Next month, one of the biggest events in equine sports is being held in Tryon. The World Equestrian Games, slated for Sept. 11-23, are considered second only to the Olympics in importance. The games have taken place every four years since 1990.
All told, 849 athletes and 839 horses from 72 different nations are expected to take part in both team and individual challenges. And with nearly 500,000 spectators expected to attend over the course of two weeks, the event has spurred massive construction projects in Tryon, including multiple new stadiums to accommodate the crowds.
“We are in the process of completing three new active field-of-play arenas,” says Carly Weilminster, assistant director of marketing for the Tryon International Equestrian Center. “One will be the main 20,000-seat U.S. Trust Arena, which will host eventing, show jumping and dressage.” The driving stadium, meanwhile, will seat 3,000 spectators, and the indoor arena, which has been enclosed to host vaulting and reining, will have a 5,000-seat capacity. “We are also expanding the seating in the George H. Morris Arena at Tryon Stadium to seat nearly 8,000,” she explains.
But while the equestrian center needed to gear up to accommodate more humans, there was already plenty of room for the horses. “We have not had to build or construct any additional stabling,” notes Weilminster.
Still, the Tryon complex wasn’t the first choice for the 2018 games: It was chosen to host after Bromont, Canada, withdrew in 2016 due to ongoing financial issues. This gave the center only two years to prepare instead of the usual four. Nonetheless, she says, the center is on schedule for the Sept. 11 opening ceremonies.
“Our facility had many components of infrastructure already in place that could accommodate four of the eight disciplines, which made the venue a good choice when bid resubmissions opened,” Weilminster points out. “The only four disciplines that we had yet to host in 2016 were vaulting, reining, driving and endurance. To date, we have successfully hosted all eight disciplines on-site through test events.”
And while she concedes that the shortened planning period has posed some logistical challenges, Weilminster says her organization’s extensive experience hosting global equestrian events has stood it in good stead.
The Fédération Equestre Internationale, the global governing body for equestrian sports, recognizes eight disciplines in both team and individual competition. Within those disciplines, multiple contests will be held to determine the new world champions of equestrian sports. Gold, silver and bronze medals will be awarded in each category. The eight FEI disciplines are:
Also known as “stadium jumping” (or, in America, “show jumping”), this traditional equestrian sport challenges horse and rider on a timed run through a course of hurdles. The event will take place in the main arena, which has replaced the old Derby Field.
Like charioteers of old, competitors in the driving challenges conduct carriages pulled by four horses. Three drivers work together to control the cart and steer the horses to victory over the course of a three-day, three-phase competition.
The phases are: dressage, which is much like traditional dressage, but done as a team; marathon, an all-out chariot race with water hazards and other obstacles; and cones, a timed run through a course of small orange traffic cones, with penalties for going too slowly or knocking over cones. Penalty marks are assessed in each category and totaled at the end of the competition; whichever team has the fewest penalties wins.
The new driving stadium was designed specifically to give spectators at these events the best viewing opportunities.
This 100-mile race will take place across Tryon and environs. Competitors must make periodic stops so their horses can be checked by veterinarians and approved to continue. The course begins and ends at the equestrian center but also ventures out into the surrounding countryside.
Riders competing in the vaulting category must possess the strength and agility of gymnasts as well as excellent animal handling skills as they perform acrobatic feats on the back of a cantering horse. The sport, whose roots stretch back ancient Crete and Rome, has a history as a circus act. Some acts feature multiple riders balancing and performing gymnastic feats on the back of a single horse. The category is divided into team, individual and freestyle competitions. Vaulting events will be held in the new indoor arena.
Reining joined the World Equestrian Games after it was named the seventh FEI discipline in 2002. Sometimes referred to as “Western dressage,” it challenges both individual riders and teams to do their best cowboy impersonations, each performing a series of wrangling maneuvers in an arena setting. This ain’t exactly the rodeo, though: No cattle will be chased or lassoed during these events.
Reining, the only Western horseback discipline included in the games, will be hosted in the newly built indoor arena.
