This article was originally published in NOELLE FLOYD Magazine.
Chip and Joanna Gaines may not frequent Wellington, Fla. with much regularity, but if they did, they might consider taking a page out of Ashland Farm’s book.
The Magnolia interior designers of Fixer Upper fame would feel right at home amid the soaring shiplapped ceilings, rustic exposed beams, and contrasting black window frames of Ken and Emily Smith’s rented, 20-stall facility on Grand Prix Village Drive. In fact, the barn’s farmhouse-inspired furnishings and wagon wheel chandeliers, hung at regular intervals along the paved aisleway, would be equally appropriate inside one of the Gaines’s showpiece renovation jobs. But there’s plenty of substance beneath Ashland’s camera-ready style.
“It’s a pretty barn, but it’s a workable facility, too,” says Ken, who’s been training at this particular property alongside his wife, Emily, for the last three winters. The Smiths split the year between Wellington and their second location in Lexington, Ky. during the summer months. “It’s great being able to work out of two nice facilities, with good footing for the horses and good stabling and paddocks.”
“We have parties here and it’s [nice] to have a kitchen,” Emily notes. “Everyone brings their lunch and the kids definitely congregate [in the owner’s lounge] at the end of the day and crank up their music.”
Anchored by sky-high, vaulted ceilings and a contemporary fireplace, Ashland’s central fixture is undoubtedly its whitewashed owner’s lounge, which features expansive views of the 220’ x 120’ all-weather outdoor ring and its surrounding hedges. Today, Ken’s course features a liverpool and a series of technical exercises for Ashland’s jumper riders, as well as a natural wall and more rustic options for the farm’s contingent of hunters.
Equitation, however, is Ashland’s bread and butter, and training young riders to excel at equitation finals around the country is Ken’s long-standing passion. “I’m a big fan of equitation. It’s not just about the position work, it’s about the mental work and the discipline, and being under that pressure cooker,” he says. “If you end up being a contender at these big finals, [you have to] to deal with that pressure.”
In total, Ashland manages the care and training of some 50 horses between its four-acre Grand Prix Village farm and tented stalls on-site at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, just a 20-minute ride away on horseback (or a five-minute drive). Tuesday mornings kick off the week, with Ken leading staff and students in course design and coordinating show and training schedules for the program’s horses. Emily spends much of her time at the showgrounds, supervising operations and organizing sale trials.
“We work together, but we do our own things, so we’re not constantly stepping on each other’s toes,” Emily explains. “It’s nice to go home and talk about [our work], and we try to keep it less about the complaints and more about the positives.”
After more than 27 years together, the Smiths have established an easy repartee in both business and life. Both grew up in the industry: Ken as the son of trainer John Smith in Upstate, N.Y., and Emily as the daughter of equine veterinarian Scott Traphagen in South Florida. They met while learning the ropes at Howard Lewis’s Gates Mills at the Chagrin Valley Hunt Club, eventually naming their business ‘Ashland’ after the Ohio town that served as the halfway point between their respective homes in Columbus and Cleveland.
“If something goes wrong, we immediately call each other, and when something goes right, it’s so fun to have that person that shares the same passion,” Emily says.
Adds Ken, “I think you have to pick what your strong suits are. [Emily’s] strong suits are her personality and her ability to deal with [people]. She does that really well, and she does horse sales really well. I do all the paperwork and dragging the ring,” Ken jokes. “I like to be hands-on.”
The Art of Hard Work
It’s just before 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning, and Ashland Wellington is already buzzing with activity. A junior rider calls, “Good morning!” from the tailgate of a nearby car where he’s zipping up his tall boots while grooms hurry this way and that, leading horses from grooming stalls or out to one of the farm’s six turnout paddocks. Two of Ashland’s professional riders, Michael Murphy and Chrissie Kear (who also manages the farm’s operations), are preparing for their first hacks of the day. No one is standing around.
From paid professionals to full-service junior students, at Ashland, everyone lends a hand, and that’s just how Ken and Emily have designed it. “All the kids here, they’re not all working students, but they all pitch in and they all work really hard,” Emily says.
“It’s a hands-on program. It’s full-service, but we try to teach [our kids] a lot about horsemanship,” Ken adds. “I think it makes them better riders, better horsemen, and better people to understand how it [all] works.”
That growing focus on all aspects of the sport is one facet of Ashland’s program that has evolved over the last two decades. But mostly, the Smiths say, their biggest shift has come with experience. “We’re probably more relaxed now [than we were when we started], even though we have more students,” Ken says. “We have our routine going and we know our system. We’ve got a good team around us, so that also helps.”
One occasional member of Ken and Emily’s extended team is their son, Spencer Smith, a professional show jumper who’s come up through the ranks under the tutelage of Eric Lamaze. In 2018, Spencer made his senior team debut at the CSIO5* FEI Nations Cup of Rome and earned his first grand prix win in the ‘Saturday Night Lights’ CSI3* during Week 10 at WEF. This year, he rides for the GCL’s New York Empire.
A number of Ashland’s program graduates have gone on to have successful professional careers in the sport, something the Smiths believe is harder to accomplish today than it once was.
“Costs are a lot higher and staff costs a lot more – renting a facility costs a lot more. I think [it’s about] aligning yourself with the right people if you’re a young professional,” Ken explains.
“Dedication [is important], for sure, and selling yourself – not only as a rider, but as a professional. I always tell my own kids and my students, if you want to be in this business, everybody is always watching you, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. [Even] if you’re out at a restaurant, you have to behave in a professional manner and conduct yourself properly.”
Forever a Family
When asked what she and Ken like to do on those (very) rare days away from the horses, Emily doesn’t miss a beat: “Watch horse videos,” she deadpans, though it’s not far from the truth.
When the couple does find downtime, they keep it simple: Ken enjoys the History Channel and catching up on any farm or grounds maintenance that requires attention. Emily prefers the occasional tennis match and running her own part-time interior design business for friends in the horse business. From start to finish, the winter circuit is a juggling act for the couple, though they make a point to reserve Monday afternoons for lunch with their family.
For the Smiths, ‘family’ is a broad term, however, and these outings occasionally include horse show friends and students, both present and past. Though they may age out or move away, Ashland graduates have a tendency to keep in touch.
“I think that’s one of the real enjoyments of it [for me],” Ken says, noting that one of his riders, Shawn Cassidy, still makes a point to call his former coach every year on Father’s Day.
Says Ken, “They always come back here one way or another.”
Photography by Shannon Brinkman.
Written by Douglas Crowe
Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.