During a forum at the U.S. Dressage Federation convention in December, Debbie McDonald addressed a group of young athletes and their parents about the expense of competing and training in Wellington, Florida, for the winter. She warned them that while it is a great opportunity for riders to immerse themselves in all things horse sport, it is a tremendous investment and not something to be taken lightly.
I had to have my own silent laughing fit behind my computer, not because McDonald is wrong. Done the wrong way (alternatively titled, the Fancy Person Way), coming to Wellington for three months for the winter competition season can be horrendously expensive. A Fancy Person wouldn’t blink at $4,000 a month for full care board at a palatial stable, a few more thousand a week in show fees, show stalls, training, photographs, and probably a cool $300 for your Sunday night dinner of giraffe filets or dolphin chops or Whatever Fancy People Eat.
I’ve been spending the winter in Wellington for the past four years, the past three reporting and photographing horse shows for The Chronicle of the Horse, and this year for the first time I brought my horse, a coming 5-year-old Friesian/Thoroughbred cross named Moji, to Florida with me. There is not a non-asinine way to tell people you “winter in Palm Beach”—believe me, I’ve tried.
You tell people your job sends you to south Florida for the winter, and they picture this lavish lifestyle of fancy parties and yachts, weeks spent petting pretty show ponies and weekends at the beach sipping Mai Tais, snacking on the giraffe filets and dolphin chops.
Allow me, a Terribly Unfancy Person, to set the record straight—my winters in Wellington are fun, but boy oh BOY are they not fancy. If you are also a Terribly Unfancy Person who would like to bring your pony to winter in the city of horse sport, allow me to be your Avoiding Financial Ruin Advisor.
First things first—you have to get to Wellington. From my home in Lexington, Kentucky, that’s a solid 986-mile hike. I have a 1990s-era Ford F150 and an ‘80s-era two-horse bumper pull. I know what you’re thinking: “Ann, that sounds like a totally reliable rig to drive halfway across the country in,” and you are correct, it did make it to Wellington and only tried to break down once while we were sitting in a toll booth.
But remember, you’re a Terribly Unfancy Person who has spent three years running the numbers on having a horse in Florida. Hay is $17 a bale in Wellington, for a small square bale, and most Florida turnouts are comprised of either no grass, patchy saw grass, or a lush manicured lawn you can only turn out on for 20 minutes a day. Hay is going to be the bulk of your horse’s diet, so a month before you leave for Wellington you’re going to buy 50 nice big square bales of Lexington hay for $5 each and pack your trailer to the rafters.
“But Ann, how is the horse going to get to Wellington?” you ask. “Can he ride on the roof? Can he run alongside the truck? How do you handle the PETA protests of your methods?” Not to worry, because Terribly Unfancy People are excellent planners. Since June you’ve had a deal worked out with a great friend in Lexington who is shipping a load of Fancy Horses down to Florida to give you a helluva deal on a spot on the trailer in exchange for random help around the farm. Your trailer full of hay will be empty by the end of season so you can haul the horse back yourself! PETA protest narrowly dodged.
So you and the hay have arrived in Wellington, the horse has arrived in Wellington, where are the two of you going to lay your weary heads? Well just keep on cruising right through Wellington and hang a left at Loxahatchee. This is the little town next to Wellington where you will find all the other Terribly Unfancy People and their horses setting up shop for the winter! Wellington stables are fun to drive by and oooo and ahh at their marble lobbies and resemblance to homes on MTV Cribs, but if you’re Terribly Unfancy you will feel much more at home in Loxahatchee. The roads are either a mix of finely crushed gravel and two foot-wide potholes, or paved roads that are one-lane wide with two-way traffic and the world’s largest speed bumps every 30 feet.
The first two years I came down to Wellington I cleaned stalls for a trainer I knew through a friend in the morning before work for some extra money—the first year I cleaned 10, the second year 15, and both years when the alarm went off at 5:30 in the morning I would consider selling all my horsely possessions and taking up bocce ball, swim aerobics, or Literally Anything That Doesn’t Involve Being Awake At This Hour before dragging my butt out of bed and driving to the barn.
There really is nothing like standing in line at Starbucks covered in shavings after cleaning stalls, smelling (and kind of looking) like a manure pile while the lady in front of you in white breeches smells like a unicorn’s perfumery and is complaining about something like “showing when it’s overcast.”
After work I would go out and ride at the local horse rescue in Loxahatchee, Pure Thoughts. You would think in a town overflowing with horseflesh it would be super easy to find horses to just hack around, but I once had a trainer ask me to pay $50 per ride to hack a retired show horse. The horse rescue is wonderful, they have a lot of off-the-track Thoroughbreds and some PMU offspring, and they are more than happy to have any semi-competent (i.e., will get back on when they fall off) rider come out and hack, jump or even show some of the Thoroughbreds at local events.
