Wellington’s Greatest Season: The Winter Equestrian Festival

December 7, 2021

Did you know that right here in The Palm Beaches, the Village of Wellington is known as the Winter Equestrian Capital of the World?

Growing up as an avid equestrian here in Palm Beach County, it just feels natural to see horses trotting down the road braided and “horse-show ready,” while the grooms and golf carts zoom across the crosswalks heading to the grounds at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. But to the non-equestrian, that might seem quite rare to see on a daily basis.

Wellington comes to life during the horse show season, which runs Jan. 5–April 3, 2022, with anywhere from 7,000 to 8,000 horses coming in from all over the world to compete at the world-class events. Exhibitors compete for more than $10 million in prize money, the largest amount distributed over 13 weeks in the world. It’s quite commonplace to see celebrity riders in the show ring and out around town, such as Georgina Bloomberg, Eve Jobs, Jennifer Gates and Jessica Springsteen.

View of the entry of a ring at Palm Beach International Equestrian Center
Photo courtesy of Winter Equestrian Festival

Let’s talk about the main event hosted every Saturday night, Saturday Night Lights. This is the highest level of competitive show jumping for the week, also known as the Grand Prix. The world’s top horses and riders jump a difficult course of fences with the objective to go fast without knocking any rails. It’s action-packed and includes a night of family fun with live music, pony rides, face painting, a Venetian carousel, food and shopping — making for an exciting night out. While admission is free, there’s a fee for parking and the gates open at 6 p.m. Be sure to get there early to get a good seat!

Depending on the week, you’ll find different Saturday Night Lights events like the 13th annual Great Charity Challenge, presented by Fidelity Investments, which has distributed over $15.9 million to 276 local organizations in 12 years. This event features a costumed relay race of professional and amateur riders, with teams representing local charities. The most fun is to spot your favorite costumes, and the horses seem to get into the spirit, too!

Another highlight is the $150,000 Nations Cup Presented by Premier Equestrian, where teams of riders represent their respective countries and compete against each other for the top prize. And finally, the $500,000 Rolex Grand Prix CSI5, which serves as the grand finale during the final week of the horse show.

Riding on a horse going over a jump
Photo credit: White Fence Equine Photography

Some of the most fun to be had at WEF is by simply walking around the grounds, spectating at different rings and watching the various levels of competition and disciplines. From Wednesday through Sunday starting at 8 a.m. through 5 p.m., competitions consist of everything from ridiculously cute Pony Hunters to Olympic-level show jumpers. Some riders as young as 5 years old compete in the Pony Hunter divisions, which are held at “Pony Island” on Saturday and Sunday. Talk about cuteness overload!

And just what does the term Pony Hunter mean? Let’s begin by defining the different disciplines: Hunters, Jumpers and Equitation. All of these disciplines can be happening simultaneously in different rings across the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center. So, to understand what you’re watching, here is some quick insider scoop on what you may encounter at the different rings.

  • Hunter divisions are subjectively judged on the beauty, disposition, way of going and form of the horse and overall ride. The jumps are usually natural looking to feel as though it was based on a traditional countryside hunt. Confirmation, athleticism, disposition, movement and jumping form are qualities to look for in a winning Hunter horse.
     
  • Equitation divisions are judged on the rider for proper position and style. The rider must be accurate and stylish while using discrete aids to make the round seem completely effortless.
     
  • Jumper divisions are scored based on speed and accuracy. The objective is to make it around the whole course without knocking a rail, in the quickest time. If a horse knocks a rail down, it becomes an automatic 4-fault penalty. A competitor may also get time fault penalties if they finish too slow. If the competitor jumps a clear round with no time faults, they come back for a “jump off” round for speed, which will decide the final outcome of the prizes.
Wide view of a horse show jumping ring at night
Photo credit: White Fence Equine Photography

While you walk the showgrounds, be sure to check out the unique shopping; after all, there are more than 100 food and retail vendors on site! The Farm Stand offers a variety of healthy and organic sips and bites, plus there are eclectic one-of-a-kind shops. Vendor Village is central for equestrian apparel and accessories (along with the WEF souvenir store), and the International Ring features boutiques and brands, with an iconic Hermes equestrian store right next to popular restaurant the Tiki Hut.

The Winter Equestrian Festival offers a variety of food options on site, ranging from Asian-inspired to authentic Mexican and American grills, so there’s no need to pack a lunch with so many options to choose from. Go ahead and gather your friends and family for a fun-filled day at the Winter Equestrian Festival. Whether you love horses or are just looking for an exciting social opportunity, the Winter Equestrian Festival is excellent to experience at any age.

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Ashley Cline
Ashley Cagle
Ashley Cline Cagle of EquestrianStylist.com is a lifestyle and fashion blogger based out of Wellington, Florida. Growing up living in fast-paced South Florida and competing at the Winter Equestrian Festival planted a seed for her love of fashion at a young age. With a degree in Fashion Merchandising from Florida State University and an M.B.A. in entrepreneurship from Nova Southeastern University, Ashley is committed to connecting the mainstream fashion industry to the equestrian community.