As the days grow shorter, and our horse’s coats grow longer; it’s time to reminisce on the season that has passed and plan for the season to come!
By Nadia Aslam. Photos by: Philippa Davis, Sportfot, Lois Spatz, Meg Banks
The kick-off of the 2017 season is the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF). In fact, this is one of the main reasons that avid equestrians from the US and beyond choose to call Florida their winter home.
WEF is a multi-discipline event with classes in Showjumping, Dressage and Hunters, their competition doesn’t just focus on the professionals at the highest level, this truly is an inclusive event that encourages participation from the grassroots rider to the Olympic athlete. With over 70 divisions, classes on offer include lead-line, amateur and over 50’s.
Now heading towards its 38th year, the competition is managed by Equestrian Sport Productions and organized by Wellington Equestrian Partners. The Winter Equestrian Festival boasts 12 weeks of unalloyed fun, competition and lifestyle events taking place from January to April each year.
The show has come on a long way since its inception. In their first year, only a few hundred horses and riders took part. From those humble beginnings; WEF is now the largest multidiscipline circuit in the world, with 5000 horses and 2800 riders from 50 states and 33 countries attending.
Held at the breathtaking Palm Beach International Equestrian Center (PBIEC), one of the best-known equestrian facilities in the world, PBIEC encompasses 500 acres of grounds, and riding arenas taking up a whopping 80 acres alone. PBIEC also boasts the largest covered arena in the world, along with a further 17 competition arenas.
With the considerable success, there is a downside; with the sheer volume of horses, and riders frequenting the venue, there has been much discussion on the ability of the arena surface to cope with the traffic. Wellington Equestrian Partners haven’t taken the subject lightly, and renovations are underway to present one of the finest arena surfaces in the world in time for the 2017 competition.
Held at the breathtaking Palm Beach International Equestrian Center (PBIEC), one of the best-known equestrian facilities in the world, PBIEC encompasses 500 acres of grounds, and riding arenas taking up a whopping 80 acres alone. PBIEC also boasts the largest covered arena in the world, along with a further 17 competition arenas
Much of the event’s success is down to the hard work, and vision of the organising team. Two people at the helm are Mark and Katherine Bellissimo, a husband and wife team who have done more for the equestrian industry than most.
Katherine Bellissimo is a member of the Board of Directors for Brooke USA, the publisher of Chronicle of the Horse Untacked, and has played a vital role in the growth of the Great Charity Challenge which takes place each year at WEF. One of the largest charity events on the equestrian calendar, the GCC has distributed more than $9.2 million from the equestrian community to over 200 nonprofits in Palm Beach County over the last seven years.
Mark Bellissimo has become somewhat synonymous with equestrianism, most notably due to his roles as CEO of Equestrian Sport Productions, Managing Partner of Wellington Equestrian Partners, Managing Partner of Tryon Equestrian Partners, Organizer of the Rolex Central Park Horse Show, and Publisher of the popular equestrian magazine – The Chronicle of the Horse (COTH).
Equestrianism, while one of the oldest industries around – needs to innovate to stay relevant, and perhaps one of the greatest reasons that Mark has had such success is that he adopts this way of thinking. In a recent blog post for COTH, the publication owned by Katherine and Mark; he highlighted what he saw as the main issues facing equestrianism today.
Embracing accessibility, diversity, and simplicity is the way forward, with one primary focus – the horse. As he points out in his blog post, the industry is fragmented. The dressage fans go to dressage competitions, the show jumpers to show jumping, and so on. But with the Winter Equestrian Festival and neighboring Adequan® Global Dressage Festival, they have harmoniously brought these disciplines together, not only peaking the interest of sponsors vying for new markets, which in turn allows for higher payouts. But by making these events accessible to anyone with a love for horses. With his new acquisition, the International Polo Club, yet another discipline comes into the fold.
With $9 million in prize funds and over 250,000 visitors projected for their 2017 event I’d say that his strategy for success seems to be working!
ONES TO WATCH
Nations Cup Competition
One of only two FEI Nations Cup competitions in the USA, Winter Equestrian Festival has the honor of hosting teams from around the world, all competing for national pride in front of thousands of adoring fans.
Battle of The Sexes
In the first week of competition, an action-packed tournament will take place that pits teams of men vs. women in classes including match races, and speed classes. Started nine years ago, the women have won every single event thus far!
The Great Charity Challenge, presented by Fidelity Investments®
My personal favourite event, the GCC welcomes 34 teams, each taking part to help secure the $1,500,000 payout for local Palm Beach charities. Teams of 3 riders, one pro and two junior or amateurs work together to ride one long course of 21 jumps.
Broken down into three sets of 7 jumps at varying heights, the riders complete a relay style course. With the first non-pro going in and riding seven jumps at 1.10mtrs, followed immediately by the next non-pro riding at 1.20mtrs and finally the pro finishes off the round with 1.30mtrs. Each team is paired randomly to a charity, and even the charities are chosen at random to make sure that the event is as unbiased as possible.
Rolex Grand Prix
The second to last week of WEF will host the crowd favourite, and largest single-class prize money of the show, the $500,000 Rolex Grand Prix CSI 5*. Not open to just anyone, the events in the weeks leading up to the event will decide who has what it takes to partake, and only those horse/rider combos at the top of their game will be in with a shot at winning the half a million dollar prize.
The grandeur of the VIP offerings at the event are unsurpassable, in fact – many VIP experiences are already sold out, so if you’re planning on splashing out and enjoying a more luxurious experience, it’s time to get your skates on and book.
With options to: Book a VIP table for the duration of the event, host corporate events of up to 250, small parties of up to 22, or just splash out and book a table for one of the Saturday Night Lights performances: There are packages to suit your every whim and fancy.
Sponsors and exhibitors
Don’t forget; sponsorship is what makes competitions like this possible. Companies that are actively involved in supporting equestrian competitions, and training are doing it for the love of the sport, for the riders, and yes to make a decent living. I’ve always felt that sponsors can be overlooked, and encourage my fellow riders to support the companies that do so well in supporting us.
While there are thousands of equestrian events dotted around the world, I’m not sure that I’ve witnessed anything that quite matches up to the ambience, fun, and spectacle of the Winter Equestrian Festival.
A genuine bucket list trip for any self respecting horse lover, and with the option of leasing a horse from Palm Beach Riding Academy; you can even join in the fun!
Find out more at www.PBIEC.com.