Do you have a horse crazy kid in your life? Did you dream of owning a pony when you were a child? Did Rio create Olympic dreams in your favorite family equestrian? No matter if your experience with horses is limited to a fancy carousel ride or you’re a competitive jumper, Tryon International Equestrian Center provides a perfect place to play with ponies — and Saturday Night Lights is FREE.

Horse riding heaven at Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina.

TIEC plans to become the preeminent equestrian facility in North America. Photo Credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf, Garden Geek Traveling Mom.

Tryon International Equestrian Center: Horse Haven Near the Blue Ridge Mountains

It seems like rite of passage—the love affair with horses many of us experience at a young age. Most of us outgrow it after a few years. After all, horseback riding can be hot, smelly, time-consuming, and expensive. Then, there are the others: those equestrian-obsessed individuals who sacrifice social lives to ride.

Our daughter, Kristen, lives for riding.

For the past 10 years, she’s spent every free minute riding, thinking about riding, or scouring the Internet for her next best friend with four legs.

It’s an obsession—and an expensive one at that.


So, when we learned about a free evening of entertainment at the Tryon International Equestrian Center featuring my daughter’s favorite activity—competitive horseback riding–I knew we needed to check it out.

World-Class Equestrians in North Carolina

Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC) is touted as a “World-Class Equestrian Lifestyle Destination.” And it is. From year-round horse shows featuring the finest riders in hunter/jumper, dressage, and eventing to high-end shopping, concerts, and family entertainment, the founders of TIEC know how to cater to the horse-crazy set. They’re also masters at entertaining and enticing new fans into the world of equestrian sports.

Throughout the year, TIEC hosts horse shows for riders at many levels. (Our daughter is dying to show at TIEC, much to the dismay of our bank account. It hasn’t happened. Yet.) You can find the schedule of events here. However, Saturday night is when the top professional show jumpers come out to play. After all, with Grand Prix prizes ranging from $25,000 to $380,000, the venue entices the best of the best equestrians to compete in North Carolina.

The Grand Prix at Tryon Equestrian Center provides free family fun on Saturday night.

Hold your breath during the jump-off: the winner is the fastest rider with the fewest faults. Photo Credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf, Garden Geek Traveling Mom.

Shows in equestrian disciplines (hunter, equitation, and jumping) take place throughout the season, but the Saturday Night Lights Grand Prix at the Tryon International Equestrian Center produces the biggest draw. A Grand Prix competition entices the top riders. Higher jumps (up to 5’3”), increased technical skills, and a course that includes 10 to 16 elements—all while racing the clock—also offers the biggest cash incentive to competitors.

However, Saturday Night Lights is more than watching horses canter around a ring. The carnival atmosphere provides hours of entertainment, whether you know the difference between a crop and a canter.

Best of all, the events cost nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

Free pony rides for horse-crazy kids at Tryon International Equestrian Center.

Free pony rides at TIEC give kids a chance to see if equestrian sports appeal to them. Photo credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf, Garden Geek Traveling Mom.

Trust me, it’s not often the words “free” and “horse” are used in the same sentence. My friend, Sherry Boswell (aka Melodious Traveling Mom) understands. Our daughters are riding buddies!

Free carousel rides at Tryon International Equestrian Center.

If your horse-crazy kids need practice before the free pony rides, they can warm up on the carousel–also free! Photo Credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf, Garden Geek Traveling Mom.

Playing Pre-Show at Tryon International Equestrian Center.

While the Grand Prix competition doesn’t begin until 8 p.m., the fun of Saturday Night Lights starts earlier, with gates opening at 6 p.m. From free pony rides (both living and the carousel variety) to fire juggling and hula-hoop contests, you’ll find family-friendly activities in every corner of the facility.

Miniature horses offer a perfect chance for kids to learn about horses.

Really, how can anyone resist this miniature horse named Olaf? Our girl certainly fell in love! Photo credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf, Garden Geek Traveling Mom

Bubbles, face painting, even a miniature pony named Olaf will keep the kids entertained, while the adults can enjoy a cocktail or browse the shops. (Souvenirs are not free, I’m sorry to say.) Most people think of equestrian sports as rather staid. After all, compare the Olympic riders’ conservative apparel versus the sparkle of the gymnasts’ uniforms. However, TIEC is filled with activity, from t-shirt tosses to Kiss Cams and dance contests, attracting the most horse-obsessed visitors, as well as introducing newbies to the excitement of equestrian sports.

