This is the second of a two-part look at the equine sports scene of polo and equestrian in Wellington, Florida, where life centers around a love for horses.
By Craig Davis, craigslegztravels.com
Polo or show jumping, which is your preference? Perhaps it’s dressage (see video at end of the story).
Each of the equine sports have their place and popularity in Wellington, Florida, and contribute to the city’s claim as the Equestrian Capital of the World.
It certainly deserves that distinction during the winter months when top international competitors and equine enthusiasts flock to the horse-loving city in western Palm Beach County. The money they bring in is staggering.
According to the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, the equestrian season in Wellington contributed $280 million in economic impact and generated almost 150,000 paid room nights for the county in 2021. And that was while operating under COVID restrictions.
Winter Equestrian Festival an equine carnival
A short gallop from the polo field at the National Polo Center (about 10 minutes by car) is Wellington International, where the world’s best equestrian riders throughout the world compete in the 13-week-long Winter Equestrian Festival from just after New Year’s to the beginning of April.
The competition is show jumping, an Olympic sport and very different from polo. Riders lead their mounts through an intricate obstacle course of barriers (height can be up to five and seven feet) with the aim of clearing them cleanly within a specified time limit.
Like polo, It is a haven for the affluent and famous, but it won’t break your budget to watch them play.
Even the “Saturday Night Lights” featured events, which draw up to 8,000 spectators to the International Arena, has no charge for admission, just a $20 parking fee. But there is competition from Wednesday through Sunday throughout the WEF, and events other than Saturday night don’t even have a parking fee.
Pick your favorite equestrian sport
So, which is more entertaining, polo or show jumping?
Having experienced both, my view is that polo is a more interesting competition for spectators. Watching a succession of horses on the same sequence of jumps can quickly become monotonous.
It’s all a matter of personal preference, as with the debate between sailors and the motorboat set. Whatever floats your boat.
The Winter Equestrian Festival is the biggest annual sporting event in Palm Beach County, and the competition is world-class.
Midway through the 2023 WEF, the leader in the Championship Jumper Classic Series was Germany’s Richard Vogel. the reigning Jumping World Cup champion. American McLain Ward, second in the standings, is a five-time Olympian.
In recent years WEF competitors have included several daughters of the rich and famous, notably Jessica Springsteen, Georgina Bloomberg, Eva Jobs and Jennifer Gates, and some some have distinguished themselves as accomplished riders. Springsteen, the Boss’ daughter, won a silver medal at the 2020 Olympics.
In 2010, I interviewed Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, after she anchored victory for the women’s team in the Battle of the Sexes, one of the premier Saturday night events at the WEF. She is still a prominent professional rider who has since co-authored four young adult novels about the equestrian show circuit and has championed various philanthropic efforts related to animals.
Horses everywhere you look
What I enjoy most about the Winter Equestrian Festival is the overall spectacle surrounding it. Wellington International is a giant equine carnival with 12 rings scattered around a 500-acre facility with competition from youth to the Grand Prix level.
The outer rings provide an opportunity for up-close viewing of the riders and horses. Spectators can find a spot along the rail and gain a full appreciation of these magnificent animals and the relationship between rider and mount.
It is a setting ripe for people watching and a pleasant afternoon or evening out during the months with the best weather in South Florida.
There is shopping in the Vendor’s Village and various dining and drinking options throughout the grounds. Our preference is to attend the Sunday afternoon Grand Prix event, which is more laid back than the Saturday Night Lights events. Arrive a bit early and you can get a table for lunch at the Tiki Hut overlooking the International Arena and see all the action while you eat. Highly recommend the Tiki Steak Wrap.
Prince Charles helped put Wellington on map
In Wellington, if the sport involves horses they embrace them all. The city with a population of 66,000 has about 20,000 horses during the winter season. The facilities are first-rate and the competition is world-class.
It’s all a fairly recent phenomenon, beginning in 1977 when William T. Ylvisaker founded the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club. Before then Wellington was known for its vast strawberry fields.
Visits to Palm Beach Polo by Prince Charles and Princess Diana in the ’80s, with Charles playing in matches, helped spur equine interest in Wellington. Charles was treated for heat exhaustion after one match, but he kept coming back.
So does everyone who matters in the world of equine sports.
Visiting Wellington International
The home of the Winter Equestrian Festival is at 3400 Equestrian Club Drive, Wellington, FL. For details on the WEF, go to the website.
Global Dressage Festival
Yet another world-class equestrian event in Wellington, the 10-week Global Dressage Festival, runs through April near Wellington International at Equestrian Village, formerly the Polo Stadium for Palm Beach Polo. Dressage is another Olympic sport and also free to attend.
Dressage is described as “showing off a horse’s training by performing a set of prescribed movements in front of a panel of judges.”
Unofficially, it’s horse dancing.
The most enjoyable story from my brief stint covering equestrian was a 2010 feature on U.S. Olympian Steffen Peters, who guided his wonder horse Ravel through a jaunty pop medley of Men Without Hats’ “We Can Dance,” the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy For the Devil” and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.”
Peters, who at that time was the reigning world champion and to date has competed in five Olympics and won three Olympic medals, told me, “I only got the awards because of Ravel.”
That statement could be applied to the entire community of Wellington, where the horse truly is king.
Visiting Dressage arena
Equestrian Village is at 13500 South Shore Blvd., Wellington. Visit the Global Dressage Festival website for details.