The horse rescue keeps a few stalls open for boarders, so they can have income to support the rescues, so when I brought my horse down to Florida this year I worked out a deal with the rescue’s owner where I pay a little and help out with chores around the farm after work and on the weekends in exchange for a dry stall and turnout for my horse.
There is a big grass field for riding and lots of paddocks for all-night or all-day turnout, which is helpful if your Unfancy Self’s horse is half-Thoroughbred and used to living outside 24/7. The riding field isn’t fenced in, and you have to hack through a mini Florida jungle to get to the field, but as long as you can sit an OMG-why-are-we-in-the-jungle spook and ride without an arena fence, you’re in good shape!
And let’s not forget about you, the human component of this Wellington winter excursion. I-Can’t-Believe-I’m-Showing-When-It’s-Cloudy lady from Starbucks is probably kicking it in her second home, a rented house or at the very least an entire rented one-bedroom apartment for the season. The cheapest way for your My-Card-Got-Declined-Buying-Tshirts self to live for the season is to rent a bedroom in someone’s house.
You find a friend of a friend with an empty bedroom, and you rent it for three months—it may sound like an insane recipe for disaster, but I’ve loved the people I’ve stayed with! Three of the four years I’ve rented rooms from people who are not horsey at all, and it’s super fun. You’re kind of like a horse foreign exchange student they can ask all of their equine related questions of, like what are those things on their faces (fly masks) or how much do they cost (too much) or how do they repay you for all the time and money you spend on them (with emergency vet calls, shredded fly sheets and pooping in their own water bucket)?
Then comes the horse showing—most of the Fancy People come down to Florida to get some serious, rated horse showing done. I brought my horse to Florida because I’m here for work, enjoy not saving money, and would like to have him around to stuff full of treats every night.
I would of course also like to horse show, so I mapped out the series of unrated or locally rated horse shows around Wellington you can haul in and out of on the weekends. I will haul there in the aforementioned rig of considerable age, I will maybe convince my friend that photographs the show to set fences for me, and if I’m feeling really fancy I may even pay my trainer friend to teach me. We will then celebrate with beer and shrimp at Jojo’s Raw Bar, the best place to go out on a Sunday night (as is tradition in Wellington) without blowing a giraffe steak, dolphin chop-level of money.
As hilarious as the hijinks it takes to get down here are, I can seriously say it is worth your time to make the effort to come down to Wellington if you want to seriously immerse yourself in horse sport. A lot of the things I love about Wellington don’t cost a dime—I watched Anne Kursinski teach a clinic and then went and rode my horse after work thinking about how she said her hands are in her back when she’s asking a horse to collect, and I rode my horse through her exercises with that same feeling. I watched McLain Ward in the warm-up ring with a hot horse and noted how he structured his warm-up routine to keep things successful before going in the ring. I’ll try to use similar techniques when my horse gets wild before cross-country.
And even beyond strict riding lessons, you can sit and watch all the show horses walk back and forth from the barn and note what tack the horse with Beezie Madden’s cooler on is wearing, what bit it’s using. You can look at the show schedule online and see how many and what height of classes Beezie shows in during the week before the weekend. You can walk past the barns and watch top grooms taking care of the horses after they’ve jumped a big class and see what products they’re using, how much icing did they do, did they wrap? With what kind of wraps? When they’re leaving the show, how does that top groom handle a horse that won’t load?
And then you can drive across the road and do the same for the best dressage riders in the world and the best polo players in the world—I don’t compete in either sport, but there is much to be admired about the way a polo player gallops their pony and turns on a dime, or just getting the chance to watch Laura Graves and Verdades compete in person.
I can walk around WEF or the Global Dressage Festival or the polo matches with my head on a swivel and learn more in 10 minutes than I would in a year just sitting at home in Lexington riding my horse at home. It may seem strange to say, but for a rider looking to learn a lot about horse sport on a budget, Wellington is actually a really great place to be—if you can’t come for three months, come for one, come for a week even!
Just bring your own hay, and don’t be embarrassed when someone at the Polo Club mistakes your truck for a service vehicle (yes, that happened)—get creative, and you too may find yourself tricking people into thinking you’re a Very Fancy Lady wintering in Wellington!
Ann Glavan is an editorial staffer for The Chronicle of the Horse. Originally from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Ann grew up competing at A circuit shows in the hunter and equitation divisions, first on her pony Is A Belle and more recently on her horse Happy Go Lucky. After two internships at the Chronicle, Ann joined the editorial staff in the fall of 2015. Read all of Ann’s blogs…
Last year, Ann purchased a 3-year-old Friesian-Thoroughbred cross to work with and eventually compete. Moji, now 4, has been under saddle for a little over a year, and he’s been to his very first local horse show, a Sinead Halpin clinic, and an event.