Sunday, Mar. 3, 2024

Finding Healing And Moments Of Fun In The Ocala Winter Circuit



Everything happens for a reason. I’m a firm believer in that.

I haven’t written in a while, and it has partially been because I’ve been healing. When life throws you problems, you can either choose to let them defeat you or allow them to make you stronger. My life has taught me to choose the latter. Always.

On Thanksgiving, I had to make the heartbreaking decision to euthanize my horse Angel. She fought a good fight, but in the end, she lost. I won’t get into details because the wound is still too fresh, but in my heart, I know I made the right choice. She was suffering, and I couldn’t be selfish in that situation.

For four days afterward, I felt numb to the world. Someone could have run me over with their car, and I wouldn’t have felt the cold, hard metal crushing every bone in my body. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t answer or text from my phone. I avoided Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat for fear of seeing happy Thanksgiving posts and pictures. I couldn’t understand what I had done to deserve this. Why had this happened to me?

Within those four days, I had family over for Thanksgiving, packed for my winter stay in Ocala, put one horse on the trailer on Saturday morning, and then began the great migration to Florida. It took me a little over 19 hours to reach Ocala, and I blasted music the entire way. Music helps me clear my head and slows my mind down. It’s comforting to me, and on most normal days, you’ll probably find me in the barn or on a horse playing my song of the day on repeat for hours on end. It’s also how I coped for those four days after Angel’s death.


An early morning sunrise at HITS Ocala. All photos by Nicole Mandracchia.

I reached Ocala early that Sunday morning, and I started work again the next day after catching up on much-needed sleep. I was itching to be back with the horses and ride again—riding was the only thing keeping me sane at that moment. Amanda Steege stables at the Ocala showgrounds, and we have an entire permanent barn to ourselves back behind Hunter 1. We spent the first week body-clipping and turning out the horses and then began riding the following week.

Because I’ve been going to Ocala for 10 years, I have a bunch of friends in the area. Throughout December, I spent my days riding and grooming the horses and then visited and socialized with friends after. About three weeks after I arrived, my new roommate moved into our house. Her name is Molly, and she is from Canada. I hoped we would be able to work well together, and I dreaded the thought that we might not get along. Circuit is long, and it is quite difficult to enjoy it when you work with people you don’t like.


Molly (right) holding Zara and me holding Lafitte de Muze at the main hunter ring at HITS Ocala.

But within the first day, I had already decided that I loved working with Molly. She exudes an inner confidence that I struggle to create for myself at times, and she is right behind me when I’ve got a plan for the day. She jumps in to help in any way she can, and we work fantastically as a team. We also get along exceptionally well outside of work, which has led to many fun memories while meeting and making new friends. We’ve quickly racked up favorite places to grab a bite for dinner or Monday breakfasts. Although Ocala doesn’t quite have the party scene that Wellington does, we still know how to have a good time. Bonfires, BBQs, grabbing takeout and drinking beer with friends, the occasional trips to The Beach (which, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is the local bar), watching the stars in a field—there are so many possibilities.

I’m glad that I have Molly because Amanda has 18 horses total, and we have every stall in our barn filled. Amanda is one of the most organized people I’ve ever worked for, and she has a plan for every day for every single horse. When she gets to the barn, she wastes no time in getting started on the day’s activities. I admire her focus and determination to bring out the best in every horse she gets on. Her barn manager, Tim Delovich, knows every detail about every horse in our barn, which works seamlessly with Amanda’s organization and drive. Their end goal is to keep all the horses happy and healthy so they can perform at their best.


In mid-December, we showed a few horses one pre-circuit week, and then Amanda graciously allowed me to fly home for Christmas for a few days. I spent those days with my family and, of course, found time to fit in a few rides on one or two of my friend’s horses to keep my sanity. I flew back to Orlando on Dec. 26 and drove straight from the airport to Wellington to meet and settle in our two horses, Cascade and Bambolino. Amanda arrived shortly after the horses, and she rode while I set up the barn.

