Hunt Country Heads South: Inside Florida’s Equestrian Scene
Written by Victoria Peace
For riders in Virginia, February is often synonymous with icy water buckets, endless blanket changes, and frozen footing. However, some lucky Hunt Country equestrians have headed south to wait out the winter in Wellington and Ocala.
For those of us that can’t make it down this year, Middleburg Life interviewed riders competing at the World Equestrian Center, the Winter Equestrian Festival, and on the Wellington polo fields about what the season has been like so far. Read on to hear about their experiences spending the winter in the sunshine state!
Grace Long, co-owner of G&T Equestrian in The Plains, has been heading to Florida for the winter annually for the past decade. This year, Long is based out of Ocala. “WEC is such an incredible place, you really can’t beat it,” she says. However, Long and her clients also travel to HITS and the Winter Equestrian Festival to compete during the winter season.
Long is originally from Australia. She studied law and economics at university and worked in that field briefly after she graduated. However, she ultimately decided that sitting in an office all day was not for her and transitioned toward riding and teaching full time. Long competed up to the Grand Prix level in Australia before moving to Middleburg ten years ago to work at Badger Hill Farm with Tom Bebb.
Five years ago, Long and Bebb founded G&T Equestrian. Today, the farm serves both hunter and jumper clients, many of whom are currently competing in Florida. “We have a great group of clients,” Long emphasizes. “We have a few clients with younger horses that they are bringing along. [Florida] is a great place to do that because there are so many different rings and they get a lot of diverse experiences.”
At G&T, Long and Bebb instruct riders and horses of all different levels from the baby green hunters up to the Grand Prix. “We really appreciate all of those levels. … We want everyone to do what they want to do but well,” Long says.
Long believes that a central part of what makes G&T Equestrian special is her partnership with Bebb. “Tom and I do everything. I’m the rider in the ring but in terms of the training and the planning and everything that’s involved, that’s really both of us,” she says. “I feel like that gives us a strong position in the fact that there’s both of us as trainers there. … We can help out everyone in the way that they need it.”
This winter season, she has brought a mare down to Florida who was off last year with an injury and has just started back up again. By the end of the winter, her goal is to have her jumping at the Grand Prix level.
Sophia Doble is spending her first winter season in Wellington this year and is planning to compete in the 6-8 goal league at Grand Champions Polo Club and the Grand Champions Women’s League.
Of her time in Florida, Doble says, “It’s a different environment, but everyone is very kind, sweet, willing to help, and welcoming. And, the horses seem to really enjoy it.”
Doble lives in Warrenton and started riding when she was 6. She took up polo at age 16 and started training with John Gobin at Twilight Polo Club in Middleburg during the summer of 2021. Doble, now 18, just graduated from high school this past December, a semester early.
Doble is most excited to play in the 6-8 goal league this season because she has never had the opportunity to play polo at that speed before. In order to prepare herself for playing in Florida, Doble traveled to Argentina from late November to early December to train with Memo and Meghan Gracida. While she was there, she purchased several horses that she is keeping in Florida for the winter.
This season, Doble is hoping to up her handicap and become a stronger player. Specifically, she plans to focus on improving her defensive skills and becoming more aggressive.
Fifth-grader Lane Costa is spending her first season competing in Florida this year. Costa and her new pony, MacGyver, have been showing in the Small Regular Pony Division at the World Equestrian Center in Ocala. Costa is from Leesburg, Virginia, and rides at Rutledge Farm with Jonelle Mullen.
Costa’s goal for the season was to qualify for Pony Finals, however she already accomplished this feat her first week showing! The class she is most looking forward to showing in is the pony derby.
Costa’s favorite thing about being at WEC is that she gets to meet a lot of friends around her age. She loves getting to spend multiple weeks with her fellow riders and says that everyone is so supportive. Costa also loves WEC’s facility, and the fact that she can walk around the showgrounds and see all of the different rings and vendors. There is even a Starbucks at the show.
Costa is looking forward to consistently showing MacGyver throughout the rest of the season, getting to know him more, and becoming a real team.
Jessica Rich has been coming down to Florida for the winter on and off for the past decade. She is based out of the World Equestrian Center in Ocala this year, but in past years has competed at the World Equestrian Festival in Wellington. Rich’s successful career in riding has spanned many different disciplines including show jumping, hunters, foxhunting, racing, and polo.
Rich’s mother was one of the first women jockeys and taught Rich to ride at a young age. During her childhood in Middleburg, Rich grew up riding other people’s ponies and took lessons everywhere, including with local Olympian Katie Prudent. As a teenager, Rich broke yearlings for Paul Mellon at Rokeby Farm.
Rich galloped horses on the track for decades. Her stepfather, Billy Turner, trained Seattle Slew. Turner and Rich’s mother had a successful training business together, and Rich rode for them and had her assistant trainer’s license in many states.
