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Tryon Prepares For World Equestrian Games

The World Cup of equestrian sport is coming to western North Carolina next month. As many as 400,000 people are expected to descend on Polk County for the World Equestrian Games. 

In previous years, the games have been held in places like Stockholm, Sweden and Achen, Germany. This year, they’re being held at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in the heart of a region long-known for its equestrian community.

Right now at the equestrian center instead of sportsmen atop horses, there are construction workers riding backhoes as the center prepares to host the games. Sharon Decker is the center’s chief financial officer.

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Credit Marshall Terry / WFAE
Tryon International Equestrian Center COO Sharon Decker on a balcony overlooking the main arena at the center.

“You see over to our right a structure that’s going to be completed for the games, a three-story structure that will be our media center for the games,” she said. “Close to a thousand journalists and photo journalists from all over the world will be here for the event.”

In addition to the press box, Decker said the center is also building two new arenas, adding horse stalls and converting a barn into a quarantine, which is required by the USDA for horses that come from overseas.  It’s a lot of work to be finished in just a few weeks, but Decker isn’t worried.

"You know, I think you can look to any Olympic event and perhaps any other World Equestrian Games and you always see covered in the press the weeks before ‘Are they going to be ready? Are they going to be ready?’ ” she said.  “We will be ready.”

Over 800 competitors from 71 countries will be here to compete in events such as vaulting, jumping and dressage, which Decker described as something like horse dancing.

There’s also an endurance event in which one rider and one horse must complete a 100 mile race in a single day. The horses stop for rest and to be checked by a vet every 25 miles. Decker said based on past World Equestrian Games, the region could see between $200 and $400 million in spending during the two-week event. 

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Credit Marshall Terry / WFAE
Julia Calhoun, owner of Tryon Toymakers and Woodcarvers, working on one of her old-fashioned toys. Calhoun is expecting a surge in business when the World Equestrian Games bring an expected 400,000 people to the area.

In downtown Tryon, about 12 miles away, Julia Calhoun expects a surge in business during the games. She owns Tryon Toymakers and Woodcarvers. And like the equestrian center, Calhoun is putting in long hours to make sure everything is ready for the crowds.

“Everybody that works with me is working overtime,” Calhoun said.  “We’re trying to get as many puzzles made as we can. I also have a chocolate shop.  I had to give them orders a month in advance so they have time to make what I’m ordering.”

Across the street from Calhoun’s shop in the center of town stands Morris, a 15-foot tall fiberglass horse that serves as Tryon’s mascot and symbol of the area’s long history of equestrianism. Drew Brannon is a Tryon native and president of the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club.

“Morris has appeared in all of the parades that we have in town going back a long, long time,” Brannon said.

The club was founded in 1925 by Carter Brown, the man credited with laying the foundation for this region’s horse industry. Brown came to Tryon from Michigan in the 1910s, but not for horses.  It was a sanitarium for tuberculosis patients that drew him here.  He turned it into the Pine Crest Inn, which still exists.

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Credit Marshall Terry / WFAE
Morris the Horse stands in the center of downtown Tryon and symbolizes the area's rich equestrian history.

“The area always was a farming community, and had plenty of horse and horse-related activity going on,” Brannon said.  “But Carter was really the first one to sort of see the opportunity for there to be organized horse shows and horse-related events."

In 1927, Brown organized a horse show that grew into one of the biggest events of the year in Tryon.

“The entire community would show up at Harmon Field to participate and we had a barbecue for lunch,” Brannon said.  “The kids would get out of school.”

Tryon’s equestrian reputation grew when the U.S. Olympic equestrian trials were held here in 1956 and 1960. It seems everyone in this small town of about 1,600 is either involved with horses or knows someone who is. Horse stalls still line the edge of Harmon Field, now a public park. Even the local paper, The Tryon Daily Bulletin, has an equestrian reporter. But I have yet to see any real horses on this trip.  So I head a few miles outside of town to the 100-acre Cherokee Hill Farm.

It’s the hottest part of the day and owner Mike Schatzberg is bringing his heard into the barn to escape the heat. As the horses walk by, he names them and tells me their breed.  There’s Tutu, a Gypsy Vanner.  And Kate, an Oldenburg.  He even greets some of the horses with a ‘hello’ just as he would a friend.  

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Credit Marshall Terry / WFAE
Cherokee Hill Farm owner Mike Schatzberg with an Oldenburg named Kate.

Schatzberg has been around horses all his life. First in New Jersey and then he bought Cherokee Hill in the 1980s. It’s got a riding school and stalls for boarding. Schatzberg is boarding a few of the horses that will compete in the games, and to his surprise, he’s also been asked to help coach one of the teams.

“The Israeli riders came to me and asked me if I would be involved with their effort to ride in the games,” Schatzberg said.

That the World Equestrian Games are even coming here is a surprise. The equestrian center opened in 2015 with a long-term goal of someday hosting the games. But the opportunity came so early because original plans to hold the games in Canada fell through. So now, they get underway in Tryon September 11.