Molly Oakman still has to pinch herself.
“I’ve witnessed competition at this level only a couple of times in my life,” she said. “And never did I think it would be right here in my backyard.”
As community relations manager for the Tryon Resort, Oakman speaks enthusiastically about the company’s centerpiece project: the Tryon International Equestrian Center. A $100 million, state-of-the-art, 1,450-acre facility opened in 2014, the property is establishing the next chapter in a town where history and horses intersect.
“With the long and storied equestrian history in Tryon and Western North Carolina, it’s truly an honor to have this facility here,” Oakman said.
Featuring 10 riding arenas, over 1,000 permanent stalls, elevated and shaded viewing decks, restaurants, family activities, boutiques, and more, the center takes a love for horses to the next level. Here, any and all can come and enjoy the beauty of the sport and its incredibly gifted animals.
“For us, it’s about bringing together family, horses, and entertainment,” Oakman said. “We want to expose people to the sport who maybe haven’t been before. This facility is open to everyone. People can come here and appreciate all these beautiful animals and be able to see world-class entertainment.”
The long and storied equestrian history of Tryon started in 1917. Carter Brown came to town from Michigan to open the Pine Crest Inn, a renowned spot where northerners could come and ride their horses during the winter. From there, Brown started the Tryon Riding & Hunt Club, which ultimately influenced the start of the Tryon Horse Show in 1929 (the third oldest of its kind in the country) and the Block House Steeplechase in 1934. In 1956, the US Equestrian Team trained in Tryon for the Olympics.
With the Tryon Equestrian Center becoming a must-see location for spectators and competitors alike, Tryon is now mentioned in the same breath as sacred equestrian towns like Lexington and Saratoga. It’s something the center’s investors and builders aimed for, but with a slight twist: the facility would include year-round amenities with most events throughout the season free to hardcore fans and those curious as to what the scene is all about.
“When (investor/developer) Mark Bellissimo thought of all the different details for this place, he built it from scratch, where spectators were heavily considered, and every single detail is made for you to have the best experience possible,” Oakman said. “This can be a pretty inclusive sport, but it’s been our mission to make sure everyone can come and enjoy what we have to offer.”
The project also created over 700 construction jobs, with another 300 positions filled within the center itself.
“The facility was somewhat of an answered prayer for this area,” Oakman said. “With the center built, and with the visitor numbers double and triple our projections for 2015, this has been a great opportunity for the town and this region.”
For 2017, the center will also build a 150-room hotel overlooking the competition fields. They also were named as hosts of the coveted American Eventing Championships for 2016-2018.
“It’s about exposure of this sport to the area, and also showcasing beautiful Western North Carolina to the equestrian community,” Oakman said.
For someone who grew up around horses and has been riding most of her life, Oakman looks at the center as something that will bring the beauty and lore of the sport into the next generation—locally, regionally, and nationally.
“I grew up in nearby Rutherford County, and I’ve been riding here in Polk County for a long time,” she said. “And I remember our biggest night this past summer, where we had thousands of people here, watching and cheering on the horses and competitors. I spent most of that evening crying. It was one of the special things in my life I’ll never forget.”