Jumping for Joy
On any given weekend, before a single ray of sun has burned the dew off acres of well-manicured pastures, there are hoof beats. Trainers lead their four-legged charges, coats glowing softly in the dim light of the barn aisle, to be prepped for a day of competition. In the schooling rings, grooms turn in a circle as horses canter rhythmically around them at the end of their lines, warming up their muscles and easing horse show nerves.
The riders are ready, too. Custom-fitted tall boots are zipped, show coats buttoned, hairnets carefully arranged underneath helmets. This is a sport in which style and athleticism collide; in which teams communicate by feel, not words. There have been hours of practice, thousands of dollars and more than a few dreams invested in what will amount to just a few short minutes in the show ring, during which each pair has 10 jumps or less to make it all look entirely effortless.
Though horse shows take place year-round, from January through March, the world’s most talented equestrian athletes meet in Florida for 12 weeks of high-stakes competition and big-money prizes. From the most prominent venues in Ocala to Venice and east to Wellington, the industry thrives, and central to them all is Southwest Florida.
Naples is home to a dedicated set of equine enthusiasts who make horses their hobby or, for some, their profession. At The Equestrian Center of Naples, professional rider and trainer Steve Di Carlo operates Benchmark Equestrian, a full-service training program catering to the serious horse show competitor. His team is made up of a small group of horses and riders who travel throughout Florida as many as three weekends each month to compete for prize money or points toward qualifying for national competitions.
From the first step into the show ring, each stride is measured; each movement is calculated. Tan and toned from hours in the saddle, Di Carlo leans against the fence by the in gate as his riders compete, carefully watching each trip around the ring. After the final jump, the rider trots a finishing circle before exiting the ring and coming to a halt next to Di Carlo, awaiting his analysis and advice to improve the next round.
“The ride was good,” he begins, “but increase your pace so you can wait to the jump if you need to. Bring your outside shoulder back through the turns, and keep your fingers closed around the reins.” Though the instructions are plentiful, to the casual observer, the execution is often invisible. Each class is another chance to put in the elusive perfect trip—all for the thrill of being called first when the results are announced.
Behind the Scenes
The world of horse showing isn’t all bright lights and big prizes, as Di Carlo well knows. On competition days, he’s in the barn by 6 a.m. to feed the horses. Perched on a stepstool, a professional braider neatly plaits the horses’ manes into as many as 40 tiny braids along their necks, secured tightly with yarn. The braiding is just one element of hours of previous preparation: Their fur has been clipped short from ear to hoof, their coats are gleaming from frequent grooming and bathing, and their tails have been picked out, strand by strand, by hand. Just prior to entering the show ring, their hooves will be slicked with polish as the ultimate finishing touch. Especially in the hunter divisions, which are judged on the horse’s style and presentation and which are based in fox hunting traditions, even the smallest oversight can mean the difference between a blue ribbon and a red one. In the world of horse showing, form and function are equally valuable.
From the barn, Di Carlo makes his way to the rings to learn courses—the order in which the jumps must be completed, which differs for each class—and determine when his horses and riders will compete. At major shows like the Winter Equestrian Festival, an internationally renowned series held in Wellington each year that draws more than 5,000 horses from 30 countries—including a select few from Benchmark—this can be a challenge. There are 12 separate show rings, some up to a mile apart, each with a different division competing at the same time. Trainers and riders zip from ring to ring on golf carts and dirt bikes, wearing backpacks full of crops, spurs and spare hairnets.
During the week at horse shows, Di Carlo competes with clients’ young horses to build their experience in the show ring; on weekends, he coaches his students as they warm up and compete.
The nights are late, the mornings are early, and the next day, it starts again.
Meanwhile, Back at the Barn
As taxing as horse shows seem, the majority of the hard work takes place at Benchmark Equestrian’s home base in Naples. Most of Di Carlo’s students take one to two hour-long lessons per week. Sherry Hohn, who owns a nine-year-old bay Thoroughbred/Holsteiner mare named Saki, works with Di Carlo on a weekly basis to keep her and her horse’s jumping skills sharp.
