Add to the roster of reasons to come to Traverse City in summertime: a United States Equestrian Federation AA-rated equestrian festival. For four weeks in July, 1,400 horses and their riders converge on the new Flintfields Horse Park to compete for more than $395,000 in prize money. We talked to co-founder Alex Rheinheimer (pictured with co-founder and husband, Dean Rheinheimer) about what became—in just five years—the largest equestrian sport event in the Midwest.

I take it you and your husband are horse people?

We are. I am a licensed show-jump judge and horse show announcer, and together with my husband travel the horse show circuit. He is a course designer—he sets the courses that the horses jump.

How did a horse show of this caliber crop up in Traverse City?

My husband had the vision of wanting to start a horse show on the water, so we explored Michigan. Traditionally, you go where the horses are, so that would be lower Michigan, but we wanted to make our event more of a vacation destination–oriented equestrian festival. So we started looking North.

So who are all these horse people rolling into Traverse City with trailers?

It’s a national event—no longer just a regional event. Pretty much every person who shows horses in Michigan is here, to equal about 25 percent of our participants. Then about another 50 percent are from the greater Midwest—Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois, Tennessee—and then another 25 percent are from outside of the Midwest, eastern states and elsewhere. They are all here for a consistent two-week commitment, but we’re seeing more of the participants take part in the full three-  or four-week experience as people turn it into more of a vacation. They want the horse show to finish at 5 p.m. sharp so they can get out and explore!

Where are all the horses staying while they’re here?

We put up 1,098 temporary stalls at Flintfields. Horse feed, hay and pine shavings come in by the semi-full to take care of their needs.

What is Flintfields like for the month of July?

It’s like nothing else. You’ll see five rings of competition, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m, and kids starting at the age of 6 to men and women in their 60’s competing at all different levels. Any time you’re on the grounds there are hundreds of horses, milling around with their riders and their support staff. These horses are the best of the best—glistening coats, tails neatly braided, beautifully turned out, as are the riders. It’s a very traditional sport. You appreciate how well the animals and people relate to each other.

At what event would the uninitiated really like to be a spectator?

The weekend show jumping Grand Prix. With show jumping, which is an Olympic sport, horse and rider are one as they negotiate a special pattern of obstacles or jumps, in a time limit. If they are successful, they move on to a jump-off. One unique aspect to it, besides the fact that the competitor is working with an animal, is that men and women compete together on an even playing field. In horse shows, gender specific competition does not exist.

What is dressage?

It’s like the long program for a figure skater, a choreographed ride to music. Riders compete for 10 minutes each, and are judged on artistic interpretation, accuracy and the technical aspect of their riding. Just like the triple Axel in figure skating—there are minimum requirements they must perform.

What are some of the cool ones?

Tempi flying changes, where the horse is skipping, is really neat to see. Piaffe, when the horse marches, so they look like they are moving, but they aren’t traveling any great distance.

And do they do this to pop hits or classical?

Dressage is a very classic sport—riders are in traditional equestrian show gear, top hat and tuxedo tails. So the purists want the classical music. But you’ll get Coldplay and the Rolling Stones with the Bach and Brahms.

For a complete schedule, including which events are open to the public, go to

Coming to Traverse City for Horse Shows by the Bay? Check out these links: perfect for planning your trip!

Photo(s) by Brian Confer