Horse Shows gives legs to region’s tourism base

WILLIAMSBURG – Carrie Gunst will log about 20,000 miles this year traveling across the country on the horse show circuit, selling and promoting her equestrian-based apparel and embroidery.

After being in business for 21 years, she's seen just about everything a competitive horse show has to offer. And when it comes to the annual Horse Shows by the Bay festival, she likes what she sees.

"I love Traverse City," said Gunst, who is from Hartford, Wisc. and owns Personalized Products with her husband, Curtis. "It's my favorite of the 36 weeks (of shows) I do all year."

In just its sixth year of existence, Horse Shows by the Bay has quickly created a reputation as one of the country's premier equestrian festivals. It features competition in the International Olympic disciplines of show jumping and dressage as well as events for the show hunter and equitation rider. It's "AA" sanctioning is the highest rating given by the United States Equestrian Federation.

Because of its success, this summer's festival was extended from three to four weeks, running from July 8 to Aug. 2. According to Gunst, credit for the event's popularity goes to owners/operators Alex and Dean Rheinheimer.

Beginning with the inaugural show in 2004 – originally held south of town off U.S. 31 – they have developed a festival that draws many of the elite riders and horses in the country, including former Olympians and Olympic hopefuls.

"Horse Shows by the Bay is successful because Dean and Alex have the right idea of what a great horse show should be," Gunst said. "The right people, the right horses, community involvement, charity work; all at a fabulous location – Traverse City."

Three years ago, the event solidified its standing by moving to a permanent site – the 80-acre Flintfields horse park located off Bates Road in Acme Township. When in full swing it can accommodate 1,000 stalls, five show rings, several practice rings, a row of vendors, a campground, and office buildings.

"That was the key for us," Alex Rheinheimer said. "We needed to have a permanent place to let the participants know that we were here for the long term." The Rheinheimers have tried to stay one step ahead of expectations, making improvements at Flintfields every year. Last summer, a 4,000-seat amphitheatre-style arena was added. This year, several concrete manure bunkers were constructed.

"They're not as glamorous," said Alex Rheinheimer, laughing, "but they're an important addition."

For area residents who are not horse enthusiasts, the festival takes place in relative obscurity. But local businesses have felt the economic impact. With several thousand people coming into Traverse City over the course of the month, Alex Rheinheimer said approximately $10 million will again be pumped into area businesses.

"Each year we see about 1,500 horses, and between family members and crew, there are about three people who come with each horse," she said. "And those people are staying in hotel rooms, eating out two or three times a day, renting boats, golfing, and shopping. We figure each person spends about $200 per day when they're here."

Those numbers have helped increase the horse show's support from local businesses.

"Our largest road block – which is a decreasing issue – was competition for sponsorship," Rheinheimer said. "A large portion of our sponsorship dollars comes from within the (horse) industry, so it wasn't crucial to get sponsorship from the area. We laid low for a few years, because with the Cherry Festival and everything else that goes on, we didn't want to put extra pressure on businesses. But we've made local sponsorship gains every year. We're establishing some great relationships which we hope to continue."

And while local businesses are no doubt delighted by what the horse show contributes to their bottom lines, festival participants are equally ecstatic about what the event – and the Traverse City area – contribute to their equestrian experience."When people crest the hill (coming into town) and see that view of the water, they're just blown away," Rheinheimer said. "Even people who live closer by, like Chicago and Detroit, are amazed by how beautiful it is here."

Peter Pletcher is an example of the caliber of rider who has been lured to compete in Horse Shows by the Bay. He is a former winner of the President's Cup – the top Grand Prix event in the country – and is a three-time World Champion hunter class rider. He made the 1,300-mile trek from his home in Magnolia, Texas to Traverse City for the third straight year. He said it didn't take long for word of Horse Shows by the Bay to spread throughout the circuit.

"I just heard somebody talking about the horse show in Traverse City and how amazing it was," he said. "I already knew Dean and Alex, so we decided to give it a shot. We made a good choice."

Pletcher doesn't come alone; a group of about 30 people will accompany him in Traverse City. Not only does he compete with his own horses, but he shows and trains horses owned by other families, as well. While Pletcher stays in his RV, other members of his entourage rent houses.

"At most horse shows we'll only have about 20 people with us," he said. "But when we come to Traverse City the entire family tends to come along. People will rent boats and jet-skis, hang out at the beach and have fun going to the casino. And everybody seems to have a favorite restaurant. For a lot of the people, it turns into more of a vacation than work."

Though the Grand Traverse Region is not known as an equestrian hot-bed on the scale of the East Coast, Florida or Kentucky, placing the festival in Traverse City was a highly calculated move.

"Geography has played a large part in determining the success of this event," Rheinheimer said. "We looked at places on the east side of the state and at places farther north. But we decided Traverse City is a place with a lot of amenities; a great airport, it's not too big, not too small, not too hot, and not too cold. It was kind of like 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears.' Everything here was just right."

In its first year, the festival drew 250 horses into the competition. That number multiplied to 1,500 last year with about the same number expected to compete this summer.

"We leveled off this year because of the economy," Rheinheimer said. "Even though most of the folks who attend are affluent and considered recession-proof, they live off the interest from their stock portfolio, which means this year they have less to play with as far as their horses go and how many shows they attend. But most shows are down 20 to 30 percent (in attendance). So we feel comfortable with where we are."

The value of many of the top competing horses can be eye-popping, with most ranging from $250,000-$750,000. A few even reach the $1 million mark. Still, there's room for just about any rider of any experience, and plenty of prize money – about $395,000 will be awarded this summer – to go around. Riders and horses from 34 states, as well as Mexico, Canada, Ireland and France, are represented at the show.

"The great thing about this event is that it offers a lot of different classes for a wide range of riders, from beginners and amateurs to Grand Prix," Pletcher said. "And they offer a lot of prize money for the different classes."

Spectators are welcome at the feature events held every Friday through Sunday during the festival. Admission to most events is $5. Rheinheimer said that because the festival is held outside of town and is "self-contained," it has taken a while for the event to get discovered locally. But awareness by residents and local businesses has grown considerably.

For Gunst, one of 25 vendors attending this year's festival, the upbeat atmosphere helps improve her profit margin. "I found if customers are in a good mood, they will spend money," she said.

It also enhances her state of mind.

"The mentality of the horse shows out east is different. You can be at a show and really not talk to anyone," she said. "Here, the friendly Midwestern hospitality comes with the show. It really makes it special."

For more information, log on to www.horseshowsbythebay.com.

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