No one would’ve faulted Wilton Porter if he’d toppled a rail or two in the Winter Equestrian Festival’s $150,000 Nations Cup CSIO4* on March 2 in Wellington, Florida. A rookie to senior team competition, Porter had an allstar cast of teammates that included McLain Ward, Beezie Madden and Adrienne Sternlicht to take the pressure off him. But Porter never stumbled and clocked the only double clear for the U.S. team aboard Caletto Cabana (San Patrignano Cassini—Mercury, Capecanaveral), contributing to an overall win.
Previous to that heady introduction to team sport, Porter had experienced success at the 2014 Adequan FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships (Kentucky) where he won individual gold in the young rider championship.
The 25-year-old now operates his family’s Sleepy P Ranch LLC out of Weerselo, the Netherlands, and Wellington, Florida. With the help of his brother Lucas Porter and his parents Suzanne and BG Porter, Wilton has established a business focused on developing promising horses into top-level contenders.
The Chronicle caught up with Wilton to discuss his Nations Cup win, the family business and his life outside of horses.
Chronicle: Congratulations on a great performance in the Nations Cup. What was going through your mind after you jumped your second clear round?
Wilton Porter: I was so excited immediately after I went clear because that was our ultimate goal. It felt like a lot of weeks of hard work and planning that had paid off in those two rounds, and that was a great feeling.
How did you feel when McLain clinched the win in the jump-off, and you realized you were part of a winning effort in your first Nations Cup?
It was a dream come true for me to be on the winning U.S. team, especially with riders like McLain and Beezie and Adrienne. It was a great feeling. We had a lucky jump-off for us, and that’s the advantage of going second. McLain was just able to make a nice clear round for the win. We had a feeling, but it for sure wasn’t over until he jumped that last jump. It was really exciting. [U.S. Chef d’Equipe Robert Ridland] gave me a big high five; it was fun.
Do you remember where you were when you found out you’d been named to your first senior team?
I was driving home from dinner here in Wellington one night, and Robert called me. I knew at that point that I was in consideration based on my ranking and my past performances, and he asked me one more time if I felt ready with my horse—[whether] I was in form and everything. And I said, “Yes,” and he said, “There’s a spot on the team for you, and I’d like you to do it if you feel ready. And we really want to try to win this thing. Let me know what you think.”
How did you feel about being selected?
I was really excited to get the opportunity to jump on the team. I’ve had “Caletto” for four years, and we’ve really grown together in the sport and have always had Nations Cups as our goal. So this is a big opportunity for me, and I got to ride alongside three really much more experienced riders than myself.
I also wanted to pull my weight as the rookie on the team. I definitely felt a lot of pressure, more for the first round than the second round. Once I jumped a clear round in the first round, I was really excited and pumped up. That actually gave me a lot of confidence that I carried into the second round.
Were you nervous about being on a team with McLain and Beezie and Adrienne?
It was a little bit nerve-wracking, but at the same time it already felt like a great accomplishment that I was in the same category with these three riders. And they were great. Riders like that, they can give you a lot of confidence. They were very friendly, and they knew that I was inexperienced. They did nothing but help build me up.
Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Right before I get on a horse, every time, I take my spurs off and put them back on my boots and really crank them down tight [to] make sure they’re how I want them to be. It’s a superstition, but it also has a function.
How has your season this year at WEF led up to the Nations Cup?
We’ve planned out our WEF carefully, especially with my best horse Caletto. He’s not showing that much and, once I found out that I was on [the Nations Cup team], everything was gearing towards [that]. This whole circuit of three months, I’ve shown him four times seriously, and one of those weeks was the Nations Cup week. Before that, I did the five-star at Deeridge [during Nations Cup week at that venue], and I did the five-star at WEF the week before. He was clear in both of those grand prix [classes], and he was double clear in the Nations Cup, which was the only thing he did last week. He’s three for three right now.
His last serious week of competition will be Week 12 of WEF, and we’re going to target that big grand prix with him. We definitely err on the conservative side because we’ve found that if we make a more careful plan for the bigger competitions that ultimately has more payout than if you just show a bunch.
What is Caletto like to ride and compete?
He’s 12 years old. He’s a Holsteiner out of Germany. He has a strong personality; he’s really playful, and [he] acts a bit like a stallion. He’s actually a gelding, but I believe he was gelded quite late in his career. So he still acts like a stallion, playing around and trying to bite you all the time when you’re washing him—testing the waters all the time, even when I’m riding him.
