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A Dressage Enthusiast’s Guide to Wellington, Florida

Get an inside look at the premiere dressage hotspot of the South.

The epicenter for dressage in winter and early spring is Wellington, Florida, which draws top names like Olympians Steffen Peters, Ashley Holzer and Debbie McDonald. The area, including Loxahatchee, 20 minutes away, is the year-round home for many well-known dressage personalities like Lars Petersen, Tina Konyot and Arlene “Tuny” Page.

European riders also like to come to sunny Palm Beach County to take a break from their continent’s gray winters. Tinne Vilhelmson-Silfven of Sweden, for
instance, the winner of the 2013 World Dressage Masters in Florida, appreciated the opportunity the fine weather gave her to further the training of her horses outdoors, as opposed to the limited facilities at the European shows and stables at that time of year.

While the village of more than 58,000 is primarily middle-class, the equestrian enclave puts it in a category that is globally unique. Nowhere else is there such a concentration of dressage stars for such a long period as in Wellington, where it’s a treat to simply drive around and look at farm after farm, many of which are fabulous (though you can’t always see much behind those gates) while others are simply lovely.

A network of bridle trails runs through the equestrian area and there is no doubt that as you cruise along, you’ll see lots of horses and riders enjoying the opportunity to be out and about, rather than simply being confined to the rings.

The Adequan Global Dressage Festival (GDF), only three years old, is located on the once-celebrated former Palm Beach Polo Club fields, where Prince Charles used to play as Princess Diana watched and the world discovered Wellington in the resulting barrage of publicity. Eventually, though, polo moved elsewhere and the grandstand fell into ruin, covered with graffiti. But Equestrian Sport Productions (ESP), which runs the hunter/jumper-centric Palm Beach International Equestrian Center (PBIEC) a half-mile down the road, changed the landscape when it opened the GDF grounds. In 2014, action at PBIEC and dressage at GDF (where a scenic jumper derby course also is located) will be coordinated so spectators can see the major competitions at both venues on the big weekends without having to choose.

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After successful date negotiations, all the major winter/early spring dressage shows in the area will run at GDF, including the Palm Beach Dressage Derby, a World Cup qualifier that is the granddaddy of the big Florida dressage shows. Wellington Classic Dressage also offers a series of small shows throughout the year, many of which are held at Palm Beach County’s Jim Brandon Equestrian Center, former home of the World Dressage Masters.

U.S. Developing Dressage Coach Debbie McDonald, who used to spend the winters in California, is switching to Wellington and buying a home there. Asked why she was making the move, she cited, “The ability to see all these horses in the flesh, see them competing. Everyone is going to Florida. Even the West Coast horses are going to try to go to Florida for a month.”

When it comes to her work, she commented, “I don’t have to drive further than 20 minutes in any direction.” And she loves the convenience of the GDF, explaining that she can go home for a few minutes and come back.

Mark Bellissimo, the founder of ESP, is understandably relieved that the path is clear for shows at the GDF. The project has been the subject of legal action and difficulty with village government, but it looks like clear sailing now, even though plans for a boutique hotel and shopping at GDF had to be dropped to make it happen. Conflicts with another show organizer have been resolved, so the area’s 12-week calendar includes six CDIs and three World Cup qualifiers.

The World Dressage Masters, run under other management for the last five years, is not being held in Florida in 2014, but Bellissimo mentioned ESP might have a “marquee event” featuring foreign riders, aside from the already-scheduled 5-star. He pointed out that resolving things last summer was a big help because in knowing early “that there’s going to be a show the following year, this is going to give us a great trajectory for [2014]. We’ve already seen a great level of interest from Europe, South America and the U.S.”

Bellissimo expects that the addition of FEI dressage committee member and European show organizer Thomas Baur to the ESP management team will help lure people from Europe. “I think we’re going to see a great year for both dressage and show jumping because people can use this as a training ground for the [Alltech FEI 2014] World Equestrian Games. We’re targeting Friday nights for dressage and Saturday nights for show jumping,” he said.

