GULFPORT, Miss. (WLOX) – The Gulf Coast Winter Classics horse competition starts this week at the Harrison County Fairgrounds.

The Gulf Coast Winter Classics officially begins on Feb. 13 and will run through March 29. The seven-week equestrian competition features riders from across the country, as well as locally, and offers events for every level of rider and horse.

After more than two decades of operation, the organizers, owners and riders involved still look forward to coming back and spending their money, and director Janet McCarroll loves it.

“Absolutely. We love to see the people come in,” she said. “That means we’re doing well. So many people have been coming for so many years. It’s just like they’re returning home.”

Emma Rheinheimer gets here early to get in more riding time and get out of the winter weather in Indiana.

“It’s freezing there,” she said with a laugh. “So, it’s really nice to have somewhere to actually wear shorts.”

For her, there’s more to this annual trip.

“This is my favorite place to show out of all the places I’ve been,” Rheinheimer said. “It’s just really fun to spend time, all this time with friends and family.”

It is a lot of time. This is a seven-week equestrian event.

Likewise, Gillian Bealeking is happy to venture south from Pennsylvania.

“We arrived yesterday,” she said. “It took us two days to get here. We laid over in Tennessee, and it was one of the happiest moments of my life pulling in here because we’ve been talking about coming to Mississippi when I had some Grand Prix horses.”

While the last-minute preparations continue for the training and competition arenas, some are setting up horse headquarters.

John Mastriano, owner of Tustin Farms out of New Jersey, is serious about his planning ahead.

“It takes me about a week. We come a little bit early because we kind of go a little bit over the top, so it takes us a little longer than usual, yeah,” he said.

This event draws in the numbers of people and the dollars, about $40 million every year. It has even been named as one of South East Tourism’s Top Ten Award winning events.

“The whole horse show does a tremendous impact on the economy down here between the restaurants, and the shopping and the store,” Mastriano said.

The Gulf Coast Winter Series is for “hunters” and “jumpers.” It is recognized by the Unites States Equestrian Federation as one of the nation’s top-rated competitions. While both styles of riding are jumping over fences, the hunters have their roots in the tradition of foxhunting and are judged on manners and style of jumping, while jumpers compete for clear rounds and speed. Some of the classes have jumps as high as 5’6” and 4’ wide and both styles of riding have many classes competing for prize money and national points

A big highlight for spectators is the weekly Grand Prix event on Sundays where riders compete for $25,000. Admission is free to watch all of the events.

The competition is Wednesday to Sunday each week beginning at 8 a.m. It will go through mid-afternoon on Wednesdays and Thursdays and all day on Fridays through Sundays.

The main event each week is the Grand Prix, where riders compete for $25,000. That event will be held at 2 p.m. every Sunday during the competition.

For more information on the Gulf Coast Winter Classics or to see a detailed schedule of events, visit their website HERE.

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