Art of the Horse steps up to acknowledge a banner equestrian year

Mary Tolles’ elaborately painted equine is a standout in this year’s Art of the Horse project. The introduction of the artworks heralds an unprecedented year for equestrian sports in Polk County. Photo by Luke Collins

Since 1947, Polk County has hosted the Block House Steeplechase — a sterling series of races first organized by legendary horseman Austin Brown. This month, the Block House returns in all its rowdy, feel-good glory. (Last year, the event became a joint endeavor of the Tryon International Equestrian Center and the Tryon Riding & Hunt Club, with a pumped-up purse of $150,000.

Then, September 10-23, the TIEC will join the likes of Normandy, France and Aachen, Germany in hosting the 2018 Fédération Equestre Internationale World Equestrian Games, an international championship equivalent to the Olympics of jumping and dressage. The Games are expected to draw some 500,000 visitors, and early estimates pinpoint it as one of the largest sporting events in state history.

That honor isn’t lost on Our Carolina Foothills, an organization that spearheads Art of the Horse, a public-art project in which artists adorn life-size, fiberglass horses to commemorate the region’s equestrian culture. Much like Hendersonville’s Bearfootin’ Public Art Walk, the stallions are exhibited across the foothills region before being auctioned off at a gala in October. Honoring the World Equestrian Games, this cycle’s theme is “One World, One Vision.”

A lifelong artist with incredible range — her pieces run the gamut from onyx backsplashes to wood carved doors — Mary Tolles of Mill Spring’s Labyrinth Farm created Zebra Gone Awry, one of 30 stationary steeds to hit the streets of Saluda, Tryon, Columbus, and Landrum, SC. Boasting monochromatic mosaic patterns (an artistic method called Zentangle), her stallion nods to the black-and-white striped equid. “It’s my twist on a zebra,” says Tolles. “Even if it’s not someone’s style, I hope they appreciate the attention to detail.” Locals can see the design in person at Harmon Field.

In its exoticism, the work departs from the real-life equines found in Polk County, particularly Tolles’ horses. Originally war horses from the Iberian Peninsula, her Andalusians and Lusitanos are celebrated in modern-day equestrian shows and competitions, emerging as Olympic winners and handsome television stars. “These horses are popular in movies,” explains Tolles. Heeding inheritance laws, she breeds for stunning coats such as roan, a pattern where white hairs afford a silvery, glimmering effect. She also breeds for temperament, physique, and, of course, athleticism. “Several of my customers will be attending the World Equestrian Games as spectators,” Tolles says, noting that her client base spans as far as Canada.

While local businesses and tourism agencies are bracing themselves for the expected $400 million economic impact of the Games, Tolles sees the upcoming events, this month’s Steeplechase included, as much-needed validation. “They draw attention and prestige to the area,” she says. “But they also solidify the long history of equestrian sports in Tryon.”

The 72nd Annual Block House Races will be held on Saturday, April 14, at the Green Creek Race Course, 6985 Highway 9 in Columbus. To view start times, tickets, and pre-race activities, visit For more information about Art of the Horse, visit Our Carolina Foothills at or contact Mindy Wiener at

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