By Shannon Klepper

Annie with Laura Graves

The opportunity for my young, dressage-obsessed daughter and myself to attend the FEI World Equestrian Games™ (WEG), in our own country, was something that couldn’t be denied. I purchased our tickets months in advance and managed to secure a much coveted hotel room, only thirty minutes away in Spartanburg, SC. Although I wasn’t excited about making the trek in each day, after hearing stories of spectators staying up to two hours away, I felt I certainly couldn’t complain.

The days leading up to our departure were filled with impending doom, from Hurricane Florence lurking about, but we opted to just go for it. WEG, after all, only happens once every four years! We decided to drive from Ohio, knowing that we could turn around and come home if necessary and not be at the mercy of the airlines.

Excited to finally arrive at Tryon International Equestrian Center (TIEC), there were signs directing spectator traffic to use an alternative exit further up the highway. Once we reached that exit, we were directed to an off-site parking area, five miles away from the venue. As the dressage competition was held in the first days of WEG, I knew there could be some presumably unexpected glitches, and the parking situation looked like it might be one of them. This “parking lot F” was a massive, rolling field, already packed with cars from every possible state.  After paying the $20 daily parking fee, we were guided to rows of parking that weren’t terribly consistent. There had been a light rain that day and the field was already filled with thick, red clay mud. Luckily, we secured a higher parking spot, after witnessing two vehicles get stuck. The thought occurred to me- what on earth is going to happen when 500,000 people and a tropical storm arrive? As it would happen, the following day’s parking was much more organized. I was told by one of the volunteers that Mark Bellissimo himself came to the parking lot to come up with a new parking solution.

Once parked, we made the long, muddy trek up to the shuttle buses. The line was incredibly long, but moved surprisingly quickly, thanks to an ample supply of chartered buses arriving one directly after another. The air conditioned buses drove us back the five miles to the entrance of TIEC and dropped us off right at the security checkpoint. Security was thorough, but not as intense as we were anticipating. Thank goodness, because I had forgotten to pack our belongings in a clear plastic bag, as was mandated on our tickets.  At every point, there appeared to be plenty of staff and volunteers – those that Annie and I encountered personally were incredibly cheery and helpful. This is important to note, because I must add that it was hot- incredibly hot-  and I’m not sure I would’ve been as cheerful in that heat and humidity!

One of the first areas we encountered was the WEG Super Store. It was air conditioned, so we lingered there an extra few minutes, and so happy we did because Annie happened upon none other than Laura Graves!  She was doing a little shopping and graciously posed for a photo with Annie.  We’ve had the joy of meeting Laura on several occasions, and she’s always been so lovely and humble. She is an excellent ambassador and role model for the youth of our sport. 

Annie at the dressage arena

The area just outside of the WEG Super Store opened up to the massive amount of independent vendors – each in their little white tents. Aside from the fact that most spectators love to shop at these large events, this was especially interesting to us in that we are typically a vendor ourselves. Our family business is Annie’s Equestrienne Apparel, and we made the decision to come to WEG as spectators, rather than setting up shop. As this was anticipated to be such a huge event, we weren’t sure what we’d be getting ourselves into, and at nearly $10,000 for even the smallest space (not including travel, food, or lodging), it was a risk we weren’t willing to take.  Some of our vendor friends mentioned that they were initially told they’d be in an air conditioned building, but apparently there just wasn’t enough time to get it completed.  It would’ve been nice to have all of the shopping in a climate controlled area, to get a break from the heat.  I know I would’ve shopped more, and I’m certain sales overall would’ve increased dramatically.

Annie and I eagerly made our way to the dressage arena. The stadium was colossal and adorned with flags from all the various participating countries. By now, everyone is well aware of the final scores/results, and has been able to view the winning rides thanks to YouTube, Facebook, etc.  However, there was something extraordinary about seeing all this firsthand. It is difficult to describe the incredible sense of pride and emotion felt by experiencing WEG in our home country. I cannot even imagine how much more magnified it must have been to actually compete and represent your own country. Annie and I are so proud to have witnessed and cheered on the entire US team. Moreover, we truly watched dressage “herstory” being made! There were so many incredible rides by incredible women, and Laura Graves winning the silver medal was beyond fantastic! In one of the few sports where men and women compete side by side, how cool is it that my daughter was able to witness such girl-power?!

Annie and I made the decision to drive home early, to avoid any potential wrath of Flo. We were disappointed we were going to miss the freestyles, but that obviously worked out just fine as they ended up being cancelled. We recently received notification that we’d be reimbursed a portion of our tickets, which was an unexpected surprise.

I would be remiss in not mentioning the obvious controversy surrounding the preparedness of the venue.  Unfortunately, I feel it overshadowed the magnitude of this event. Was it perfect? No, but I have a suspicion that even if everything would’ve been completed as planned, there would still have been some inevitable glitches. This shouldn’t be surprising with such a Herculean event.  In my opinion, Mark Bellissimo and his team at TIEC deserve major props for hosting WEG, and doing the best they could in such a short amount of time. Dressage and other disciplines are sadly declining, and we desperately need industry leaders to find innovative ways to work together to turn that around. In my opinion, it would have been much more of a disappointment and setback to have this year’s WEG cancelled.

In the end, WEG was still just a horse show. Yes, Florence was a major bummer, which no one could control, but TIEC was lightning fast in their responsiveness to other problems that occurred. I can only speak of our experience, but I hope that readers can take away an appreciation for all of the good, that far outweighed the bad. While it was great to see the best equestrians in the world compete, what was absolutely awe-inspiring was the feeling of a truly global community. Sharing the love of dressage with fans from all over the world was an experience Annie and I will never forget.

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