Every year, the elite competitive equestrian circuit makes its way around the country, from Ocala, Fla., to Culpeper, Va., to Thermal, Calif. These traveling troupes of privilege and skill also take with them small armies — of trainers, grooms, farriers, veterinarians, even equine acupuncturists and masseuses.

And for the last eight years, this band of competitors and assorted adjuncts have added a somewhat surprising destination to their junket: Saugerties, N.Y., a blue-collar town on the Hudson River about 110 miles north of New York City.

Eight years ago, HITS Incorporated, a company that produces equestrian competitions, built a $15 million showground here; the riders came. More than 3,000 horses and 2,200 competitive equestrians and their entourages descend on this village every summer. And the influx of a moneyed demographic and their free-flowing cash has played a part in transforming the town.

“I feel like Saugerties has won the lottery,” says Daisy Bolle who owns Dig, a high-end clothing shop on Partition Street in the village, which has 3,971 residents, according to the 2010 United States Census.

“When we first came to town, there were a lot of empty stores,” she says. “And now it feels really vibrant. It’s like having the Hamptons in your backyard.”

The Saugerties stage of the circuit has about 300 competitive heats, or classes, at various levels for riders to compete or show in per week, and it runs in three three-week bursts, beginning May 25 and ending Sunday. Olympians like Peter Leone, Nona Garson and Anne Kursinski, as well as top amateurs like Georgina Bloomberg, the daughter of New York City’s mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, have been regular competitors. Thomas G. Struzzieri, 52, the president and chief executive of HITS, has lived in Saugerties for 13 years and brought the state-of-the-art show grounds here, with its 12 giant barns equipped to hold 1,200 horses on 240 acres, five minutes from town.

“It had a charm I thought my customers might like,” he said of the town. Not to mention that it was also personally convenient. “When you run horse shows around the country, it’s nice to sleep in your own bed once in a while,” he said.

But unlike places like Culpeper, Saugerties is not traditionally horse country.

“It’s a blue-collar community for sure,” Struzzieri said, “but they’ve been really accepting of the horse clients, and they look at it as a great resource.”

But figuring out just how to roll out the welcome mat for the horse set has taken some trial and error.

At Inquiring Minds Bookstore and Cafe, Cheryl Rice, the store’s manager, set up a prominent display of books and manuals on all things equine in May. As of August, few had sold. “Maybe they didn’t have such a need for horse knowledge in book form,” she said, “because they’re already in the business.” Next year she may try horse novels.

At Dig, Bolle filled the shelves with horse-themed jewelry and equestrian print clothes her first year open. None sold, she says. “I think they don’t need the horsey stuff because they have horses,” she said. “What’s better than that?”

What did work was extending her store hours late into the night, a move followed by many other businesses, after realizing the riders’ competition schedules left little room for daytime shopping. On a particularly bustling Saturday night, she says, she has made up to an additional $10,000 from 6 to 11 p.m. “You have to make hay while the sun shines,” she said with a laugh.

The gingerbread ponies with white manes of royal icing flew off the shelves at Hudson Valley Dessert Company on Main Street at twice the rate of cookies shaped like the rest of the barnyard, Constance Bailey, the owner, said. Bailey goes through 150 of the $1 cookies on a horse show weekend, “which doesn’t exactly make us rich, but it makes us friends,” she said.
The influx of athletes, many with citified low-fat and low-carbohydrate tastes, has led her to change her menu. Bailey serves a salad with lime juice instead of dressing and whips up a cream-free soup specifically for when the riders are in town. On show weeks, she orders 300 extra pounds of flour, 45 dozen more eggs and 10 gallons of extra syrup from Breezy Maples Farms.

The riders’ presence accounts for $3,000 in extra business a week, Bailey says.
Down the street at Flanigans Cleaners, decals on the window spell out We Groom the Rider, a slogan the owner, Michael Flanigan, adopted after he realized that he too had a corner to grab in the riding market: the equestrian uniform, a dark jacket with a cotton blouse with a collar called a rat catcher, needs to be always sparkling. He dry cleans more than 2,000 of the shirts alone, at $4.50 apiece, every summer.

It would be difficult to find a business owner in town who does not sing the praises of the summer horse invasion, Flanigan said, but he acknowledged that conflicts had arisen.

Hulking pickup trucks hauling horse trailers caused knots of traffic in the early years and sparked local complaints until places like the hardware store took it upon themselves to hand out maps to the newcomers.

There are also less tangible tensions. The median per capita income in Saugerties is a little more than $20,000, and equestrian competitions are famously the sport of kings.

On a personal level, there can arise the same types of resentments that crop up between working-class residents of the Hamptons and the deep-pocketed set that goes there to play.
In October, Struzzieri plans to open Diamond Mills Hotel and Tavern, a boutique hotel and conference center overlooking the Esopus Creek waterfall, which cost $12 million to $14 million to build and will charge guests up to $400 a night.

“Do I believe that the horse show changed the town? I think it’s worked well in this town,” he said, pointing to economic blows the area has weathered like the shutting in 1994 of the I.B.M. plant in nearby Kingston, N.Y., which employed around 1,500 people. “I think the horse show has been a part of this community finding its way.”

On a Saturday night this summer, clumps of women and girls in pastel polo shirts, tall polished black boots and tan britches with suede patches jammed Stella’s Station, an ice cream parlor on Partition Street. On the opposite side of the counter, a team of young female employees scooped frozen treats, sweating. In the parking lot of the fully-booked Comfort Inn on Route 32 North, off-duty grooms smoked and traded horse stories in Spanish.

Around 10 p.m. two customers lingered at Emiliani Ristorante on Ulster Avenue, huddled close over a plate of linguine, discussing the merits of a chestnut-colored mare. “People will say, Ugh, the restaurants are so crowded when they’re here,” said Bolle, the owner of Dig. “But I say, Yes, but we get to have that restaurant all year round. And if they weren’t here, I don’t know if we would or not.”