EVERY FOUR YEARS, equestrian sports are spotlighted in the Olympics, and the Rio Games were no exception. But over the past few years, horse-related sports have made it a point to up their game, delving into social media and working to live stream their competitions, all in the name of becoming more visible and more relevant to today’s spectators.
And look what else has been happening: rodeo is growing. With competition at all levels of the sport – youth, high school, college and professional – rodeo is grooming its new generation and moving into the future. Professional bull riding has been re-branded as an extreme sport, leaving behind its county fair roots and moving into the big arenas.
With so much to keep up with and look forward to, SDM is pleased to present a special two-part feature highlighting both equestrian and rodeo – as well as all the great destinations that are serving as home to its events. Saddle up and get ready for a great ride.
When the Fédération Equestre Internationale (or FEI), the international governing body of equestrian sport, created its campaign to publicize what made riding unique among other Olympic events, it didn’t need to look far. In fact, it looked within. The #TwoHearts campaign caught f ire before, during and after the Rio Games, with plenty of social media impressions. And with the Games now in the rear-view, it’s time for the sport to look ahead to events held throughout the U.S.
The bounty of venues coast to coast reflects the sport’s variety, with riding, jumping, reining, driving and more. Here are some of the cities welcoming equine athletes and their human partners – and how they’re doing it.
Maryland’s Rich Horse History Helping to Recruit Events
Horse history in Maryland, which hosts the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore (the second race of the Triple Crown) dates back to the 17th Century.
“We’ve come to the realization that our entire state is a horse park,” says Ross Peddicord, executive director of the three-year- old Maryland Horse Industry Board, a program of the state’s Department of Agriculture. “Maryland is an amazing horse state. It’s a horse Mecca. And until now, everybody has been in their own little silos. Now, we’ve all come together to create a system to market and package what we have to offer.”
One of the goals of the Maryland Horse Board is to further raise the visibility of Maryland’s horses as a strong industry through economic feasibility studies and tourism opportunities. To that end, Peddicord and his team have a lot to work with.
The state’s offerings include two harness tracks (Ocean Downs in Berlin and Rose- croft Raceway in Fort Washington, eight steeplechase courses (including the prestigious Maryland Hunt Club in Glyndon), Fair Hill International in Elkton, The Show Place Arena and Prince George’s Equestrian Center, and Loch Moy Farm in Adamstown. Plus, Timonium’s Maryland State Fair is the only fair east of the Mississippi to include thoroughbred racing, Peddicord says.
In Virginia, Creating Spectator- Friendly Events
“Many consider equestrian sports too elite for them, but I disagree,” says Robert Banner Jr., president of the Great Meadow Foundation in The Plains, Virginia. In July, The Plains hosted the first FEI Nations Cup of Eventing held in America. Great Meadow’s new $1.2 million indoor all-weather arena served as the venue and drew more than 15,000 spectators over three days.
“The ticket prices can be very afford- able ($30 per carload), which is cheaper than dinner and a movie,” says Banner. “You would be surprised that at most equestrian events, you see someone you know. Most other spectators want to meet you and are happy to explain the rules if you don’t understand. Besides, what is more beautiful than watching a fit, athletic horse in action?”
Great Meadow offers 374 acres just 50 miles from Washington, D.C., in an area recognized for equestrianism for more than 200 years. The facility hosts at least 40 events annually — including steeplechase, polo, show jumping and now international eventing (which includes dressage, cross- country and show jumping) — that cumulatively attract more than 200,000 spectators, according to Banner.
Additionally, the Virginia Gold Cup caps the season at Great Meadow, where races run the first Saturday in May and draw 55,000 fans. Plus, Twilight Polo at Great Meadow showcases that sport under the lights for as many as 2,000 fans on 18 con- secutive Saturday nights.
Great Meadow’s newest facility is the arena, which features a large water com- plex and warm-up ring with clear views of the action for spectators.
“Equestrian facilities [are at] their best when they cater to both the spectator and exhibitor,” Banner says. “It is imperative that all enjoy a good view of the competi- tion, so the best events are surrounded by berms and viewing hills where everyone from general admission to VIP can see the action.”
The 2017 Land Rover Great Meadow International will bring teams from Ger- many, France, Ireland, England, Canada and the United States to Great Meadow next year for what Banner is calling a “mini-Olympics.”
Indoor and Outdoor Facilities Draw Events to Kentucky Horse Country
Kentucky is another state with a variety of equestrian venues, including the Kentucky Horse Park.
One of the most popular annual events there is the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, which is held the last weekend of April and averages 80,000 spectators. One of only six three-day events in the world that are ranked at the highest four-star level (CCI****), the Rolex Kentucky is the first three-day eventing competition of the year on the international calendar.