He’s really quite a sweet horse. You never feel it’s really mean spirited. It’s always just playful. When you’re patting him, he’s like a dog. He likes his ears scratched; he’ll fall asleep if you scratch [them].
You graduated in 2017 from Vanderbilt University, right? How did you balance school and riding while you were there in Tennessee?
It was difficult to balance school and riding for sure. For the first half of my school career we trained with John Roche, which was great; he kept my horses in great form. And the second half of my four years we were with Jeroen [Dubbeldam], and he did the same. At that point I’d been balancing my school and my riding since I was in fifth grade. I knew at that time—and didn’t try to fight it—that I should take a backseat approach to the riding and allow the professional trainers to set up my horses for me, which they did a great job of.
And after college I was focused on doing the whole package, professionally, just like I had planned. Now I’m starting to see the results of getting focused full time on riding. But I definitely think that my college time was a great period of my life, and I don’t regret doing it at all or feel like I wasted my time doing it. I got to meet so many people outside of this world, and I learned a lot that I do use in this [business] because I’m an English major.
To be able to write well and speak well and be eloquent is also great in this sport, so the stuff I learned [has helped me]. Also, culturally, I got to meet a bunch of people and expand my horizons a bit. It was a great period for me.
Tell me about your professional situation right now. Your family has a farm next to Jeroen Dubbeldam’s in the Netherlands, right?
We got a stable in Holland last year, and our vision for our business, which is coming into fruition now, is to be in the top of the sport but always have a good string of horses that we get to develop ourselves. The biggest advantage of having that European stable, aside from being with Jeroen, is to have our young horses there and being able to develop them at a lower cost. We also get to go to more places in Europe and to have a nice base there in the summertime when we’re competing.
For my brother and me, that Holland property is where we consider we do our main business in the sport—[that’s] our project and our property, whereas we still have a stable and house in Wellington, and that’s where my parents live. We bring the experienced horses [to Wellington] in the winter and show them here, only a few. I only have four, and Lucas has two. We leave the developing horses in Europe, and that will be our model going forward. As far as training with Jeroen, he’s also a part of that vision. We made this plan together, and we own young horses together now. Our properties are literally adjoining, so it’s molding into one big operation.
Does your family still have the farm in Texas?
We grew up there, but once we moved here to Wellington, when I started school as a freshman, we sold the property in Texas. I love Texas, and I’m sure I’ll find myself [there again]—maybe when I’m really old and retired—because I thought that was a great place to grow up.
We went to school in Texas and, as a little kid, we used to go out to a western ranch. Really early on in our lives, we played with western horses, which is where we discovered a love for horses and being around them. I think that all has to do with the culture of Texas, and I hope we never really forget that part of us. [There’s] a little bit of cowboy in both my brother and me.
The horse business is a family affair for you. What’s your role, and what are your responsibilities within that?
We really do think of this family operation—and with Jeroen—as one business. Jeroen is in charge, like the CEO of the company. He helps oversee all the big decisions. And I’m underneath him because I’ve graduated college. I’m also managing our own stable here and focusing on the top sport myself.
My brother is also focusing on the top sport but [also] focusing on college, so he’s not doing any sort of management within the stable. The third element of that is we’re always looking for horses to try to find horses and add to our teams—young ones, or even old ones that have potential. That falls on everyone, [finding] prospects all the time.
What’s your work-life balance like right now? Do you have time for much beyond horses?
I have a lot of other hobbies. I play golf probably once a week, which is nice—a nice way to get away from the horses. And I get to spend a lot of time with my friends here in Wellington. But just like anyone my age who is working hard to establish themselves in the industry that they believe in, I’m working quite hard with the horses, and it’s definitely a full-time job for me right now.
Tell me something most people wouldn’t know about you?
When we were younger, before we got very serious about riding, we skied a lot. I still ski, probably once a year with my parents, but there was a period where I was deciding between taking on riding seriously or pursuing this freestyle ski team in Aspen [Colorado] and getting a little more serious about skiing. I’m a pretty advanced skier, but just for pleasure now.
What are you most excited about in the upcoming months? What are your goals this year?
This year, 2019, is already off to a great start, and I think it’s going to be a really exciting one for my team and my horses and me. I don’t know what I’m going to be able to show this summer in Europe. I’m hoping that I get to go to some great shows that you only get to by earning a spot—like qualifying for the Nations Cup shows. We’ll see.