We stayed in Wellington for six days, and Cascade claimed the reserve championship in the high performance hunters, while Bambolino was champion in the 3′ greens, won the 3′ green hunter incentive class, and claimed ribbons in the low adult hunters with his owner. That Saturday afternoon, I hopped in my packed truck and made the four-hour trek back to Ocala. We rang in the new year at Golden Ocala with Amanda and Tim, enjoying the endless buffet and socializing with many professionals and riders that were in attendance.


Cascade and I walking back to the barns after he won a high performance class in Wellington.

The HITS Ocala shows run for a total of 10 weeks, ending one week before the end of WEF. Circuit officially started on Jan. 16th with hi/low warm-ups in Hunter 1 and ticketed schoolings in Hunter 2 and 3. Our three guys, Molly and I powered through the busy first week, not missing a beat. By the end of it, we were all wiped. Every muscle in my body hurt from riding, tacking up, bathing, mucking and walking, which is typical at the start of any circuit. It takes a while for your body to catch back up to the pace required to get your work done.

Our schedule week-to-week follows a similar pattern. Amanda shows a good majority of the horses Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, which allows the clients to show Friday, Saturday and Sunday. On Tuesdays, I start to miss Angel a lot, especially because I spend most of my day riding and galloping around in the Stadium. A couple of my favorites, like Ripken, Beau and Chuck, have helped me through those days when I feel empty, and they bring a smile back to my face. All the Ashmeadow horses have helped me heal over these past few months. Horses know when you are upset, and I swear they know when you feel pain. I can read that in their eyes when they look at me and the nuzzle from their soft nose that lets me know everything will eventually be OK.


“Stadium Tuesdays” are when I miss Angel the most, and Ripken, Beau and Chuck help me through.

Most of our Fridays are quiet, and we use that day to catch up on organizing and preparing for the weekends. Saturdays include amateur divisions, and sometimes Amanda shows multiple rides in the Devoucoux Hunter Prix classes in the afternoon. I’ve been lucky enough to only work part of one Monday this circuit, which is a first for me. When I worked for Robin Rost Brown, I worked every day from January to April, when we returned to New Jersey.

Amanda and our clients have had much success this circuit, claiming too many champion and reserve champion ribbons to count. The one side of our barn wall is almost filled with blue ribbons. Amanda has also won two Devoucoux Prix classes with Lafitte De Muze, our newest superstar, and claimed top 10 finishes on several horses as well.


Lafitte and his first WEF ribbon.

In addition to showing in Ocala, we made another two trips to Wellington throughout our time here. One was for Hunter Week (during WEF Week 6) and the other was for the Deeridge Derby. Seven horses, two of the guys, and I migrated down the Florida Turnpike again, bedding the stalls before the horses arrived. Our horses claimed good ribbons in every division, and my farmer’s tan became quite impressive under the hot Wellington sun. My proud moment of the week was when Lafitte claimed his first WEF blue ribbon in the 3’6″ greens in the International Ring (that he had never shown in prior to Hunter Week) and then scored a 92 in a green conformation class in the Grand Hunter ring. Amanda got a chance to ride in the Hunter Spectacular class on Saturday night, which was super exciting. Lafitte was just imported in November from Europe, so we weren’t sure how he would act in a night class.

Lafitte exceeded our expectations, and he couldn’t have been any better than he was. He didn’t spook; he didn’t question; he marched around like he owned that ring. Amanda’s smile said it all at the end of her ride: she was super pleased with him, patting both sides of his neck before exiting the ring. Unfortunately Lafitte didn’t make the second round, and we returned to the barn to put him to bed. I’ve worked several WEF circuits, and I’ve NEVER had a horse just come from Europe and lope around WEF like this one. Lafitte is a very special horse, and we will see great things from him in the future.

After Wellington, we returned to Ocala to finish showing the ones we left home. Week 8 was Hunter Week in Ocala, and we were super busy that week, even jogging one of the horses for his 3’3″ performance hunter division at 7:45 p.m. just before sunset. I never mind the long hours because I never had set hours with Robin; I worked until I had completed all my tasks, no matter how long that took me.


