Is WEF Worth it? Four Riders on Making Their Wellington Dreams a Reality

Is WEF Worth it? Four Riders on Making Their Wellington Dreams a Reality

Wellington is the stuff pony kids’ dreams are made of: sunny skies, a paradise of stables, Olympic-caliber horses, top riders, clinics, and non-stop shows. Pretty much an equestrian version of Disneyland for the horse-crazy crowd.

But beyond the sparkle of the famed Saturday Night Lights Grand Prix, the Winter Equestrian Festival is about more than just blue ribbons and prize money. It’s a place to learn and make connections in the horse world, to grow your business and even build a family. And while the draw is undeniable, the decision to make it down to Florida is often complicated, with many weighing their WEF dreams against family and financial responsibilities. We sat down with four riders and business owners to talk about their journey to Wellington, and why (or why not!) the sacrifices necessary to be there are worth it.

Kate Kosnoff

I am an equestrian photographer, and I started my own business about a year ago. It’s always been my goal to come down to Florida and work for the season, so I have spent the last several months working toward that.

I actually had WEF 2020 in the back of my mind ever since WEF 2019. I brought my horse last year, but I knew I wanted to be there with my camera. I’m from Indiana, and as much as I love it, there isn’t as much activity this time of year at home. I had to start putting down the groundwork as soon as the season ended last year. I knew I had a lot of learning and growing to do. You can’t just walk into WEF and expect to find clients, but there is something about Wellington, about this horse show. There are people here from all backgrounds, all walks of life, all over the world. The energy is just magnetic. I knew I had to be there.

Obviously Florida is not cheap when it comes to housing, so that was a huge financial hurdle for me. Plus, I had to invest in more camera gear. I’ve had to really prepare financially, and some of those expenses have been tough pills to swallow. Honestly, it scared me for a long time, and I don’t think I actually believed I was going to make it to WEF this year until I got in my car and started driving.

I had to trust that I’ve worked hard and put in the time. I also had to put myself out there. I used social media, which is so important for small businesses. I challenged myself to be authentic and show up online in the same way that I do in person so that clients can get to know me.

Of course, being a rider myself also helps. I know a horse’s expression, and I know how it feels to have a clear round or when you’re just so happy with making it around the course. These are moments that I can understand because I am a rider, and I’ve been in those tall boots many times. A lot of my clients are amateurs, and I’m a proud member of the amateurs club myself, so I understand that sometimes it is just about those small victories.

Honestly, it scared me for a long time, and I don’t think I actually believed I was going to make it to WEF this year until I got in my car and started driving.

This sport is so intense and so crazy. We literally strap on pieces of leather and get on these powerful animals, and we trust them and they trust us. Riding is like no other feeling. You can talk about it until you are blue in the face, but there is something about what you can capture in an image that sums up how we feel about these animals. For me, there is nothing else like it. Those candid photographs memorialize the two hearts together and the happiness that makes all this WEF madness worth it.

I am a perfectionist, I think a lot of horse people are, and I tried to give myself a reality check. I’ve saved up and worked hard, but this is my first year. I’m not going to come out of the gate, guns blazing. I’m still going to make mistakes. The most important thing is that I’m here.

Adam Steffens

My first time down to Florida was the winter season of 2006/2007. I switched to competitive dressage at 13 years old, and two years later, I had a really good horse but not much help with it. I was riding in a clinic up north, and the instructor said to me, “Find good help.” She knew I needed to get to Florida and get into a program. So, the next winter, I was down in Florida…just me and my one horse.

It was love at first sight. I’d never been down here before, so I didn’t really grasp everything that Wellington is right away. My parents dropped me off November 1st, when I was 16 years old, and I switched to an online school. I worked as a working student for an Olympic rider all day long, and that’s how I paid for my horse and my lessons.

I was then able to come back the next year and work at Still Point Farm, and I started making good connections. I would go home, save money, and then come back down and work as a working student. I did that for three winters.

Yes, it was hard. I don’t have family sponsoring me, so I had to work my ass off. But the education was worth it. It’s the number one thing. More than money, more than anything. I got to see the best riders the country has to offer. When you’re here, you can watch the warm-ups at the shows instead of just the class. You can see that even the best riders have things they struggle with, so you can relate to that, but you also see how they deal with things, so you can learn. Those first few seasons also set the quality standards. I learned how performance horses should be cared for, which is so important.

Related: Four Riders on Deciding Their Futures in the Sport

Then, in 2012, I started by own training business back in Minnesota. My plan was to have my business there and bring clients to Wellington for the season. I found that it gets harder and harder to come down to Florida every year when you have your own business and financial obligations. So, I had to just pull the cord. I closed my barn and sold my house, and I moved here full time.

To make the decision to come to Wellington, it depends on what your goals are. My goals are to represent the U. S., ride strong horses, and get the best education I can have. So for those goals, Wellington is the only place I can be.

If you’re willing to put in the work, to be a small fish in a big pond, you can soak up all the education Wellington provides. You can watch Olympians; you can learn from great riders and horses and trainers. This place is high energy, lots of hustle and bustle and lots of hard working people. It’s a great community of friends, all pushing each other to be better. All in one place. You can’t beat it.

