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Hoofing it to Warmer Pastures

In winter, Maryland horse riders head to balmy Florida

When the first cold winds of winter blow through, some intrepid riders pile on layer upon layer of warm clothing to keep riding outdoors. Still, snow, ice and frozen ground often send them hunting for the friend of a friend’s indoor arena.
    Warmer-blooded riders scheme ways to get themselves and their horses to warmer climates, trading down-filled coats for T-shirts and heavy blankets for lightweight flysheets.
    “I’m not a cold-weather person,” says Pam Link. “I’m into my turtleneck sweaters when it gets below 70 degrees.” She has made the 1,100-mile pilgrimage to Florida every year since 1991, when she took her two horses to Venice, a town on the Gulf Coast, south of Sarasota.
    In 2002, Link got a call from a friend who had purchased a farm in Wellington, near Palm Beach, inviting her to bring her horses there. Now she returns to Wellington each year.
    At Wellington, the Winter Equestrian Festival has international popularity, attracting riders and their mounts from Colombia, Venezuela, England, Spain, Ireland, Germany, Russia, Mexico and Canada to name a few. The Festival offers large cash prizes, drawing Olympic-caliber competitors.
    Both jumpers and dressage horses vie for spots on their countries’ equestrian teams for the Olympics, PanAm Games or World Equestrian Games. Hunters are not yet an Olympic sport but have competitions leading to finals later in the year. The Winter Equestrian Festivals run from early January through March with classes for all ages and levels of riders.
    Horses and photography brings Isabel Kurek to Wellington. Kurek, a friend of Link’s, has been driving or flying the 1,100 miles to Wellington since the early 2000s. She, too, passed through Ocala after winning a silent auction bid on riding lessons with one of the country’s top trainers.
    She went on to compete at the shows in Wellington, where she developed a love for recording the horse show scene with her camera. “ I keep busy with photography,” she says.
    It’s not unusual for Kurek to hand you a beautiful picture she has taken of you, your horse or dog, or your family. Examples of her work appear on covers of equine magazines and catalogs, as well as advertisements for equine events.
    Another local rider, Lindsey Evans-Thomas, thinks back fondly on the days when she could swing time in Wellington. A decade ago, she was invited to Wellington for a week to show a young horse or two for a local trainer. The invitation became annual, and sometimes she was able to stay longer. Her two sons were toddlers then, and it was easy to combine her trips to south Florida with family vacations.
    With her boys older, the drama producer doesn’t often get the luxury of winters in Florida. Nowadays, she says, “I don’t usually get on a horse from October until April.”
    On a different scale are those riders who count showing as a way of life. They choose a trainer to help develop their horses and to coach them for shows. To accumulate enough points in their divisions to qualify for year-end awards and the indoor horse shows — such as Washington International — these riders start showing at the winter venues. There they can practice against some of the top horse-and-rider combinations in the country.
    These riders may stable their horses in their trainers’ barns year-round and leave the care and transportation of the horses to the trainer’s staff. If they are committed to this pursuit, they may purchase or rent a home for themselves near the show grounds. Then they either move in for the winter with their family or fly between Florida and home up north.
    Other serious competitors care for their horses on their own farms during the summer and fall, meeting their trainers at the shows. But for the Florida season, they send their mounts to the trainer’s headquarters there, putting their horses on a commercial shippers’ tractor-trailer — like a horse bus — for the ride south. Driving along I-95 in December you’ll see these trucks in route to the winter horse centers. Owners and riders will not be far behind.
    For much of the horsey set, ­Wellington is where Maryland ­winters.