“Fresh country air and wide-open green space for horses to roam and graze are two of the most desirable elements that attract competitors to the park,” says Laura Prewitt, who was named executive director of the Kentucky Horse Park earlier this year. “If horses are happy, then their people will be, too.”
The 1,224-acre park features the cli- mate-controlled Alltech Arena, Rolex Stadium, permanent stabling for 1,400 with capacity for about 600 more temporary stables, a full-service campground, the International Museum of the Horse and even horse-drawn trolley rides.
Road to the Horse, held annually in the park’s Alltech Arena in March, boasts sell-out crowds of about 6,000 during each of its three days, and the park hosts nearly 200 other horse shows and special events throughout the year. To accommodate more, the facility recently added 1,200 parking spaces at Alltech Arena and a pervious-pavement parking lot near Rolex Stadium for both vehicles and temporary stables.
“The industry is a diverse and varied one, with enthusiasts of each breed and discipline often not that familiar with the others, much like football enthusiasts are not familiar with swimming,” Prewitt says. “People are very passionate about their own breed and discipline and it has led to so many shows, as enthusiasts gather to celebrate and compete within their own breed and discipline.”
Jumping onto the Equestrian Radar: Mill Spring, North Carolina
An example of an equestrian facility that opened and immediately became successful can be found in Mill Spring, North Carolina. The Tryon International Equestrian Center opened in 2014 with a few small events but quickly expanded the following year by hosting FEI-rated show-jumping events. This year, the anchor development of the 1,400-acre Tryon Resort added internationally rated hunter/jumper and dressage shows, as well as hosted the U.S. Pony Club Championships East and the 2016 American Eventing Championships. In 2018, it will host the FEI World Equestrian Games.
The 2017 United States Eventing Association’s American Eventing Champi- onships are slated for Tryon in late August and early September.
“This facility was built to showcase equestrian in a number of disciplines,” says Mark Bellissimo, a managing partner of Tryon Equestrian Partners. “These animals are important and special, and we hold their welfare to the highest level. For those coming to watch, we have ample parking, an easy-to-navigate facility, fantastic food and drink options, and great stadium seating. There’s not a bad seat in the house.”
The center also recently completed a new cross-country course designed by Mark Phillips, a decorated Olympic eventing rider and U.S. team coach. Addition- ally, there is a new grass riding field for special events and more permanent stabling, parking areas and on-site restaurants and bars.
The “Horse Capital of the World:” Ocala/Marion County, Florida
Considering the level of equestrian activity in such states as Maryland, Kentucky, Virginia and North Carolina, it might be surprising that the official “Horse Capital of the World” — as declared by the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association — is Marion County in central Florida. That designation came in 2007 after a National Horse Council survey showed there were more horses and ponies there than in any other county in the United States.
“A study performed in 2015 showed that the equine industry represents a $2.62 billion annual economic impact on Ocala/ Marion County each year,” says Corry Locke, sports marketing specialist with the Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau. “Thirty percent of our local economy is driven by the horse industry— feed producers, tack shops, ferries, barn builders, waste pick-up, breeding, temporary stabling. Any possible resource that a horse enthusiast would ever need is in Ocala.”
Among the county’s equestrian venues is the Horse Shows In The Sun, or HITS Post Time Farm, a 450-acre property operated by the HITS special events management company headquartered in Saugerties, New York. HITS Post Time Farm includes 27 permanent barns and 540 permanent stalls, and it hosts the annual 12-week HITS Ocala Winter Circuit. In 2013, the Ocala Horse Properties Stadium was built, giving HITS Ocala a new state-of-the-art competition ring.
Additionally, the Florida Horse Park opened in 2014 and is operated by the Florida Agriculture Center and Horse Park Authority. It comprises 500 acres of green space, offers 156 stalls and provides multi- purpose facilities that host everything from hunter/jumper and dressage competitions to professional bull riding.
In November, the Ocala Jockey Club — a 950-acre eventing center designated for international competition, training and teaching — hosts the inaugural Three-Day Eventing Series over Thanksgiving weekend. It awards $100,000 in prize money across the CIC3*, CCI2* and CCI* divisions, and will reportedly be the richest purse at a recognized horse trials below the four-star level in North America.
Horses by the Sea in Huntington Beach, California
As mentioned previously, a desirable set- ting is important to both event planners and horse enthusiasts. The Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center sits two miles from the beach and promotes the slogan “By the sea” — making it attractive to people who also want to experience activities for which Huntington Beach is more famous.
