Written by: Mary McIntosh

Lured by the sunshine and mild temperatures, a number of East Coast rider/coaches haul rigs full of horses to Wellington, FL, the winter home of North America’s show jumping and dressage elite.

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But the warmer weather isn’t the only draw; they also head south for the opportunity to train with world-class riders and take advantage of top equine-related services.

Upping one’s game (and attitude)

Deanna Phelan is a show jumper, certified level 3 jumping coach, and colour commentator for CBC TV’s coverage of show jumping at Spruce Meadows, AB. She owns Geary Hill Stables just outside Fredericton, NB, where she trains horses and offers a lesson program. She also trains and competes in Ontario, Quebec, and Wellington, Florida.

Phelan says spending the winter away from the frigid north in such a horse-friendly atmosphere helps her keep her skills sharp and her attitude positive. “In Wellington, we’re surrounded by absolute excellence all the time, so it’s nice to raise your own level and to keep honing your own professionalism,” she says. “It gives me the opportunity for professional development – and it injects some life into me – to be surrounded by the best and to live in a horse community.”

Phelan says professionals in the Maritimes face challenges that come with the small population and distance from major centres. It also means having limited access to high-level clinicians, coaches, and shows. “It’s just a salvation when you live in the Maritimes where you are isolated from good trainers, from competition, and from top-level horses and riders that you can study, train with, or watch,” says Phelan. “Otherwise, you have to travel to Quebec or Ontario – a ten- or fifteen-hour drive – so they’re not in our backyard.”

Denielle Gallagher was born and raised in New Brunswick, and worked and trained in Ontario and Quebec with Juergen von Buttlar, Eric Lamaze, and Ashley Holzer. She now owns Brilliance Stables, an import and training company she operates with her husband, Betrand LeGriffon, at Ramapo Equestrian Center in Suffern, New York. She coaches students and takes lessons with Olympians Holzer and Jacqueline Brooks, and still travels to New Brunswick throughout the year to offer clinics to local riders.“I’ve always gone back and forth to Florida, even when I just had my stallion and one client,” Gallagher says. “In this industry it’s a little bit, ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ so you need to be present and competitive, or at least be there talking with other professionals and the sponsors.”

Although Gallagher says there are talented riders and horses back home, there is no comparison to the number of top-notch horse shows and the level of competition in Florida. “There are shows every week, so it really helps you to improve the technical aspects of riding a test – and you can do it without having to drive long distances,” she explains. “The other bonus is that while you’re competing, you can see Olympians and world championship riders; just getting in there and riding alongside these people, honestly, I think it ups your game.”

Access to the best

Cindy Matheson is a grand prix dressage rider and coach who owns Tea Hill Stables near Charlottetown, PEI. She started training in Wellington four years ago with US dressage rider and Olympian Lisa Wilcox. “Training in Florida has given me access to basically one of the best riders and coaches in the world,” Matheson said. “I wouldn’t have the opportunity to train with someone like that in our area, except perhaps in the occasional two-day clinic, so coming down here is absolutely fantastic.”

Matheson trains full time with Wilcox over the winter, taking five to six lessons a week. She says her students definitely benefit from what she’s learned and this intensive training helps her master movements and techniques much faster. “When you’re riding in a clinic, you’ll get the feeling of what the horse should feel like, but when you are able to come down here for three months, then you’re able to really solidify it,” says Matheson. “The problem with riding a lot of the time is that you can read about it, you can talk about it, and someone can tell you about it, but unless you actually feel it and practice it, you don’t really know it.”

Grand prix rider Cheryl Meisner of Chester, NS, has successfully competed in international events in North America and Europe and travels to Wellington every year to train and compete. She offers lessons at her facility, Future View Dressage, and travels to Fredericton, NB, to teach clinics. Currently short-listed, she hopes to represent Canada at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France.

Meisner also believes that there is a tremendous benefit to being surrounded by excellence.

“I’ve competed all over the world, and I’ve gone in competitions with many of the best riders from Europe. I think it’s important to surround yourself with the best, because it helps you set your standards higher,” says Meisner.

She trains exclusively with two-time Olympian Bert Rutten, the team trainer for the Netherlands at the 2004 Olympic Games, both in Canada and in Wellington. She says that training under a world-class equestrian has helped her immeasurably. “I think it’s helpful for people who want to progress, and have the desire to learn and to move up through the levels, to have a coach or a trainer who can help you achieve your goals – to push you and motivate you in the right way on a horse that’s correctly trained.”

Giving back to the community

Phelan believes that she has a responsibility to bring what she’s learned back to her community. As president of the New Brunswick Equestrian Association (NBEA) she spearheaded the creation of the Long-Term Rider Development Program to develop the skills and talents of riders in her region. She believes that coaches must ride and train themselves if they want their students to excel. “I believe that in order for me to be a good teacher, I have to keep experimenting and be exposed to new material,” Phelan says. “I think coaches have a responsibility to make themselves better, and they need to go for professional updating, to be certified, and to stay current and up-to-date with new material.”

In Florida, she trains with grand prix rider Ellen Raidt, who produces top hunter/jumper prospects from her stable in Wellington and studied under the US Equestrian Team coach Bertalan de Nemethy. “I’m a coach, but I’m also a much better trainer because I come here,” Phelan says. “My trainer has introduced me to new equipment, new bits, new bridles, and new gymnastic exercises, so when I ride a horse I know what to do to make the horse better. I’m not just out there improving its cardiovascular system, I’m actually out there making it a better athlete. She’s given me more techniques so that I can get on a student’s horse and make it go better.”

There are all kinds of services to improve a horse’s performance, with clinics with the latest in medical equipment and experts in all fields of equestrian care. “Being in Florida is a huge advantage in that you have access to some of the top vets in the country, if not North America, and you also have access to top farriers internationally,” says Gallagher. “If you are having a problem with your horse, Florida is definitely the best place, because they have a multitude of top vets, top farriers, top saddle fitters, chiropractors, massage therapists, nutritionists … you name it, the best at their game are there.”

No wasted winters

In Canada, most riders suffer through the frigid temperatures or hibernate and then struggle to get themselves and their horses fit for competition in the spring. While it takes a significant financial investment to train in Florida, Phelan believes it is essential to remain competitive. “I do it for my professional development and to achieve my own goals and advance as a rider, because I haven’t yet retired from competing. I’d like to try out for the 2015 Pan American Games, so I need to be training and riding and honing my skills.”

It’s a tough slog earning a living while trying to stay warm in a frigid arena, coaching students and training horses who may be cold and cranky. “They’ve been stuck in their stalls all night and no matter how much you blanket them, you’re trying to ride a stiff, tight, fresh animal that wants to buck you off – it’s a challenge,” says Gallagher. “But in Florida, most of the time it’s a nice dry heat and it’s really nice for the horses to work in. I find they perform better, you get a happier horse, and I think the horses really enjoy it.”

“I don’t see it as a holiday, I see it as an opportunity for professional development,” says Matheson, who wonders if she would be as enthusiastic if she was going to another cold climate to train. “The weather is definitely the icing on the cake – there’s no doubt about it.”