For the first half of her lessons, Di Carlo works with Hohn and Saki “on the flat,” or without jumping, to encourage the horse to bend its body, extend and collect its stride and properly use its muscles—all of which will improve its performance and attention to the rider “over fences,” or while jumping.
Di Carlo tailors each lesson to the horse and rider’s specific needs and skill level. During one morning session in mid-January, Hohn and Saki warm up over a 2-feet-6-inch plank jump a few times before Di Carlo sets a small course: a single fence to an oxer (two fences set close together that are jumped as one) to a line of two fences, between which Saki must take four strides. This particular exercise will encourage the pair to maintain a consistent, rhythmic pace around the entire course.
As Hohn begins her ride, Di Carlo calls out instructions. “If you have a good canter, you don’t have to make a big move,” he says. “Get her back to you before the turn.”
When Hohn finishes her lesson, Di Carlo heads back to the barn to “tack up,” or put his saddle, bridle and other equipment on another client’s horse for a schooling ride. He will ride as many as six horses and teach three to six lessons each day, often arriving early in the morning and not leaving until all the riders have gone home for the day, the barn is dark, and the only sounds are of horses munching hay in their stalls.
That morning, he and his wife, Tania Di Carlo—a former professional rider who now competes on her own horse, a four-year-old Hanoverian named Paragon, in the amateur divisions—have already ridden two of Benchmark’s newest additions. The horses have recently arrived from California and will be Di Carlo’s show mounts for the coming season.
Both were purchased by one of Di Carlo’s clients as investments; Di Carlo will compete on the horses to win prize money for the owners. One of the horses, Santiago, is a 13-year-old Holsteiner gelding that Di Carlo describes as a seasoned, “been there, done that” competitor. The pair will begin showing in smaller grand prix classes in the coming months, including a $10,000 class in Ocala during the second week in March and a $25,000 class in Venice, Fla., in May. The other horse, Cameo, is an eight-year-old Holsteiner mare who’s shown talent as a quick and tidy jumper at an early age. She has the potential, Di Carlo says, to be competitive over even bigger jumps than Santiago does.
On this particular morning, the Di Carlos—who met at a horse show and got to know each other while working at The Equestrian Center of Naples—are schooling Santiago and Cameo over a course of fences up to four feet high. The course tests the horses’ ability to jump high and wide, as well as to respond to the riders’ cues to shorten or extend their stride to meet the jump at the perfect spot.
At shows, they will be judged based on speed and number of faults accumulated. Each jump rail that a horse knocks down counts for four faults; a refusal at a jump is another four faults; and a fall results in disqualification. They also can accumulate time faults if they do not complete the course within a predetermined amount of time.
Though both horses are the same breed and have the same job, they each have distinct personalities and require a different type of ride. Santiago is quieter, and Di Carlo must use plenty of pressure from his legs and seat to encourage the horse to move forward. Cameo, alternately, is quicker to the fences, which means Tania must keep her upper body back and use “half halts,” or brief pressure on the reins, to keep the horse patient.
It is these nuances that intensify the bond between a horse and its rider. As a team of two, each is dependent upon the other, relying not on verbal communication but on subtle shifts in weight and silent cues—applying leg pressure at a certain point in the course, squeezing a rein at another, sitting more deeply in the saddle—to make a challenging task appear simple. And, often, what the horse tells the rider is just as important as the other way around.
Because of that, riding is never the same from day to day. An exercise that was simple once before can prove to be a whole new challenge the next time. In this sport, patience and compassion sometimes trump the rider’s ambition to train a little harder or jump a little higher.
“One of the best things about riding,” Tania says, “is that you may have the same horses, but it’s never the same day. You can learn continually, and there’s no limit. You can ride your whole life and still get better.”