“Huntington Beach has a natural incorporation of action sports within its culture,” says Jennifer Tong, communication coordinator for Visit Huntington Beach. “Typically, activities along our ocean strand come to mind first — such as surfing, beach volleyball and stand-up paddle- boarding. But our destination has evolved while still maintaining its core identity. Visitors today look for their own tailored experience that aligns with their interests, which is where the equestrian center comes into play. We want to showcase that there are other sport attractions.”
The 25-acre Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center is home to nearly 400 horses, multiple arenas and more than acres 150 of public trails, and it’s available for horse shows, clinics and other events. One of the center’s most popular events is Derby Day, a festival-type event that takes place every year and coincides with the Ken- tucky Derby. It is hosted by the Therapeutic Riding Center of Huntington Beach.
Long Beach, California: Offering West Coast Equestrians Increased Options
Less than an hour’s drive north from Huntington Beach, Long Beach is aspiring to increase its equestrian offerings. The Longines Masters Series — known as the “Grand Slam Indoor of Show Jumping” with two other prestigious competitions in Paris and Hong Kong — entered the U.S. market in 2014 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. This September, however, the event moved to the Long Beach Convention Center, which was repurposed with stables underneath the facility, an indoor warm-up paddock and a pop-up kitchen to create cuisine for guests.
Prior to the arrival of the Longines Masters of Los Angeles, elite show jumping of this caliber had not been available on the West Coast since the 1984 Olympics. American riders travel throughout Europe to compete, but this event offers the opportunity for U.S. riders to participate in their own backyard and attracts top-ranked riders from around the world.
Sports Destination Management caught up with Christophe Ameeuw, chief executive officer and founder of Belgium-based EEM World (which created the Longines Masters international series) on the first day of competition at the Long Beach Convention Center.
“Today was the kickoff of the 2016 Longines Masters Series and we have hit the ground running,” Ameeuw said, thrilled with the facilities at the center. “[And] it’s only just the beginning.”
With PRCA-Sanctioned Events in 38 States, the Proud Tradition of Western Riding and Roping Continues
It’s not an Olympic sport, but that hasn’t stopped it from being the quintessential American one. There isn’t anything that screams USA quite like the image of a rodeo cowboy.
Governed by the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA), the sport ranks seventh in overall attendance among major sporting events. Not bad, considering the PRCA sanctions its 600 or so annual events in just 38 states. And with bull riding being rebranded as an extreme sport, we can expect to see even more action in unexpected destinations.
The call of cowboy culture still resonates throughout the country, and rodeos offer fans and newcomers alike the opportunity to witness human-vs.-animal skills that can be traced back decades to the working practices of cattle herding.
Rodeo: The Real Thing
“I ran into some people from Florida who told me they wanted to see a real cowboy,” says Mike Gray, assistant director of the Laramie Area (Wyoming) Visitor Center. “I smiled and told them, ‘Go out and see them.’ They asked, ‘Oh, are they doing a reenactment?’ I said, ‘No, they’re actually working and moving cattle.’”
Laramie’s Jubilee Days event offers eight days of local and PRCA-sanctioned rodeo action, bringing top riders and avid spectators from all over the country to the Albany County Fairgrounds every July. Additionally, the University of Wyoming’s rodeo team competes at its own 47,500-square-foot facility, the Cliff and Martha Hansen Teaching Arena, which also hosts the National Intercollegiate Rodeo Association’s Laramie River Rendezvous every spring.
Rodeo with a Festival Atmosphere
Creating the right atmosphere is key to rodeo event success. Dan Wall will never forget the f irst time the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Oklahoma, hosted the National Little Britches Rodeo Finals in early July.
“Mother Nature threw every- thing she had at us,” says Wall, Lazy E’s vice president and general manager. “We had a tornado pass over nearby, a grass f ire two miles away, a hail storm and a significant amount of rain. But if I had to sum up the event in one word, it would still be ‘fantastic.’”
Easily the largest event ever hosted by the Lazy E Arena — itself the largest in- door rodeo arena in the world — the NLB Rodeo Finals moved from Pueblo, Colorado, and settled into Guthrie this summer for a five-year agreement. More than 1,200 competitors between the ages of five and 18 competed in 31 events in three age divisions. About 700 families camped on the Lazy E grounds, and 1,800 stalls housed livestock — plus, an estimated 5,700 spectators per day at- tended events for nine consecutive days. The venue became its own village, with security crews, food vendors and a neighborly family atmosphere.0
“We’ve been told to plan on an increase in camping and stalls next year,” Wall says. “We stretched everything on the property that we could, and we handled it really well. We provided the experience people were hoping for, and you can bet they’re talking about it.”