Because I’ve worked many winters in Florida, I often find myself reflecting on each circuit by Week 8 or 9. I think about the positives and the negatives, any mistakes I’ve made, and how I’ve learned from them. From my own experience, it’s harder to work a circuit than it is to travel around and work horse shows over two- or three-week periods. Circuit is a marathon, and it takes a good solid week to get a rhythm going. It’s the same thing week after week, with the only changes being which horses are showing and which rings have what divisions. Paying attention is critical and keeping a smile on your face is important. Everyone becomes easily tired from the many hours they spend prepping horses for the two minutes in the show ring. Being courteous and thoughtful to the starters and jump crew is imperative too—it’s easy to forget how hard their jobs can be at times!

Mints, peanut butter crackers and granola bars become a regular part of your daily diet, and you seriously begin to ponder if 6 a.m. is too early to down a Diet Coke (if you’re wondering, it’s not). Coffee becomes your go-to drink, and skipping lunch becomes the norm. You learn how to get that gray horse bathed quickly, and you find all the shortcuts to the rings just in case you need them. The No. 1 rule is that it’s always better to be early to the ring with a horse than it is to be a few minutes late. You must have the desire to work, and you can’t pay attention to the clock or count the hours you spend at work every day. The long hours are a given, and you won’t change that no matter what you do. You are finished when every horse is done, whether that’s at 5 p.m. or 11 p.m.


The Ashmeadow Dream Team: Toro, Molly, me, Inocente and Julio.

Molly and I are good sports, and we work hard to keep everything running as smoothly as we can. Usually by 3 p.m., we’ve got a case of the daily giggles, and everything anyone says is hilarious. One of us has music blasting by that point as she tries to finish up the last horse of the day, and the other one is trying to clean the copious amount of tack that has piled up over the course of the day. The guys are busy wrapping, bathing and putting the horses to bed.

With the long hours and busy days, it’s easy to forget to take care of yourself. You’re so worried about doing everything correctly for all the horses that you forget to drink a bottle of water, eat, clean out your truck, or do your laundry before you’re out of riding pants for the next day. You forget to take time for yourself, to do things outside of the horse show.

This year I’ve had two new friends who have reminded me that it’s OK to make time for daily fun activities, and they have shown me how to enjoy life again. I tend to be a bit of a workaholic by nature, and I easily get caught up in that before attending to myself in any capacity. I have been known to put everyone else’s needs before my own. It’s also how I deal with stressful situations: I immerse myself with work so I avoid thinking about life. But my new friends have taught me how to take time for myself, to put my phone away at the end of the day for a bit, and to relax. I even had the opportunity to spend a Monday on the beach at Cedar Key, and we also took a group Monday afternoon field trip to Rainbow River to swim with the fish. I can’t remember the last circuit I worked where I’ve made so many positive memories. Having that time to yourself to just live in the moment has taught me to appreciate life so much more, especially after what happened with Angel. That has made me stronger, fresher and ready to take on each day better than the next. Tomorrow isn’t promised to you, so you’d better make the most of it while you can.


The view from the deck in Cedar Key.

We’re headed into Week 10 now, and we’re down to the wire for the finish. But this is the first year I’ve found myself wishing that it wasn’t about to come to an end. I’ve enjoyed myself so much this circuit, and the thought of everyone packing up and leaving to go home makes me sad. Here’s to a great last week and don’t forget—the $1 Million Grand Prix is on Sunday afternoon!!

Nicole Mandracchia grew up riding in New Jersey and was a working student while in school. She graduated from Centenary University (N.J.) and has groomed and barn managed for top show barns Top Brass Farm (New Jersey), North Run (Vermont), Findlay’s Ridge (New York) and Ashmeadow (New Jersey). Read more about her in “Groom Spotlight: Nicole Mandricchia Proves The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get.” After more than a decade working back in the barn, she eventually hopes to establish herself as a trainer. Read all of Nicole’s COTH blogs.





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