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Making a cash splash: Equestrian events make mark on local economy

In some parts of McDuffie County, a horse seems to stand on every corner. But these noble animals are much more than ornaments to adorn the rolling green pastures -- they are big business and big sport.

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Lucia Strini atop Pandora sloshes toward a jump during a one-day event at Pine Top Farm last month. The farm has a three-day event planned for this weekend.
Photo by Jason B. Smith
The economic impact of horses can be felt in many ways, but it doesn't stop there. The horse has helped support the stability and conservation of the rural landscape and is responsible for unique recreational outlets that add to quality of life.

The equine industry provides work for farriers, veterinarians, breeders, riding teachers and others. It generates sales for local businesses, and it helps ensure the preservation of pastureland for future generations to enjoy.

Origins of horse-related commerce are rooted in the early history of the county, but the growth of the industry can be attributed to the vision and energy of James E. Wilson Jr., born in Thomson in 1922.

"Boots" Wilson, who earned his boyhood nickname by his interest in horses, passed along his love of the land and horses to sons who today help operate two of the area's largest equine establishments that bring both visitors and recognition to Thomson -- Pine Top Farm and The Belle Meade Hunt.

And the equine industry he encouraged continues to expand.

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John Willliams tips his hat at the start of his dressage routine Feb. 19.
Photo by Jason B. Smith
"It's a growing industry. There is so much out there," said Victoria Riley, owner of Southern Stirrups.

In James Wilson Jr.'s youth, Pine Top Farm was a working cotton and cattle farm where fields were plowed with mule teams. Today, the eighth generation family farm is a premier site for eventing, which is basically a triathlon for horses. In 1991, James Wilson Jr. and son Glenn Wilson began developing it into a combined training center which has hosted the world's top riders. Pine Top has received national and international notoriety and has served as a training site for Olympic riders from seven different countries.

"It's a good way to diversify from agriculture that has kept this farm going for 235 years in my family," Glenn Wilson said. "We're continuing the tradition."

Pine Top draws top riders who appreciate the premier soil and landscape that includes 200 acres of pastures, inviting jumps, and a water complex that is known as one of the biggest and most versatile in the sport.

Events at Pine Top draw visitors from across the country, Canada and even overseas, and those events have a huge economic impact on the area.

For example, an equestrian event that draws 50 overnight visitors to Thomson can generate an economic impact of $50,000 to $200,000, depending upon which economic formula is used in the calculation, said Gerald Baygents, Thomson-McDuffie County's director of tourism.

"That money turns over. Employees get paid, and they use that money in the community. Visitors spend money and it impacts in a lot of different ways from restaurants to sales tax to services," Mr. Baygents explained.

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Mary Bess Horton and War Wolf fly over a jump at Pine Top Farm Feb. 19.
Photo by Jason B. Smith
Janet Wilson, who helps her husband Glenn run Pine Top, said local businesses are always interested to know when the next big event is scheduled.

"When we go out to eat, the people who work in the restaurants want to know 'When's the next show?' They want to hire extra help and get geared up for the onslaught of people that will come into the community," she said. "They like the extra business."

James E. Wilson Jr.'s influence on the horse industry can also be seen with the Belle Meade Hunt, one of the top hunts in America, which he started along with interested friends back in 1966.

Huntsman Wilson, who served as Master of Foxhounds until his death in April 2002, was instrumental in working with landowners to establish the hunt territory which today covers 40,000 acres. Despite broken hips and surgeries, he rode avidly and passed along his love of the sport and for the land to son Epp Wilson, who serves as Joint Master of the Hunt along with Gary Wilkes and Charlie Lewis.

The results of those early efforts at preserving the land are evident today, Joint Master Lewis said.

A core group of landowners that included the Pete and Bob Knox families, the James McCorkle family, and the Wade Hosendorf family, started a tradition of preserving the land back when the hunt was young. Those efforts have continued and have added to the scenic nature of the area. In fact, there is such a dedication to preserving land that several individuals have purchased property for the sole purpose of keeping it rural and unblemished.

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Mark Weissbecker of Richmond, Ma., falls off Top Gallant and into the water during a Feb. 19 event at Pine Top.
Photo by Jason B. Smith
Conservation programs offer a good way to ensure the land will remain rural.

"It's the only way we're going to keep these green areas forever," Joint Master Lewis said.

Although the hunt brings recognition and visitors to the area while supporting conservation efforts, the neatly dressed English-style riders are not the only ones who enjoy the landscape.

Dozens of western riders from the area also make use of the many trails and pastures.

Lynn Bythrow was visiting from Florida a few months ago when she went on a western trail ride with friends. The enthusiastic horsewoman liked it so much she now calls McDuffie County home.

"Up here, it's more of a family," she said. "It's so different from Florida. It takes trail riding to another level."

Ms. Bythrow is among a group that meets for rides that often include overnight camping and socializing. McDuffie County serves as a good hub for the group which attends planned rides all over the area, some of which are included on the Judge's List at www.judgesridelist.com.

In addition to providing recreation for pleasure riders, horses also enrich the lives of the youngest and most vulnerable in the area -- handicapped children.

Special needs children from McDuffie County have been visitors to Horsefeathers therapeutic riding center for over a decade, said Thomas Brady who has coordinated the program for the last 10 years.

Children who spend most of their lives sitting in wheelchairs looking up get a unique perspective on the world as they sit on a horse's back and look down, he said.

"This helps them come out of their shell," said Mr. Brady who believes the sense of mobility children get improves their physical and emotional health.

"The children are the center of attention here," he said.

From the youngest, most delicate child to the white-haired seasoned rider, horse lovers say their favorite animal lends value to their lives that is hard to measure.

Horse lovers sum up those sentiments with the old adage, "The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man."



Web posted on Thursday, March 3, 2005











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