Art horse competition at Tryon International Equestrian Center.

Events are continuously added at TIEC. An art competition featuring painted horses added fun to Saturday Night Lights. Photo Credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf, Garden Geek Traveling Mom

We arrived early, planning to eat dinner (also not free) before the Grand Prix began. We chose to try the newest addition to the restaurant line up at TIEC—Campagna. I called ahead for reservations and was told we didn’t need them. When we arrived, though, the hostess informed us of a 10-20 minute wait for the half-empty restaurant. No problem. We enjoyed looking at the horse statue art competition and wandering around the facility.

After waiting an hour with my 80-year-old mother-in-law in the heat and checking our status repeatedly, I fussed. (I don’t usually fuss. I promise. It’s really not my style.) I’m hopeful that the service issues will resolve once the restaurant staff gains a bit more experience, because our meals were quite tasty. I also loved the patio seating, which allowed us to take our puppy, Gracie, with us to Saturday Night Lights.

Dogs and puppies enjoy Saturday Night Lights as much as the humans.

Dogs and puppies are as plentiful as horses at Saturday Night Lights. Photo Credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf, Garden Geek Traveling Mom.

Because of the delay with dinner, we missed half of the competition, which disappointed our girlie. The good news is: there’s a wide range of dining options at TIEC. From burgers at Roger’s Diner to fine dining at Legends Grille to Blue Ginger Sushi and Noodles, you’ll find an excellent selection of options for every budget and taste. Some of the restaurants offer takeout, while vendors also sell hot dogs, popcorn, and carnival-style food so that you can enjoy your meal or snack ringside while watching the show. You can feed both your hunger and your horse obsession at the same time.

TIEC: A Resort for Horse Lovers

TIEC offers more than just an evening of entertainment: it’s slated to become a resort destination for horse lovers. While the area is renowned for riding, the new facility solidifies Tryon’s reputation as one of the top equestrian sites in the United States—and entices an international audience. Opened in June 2014, the facility currently offers 12 competition arenas, a lighted international arena that seats 6,000 (expandable to 12,000) 1,200 permanent stalls, a covered riding facility, a world-class cross country field, VIP areas, and a fitness center. TIEC plans continued expansion with the addition of two hotels, a sports complex, a sporting clay course, and an 18-hole golf course. Currently, visitors can stay on-site in one of the many cabins or at the Stable House Inn, a one-minute drive from the show grounds.

In fact, TIEC recently submitted a bid to host the World Equestrian Championships (WEC) in 2018. Think of it as the equivalent of a mid-Olympics—the athletes that compete at WEC are the top riders in the sport, the ones who will be winning medals at the 2020 Olympic games. (My daughter already plans to camp out at TIEC if they host the championships.)

Take Your Seats: It’s Show Time.

While the pre-Grand Prix entertainment offers much family fun, the athletes made our hearts race.

Equestrian athletes in the Grand Prix at Tryon International Equestrian Center.

World-class athletes make it look easy to jump 5+ feet. Photo Credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf, Garden Geek Traveling Mom.


Tryon International Equestrian Center Grand Prix.

It takes incredible skill and teamwork to jump at a Grand Prix level. Photo Credit: Julie Thompson-Adolf, Garden Geek Traveling Mom.

(I swear, if Kristen ever competes at this level, I will be just like Olympian Aly Raisman’s mother, clutching my husband and hiding my eyes. I’m nervous enough when she jumps 2’9” courses!)

Free Family Fun for Horse-Crazy Kids.

Whether you’re a horse nut or simply enjoy a free evening of family entertainment, the Tryon International Equestrian Center will provide hours of fun for your family. And who knows? It might inspire a future equestrian in your family.

Tryon International Equestrian Center

Address: 4066 Pea Ridge Road, Mill Springs, NC 28756

Phone: 828-863-1000