The nation’s fastest growing equestrian show takes place in our backyard
By Lynda Wheatley | June 4, 2022
In the summer of 2004, Horse Shows by the Bay was born. The four-week regional equestrian show took place on the southern outskirts of Traverse City on a dusty patch of land somewhere between a forest and a newly opened Menards supermarket. Within five years of its inception, HSBTB had grown to become the largest equestrian event in the Midwest.
The rebranded Traverse City Horse Shows (which includes the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival) is now a 13-week series of events that attracts competitors from across the continent, including Olympians. Operated by Morrissey Management Group (MMG), a third-generation family business organizing horse shows and events nationwide, since 2013, the series is the fastest growing horse circuit show in the United States
For most seasons of the year, the 115 acres that make up the grounds of Flintfields Horse Park look like much of the rural landscape along this stretch of the M-72 east of Traverse City: lots of open fields, some trees, and dirt roads and a few outbuildings. In the summer, 2,500 temporary horse boxes, hundreds of horses, thousands of riders and spectators — and the cars, trucks, golf carts, and trailers that accompany them, plus tents, grandstands, and rows of food trucks and vendors — roll out from nearly every state and dozens of others Countries.
If you haven’t been living under a fallen horse trough for the last decade, you’ve probably heard about the $6,500 a day that the average 9-person group of TCHS competitors is pouring into the local tourism economy – mostly via long-stay hotels and home/farm rentals, recreation, grocery, dining and shopping. That adds up to about $120 million by the end of the season.
TCHS also awards $7.5 million in prize money and is one of only 16 shows in the country that had the right to host the historic 5-star Grand Prix known as the American Gold Cup, one of the most prestigious Equestrian events of the world of international show jumping.
Well, you may have heard about the recent skirmish between Acme Township and Traverse City Horse Shows, which hinted at least for a brief two weeks that TCHS could be canceled this summer. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t.
The skirmish came to light after Acme Township TCHS publicly warned that the festival could not open as planned unless several conditions and requirements related to the festival’s special use permit were finally met. By May 26, the community announced that the show would go ahead; Doug White, community leader, says Traverse City Horse Shows has acknowledged its inability to meet some remaining conditions and requirements – a situation attributed in part to a lack of available contractors and materials in the market.
TCHS agreed to meet any missing health, safety and environmental requirements by opening day, such as: Creating a plan to reduce dust on TCHS’ dirt roads – a common complaint from neighboring homeowners; construction of an emergency access road; ensuring the availability of a water supply source with sufficient flow; and obtaining permits from both Metro Fire and Grand Traverse County for the festival’s two-story VIP and dining tent.
The group also pledged to identify and schedule contractors who will complete and add remaining but less urgent jobs by Nov. 15, such as landscaping and irrigation, expanding the asphalt pavement at three entrances and gravel in the trailer lots.
With major updates underway, TCHS will open on June 8th for the 2022 season and will run until August 14th with many competitions and events to experience throughout the 13 weeks even if you don’t know hay from straw. As Audra Jackson, Director of Community Relations, says, “You don’t have to like horses to come out and enjoy what we do – you just have to like sports.”
The Big Three
If you’re a horse novice, here’s the scoop. The US Equestrian Federation (USEF) recognizes 18 disciplines; At TCHS you can see three: jumping, hunter and equestrian. No one divides competitors by gender, so all people compete at every level of competition, resulting in an exciting match of skills and abilities that you don’t see in most other sports.
Jump: Much like the hurdles of track and field for humans, show jumping requires athleticism, agility, and the ability to leap over a variety of obstacles — generally brightly colored fences of varying heights, widths, and stride lengths — without skipping, tripping over, or the obstacles like that knock down as quickly as possible.
In the case of equestrian sport, however, the horse jumps, but how their physical strength, timing and agility are exhibited depends largely on their rider’s ability to assess and react to each jump and to communicate with their horse. Jumping, says the USEF, is a real test of the partnership between horse and rider.
Show jumping has been part of the Olympic Games since 1912 and is one of the most famous and popular equestrian events. At TCHS, you’ll see jumpers on multiple levels, from kids and ponies taking on some 18-inch high fences, to Olympians soaring on stallions over fences as high as 1.6 meters (that’s 5ft, 3in, American) and spreads of up to 2m (6ft, 7in) – a challenge only experienced in 5-star Grand Prix competitions.
Do not miss: A new concept is afoot in the equestrian world: Major League Show Jumping. A franchise model like the NBA or NHL, Major League Show Jumping is a league where eight franchised teams with six top-ranked drivers compete in 10 5-star events across North America. TCHS will host all eight teams as they compete August 3-7.
Hunter: Jackson calls hunter events – descended from the European art of fox hunting – “the beauty pageant of horseback riding”. Depending on the level of competition, Hunter horses are typically bathed and brushed to a high shine prior to the event, with a braided or plaited mane and forelock, clipped whiskers and muzzles, polished hooves, and braided tail.
Unlike objective timed jumping, hunter competitions are subjective. No foxes are involved, but horses are judged on their style and suitability for field hunting. A smooth walk, a calm demeanor, and good manners are important, old boy. This also applies to the horse’s style and technique in navigating obstacles that simulate what a horse might encounter in the countryside, such as hay bales, bush and white board fences, or even stone walls. You’ll find kids and pros here too, but the maximum height of an obstacle is 3 feet, 9 inches.
Do not miss: The Adequan/USEF Junior Hunter Championship East, showcasing the best junior hunters in the country. Each year more than 2,000 eligible hunters qualify for the prestigious finals held on each coast. You can watch the juniors face off from June 28th to July 2nd. The World Championship Hunter Rider competition follows the World Championship Hunter Rider from July 13th to 17th.
equestrian sport: Most popular with junior riders under the age of 18, equestrianism is an official NCAA sport with more than a dozen colleges offering scholarships. Like hunter competitions, equestrian sport is a subjective discipline. Unlike hunter competitions, however, equestrian judges focus on the rider’s style and technique, not the horse’s. The word equitation means ‘the act or art of riding’ and the rider’s task in this competition is to maintain correct position with every gait, every movement or even over a fence – all of which depends on her ability to do it Steer horse Horse so subtle that it is invisible to the viewer.
Do not miss: In honor of Dudley Smith, the longtime altruistic member of the community who passed away in 2018 but played a formative role in supporting TCHS (as well as Northwestern Michigan College, Munson Medical Center and the Cherryland Humane Society), was Dudley B. Smith Equitation Championship brings together some of the discipline’s best under-21 riders from July 27th to 31st.
Local Tradition: My Little Polo Match
If you bleed green or corn and blue, you should scurry to Flintfields Horse Park in August to watch your team compete in a match you won’t see on TV at your local bar: the Go Blue/Go Green Arena Polo Match. The two states’ rival polo clubs — the University of Michigan Intercollegiate Polo Club and Michigan State University Polo Club — will take to the field, as they have almost every year since 2017, to raise scholarship dollars for U of M, MSU, and UC students Northwestern Michigan College to collect the Grand Traverse area.
Also new for viewers this year, speedy horses (and their riders, of course) will compete in barrel racing in the breathtaking finals of the Rebellion Series. Put on your fancy hats and best derby clothes, plus or minus your old college t-shirt, and plan to bring the kids; Both events are action-packed (read: perfect for short attention spans), and live entertainment, children’s activities, and food and drink options are also available.
Photo by Brooke Giacin, courtesy of Traverse City Horse Shows.