Sharon Decker, Chief Operating Officer of the Tryon International Equestrian Center, wants to make equestrian sports available to everyone, especially in Western North Carolina.
That’s the inspiration behind the resort’s Saturday Night Lights series, a free equestrian performance and family-friendly festival that is open to the public each week through October.
“Historically it has been an exclusive sport,” says Decker. “Most equestrian venues have not been built for spectator purposes. They’ve had limited seating. At our center, we have built the focus on the horse and rider but have expanded that to include spectators as well. It’s a relatively new concept in the sport.”
Located at the Tryon Resort, the equestrian center offers first-class facilities that include 13 riding arenas, 1,200 permanent stalls, 7 barns and a variety of restaurants, shops and lodging options, along with a sporting clay course, lakeside lodge, and golf and sports club. The center is also dedicated to creating an educational environment and frequently offers demonstrations that focus on topics such as equestrian history or specific horse breeds. Tryon also hosts the Eastern U.S. Championships for the Pony Club, an educational equine program for youth.
“We often hear that people who visit us then decide that this is their time, and they’ll go to local barns and pick up the sport again. Or maybe choose to take a trail ride. We hope that’s what it does; we want more people involved in the sport,” says Decker.
She continues, “I’m amazed and delighted by all of the people who visit and didn’t know about horses before and now absolutely love them. This gives them a chance to enjoy these amazing animals.”
Tryon, which had its first show in July 2014, launched the Saturday Night Lights concept in 2015. On a typical night, Decker says, the stadium will host anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 locals and tourists.
In addition to the main equestrian show, which can include anything from a jumper show to a special vaulting demonstration, there’s a wonderland of carnival-style festivities that kick off two hours beforehand. Activities include face painting, carousel and pony rides, magicians, juggles, live music and more. On-site restaurants offer everything from sushi to Italian cuisine. Visitors can also browse The Promenade shopping center for boutiques, apparel and other fun services.
“We are a community based organization and we’ve worked hard to broaden our reach and engage people in our process of building success. Our Saturday Night Lights program has made us stronger and made our workplace a lot more fun. As we’ve become a major employer in the foothills of Western North Carolina, it’s been a wonderful way for employees to learn more about community we’re part of,” says Decker.
Presently, there are 200 full-time employees on staff. During peak season, the organization can exceed over 500 employees. Saturday Night Lights also creates opportunity for area businesses and nonprofits. Each week, the center partners with a local nonprofit, giving them the opportunity to share promotional materials in front of thousands. Business owners also have access to an abundance of sponsorship options.
Through the center’s work, Decker aims to grow the equestrian world exponentially, both in the mountains and across the country.
“I think we all long for the simplicity that comes with a life that’s involved with the natural outdoors and I think equestrian sport fits right into that world,” Decker reflects. “This is the right time to focus on growing the sport in the U.S. It has grown internationally at a higher rate than it has in the U.S. and we think there’s an opportunity to change that.”