When we think of FEI show jumping and WCHR hunter shows, our minds usually drum up images of traveling to glamorous locations for horse shows, where the local boutiques are filled with floaty tops and skinny jeans, the booze flows freely, and the show grounds are pristine. Though most people might turn up their noses at the mention of showing in the—gasp—Midwest, the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival at the Flintfields Horse Park in Traverse City, Mi. proves that the states that comprise middle America aren’t just for flying over.
Midwest native Ali Wolff, who has represented the United States on Nations Cup teams and has traveled the world with horses in tow, bases at her own Blacklick Bend Farm in New Albany, OH during the summer months and spent two weeks at GLEF with boyfriend and fellow rider Ed Copeland. Showing was, of course, on the agenda, but with rows of grapes growing above the main schooling ring, a gentle breeze blowing off of Lake Michigan, and gourmet restaurants just a short drive away, the couple couldn’t resist living lake life to the fullest.
“It’s kind of a destination horse show, not just a horse show in itself and that’s it,” Ali says. Coming from the girl with all sorts of exotic stamps in her passport, that’s high praise. And Ali wasn't the only world-traveler to attend GLEF this year: Beezie Madden and Margie Engle also made the trip.
So how does Ali recommend you spend your time at the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival when you're not in the ring? Eat, drink, and sight see.
Lunch at Little Fleet
Ali and Ed began their day in the heart of Traverse City at The Little Fleet, which is home to eight food trucks (as well as a permanent bar), all of which park on the Little Fleet lot for the summer. “The tacos were so good!” Ali says about her fried chicken, kimchi mayo, and toasted coconut taco from Happy’s Tacos.
Pedal Cab Tour
Though downtown Traverse is über walkable, Ali and Ed chose to take in the sights from the back of a pedicab.
They rode up and down Main Street and arrived at the Grand Traverse Pie Company for a taste test. "So good," Ali says in between bites of cherry crumb pie.
Sipping and Savoring at Left Foot Charley
With their bellies full, Ali and company made their way to Left Foot Charley, a winery and tasting room that highlights various vineyards in Northern Michigan. There, they had a tour of the cellar and tasted a red blend, a white, and a cider.
Drinks at The Parlor
As the old saying goes, "Beer before liquor, never been sicker; liquor before beer, you're in the clear." But what about wine before bourbon? No matter. Ali treated herself to a a "Smoke Stack", The Parlor's signature cocktail. Aged bourbon, Michigan maple syrup on the rocks and then blasted with a blowtorch and infused with apple and cherry wood smoke.
Sleeping Bear Dunes
After kicking off cocktail hour, the pair drove to Sleeping Bear Dunes, about an hour's drive west of the horse show. “It was just the most breathtaking view,” says Ali while standing high atop one of the sandy dunes. “It just looks like an ocean. It was Lake Michigan but it was so hard to imagine that it was just a lake. It was so beautifully blue.”
Dinner at LochenHeath Golf Club
Next, Ali and Ed caught the sunset while enjoying dinner on the patio at The Restaurant at LochenHeath Golf Club. The couple invited Margie Engle and husband Steve, as well as Ali's trainer Michelle Grubb.
“The horse show itself was gorgeous,” says Ali. “Every ring has a great photo-op next to a mountain or a cliff or something so you could kind of see the sky and trees and the valley.” GLEF has no shortage of green space and allows competitors to hack out in the field by the grand prix ring. “I thought [the show] had more of a relaxed setting,” she says.
Slowing Down while Staying Competitive
“It’s nice sometimes when you have more of a relaxing summer and don’t go to Europe or Calgary, you can still get that competition that you would in those areas at GLEF. It’s a great combination,” Ali says about her time in the mitten state. “For me, I was aiming [for] this for all the young horses. It was good for them, and the young horse I did in the FEI classes, to really kind of get some knowledge and competition like that, but also at the same time, not overwhelming.”
GLEF is growing each year, and Ali notes that it's exciting to mix the laid-back atmosphere with some of the top riders in the sport. "It's great to see some of the big names here too, like Beezie, and Molly Ashe, and Margie - it's competitive here, but a different experience than any other horse show."
Get out your calendars, book a chic lake cottage, and prepare to head north to the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival next summer. Ali Wolff said so.Photos by Dani Maczynski