Last week, Hurricane Florence quickly grabbed the headlines from a major sporting event happening right here in Western North Carolina. The World Equestrian Games kicked off just as the storm was moving towards the coast. After a short delay earlier this week, the spotlight is once again shining on the Tryon Equestrian Center. But as Helen Chickering reports, the real horse story is down the road.
The crowd cheers as four legged competitors and their riders gallop through man made creeks and jump over obstacles on the cross country course at the World Equestrian Games in Mill Spring, North Carolina. Hundreds of riders and horses from 71 countries have gathered at the Tryon Equestrian Center to compete in 8 disciplines, everything from endurance to a gymnastics-like event called vaulting.
So just how did the world games land at the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains? To find out, you need to take a 15 minute ride into the town that bears the equestrian center name, and talk to a local.
“I’m so happy to be showing you something that is near and dear to my heart and that is Tryon horse country,” says Happy McLeod.
Happy McLeod started riding horses in Tryon when she was just a little girl. Right now she’s standing in the Equestrian Room at the Tryon Historical Museum, where she told me about a man named Carter Brown who made a stop in the town in 1917.
“Carter Brown came into town on the train and fell in love. He was a horseman, he immediately saw that the climate and terrain was perfect for horses.”
Brown, who came from Michigan is credited with putting Tryon on the map as horse country. In 1925 he founded the Tryon Riding and Hunt Club which is still active today - and soon after helped the town launch its first horse show.
Harmon Field is a public park that was built in 1927 with grant money. Covering nearly 40 acres, it includes a baseball field and an equestrian center- where history was made
“After the US Army discontinued the Calvary, a group of civilians got together and formed the first Civilian Equestrian Team, right here at Harmon field
Happy McLeod remembers watching the team as they trained for the 1956 Olympics.
“I was probably ten years old and my eyes were as big as saucers! You know, loving horses the way I did, here are all these people I’ve been reading about and seeing in magazines, and they were right there in the hometown!”
A hometown that now included several equestrian centers, miles of riding trails, and acres and acres of pastures.
“This used to be the blockhouse, this was where the steeplechase was”.
As we drove through the rolling hills spotted with barns and grazing horses, we stopped by the equestrian center at FENCE, a nonprofit nature center where local equine expert and Happy’s childhood friend, Gerald Pack was busy helping horses and riders prepare for a competition.
“Over here on the right are the bigger horses.”
Pack has competed and worked with horses all over the world, and now as the world is competition just down the road, he reflects on the rich equestrian history in his hometown,
“This is a beautiful place to show horses. We’ve very lucky to have all of this history and see how it has grown, and where it is going. Back in those days we thought 50 – 60 horses was a big horse show, you know and my goodness - they are coming by the hundreds and thousands!
"Can I take you to one more place?" asks Happy McLeod. "Of course!"
And the tour continues. The World Equestrian Games wrap up on Sunday, September 23. In Tryon, I'm Helen Chickering, BPR News.