When rodeo pops up in new and unexpected destinations, you can count on the paradigm to shift a bit. National Finals Rodeo (NRF), the premier championship event organized by PRCA, comes to, yes, Las Vegas this December. “All rodeo activities will take place at Thomas and Mack Center.
The Valuable Commodity of Rodeo Knowledge
In the early 1930s, people in San Angelo, Texas — in an effort to pull local residents out of the funk of the Great Depression — developed a “fat” stock show to showcase plump livestock ready for market. A few years later, in 1934, the first San Angelo Rodeo was held. And this year, the San Angelo Stock Show & Rodeo at the San Angelo Fairgrounds is a first-time nominee for PRCA’s “Large In- door Rodeo of the Year.”
“It’s a pretty big accolade for us,” says Justin Jonas, executive director of the event, acknowledging the presence on the ballot of rodeo venues in much larger cities such as Denver and San Antonio. “But we have a lot of knowledge of rodeos.”
Of the 12 San Angelo Stock Show & Rodeo performances, held every February in the 5,000-seat Foster Communications Coliseum, 11 of them sell out every year. “That’s very unusual,” Jonas says. “We’re preserving western heritage.”
Less than two hours west of San Angelo is Midland, Texas, another city steeped in western culture that will welcome the 2016 Professional Armed Forces Rodeo Association (PAFRA) World Finals in November.
“If you talk to rodeo people, they’ll tell you we know dirt,” proclaims Crissy Hancock, director of servicing and communication for Visit Midland. “It sounds funny, but this is a serious thing.”
Midland has hosted the PAFRA World Finals, which feature both active-duty personnel and retired veterans, since 2011 at the air-conditioned Midland Horseshoe Arena. That facility also hosts 10 to 12 other rodeo events per year, including major youth calf-roping and youth bull-riding events.
“Rodeo is in our blood, and like lots of towns, we love and support the military,” Hancock says. “It’s a time-honored tradition here. I can take my grandmother and my two-year-old niece, and they each have a lot of fun. It’s family-friendly and I don’t worry about what they’re going to see.”
If you look hard enough, you might see a rodeo of some type in nearly every Texas community. But Abilene, which completes a Texas triangle with San Angelo and Midland at the other two points, hosts two of the state’s largest rodeos. The Texas High School Rodeo Association State Finals happens every June, followed by the Texas State 4-H Horse Show and Rodeo in July.
Both sponsoring organizations are longtime tenants of the Taylor County Expo Center, which offers a 5,000-seat coliseum, an 1,800-seat horse barn and other smaller venues. During one of the high school rodeo days, a group of volunteers partners with the local restaurant association to provide lunch for up to 1,000 people. “We just want to make them feel special,” says Debi Schultz, director of sales for the Abilene Convention & Visitors Bureau. “These are huge groups for us, and when they’re competing at this level, they deserve a free lunch.”
Proving the Tradition of Cowboys and Rodeos Is Still Alive and Bucking
For 14 consecutive years, the Deschutes County Fair Rodeo in Redmond, Oregon, has been named Regional Rodeo of the Year by the Northwest Professional Rodeo Association, and organizers at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds and Expo Center hope they can keep that streak go- ing until at least 2019, when the event will celebrate its 100-year anniversary.
“We’re in an area where cowboys and rodeos are still alive,” says Dan Despotopulos, director of the facility. “It’s easy for us to keep the attraction of that here, and the cowboys keep coming back.”
The expo center offers four indoor arenas and hosts a PRCA rodeo every summer, as well as special rodeo events throughout the year. In March, the venue also was the first facility to welcome the inaugural Elite Rodeo Athletes Premier Tour.
Another rodeo destination out west is the Butte (Montana) Civic Center, which in October hosted the Northern Rodeo Association Finals. Prior to that event’s move from Billings to Butte six years ago, rodeos didn’t happen in Butte, according to Bill Melvin, general manager of the civic center. “It’s become a rodeo town,” he says.
The same can be said of rodeos and equestrian events that come to the T. Ed Gar rison Arena in Pendleton, South Carolina. Operated through Clemson University’s Cooperative Extension and located f ive miles from the heart of campus, the 90,000-square-foot competition arena typically hosts four rodeos per year and seats 3,200. It’s undergone numerous renovations and expansions since opening in 1991, with more planned soon — including the conversion of an outdoor arena to an all-weather facility.
“We have clients who have been here since we opened in 1991 and return annually,” says Charles Williams, arena director. “We like to make long-lasting relationships.”
Some rodeo venues have learned to seek out new affiliations with other rodeo groups in order to keep growing. The Lazy E, for example, created the JR. Ironman Championship for cowboys be- tween the ages of 15 and 20. The event is set to debut in March 2017 in conjunction with the prestigious Cinch Timed Event Championship.