Now, Rich no longer rides professionally. “At this point in my life I’m doing it more as something that’s not a job — I’m doing it because I want to,” she says. Rich does not have a set discipline that she competes in; she usually gets her horses off the track and likes to do whatever they are best at, whether that’s eventing, show jumping, or something else. However, right now, she owns a Dutch Warmblood — her first one ever — and is competing in the jumper ring.
According to Rich, when she started riding her current mare, Juno, she was practically feral. She had never worn shoes or a blanket, and while she was not wild or crazy, she had very limited riding experience. Rich brought her along slowly, and she has since shown quite a bit of talent. Rich’s goal for the winter season is to get Juno really comfortable at her job, and eventually move her up to a higher level. Right now, she’s starting to compete in the 1.10 meters. Eventually, Rich would like her to graduate to the 1.20 meters.
Rich rides with G&T Equestrian in both Florida and Virginia. “I love the training and Grace’s riding, and it’s a great group of people,” she says. “Everyone they have working here is so good with the horses. … You want to walk into the barn and have it be an atmosphere that’s happy and pleasant — not stressful. Their farm delivers on that. And, the farm in Florida is a great location.”
One of Rich’s favorite things about being in Florida is the proximity of the farm to the showgrounds. “In a place like WEC, you can get a lot done. You can go back week after week and you get a lot accomplished,” she says. “It’s nice that you don’t have to drive as much.” Back at home in Middleburg, Rich prefers to foxhunt, trail ride with friends, or do dressage. “There are so many fun things to do with a horse in Middleburg. Because my horse is so small, I even hit the polo ball off her as well!” Rich says.
Riding is not the only thing that Rich appreciates about being in Florida — she also enjoys opportunities to compete in CrossFit. Rich took up CrossFit during COVID. She was used to riding ten horses per day seven days per week, and when that number was reduced to one, sometimes two horses, not even every day, she needed something else to do. Rich previously competed in virtual CrossFit competitions but did her first in-person one in Miami this winter. She’s signed up for another one soon. “It’s fun and it keeps you fit and strong, and helps with the riding,” she says.
John Gobin, the founder of Twilight Polo Club in Middleburg, has been coming to Wellington for over 30 years. Gobin is the former captain of the U.S. Polo Team and has played in prestigious tournaments all over the world. “Wellington is the best polo in the country,” Gobin says. “If you want to test your skills, you do it down here.”
Currently, Gobin prefers to play in more relaxed matches during the winter season and focuses on training his green horses. He finishes them and then either sells them or brings them back up to Virginia in the spring. Several members of Twilight Polo Club also come down to Wellington to play with Gobin over the winter.
Like so many other riders, one of Gobin’s favorite things about coming to Florida is the weather, and the sheer amount of equestrian-related activities in the area. “It’s crazy how the town just explodes with horse people after Christmas — the roads are full, the restaurants are full, the tack shops are full — it’s a great environment,” Gobin says.
Michele Trufant is currently based out of the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, competing in the adult amateur jumpers. She rides with Denice Perry at Skyland Farm in Middleburg. Last year was Trufant’s first year in Florida. She came for a month initially, but she liked it so much that she kept adding on a week, and then two weeks, until eventually she stayed for three months. Her favorite part about heading south is the warm weather, the proximity to the ocean, and the frequency with which she is able to ride. She also loves being able to ride to the showgrounds from the farm instead of having to worry about trailering. Often, after she is done showing for the day, she walks down to the beach and goes surfing. “It doesn’t get much better than that for me,” she says. And, as if riding and surfing weren’t enough to keep her busy, Trufant also teaches virtual yoga classes.
Trufant loves all of the opportunities to watch high-level competitions at WEF. “To be able to walk around the showgrounds and see the best riders in the world — that [is] an amazing experience,” she says. “I [spend] hours and hours in different rings watching people ride.”
Trufant began her career in riding as an event and racehorse rider before turning to the hunter jumper ring. She did not learn to ride until age 30 and had limited means at the time, so she took advantage of every opportunity possible in order to advance in the sport. “I was breaking horses, I would ride anything,” she says. “I would do anything I could to make a little money and make my dream come true.”
Trufant moved from Louisiana to Middleburg in 1995. The first job she got in the area was working for Barbara Graham at the Middleburg Training Center. During this period, Trufant also rehabbed racehorses in order to train and resell them as eventers. She took one to Denice Perry who told her, “Don’t ever jump that horse over a ditch again; he needs to be [a] show hunter!” From then on, Trufant started taking lessons with Perry and has been with her ever since. The horse, Prime Time, went on to become famous locally and was a consistent winner at Upperville.
Trufant has never set specific goals for her riding, but simply decided that she would try to be the best that she could be, no matter what that meant. And so far, this philosophy has worked beautifully. “I’ve been so satisfied,” she says. “I got to do the advanced course at Kentucky as a three-day event rider, [and] I completed Fair Hill three-star. Those are things that I never dreamt of. Both of those I came out of and thought, if I never compete again, I’m happy.”
This season, Trufant is leasing a horse for the winter. He’s so experienced, “I’m having the time of my life!” she says. ML
Published in the February 2023 issue of Middleburg Life.