Asked what he’d like to say to dressage fans contemplating a Wellington trip, Bellissimo replied, “I believe they’re going to be able to see an amazing range of rider skill sets, from beginners to Olympians, to see how the sport evolves over time. It’s rare you have a chance to see that much dressage diversity in one setting. I think that would be very attractive for someone who just wants to come down and see great athletes performing.”

The Rider’s Inside Scoop

Canadian Olympic medalist Ashley Holzer mentioned, “The great thing about Wellington is that a lot of people have houses there now and there’s great parties to go to.” She also mentioned “the hospitality tents [where tables can be purchased for the season]. People always are hanging out there after the horse show, so a lot of people are eating at the horse show.”

When they’re not at parties or shows, the regulars do much of their eating out at clubs, particularly the International Polo Club (where you can watch matches on Sundays) and the Wanderers, just a few minutes from the showgrounds. Oli’s and The Grille are also very popular restaurants among riders, as is the Triple Bar (formerly the White Horse and Graffito) right next to the PBIEC. Right across from the GDF is the Welli Deli—a neighborhood deli with everything from a frozen yogurt bar to soups and salads. When the weather is nice, enjoy your lunch on the patio and spot the local equestrian celebrities casually enjoying coffee in a rare moment of relaxation.

Wellington wasn’t always a mecca for dressage riders. In fact, Anne Gribbons, the former U.S. dressage coach, was a pioneer for her discipline in Florida. In the early 1980s, she recalled, there already was a hunter/jumper circuit in Florida, but she declares as far as dressage went, “I was the first Northerner to come down” to ride in the two dressage shows that existed in the central part of the state. After her visit, she wrote a magazine article that predicted, “the circuit is waiting to happen.” She laughed and said, “I swear, the next year it was starting.” Soon the people at White Fences (in Loxahatchee) were starting to build, and 31 years ago the first Palm Beach Dressage Derby was held there.

Speaking of Wellington, she said, “it’s not like anywhere else in the world. You have to love the action there. Those showgrounds are becoming phenomenal.” She prefers only to visit, however, basing herself in Orlando, northwest of Wellington.

Ask riders what they do in their spare time, and they’ll likely reply in much the same way as Ashley Holzer: “I’m teaching or I’m riding or I’m sleeping. I’ve never been to the beach,” she said. “When I’m there working, I’m there working. It’s a serious festival for us. Those are important horse shows. We ride and train a lot of horses, and when we’re not training we’re looking at videos or planning show schedules or getting the horses right. So it’s an enjoyable three or four months, but it’s a lot of hard work.”

Pan American Games medalist Lauren Sammis has a slightly different perspective than Ashley because she has young children, 5-year-old twins. “Every Sunday, when I’m not showing, I go to the beach. Even if I’m only there for three hours, it’s enough time to relax and recharge. Otherwise you’re inundated with horse things and horsepeople.”

She visits parks and a children’s museum in Ft. Lauderdale and has season passes for Lion Country Safari. “I try to keep my life down in Wellington as normal as you can in that kind of environment,” explained Lauren. She doesn’t barbecue for social gatherings at her house, but said, “I try to invite friends over who cook.”

Asked what she does, U.S. rider Catherine Haddad-Staller answered, “Mostly, you ride. You eat, sleep and drink dressage when you’re in Wellington. It’s a very involved, very energetic, very focused environment on the sport of dressage.”

She was based in Germany until 2012, so she has a fresh perspective. “What was a little bit alien for me last year, which was my first winter in Florida, was that I was actually riding in the tropics after riding in a rainy, gray northern Europe for so long. The venues in Florida are beautiful and very well organized. There’s just ideal circumstances for showing horses, so if you want to see true competitive dressage in America, Florida is one of the best places to do it.”

Getting There
Direct flights are available from many cities to Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach, where it’s easy to rent a car for the 30-minute or so drive to the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (GDF) showgrounds. (The Fort Lauderdale airport is further south, but doable if you find a better fare there).

Where to stay
While the GDF facility is easy to get to, the hard part is finding a place to stay. What’s best is getting in touch with a friend who can put you up at their home. The only hotel in Wellington proper, the Hampton Inn at the sprawling Wellington Green shopping center, is very pricey. So unless you want to pay top dollar, you’ll be commuting. There also are less expensive Hampton Inns 15 minutes away in Lake Worth and 20 minutes away in West Palm Beach.

