Conversations With Course Designers: Scott Starnes

By Erna Adelson and Jackie McFarland

A name we have seen printed in prize lists for many years, we caught up with Scott while he was designing courses in Parker, Colorado for the series of ‘A’ shows at the Colorado Horse Park.

“It’s been a long, strange, trip,” says Starnes of his ascent to his current status as one of California’s well-known course designers. Not a competitive rider but rather a former collegiate defensive back, Starnes’ experience in the elite equine world was hard to come by, and is a testament to his work ethic, determination, and skill as a technical designer.

It all began with the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, when Coto de Caza was host to the Olympic pentathlon show jumping events. Starnes took what was supposed to be just a summer job as part of the set up crew and ended up having a knack for the assignment. Shortly afterward, he met the legendary Pamela Carruthers and upon her encouragement traveled to Spruce Meadows where he crewed and assisted with course design. During the next decade Starnes observed and drew inspiration from some of the finest in the field from Equitation Finals to Grand Prix, including Jon Doney, David Ballard, Richard Jeffrey, Leopoldo Palacios and Linda Allen. While assisting abroad, Starnes was also working his way up as a course designer in his own backyard, learning from Tommy Dendiu, Richard Keller and Michael Curtis about designing for hunters and equitation as well as jumpers. As the horse show schedule in southern California expanded, Starnes was gainfully employed and no longer
had time to spend summers in Spruce Meadows.

We asked about designing courses for the new USHJA Hunter Derby, a more recent addition to our ‘A’ rated shows that requires a designer’s imagination to create a demanding yet inviting course for hunters. Whereas an equitation medal final or grand prix have many of the same technical questions and distance challenges, the Hunter Derby has its own requirements. “It is supposed to be more like an actual foxhunt while maintaining traditional hunter style,” Starnes commented. “The class requires a completely different build, at least four height option jumps, 3’6” and 4’, plus handy options.” Only in its first year and growing in popularity, this class requires the skill of an experienced course designer and when done well is as awesome to watch as a great Grand Prix.

Certainly steeped in the system, Starnes is the first person to admit that his career path would be considered unconventional. “Nowadays course designing is regulated more strictly,” he says. “You need to apply for a license, attend a certain number of clinics, and design at least three grand prix courses every two years to maintain your certification.” He notes that the new guidelines require all course designers to get licensed which he feels helps to ensure the safety of both horses and riders and improves the sport for all involved.

Though Starnes says that his most memorable assignments have been while crewing high-end events like the Olympics, World Cup and the Masters at Spruce Meadows because of the caliber of the designers and the athletes involved, he reveals that designing local and regional Medal Finals make him most happy. “I love designing at the Oaks because it’s home,” he says. Starnes is far from settled, though. With his FEI license pending, he may very well be back at the Olympics in London 2012, this time at the helm.