Global Dressage Festival Nations Cup Begins as Wellington Shows Go On While Much of Horse World in Lockdown–Part 1 of 3
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By KENNETH J. BRADDICK
WELLINGTON, Florida, Mar. 16, 2021–With equestrian sports beginning a second year of on-again, off-again lockdowns and Europe grappling with viruses infecting both horses and humans, Wellington is nearing its 40th week of dressage and jumper shows since resuming competitions last May.
The dressage Nations Cup this week is the ninth international event at the Global Dressage Festival since last November with one more to go before the end of the winter circuit in Florida’s semi-tropical weather that makes it feel more like summer in Europe. In the same 4 1/2 months, a total of four international dressage events have been held in Europe–one in Portugal, one in France, one in Austria and one in Russia.
Of the 18 riders invited to the World Cup Final in Sweden before it was canceled, six had qualified through the Wellington shows–three from the United States, one from Canada, one from the Dominican Republic and one from Israel.
Those same riders are able to continue competing in Florida for what they hope will be a start at the Olympics if they go ahead in Tokyo in July and the European Championships in September.
After much of the world including dressage and jumping at Palm Beach International Equestrian Center closed down in mid-March as a result of coronavirus, shows started up again in Wellington the third week of May. Except for the usual height of summer break of eight weeks when temperatures routinely exceed 100F/38F with stifling humidity, 25 weeks of competitions were staged in 2020.
In the period from mid-November, to the end of the Winter Equestrian Festival next month there will have been 15 international jumping events, extended by a couple of weeks because the large contingent of Europeans do not want to go home to no shows.
The number of show weeks is likely to remain the same as recent years but the number of days of each show week has had to be extended to accommodate so many competitors.
The overwhelming attitude among riders, grooms, owners and the staff that make the shows run is gratitude that Wellington is its own “bubble,” a horse show community of just 45 square miles/116 sq. km about 65 miles/72km north of Miami.
Florida has been hard hit in a nation that has one of the highest Covid-19 infection rates in the world, and though the Wellington shows have escaped significant coronavirus outbreaks, memories of the scourge of EHV in the recent past cause horse people to make every effort to avoid risky behavior.
The rules drawn up by Equestrian Sport Productions, the show management, with local and state government agencies to deal with coronavirus and more recently EHV have kept general spectators out. That is not as big a financial hit as it is in Europe. Spectators here don’t pay to go the shows whereas ticket prices make up about 70% of the revenue of European shows.
Because there were no signature Friday Night Lights Freestyles and stands packed with spectators “we expected pushback,” he said, “but there hasn’t been any. People have been very understanding.”
The restrictions of social distancing, face masks and frequent temperature checks are willingly accepted as a necessity, including in the VIP pavilions that have only about half the numbers to abide by social distancing, but provide an opportunity for socializing.
Michael Stone, the ESP president, credits David Burton, a second generation Wellington show operator who is ESP’s competition manager, with success in making the restrictions work. So-called “yellow jackets,” a costly addition to the payroll, stroll the grounds to politely implement the rules when people stand too close or forget to clamp on masks.
Despite international travel restrictions, riders from more than two dozen nations from North and South America, Europe, Australasia and Asia, including the top contenders for the Canadian and United States Olympic teams and Frederic Wandres who is on Germany’s top squad are competing on Global’s dressage circuit and its almost $600,000 in prize money.
“We expected dressage to be down but it’s been up a bit,” Michael said. “We’ve been surprised how robust it’s been.”
In the Winter Equestrian Festival jumping, though, there has been no doubt of its success–about half of the top 20 on the world rankings and dozens more talented combinations from around the globe battle for a share of $13 million in total prize money.
An average of about 2,500 horses a week show at WEF–or a total of about 7,600 horses during the circuit.
The end result has been that the Wellington shows have become the longest running sporting event in a world bedevilled by coronavirus and a sport slammed with the addition of equine herpes virus.
Shows resumed at PBIEC almost a month before the Professional Golf Association tour in the U.S. re-launched with a different course every week while tennis has had to work hard for mixed success.
Wellington’s show stables have grown to such an extent in the past decade that most operations are based off the show grounds and horses are brought in just for competitions. Previously, most horses were housed in giant tents that stretched for miles.
Part 2: The Future of Wellington Horse Shows