When you’re building a cross-country course from scratch, you have the chance to imagine the best possible version of it—to reinvent the wheel in some ways.
And that’s what happened at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in Mill Spring, N.C.—this year’s site of the Nutrena USEA American Eventing Championships and next year’s spot for The Fork CIC***— when the minds behind it started setting a brand new track on their brand new piece of property.
Mark Bellissimo, managing partner of the Tryon Equestrian Partners, signed course designer Captain Mark Phillips, designer of the Burghley CCI**** (England) and previous designer of the AEC in Texas, and the group behind the new course imagined a dream cross-country course.
Part of the new AEC course. Photo by Lisa Slade.
The cross-country paths were carved out of the hillsides in the North Carolina foothills, on a piece of property connected to the current TIEC show facility, starting about two years ago, and it’s been a process ongoing since then. The track now is nearly complete, looking towards the first cross-country event there—the U.S. Pony Club Championships is late July—and then the AEC Sept. 1-4.
“They carved the last bits of track out of the side of the mountain at the beginning of this month,” said Phillips. “It’s not like any other track or venue in the United States in that you’ve got areas that are quite intensive and then quite long gallops in between on a track—quite a lot of it is based in the derby field, and then a lot of it is based down by the river. There is a lot of terrain. Horses will need to be fit when they go there. There’s more terrain here than any other course in North America.”
The new track utilizes the North Carolina foothills terrain. Photo by Lisa Slade.
As for the footing, the track was engineered for its purpose. A drainage system runs throughout the entire track, and then there’s gravel laid for drainage purposes in the galloping pathways at the very base of the footing.
On top of the drainage rock is 6″ deep of an Equine Services International mixture of four types of sand—ranging from extremely fine to more coarse—then synthetic fiber, felt and a soil mix that includes Mirimichi, a growth enhancer for the grass on top. That grass, a Bermuda strain called TifTuf, is durable and strong.
Horses will gallop across footing that’s uniform throughout the course. Photo by Lisa Slade.
In addition to the drainage, the entire track is set up for irrigation, with sprinklers set off to the side of the galloping lanes. The idea behind the footing system is that horses run on uniform footing throughout the entire course, and that it’s the best footing possible.
“The only place that’s even close to that is Aachen [Germany],” said Phillips. “[In Tryon], you really have the best footing anywhere in the world. I’ve never before done a course where I’ve been 100 days out from an event and not had a completed track, but having said that, I’ve never before seen tracks go in so quickly and produce such unbelievably good footing.”
All AEC courses will start in the derby field adjacent to some of the barns and the main George H. Morris arena in the Tryon Stadium. In fact, riders will warm up inside of the stadium.
“The cross-country will be on the big screen in the warm-up arena, so people in the warm up can watch it, and spectators can watch too,” said Phillips. “Then interviews and things, for television and to broadcast on the PA system, that will all happen in or around the main arena.”
The course is also designed for spectators, and there will be pavilions along the track, in addition to a walking path that runs alongside the galloping lanes.
The beginner novice track for this year’s AEC will take place in the main derby field and the surrounding sand rings, and then all other levels head out onto the surrounding parts of the track. Only the advanced and intermediate levels go all the way down the track to the river, according to Phillips.
The river’s a stunning backdrop for the cross-country course. Photo by Lisa Slade.
For the new courses, builder Eric Bull was able to use about 10 fences from the Wellington Eventing Showcase (Fla.), and then the rest of the 130 jumps were built from scratch. The majority are portable fences, though some will be built into the track before the AEC.
“Portables are part of modern sport,” said Bull. “Maybe this course might have 10 percent more because of the need to move and change it. But I think it’s just a modern cross-country course that has a lot of portables. I think this AEC is going to be awesome, better than anybody has ever seen at an AEC, and I think next year’s track will be even more mature.”
Looking across the derby field towards the TIEC. Photo by Lisa Slade.
The new fences utilize as much safety equipment as possible, according to Bull, ranging from MIM clips to frangible pins. The group even opted for cross-country flags more commonly used in Europe.
“They look really good and are really safe,” said Bull. “They wanted to buy American stuff, but it’s simply not as good as the European stuff, which did come at a price premium. Quality trumped price, which is what always happens there. It’s why five to 10 years down the road, it’ll probably be the best place available. Plus they have land. The land the AEC is on is not the only land they have. The greatest thing right now is that we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s there.”
The group behind the TIEC does have big goals for their property, with the idea of eventually adding acreage from the adjacent golf course to make an even longer cross-country. Phillips has 4,000 meters of track right now, and there’s the possibility of thousands more.
“We want to raise the bar for the sport overall,” said Bellissimo. “This course is a seven-figure investment, one we hope sets the standard for the sport, but one that also provides an unbelievable experience for the riders, so that they have something they can look forward to, train for, and then hopefully this becomes one of the top events in the sport worldwide. We think it’s also going to allow us the safest conditions.
“We aspire to a four-star here,” he added. “This is the type of facility we hope riders are really excited about.”
See additional pictures of the property:
Levels of track run alongside the river. Photo by Lisa Slade.
Heading out on course. Photo by Lisa Slade.
There’s plenty of terrain on the cross-country track. Photo by Lisa Slade.
A built-in bank on the new Tryon course. Photo by Lisa Slade.
Riders at the upper levels will gallop alongside the river. Photo by Lisa Slade.