Other hotels are located near the airport in West Palm Beach, but you’ll find few bargains. Be very careful where you decide to spend the night if you’re not selecting a major hotel chain; be sure to get a recommendation from someone who knows the place before booking.

There also are some bed and breakfast facilities, but again, be sure to check them out with someone who knows what they're like. Reserve early for a place to stay during the height of the season (January-March) or you will get shut out. If you’re staying for two weeks or more, why not contact a real estate broker and see if you can rent an apartment?

Where to eat
You’ll find plenty of chain restaurants in the Wellington area as well as a variety of price points in the Wellington Green shopping center. On the outskirts of the center is a Whole Foods. They have all kinds of healthy items to go, or you can eat in their dining area—just buy the food in the store and then find a table.

Oli’s and The Grille are very popular restaurants among riders, as is the Triple Bar (formerly the White Horse and Graffito) right next to the PBIEC. Right across from the GDF is the Welli Deli—a neighborhood deli with everything from a frozen yogurt bar to soups and salads. When the weather is nice, enjoy your lunch on the patio and spot the local equestrian celebrities casually enjoying coffee in a rare moment of relaxation.

Canadian Olympic medalist Ashley Holzer mentioned, “The great thing about Wellington is that a lot of people have houses there now and there’s great parties to go to.” She also mentioned “the hospitality tents (where tables can be purchased for the season); people always are hanging out there after the horse show, so a lot of people are eating at the horse show.”

When they’re not at parties or the shows, the regulars do a lot of their eating out at clubs, particularly the International Polo Club (where you can watch matches on Sundays) and the Wanderers, just a few minutes from the showgrounds. West Palm Beach and particularly the City Place shopping mall have loads of great restaurants. U.S. rider Catherine Haddad-Staller likes Cafe Centro at City Place. Go a little further, about a 45-minute drive to Palm Beach itself, and, if you’re feeling flush, go to The Breakers, a grand old hotel. It’s worth seeing, or having a drink in the bar, even if you don’t eat there.

Another favorite is Ta-Boo on ritzy Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. Try to snag the table by the window that opens onto the street lined with statuesque royal palm trees and watch as the well-dressed denizens of the area stroll by.

Where to shop
In Wellington, the Wellington Green shopping center has major department stores and loads of smaller shops, many of which you probably could find in a mall near your home. For horsey items, head over to PBIEC. Shops are everywhere, just off the International Arena and back closer to the permanent stables. The Tackeria, across from the GDF, has a wide selection of everything you and your horse need, including some bargains.

In West Palm Beach, Clematis Street has interesting shops, and of course there’s CityPlace and all its stores. In the heart of Palm Beach, Worth Avenue is one of the world’s legendary shopping streets. Some call it the Rodeo Drive of the East. Don’t worry if you aren’t able to afford anything they’re selling; it’s fun just to window shop and people-watch. Stroll into Chanel, Gucci, Hermes, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus to see their amazing wares—and prices. If you have time, take a walking tour and get a good explanation of the buildings designed by Addison Mizner in this historic area.

What to do
South Florida is one of the country’s busiest tourist areas (beware of the traffic; try not to plan trips during rush hour). There is no end of things to do, from golf to hitting the ocean in Palm Beach, fishing, boating and even polo lessons (the Santa Clara and El Sur polo clubs both offer an opportunity for stick and ball.)

Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee presents a chance to drive through a wildlife park and meet exotic animals from the safety of your car. Go a little farther and you’ll find yourself at Lake Okeechobee (the largest lake in the state, Okeechobee is Seminole for “big water”), where boating and fishing are the primary activities.

If you’re looking for entertainment, the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach has a variety of shows and musical performances. Should you want to travel a little further afield, you’re about 90 minutes from Miami and all that it offers, and you might want to check out baseball spring training camps in the state. Those with an interest in the environment should make a trip to the Everglades; it’s worth it (but be sure to bring insect repellant).

For more insider tips on exploring Wellington, visit the "Wellington Dressage" board on Pinterest.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of Dressage Today magazine.

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