Like a ballet or an ice skating competition, dressage is about graceful, precisely choreographed moves that challenge the connection and communication between horse and rider. Competitors are judged for their ability to execute beautiful movements despite the rider giving only almost imperceptible directions. The dressage challenges are divided into three categories: the Grand Prix, the Grand Prix Special and the highlight, the Grand Prix Freestyle, in which each team performs a routine to its chosen musical composition. All dressage events will be held in the main stadium.
This discipline has the same basic rules as conventional dressage, but the riders are divided into different competition grades based on their functional abilities. Paradressage is the only equestrian event included in the Paralympic Games. It became the eighth FEI-regulated discipline in 2006 and joined the World Equestrian Games four years later, creating one of the few sporting competitions in the world featuring events for both able-bodied athletes and those with impairments. Paradressage competitors will be tested on a series of moves at different paces depending on their physical ability, with some being judged at the walk, trot and canter, some at just the walk and trot, and others only at walking speed.
The three-day triathlon known as eventing includes dressage, cross-country and jumping components. The equestrian center facilities occupy a portion of the former White Oak Golf site, where the competition will be held.
World Equestrian Expo and more
The theme of this year’s World Equestrian Games, “Celebrate the Horse, Celebrate the Sport,” aims to honor the bond between horses and humans worldwide. In that spirit, the 2018 games will include a first: the debut of the World Equine Expo. The expo will feature daily demonstrations, workshops and discussions by horse experts and enthusiasts, as well as live music, equine art and a small film festival.
The expo will also host a first-time event: the WEQx Games. Mark Bellissimo of Tryon Equestrian Partners (which owns the equestrian center) created these games with an eye toward expanding the sport’s fan base. Each contest will be a spin on a traditional discipline, but with rules that are easier for those unfamiliar with the sport to follow.
And in yet another innovation designed to honor horses’ contributions to human civilization throughout history, the expo will also celebrate World Horse Day sometime during the first week of competition. An equestrian center spokesperson says details about the holiday are still being worked out and will be released in the coming weeks.
This is only the second time the World Equestrian Games have been held in the U.S., and they’re expected to bring large crowds to Tryon and adjacent areas. The three major points of arrival for folks flying in to attend the games will be Asheville, Charlotte and Greenville, S.C. Other nearby destinations — Spartanburg, Flat Rock, Hendersonville and Shelby — are also expected to get a tourism bump.
“On our peak days of competition, we’re expecting 40,000-50,000 spectators per day,” notes Weilminster. Based on case studies from previous years, the 2018 games’ projected economic impact is about $400 million, she says, including permanent infrastructure improvements and spillover to neighboring businesses.
Among other things, that will mean a lot more pedestrians and cars in the area. “Our team is working closely with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, as well as state and local law enforcement, with a contracted transportation agency to plan and control traffic flow during the two-week event,” Weilminster says.
Julio Mendoza Loor, a fourth-generation dressage rider from Ecuador, moved to the United States in 2007 with his wife, who hails from Ohio. The family now lives in Columbus, and he’ll be the first dressage competitor to represent Ecuador in the games.
“My dad is very excited, and my great-grandfather and my grandfather will be looking down on me,” says Mendoza-Loor. “I’m going to bring my dad so he can see me compete. He still lives in Ecuador.”
Although Mendoza Loor has competed in the Pan American Games and the Bolivarian Games in Colombia, he says the Tryon contests will offer a new level of competition. “The World Equestrian Games is more international, with the top horses around the world. It’s a very prestigious, unique kind of event.”
Mendoza Loor adds that he has a special relationship with his horse, a 12-year-old Oldenburg named Chardonnay. “He’s a clown: He really wants to perform. We’ve been together five years, and he is my hero. He’s taken me places I never in my life thought I would go. He’s been able to make dreams come true.”
The duo trains six days a week, for 45 minutes at a time. “Between that, we walk and stretch a lot, and he works in the ring, and twice a week we trail-ride; we just go outside in the forest, and he can walk, trot, whatever he wants to do.”
Mendoza Loor says he’s grateful to Ecuador for allowing him to be the first athlete from his nation to compete in dressage at the games. But he appreciates the support he receives from his community here, too, because he’s also the only North Carolina resident to compete in this year’s games.
“I am very happy to represent my country, but I am not only representing Ecuador,” he stresses. “I am also representing the United States — especially where I live, in North Carolina — because I’m the only local boy.”