Toy Story

Tryon equestrian scene embraces a quirky Finnish sport

By: Jarrett Van Meter

HAVE STICK HORSE, WILL TRAVEL
Abby Baldwin at the Tryon International Equestrian Center.
Photo by Clark Hodgin

It’s a muggy July night, but 8-year-old Abby Baldwin is perfectly cool. She climbs atop her horse, Lady Bug, and waits for her cue to ride. There is a countdown, some words of encouragement from her friends lining the ring, and then she is off.

Despite her youth, Baldwin is a veteran racer. She’s been competing in the Tryon International Equestrian Center’s Saturday Night Lights Hobby Horse races since she was three years old. Yes, Lady Bug is a toy — a stuffed horse head mounted upon a wooden stick. Powered by her own legwork, Abby and other competitors age 14 and under ride their horses around a circuit of jumps not dissimilar to a canine obstacle course. (The height of the crossrails are scaled according to age group.)

“It’s a lot of fun, and even though they are competing individually, they still all cheer each other on,” says Abby’s mother, Deanna. “There have been many times when there are younger kids who aren’t sure of a course and she would run with them or share her hobby horse if they didn’t have one, so they still learn that camaraderie of working together.”

“You get to meet new friends,” says Abby.

“It’s just a lot of fun, and they like to win the free ice cream.”

 Abby in action.
Photo by Clark Hodgin

Deanna first discovered the event on Facebook and had no problem selling Abby, who was already riding her hobby horse all around the family’s yard in Fletcher. “She was all for it, and then started practicing over jumps. She’d build jumps from whatever she could find in the garage or the yard. Buckets and sticks and brooms.”

Stick horses have been traced back to the 1400s, but organized hobby-horse racing is relatively new. It originated in Finland and boasts nearly 10,000 active participants worldwide. (In a 2017 article in the Wall Street Journal, Finnish riders insisted that the sport requires athletic and choreographic skills.) But Tryon is the only regional location to offer competition, with two annual sessions in July and October. Summer events are held on the grassy space in front of the complex’s general store, with the fall finals taking place inside the Tryon Stadium. Abby, who also rides “real” horses, has been riding Lady Bug long enough that she doesn’t get nervous.

“She’s pretty steady,” says Deanna. “The kids that ride [real horses] probably have a little advantage because they understand doing the jumps in order [and] memorizing a course.”

Like real horses, hobby horses range in price. Unlike any real horse, though, Lady Bug only cost $20, with adjustments to the pole made by Abby’s dad, Sam Baldwin. Some horses are more ornate, while others are simply fashioned from swimming noodles. 

Dressing up has become part of the Saturday-night festivities. Some kids wear their actual riding clothes to compete. In October, Halloween costumes come out, and the shows are broadcast on the stadium’s big screen.

In contrast to standard show jumping, the hobby-horse events are about speed over style. Riders incur a “fault” for every rail knocked over during their run, but results are determined by the time in which the child finishes. 

The pressure — at least locally — is considerably less than in live horse racing. For most contestants, like Abby and Lady Bug, the night is about hanging out with friends and reveling in the excitement of Saturday Night Lights. Deanna says she wouldn’t mind seeing the activity’s popularity grow.

“It would be cool to see it get big and have more competitions,” she says. “Tryon is really laidback, so the rules aren’t really tight. As it got bigger, I’m sure it would have to tighten and become more strict, but it would be cool. The kids love it. I’m surprised that even the older kids like to do it.”

Lady Bug, who sleeps in the garage of the Baldwin residence, will get some much needed rest between the Summer Series and Fall Series, as Abby logs some time atop a living, breathing horse. The two will reunite this month with a single goal in mind.

“To jump the highest,” she says.

The Hobby Horse fall series happens during “Saturday Night Lights” at Tryon International Equestrian Center (25 International Blvd., Mill Spring) on Oct. 9, 16, 23, and 30. For more information, see tryon.coth.com. 

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