Alexandra Welles

I’m an amateur rider; I compete A/O Jumper divisions, and I’m married to a professional, Andrew Welles. We operate out of Wellington, Florida.

I was fortunate enough to begin coming down to Florida when I was 13. It was nothing like I’d ever seen before. I’d grown up showing on the local circuit, and experiencing WEF for the first time, seeing all the great riders and the possibilities, it made me want it all that much more. As a junior, it altered my perspective of the sport. It showed me the bigger picture, the places you could go if you committed the time and effort. I grew so fond of being here, of being in one place and being able to compete week after week.

My family went above and beyond to give me the opportunity to be here for so many years. My dad would fly back and forth to watch me on the weekends and then go back to work during the week. There’s so much that families sacrifice to make sure their kids can come down here and compete. I’m truly grateful for my family’s support, and I wouldn’t trade my WEF experiences for the world.

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This year is a bit unique for me for a number of reasons, including the fact that I had my first baby last April and I just retired my steady, go-to horse, XM, that I’ve been riding for the past six years. Now, I have a new baby and a new horse or two to compete, so I’m more focused on balancing things. I’m trying to fit in being a mom and going to classes with my daughter, plus finding time to ride and show as well. So, I’ll be showing at WEF this year, but it’s based around my daughter’s schedule rather than my own.

It used to be, I’m at the barn every day and everything else comes second. Now, it’s baby first. I didn’t really know how long it would take to get back after having a baby, how long it would take to get comfortable in the saddle and to really feel like myself again. I thought I’d get back in a competitive sense a lot sooner. But I knew I wanted to show again, and I’m excited to be here even if my goals are a little different this season.

So, I’m striving to master the balance. I want to ride and be the best mom I can be. I also want to share what I love with my daughter. For us, this is what we do. We love the animals, and we love the sport, and we are so fortunate to be able to compete here in Wellington and call this place home for our family. It’s already been such a joy to watch her fall in love with horses. She lights up when she sees them! She came on Sunday when Andrew won the ranking class, the 1.45. We joked that she missed her nap time to watch her daddy win. Yes, there are challenges, but experiencing that as a family makes everything worth it.

Of course, my daughter can do whatever she wants, but it looks like she’s already obsessed with horses, so I think my fate as a future WEF pony mom has already been sealed!

Casey McKissock

I’m 38 years old, and I’ve been riding horses since I could walk. Dressage, jumping, eventing, I’m kind of a jack of all trades. I work with Caroline Martin at CM Eventing, and we produce and sell upper level event horses.

When I had my advanced event horse, I went to Wellington for dressage training. We would go down from Ocala for a quick lesson or two and then come home. Four years ago, I got a job working for Schuyler Riley. I started in Wellington and did the whole WEF circuit before going over to Holland and doing the Global Champions Tour with her.

That time I spent in Wellington made me a better rider. In eventing, we have kind of a “just get it done” mentality. Working with the hunter/jumpers and learning the different aspects of the flatting and the jumping was good for me. Just being able to work yourself in a different program is so beneficial. And in Wellington, you have the best of the best. Every time you turn around, you see a better rider and more competitive ride. It really ups your game.

I don’t want to sugarcoat it though. Wellington is expensive; you have to be ready to work hard. And it’s not the only place to show or to achieve your goals.

Now that I’m working with Caroline, and we have the farm in Ocala, I’ll go down to Wellington to see clients, but I’m not able to do the whole season. I’ve been tossing around the idea of doing the jumpers with my 6 YO. She’s a really good, fast jumper, and I think she has a lot of potential so I’d like to get her down there to show.

But right now, my main priority is business. We can’t just decide based on whether or not we want to go. It’s a wonderful experience, sure, but we have to look at everything from a financial standpoint.

I don’t want to sugarcoat it though. Wellington is expensive; you have to be ready to work hard. And it’s not the only place to show or to achieve your goals.

My plan is to start at HITS and see how she does. HITS is smaller, and it doesn’t have the ambiance of WEF…nothing really compares to their grand prix area and the Saturday Night Lights Grand Prix at WEF! But a lot of the young horse classes at HITS this year are free, so they can get more experience here. The atmosphere is very competitive, the footing in the ring is great, and it’s really well organized. They offer a lot for everyone, event horses, young horses, the hunter-jumpers. Being a professional, we have to do whatever is best for training the horse, whatever will get the best results. That’s just the way it goes.

So while Wellington is an amazing place to be, it just isn’t the end goal. I have to look at the big picture and always do the right thing for the horse. There are so many factors to think about, and we are constantly putting the money we make in this business back into the horses, so we want to make the best decisions we can.

This business that Caroline and I have is only a year in the making, and it’s a non-stop balancing act, with so many puzzle pieces to consider. But I have to say, even if it sounds a little cheesy, I really love it. Every day, at the end of the day, we love our horses. I’m a Pony Club kid who just never stopped riding, and no matter where I am, I’m so lucky to be able to make a living doing this.

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Written by Cheryl Witty-Castillo

Cheryl is a former competitive figure skater turned book nerd and equestrian sport junkie. She views the written word and photography as an intimate conversation with the power to both tell an individual's story and unite a community with a shared passion. When she isn't writing or teaching, Cheryl loves spending time at home with her babies and their various furry rescue pets and carnivorous plants.