BY SARAH BLANCHARD | PHOTOGRAPHY BY LEAH FRIEL

Finding a Passion for Horses

IT’S EARLY MORNING, LATE WINTER. Before you see them, you hear them. The muffled, rhythmic sound of hooves in the sand. A few soft snorts and snickers, the muted voices of the riders. Then the horses loom large and lovely in the mist, their manes tossing in the light breeze, tails pluming gracefully behind and their coats glistening in the sun. They trot and canter in calm, stately groups of two and three, their riders sitting lightly in the saddles.

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Occasionally, a rider leans ever-so-gracefully forward as his horse accelerates and soars over an obstacle. The action is measured, disciplined, precise. There’s no mad rushing, no racing, no wild sprint to a finish line. These horses are elite athletes: jumpers, hunters, dressage horses and three-phase eventers. Many hail from Europe or South America. They represent breeds that most people have never heard of: Hannoverians, Trakehners, Westphalians, Dutch Warmbloods, Selle Francis, Irish Sport Horses. Most of them are very tall and very powerful, and all of them are beautiful.

In a few hours they will be groomed and polished. Their manes and tails will be braided. Impeccably dressed riders will take up the reins, and each horse will soar over impossibly high obstacles, or dance with intricate steps choreographed to crowd-pleasing music, or showcase their classical beauty and elegant movement.

Welcome to the winter horse show circuit.

FLORIDA: WELLINGTON/PALM BEACH, OCALA AND TALLAHASSEE

From winter to early spring, this is the center of the universe for equestrians. The annual Winter Equestrian Fair (WEF) runs nearly three full months, Wednesday through Sunday every week, from mid-January into April. This mammoth event hosts more than 5,000 horses and 2,800 riders from 30 countries, competing in jumpers, hunters and dressage. International competition takes on a special excitement this year because many of these events are “qualifiers” for the 2012 London Summer Olympics.

The season starts out with lower-level competitions for new riders and young horses. Even little kids have a shot at the limelight, riding in the pony hunter, junior jumper and hunt seat equitation classes. “Going to Wellington” is a rite of passage for this 13-and-under set.

Then the action amps up and you’re rubbing shoulders with the big-name riders and horses from around the world. The last week of the WEF features a half-million dollar purse for the FTI Consulting Grand Prix, an international event for the world’s best show jumpers. Another major jumping event is the $75,000 Nations Cup. Last year, 10 countries fielded teams to vie for that prize.

Learn to Ride

There’s a lot more to horse-manship than just clinging to a saddle while wearing stylish clothes. And while many acquire the skills in their youth, there are plenty of people who become avid equestrians in adulthood.

One way to begin the process is to ask around for a coach when you’re at a show. Perhaps the easiest route to finding quality English riding instruction is on newhorse. com, where thousands of stables, trail ride programs and camps (for adults as well as kids) are listed by region.

You’ll want to ask prospective coaches about their safety record, as well as whether the stable specializes in showing. Look for a coach who will truly teach you about horses- not one who merely repeats the “heels down, shoulders back” mantra. Learning equine personalities and horse-human communication is key, which is best absorbed on the ground, learning to groom, saddle and lead.

The Palm Beach Equestrian Academy offers a series of one-hour introductory lessons to acquire basic skills and good balance; although the lovely Circle C Equestrian Center in Waimanalo doesn’t provide lessons, a few top isle trainers and their affiliated horses that board there do (http://www.circlecequestriancenter.net/Trainers_and_Lessons.html).

Don’t be surprised if your instructor requires you to ride without reins or stirrups at first. To the horse, every move you make with your legs, hands and weight will mean something, so you must learn to control all those wayward body parts to stay safe and avoid confusing your equine partner.

To reach the level where you can comfortably trot, canter, gallop and perhaps ride over a small jump without losing your balance or annoying the horse, you’ll need to invest at least 20 hours in the saddle under the eyes of a competent instructor.

You won’t be ready to hit the show circuit for a while yet, but at least at that point you’ll begin to realize how much more there is to learn-one of the most fascinating aspects of this sport.

The horses are mega- stars. They fly in overseas, or they arrive in huge, climate-controlled semi-trailers, traveling with their trainers, grooms, veterinarians and masseurs. Top horses have Facebook pages and fan clubs.

While the jumpers seek glory in the arenas at the WEF, the dressage riders are competing with equal intensity at the Wellington Classic Dressage series, held in Palm Beach County. In years past, dressage competitions didn’t come close to matching the jumpers in big money prizes, but they’re catching up. The World Dressage Masters competition, held in Wellington in January, offered prize money of 100,000 euros-nothing for the winners to sneeze at.

From mid-January to mid-March, Ocala vies with Wellington for the title of best winter circuit for hunters and jumpers. The nine-week HITS (Horse Shows in the Sun) winter circuit is intergral for point-building and earnings for circuit horses.

The season also gets rolling in early spring in the south, gradually moving north for more rugged cross-country courses that includes water obstacles, banks and hills.

If you can manage the trip to northern Florida, catch the Olympic-level competition at the Red Hills event near Tallahassee. To get up close and personal with the thrills and perhaps a few spills, go for cross-country day. If you stake out a spot near the water complex and watch the riders closely-you’ll see the fire in their eyes and the urgency in their voices as they urge their equine partners to go faster, jump higher and land cleanly.

