- Wellington, Florida, is a small town that has become the horse capital of America.
- Olympians and children of billionaires – including daughters of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – show up every winter to compete for millions of dollars in prize money.
- With Hermès fly bonnets, luxury stables, and diamond necklaces in the shape of horseshoes, Wellington is a fantasy land for the horse-obsessed.
To most of the country, the name “Wellington, Florida,” doesn’t mean anything.
However, to a certain elite group that ranges from Olympians to the children of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Bruce Springsteen, the small town has become a magnet that draws thousands of people every winter.
The Wellington attraction is simple: It’s the horse capital of the United States.
Every winter, the town hosts the Winter Equestrian Festival, which takes place from January to April. Over the course of almost four months, the best horseback riders in the country compete for $US9 million in prize money.
However, horses’ domination of Wellington continues outside of the show ring. From “horse crossing” signs to $US8,000 Hermès saddles, horses reign supreme in the small town.
While I personally know very little about horses, I have visited Wellington in the past with a friend who competes at the WEF. In 2018, while visiting what one rider called “Disneyland for horse lovers,” I decided to document the over-the-top experience:
Wellington is located in southern Florida, roughly half an hour’s drive away from West Palm Beach.
While some equestrians have houses or apartments in the neighbouring towns, Wellington is a village of its own. In fact, you could easily live a life of luxury without leaving the 100-acre equestrian show complex.
Thousands of people flock to Wellington every winter for the Winter Equestrian Festival, or WEF. According to organisers, more than 3,000 horses compete every year, with the equines’ combined net worth adding up to more than $US500 million.
Riders of all ages and abilities, from beginners to Olympians, compete in the 12 show rings.
Kids as young as six compete on smaller horses in the two rings dubbed “Pony Island.”
Older riders face off in show jumping, dressage, and hunt seat competitions at all levels.
Show jumping is the best-known form of competition for those outside of the equestrian world (barring Kentucky Derby-style racing, which does not take place at WEF). In simplest terms, horses compete by completing a course with jumps of various sizes, in a certain amount of time, without knocking down anything they’re jumping over.
Hunters are based on fox-hunting tradition, and they’re focused on style as well as the horse’s ability to clear the fences while completing jumps.
Dressage is the most stylistically-focused competition, described by the WEF organisers as “pure elegance in motion, where every movement made by the horse and rider is choreographed to perfection.”
The main event is the Grand Prix. Horses leap over jumps of more than five feet in height, competing for hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money.
Over the course of three months, WEF awards $US9 million in prize money, most of it going towards Grand Prix winners.
“Grand Prix show jumping is the most challenging and sophisticated level of jumping competition; pure athletic competition of the highest order,” according to organisers.
The spotlight on the Grand Prix has gotten even hotter as children of celebrities and billionaires have flooded WEF and climbed to the top of the ranks.
Eve Jobs, the daughter of late Apple founder Steve Jobs, competes in Wellington on weekends while continuing to attend classes at Stanford University.
In 2016, her mother bought a $US15 million ranch in Wellington.
Jennifer Gates, Jobs’ classmate at Stanford and the daughter of Bill Gates, is another top show jumper.
The pair have barns near each other in Wellington, with Gates’ father reportedly dropping $US37 million on a string of properties there in 2016, according to The Miami Herald.
Michael Bloomberg’s daughter Georgina, Bruce Springsteen’s daughter Jessica, Tom Selleck’s daughter Hannah, and Steven Spielberg’s daughter Destry are all notable competitors as well.
Source: Business Insider
While much of the coverage of Wellington focuses on the children of the rich and famous, many of the top competitors are only well-known to other equestrians.
The day I visited Wellington, Gates and Jobs were bested by Beezie Madden, a four-time Olympic medalist. The 54-year-old has been competing at the Grand Prix level for more than 30 years, and she was the first woman to earn more than $US1 million in prize money as a show jumper.
Still, it’s clear that many of the vendors peddling goods at Wellington are targeting an elite set of riders who have thousands of dollars to spend on things such as horses’ fly bonnets.
Hermès is a major sponsor, giving away free branded waters and hosting a lounge for competitors.
The luxury goods manufacturer is one of the roughly 90 vendors at Wellington and sells items such as $US1,975 show jackets.
You can buy pretty much anything you need without leaving the equestrian center — as well as a bunch of things you definitely don’t need.
There are multiple jewellers hoping to catch equestrians’ eyes with a wide array of horse-themed designs.
I have never seen so many diamond horseshoes in my life.
You can even buy pieces of art as you wander around the horse show.
Lacking the funds to drop on fine art, I was more intrigued by “Just Fur Fun,” a dog-themed stand.
My personal favourite vendor was Snaks 5th Avenchew, which sells creative horse treats.
Even outside the show rings, horses reign supreme.
In Wellington, horses literally rule the road.
The Gates and Jobs families aren’t the only ones making major investments in luxurious stables for their horses.
Many riders have barns in Grand Prix Village, where horses live all winter.
(Yes, horses live here.)
As I eyed one barn with a giant statue of a horse’s head in front, I came to the conclusion that these horses’ homes are undoubtedly nicer than my apartment in Brooklyn, New York.
Then again, the top horses are competing for up to $US500,000 a week, while I write about fast food. So, they have probably earned it.
Wellington is basically a fantasy world for horse lovers.
Some people I talked to felt uncomfortable with what they saw as an emphasis on certain competitors’ wealth or celebrity. While money can buy you nice gear or even a better horse, actually succeeding in competitions requires some combination of hard work and a love for the sport.
As one equestrian in her twenties asked me — please don’t make us all look like a–holes.
So, I’ll end on these two other observations.
First, every person I talked to in Wellington, from competitors to horse trainers, had two things in common: intense work ethic and an obsession with horses.
Second, Wellington, Florida, is one of the most bizarre places I’ve ever visited – and probably the only place in the world where you can watch the children of tech billionaires leap over five-foot-tall jumps on horseback, and then immediately spend thousands of dollars on Hermès and fine art.
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