a hayfield, with its peaks and valleys, could have a course run through it. And he laid it out so that it would be easily watchable for spectators from one place. They can see just about everything without moving around.”
And there’s plenty to see, even beyond the first-rate riders. Admission is often free, although the last day of three-day eventing competition usually costs about $20 a carload. Though the horses are certainly worth that reasonable rate, the tailgating scene is almost as entertaining. There are usually themes to the various weekends, and judges preside over revelers’ attempts to be awarded best in show. Even better is that most of the action can be viewed from the tailgating perch, meaning spectators don’t have to abandon their parties to see what’s happening.
This past September, Plantation Field began a new annual tradition, honoring an equestrian legend at the international event. The first to be recognized was Bruce Davidson, who runs Chesterland Farm in Unionville, which stages events and offers training. Davidson is best known for his competitive career. He’s won two Olympic gold medals, five world championships and was named to the U.S. Eventing Association’s Hall of Fame. Future honorees will come from a list of talented local riders who’ve participated in a variety of international competitions.
The Glaccums are constantly trying to improve the experience at Plantation Field. “Denis knows all the moving parts of the sport. He knows horses intuitively, and he knows what horses need,” says Walker. “He’s always out there on the tractor and knows every blade of grass and thorn or thistle.”
Bambi may not get the attention her husband does, but her efforts behind the scenes are also vital to Plantation Field’s success. She handles much of the administrative and back-office work. Perhaps most importantly, she’s capable of operating successfully given her husband’s eccentricities. “Denis is a handful, and Bambi is an angel,” Walker says.