Wellington, Florida is supposedly known as the winter equestrian capital of the world. That means we have basically two seasons in this town – when the horse industry is here and when it’s not.
This means that shortly before the snow starts flying in other parts of the country and the world, huge horse trailers begin pulling into town. In late October and early November, I can hear them outside my office window, trundling toward a barn or farm somewhere nearby.
Many of the horses these trailers carry cost upward of a million bucks. They are the crème de la crème, bred for speed, jumping, dressage, polo. These are not horses that simply graze in a field of grass all day. They have schedules. Their riders have trainers. They are housed on vast tracts of land that feature barns, paddocks, riding and jumping areas. They require riders, grooms, barn managers, ferriers, veterinarians, acupuncturists, feed and hay, stores that sell saddles, bridles, all the accouterments. As our housemate Cassie, a groom, says, “The horses have better health care than I do.”
Wellington isn’t the only horse area in Florida. Ocala, in the middle of the state, is known for its horses and recently had a competition with a purse worth a million. In fact, according to The Barn Book, the Florida horse industry generates $3 billion in goods and services. The national industry has a $5.1 billion impact on the Florida economy when you take into account the suppliers and employees. Supposedly, 440,000 Floridians are involved in the horse industry in some way and there are half a million horses in the state, with 60 percent of them involved in recreation and showing.
For us, all of this translates in a personal way. We live a canal’s hop away from some of the largest equestrian estates, where dirt roads twist past properties so beautiful they belong in movies. We ride our bikes through this area and the dogs run free, without leashes, past paddocks where these gorgeous horses graze, past small, private ponds where swans sometimes drift in sunlight. Traffic is sparse, even during the horse season. During the off season, you can bike ride for miles and never see a human being.
Between January and April, when the competitions take place, the horse people often hire private trainers, massage therapists, and yoga instructors. This year, Rob was hired by a Venezuelan family for yoga. They live on an estate so large that he sometimes has trouble finding his way back to the car. And there are always so many people around he isn’t sure who is family and extended family and who is an employee. The estate has barns, paddocks, several houses, a private gym. The family owns horses that compete primarily in the jumping category.
Our daughter started horseback riding when she was eight. When we moved to Wellington in 2000, she was just eleven and continued her lessons. When she comes home for a visit, she usually squeezes in a ride somewhere. In 2001, Rob started a novel, Seventh Born, that takes place in a fictional equestrian town fashioned after Wellington. Crossroad Pres published it a few weeks ago and we wrote about a synchro associated with this novel and our housemate, Cassie, a groom for the Vanderbilt family who will be living with us until mid-April.
So we MacGregors, who had always figured we lived at the periphery of the horse industry, now realize that we live in the heart of it. It has provided fodder for novels, blog posts, and has delivered some really good synchros. Our income rises during the horse season. Since celebrities and the uber wealthy are often big horse people, we have talked to Bruce Springsteen at our gym – his daughter competes as a jumper; have watched Bill Gates’ chopper hover over our dog park – his daughter is also a jumper; and have gaped at Tommy Lee Jones during polo matches – he owns a polo team.
Wellington calls itself a village. But as of the 2012 census, the population was close to 60,000, hardly a village. And during the horse season, that number probably rises by at least fifty percent and maybe even doubles. Most seasons, Rob and I try to take in one or two horse shows and/or a polo match. This year, we did the dressage and jumping competitions. We rode our bikes to the first and got in free, and drove to the second and paid twenty bucks for parking.
Here’s a photo of the ring from where we stood for the jumping competition. That area just below us is the lesser reserved money area – maybe five grand a table, not sure.
I found the dressage competition pretty boring. It was like watching an episode of Downton Abbey where much is promised but little is delivered. While I appreciate the skill required to do the odd steps and twists and turns, which Cassie tells us dates back hundreds of years, dressage is, well, prissy. Class conscious. It, like the other competitions, sells tables for a mere $10,000. Dinner beneath a tent up close to the ring. Unlimited drinks. An expensive party.
But one of the perks for this expensive extravaganza was an actual old fashioned carousel, imported from Vienna,where kids actually got to ride on the ponies: