Life in Our Foothills May 2024 – Celebrating 40 Years of FENCE – The Legacy of a Tryon Staple

Published 3:43 pm Thursday, May 9, 2024

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Story and photography by Emily Williams


Forty years ago, five residents of Polk County set their community on a course to fall in love with nature. In 1984, Paul Culberson, Jim Flack, Gus Hoffman, Dave Kirby and Tom Moore started the nonprofit known as the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center, or FENCE. Since the organization’s conception, FENCE has grown from its 117 acres donated by the Mahler family to 384 acres of conservation land that boasts beautiful hiking trails, hosts educational programs and events, and houses a renowned equestrian center. To celebrate FENCE’s 40th anniversary, Executive Director Tracie Hanson and some original FENCE members share about the organization’s growth and its impact on the surrounding community. 

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Since its beginning, the mission of the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center has been “to serve as a community resource for the preservation of green space and for educational and recreational opportunities linking nature, animals, and people.” Nancy Mahler has been involved in seeing this mission fulfilled since her mother-in-law, Carol Mahler, donated the original acreage and equestrian site to the five founding fathers. According to Nancy, Mrs. Carol Mahler only had one condition if these men were to inherit her land: they must always keep the property available and usable for their local community. Since that day, Nancy and her husband, Pete, have ensured that FENCE continues to uphold its promise to Mrs. Mahler. 

For the past twenty years, Tracie Hanson has also seen the organization live out its original vision firsthand. Starting as a teacher for their educational program, Project FENCE, in the early 2000s and transitioning to the role of Executive Director in 2013, Tracie has been heavily involved in each program that makes FENCE valuable to the Foothills.

Just as Mrs. Mahler would have wanted, FENCE boasts programs for everyone, be they equestrian lovers or nature fanatics. For students, the organization hosts six day camps each summer to teach children about horses, nature or art. During the school year, the nonprofit runs Project FENCE, a program where their teacher goes to five counties in the Foothills and Upstate to teach kids about nature. Thanks to the Kirby Fund and the Polk County Community Foundation, FENCE also offers free hiking trails, concerts and educational talks. 

John Vining, who served on the FENCE Nature Committee from 1984 to 1987 and the FENCE Board from 2018 to 2022, especially enjoys the organization’s special events like Go Fly a Kite Day and Celebrate Nature Day, annual events that often attract four- to five-hundred community members. 

“These are the types of events that make FENCE a special place for the Polk County community at large. Anyone can attend, and those who do are expected to participate,” says Vining.

First an equestrian center, FENCE still provides space for equestrian-related events such as open horse shows, rodeos and steeplechases, which are either hosted by the nonprofit or anyone who rents the venue. The proceeds from these affordable events go directly to financing the free programs offered at FENCE.

FENCE itself is not the only one celebrating an anniversary this year–so is one of its most beloved programs. Twenty years ago, Therapeutic Riding of Tryon (TROT) was started at FENCE by Norm Powers to empower those with certain physical and mental challenges through riding horses. As of today, the program has grown to forty students and seventy volunteers for their Spring and Fall sessions, which is a testament to the positive expansion of FENCE as a whole.

Each program, though, would not be possible without the devoted sponsors and volunteers associated with the organization. “We don’t receive any government funding,” shares Tracie. “Our supporters, donors, and volunteers really are the nuts and bolts that make FENCE go ‘round.” 

Jean Wright, who became a board member when she moved here in the early nineties, saw firsthand how members of the Tryon community “gave their talents and some degree of their treasure to help FENCE become sustainable,” often remaining in the background without any desire for acknowledgment or accolade. Without these people who sacrifice their time, talents, and finances, nonprofits like FENCE could not be successful. 

FENCE certainly has become successful, which is why it is such a staple of the Tryon area. “I think we have been a huge asset to the community, especially during the infamous COVID years,” says Tracie. “We were a safe haven for people to come and get outside, breathe fresh air, and not be with crowds of people or stuck indoors.” John Vining agrees that the “usage of the grounds increased during the COVID pandemic and was a huge respite for many citizens.” Tracie believes FENCE’s commitment to providing a safe space during the pandemic confirms, “We’re here for the community, and we’re about the community.”

Jean Wright concurs that FENCE is a place that welcomes its community with open arms through both seasons of difficulty and seasons of flourishing. “I am grateful that FENCE has weathered major challenges, maintaining its core values and purpose while evolving and adapting,” she shares.

Forty years is only the beginning for this aspirational nonprofit; they know there are always ways to grow to better serve the community, and their endowments from the Kirby Fund at the Polk County Community Foundation are making their dreams for growth a reality. 

“Our strategic plan is forever growing,” Tracie says. “We’re always into taking on new ideas and new programming.” One new program is EASE, or Equine Assisted Senior Engagement. This program will aid those struggling with dementia, Parkinson’s and other cognitive diseases by connecting them to the therapeutic power provided by horses.  

As this beloved Tryon institution continues to grow and change, the things that make it special never will. “I love watching the smiles and pride of TROT students, families, volunteers and even the horses,” states Jean. “I love seeing the smiles and enthusiasm at the Open shows . . . I love seeing the school kids and campers running down a nature trail marveling at the birds, the caterpillars, and passing horses. I love walking across the pond boardwalk watching the turtles and the dragonflies. I love seeing dogs and their owners walking the hills.”

Without a doubt, there is so much to love about FENCE. Dave Kirby, one of FENCE’s founding fathers, was often quoted saying, “If you love nature, love it at FENCE.” FENCE is a truly special place for people to visit and experience the beauty of nature to its fullest. For forty years, it has been a refuge for anyone who is looking for a space to distance himself or herself from the hectic realities of life and bask in a moment of tranquility. The future of FENCE is promising as the organization continues to meet the needs of its community by being caring, generous and loving to this little slice of earth.

FENCE is taking the entire year to celebrate their momentous anniversary. On April 28, the venue hosted its 40th Year Anniversary Bash, a free event for the whole community to enjoy food, games, live music, touch-a-truck experiences, and more. On September 7, the organization will reintroduce its Moon Howl concert featuring the Dirty South Band, with opening performances by Kayla McKinney and the Twisted Trail Band. Finally, on October 12, FENCE is hosting a formal ticketed event under their covered arena. 

To learn more about Foothills Equestrian Nature Center programs or purchase tickets for upcoming events, visit, call (828)859-9021, or email