For these riders and owners, the reward is the prestige of the win, the chance for a spot on a national or international team, and the acknowledgement that they’ve excelled in a highly demanding sport.

CALIFORNIA: THERMAL AND DEL MAR

If you know where Thermal is, you’re already a horse person, or you live somewhere near this dusty crossroads. Originally a railroad construction camp, in summer it is one of the hottest places on the continent. Come winter, its mild, dry climate makes it an excellent home for the HITS Desert Circuit.

As with most venues, every Sunday is Grand Prix jumper day. Top horses and riders contend for their share of the day’s $25,000 to $50,000 cash prizes, and hope to qualify for the million-dollar HITS Grand Prix finale held in Saugerties, N.Y., in the fall.

If you prefer more variety in your landscape, head for the coast. The venerable Del Mar National Horse Show is held every winter at the fairgrounds an hour north of San Diego. It also hosts the weeklong Del Mar Dressage Affaire in late April and a hunter/jumper week in early May.

ARIZONA: TUCSON AND SCOTTSDALE

The Pima County Fairground in Tucson plays host to the six-week-long HITS Arizona winter series for hunters and jumpers, running from March through mid-April, just as the orange blossoms take to the Tucson air. It’s lovely-and there’s always golf, hiking, and baseball’s spring training nearby.

For something a little different, the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show takes place each year in mid-February. This show is restricted to Arabians and half-Arabians; however, you’ll also see western-style events, carriage driving and the always-glamorous Arabian costume classes.

In case you haven’t seen enough horses yet, you can stay on for the Scottsdale Spring Classic and Spring Festival hunter/jumper shows in March.

For equestrians, these are the places to see and be seen. If you’re not in the game as an owner or rider, but want to get a little closer to the experience, book some riding lessons or a trail ride while you’re visiting. There are always people ready to introduce you to their horses and share their love of the sport.

Many visitors just love attending the shows as horse-and people-watchers, shoppers and partygoers. There’s enticing cuisine and always a busy shopping avenue, with unique wares ranging from high-end equestrian gear to fine jewelry, fashion apparel, antiques and art.

And don’t forget the parties, of which there are many. Some are very toney, some are egalitarian; some are carefully planned, some are spontaneous. There are exhibitors’ parties, golf tournaments, barn parties, theme parties, charity benefits. Sponsors such as Fidelity Investments, Rolex and Lamborghini compete to host the best parties, while owners or sponsors of the winning horses are pretty much expected to host parties on Sunday evenings.

In early April, the action in the south winds down, as riders and horses travel north to cooler climes. Then, the big outdoor shows take center stage in Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New England, Northern California and up into Canada.

HOME IN HAWAI’I

The English-riding scene is fairly modest in this corner of paradise, where most horseback riding is geared toward ranch and rodeo. But a small number of dressage and jumping enthusiasts can be found on each island.

On O’ahu, Hilltop Equestrian Center in Waimanalo is an important venue for dressage training and shows; the Maui Dressage Academy offers dressage lessons, while Nancy Townsend, a nationally accredited hunter/ jumper judge, teaches hunt-seat riding and jumping at Ke’e Road Stable in Makawao. On the Kona side of Hawai’i Island, Horseplay Equestrian Center offers both dressage and jumping lessons, and also sponsors a few shows each year.

Understanding dressage, jumpers, hunters and eventing

DRESSAGE, French for “training,” dressage is a systematic, structured method of classical riding, originally designed to produce highly responsive cavalry horses that could charge, stop, turn and leap at the rider’s slightest signal. Modern dressage challenges horse and rider to reach high levels of balance, precision and harmony. In competition, horses and riders perform a pattern of prescribed movements (called tests) in an arena; points for each movement are awarded on a scale of 0 to 10. Horses and riders begin with simple tests, then move “up the levels.” The best ride at the international Grand Prix level, which requires pirouettes, piaffe (trot in place), half-pass (simultaneously forward and sideways), and flying changes of lead (the horse appears to skip from one leading leg to the other at a canter). These dance-like movements are also choreographed and set to music in crowd-pleasing musical freestyles, called kurs.

JUMPERS clear high obstacles, at speed. The judging in show jumping is objective: The winner is the fastest horse that incurs the fewest faults (knocking down an obstacle, failing to jump obstacles in the correct order, or exceeding the time allowed). Look for Grand Prix events and speed derbies: exciting to watch, even more exciting to ride if you have a bold horse and a healthy dose of intestinal fortitude.

HUNTER competitions are based in the traditions of English fox-hunting. Different divisions present obstacles at different heights, based on the size of the horses or ponies and the age or experience of the competitors. The judging is subjective: steadiness, moderate speed, safe jumping and a graceful, powerful stride are rewarded; excessive speed, unsafe jumping style and disobediences are penalized. Look for the Hunter Prix and hunter derbies for high-level competition. This is largely a North American sport; there’s no hunter competition at the Olympic level.

THREE-PHASE EVENTING (combined training) is a triathlon in which rider and horse compete first in dressage, then on a thrilling cross-country jumping course, and then over jumps in an arena. Originally created by cavalries to train and test the best horses and riders, eventing requires precision, fitness, stamina, boldness, and a strong partnership between horse and rider.