You don’t have to be a rider or even be involved in the equine industry to notice that something big is going on in Ocala from January through March every year.The hotels fill up,the restaurants get more crowded, area shops see their merchandise flying off the shelves and there is just an air of excitement in the atmosphere. The reason? HITS has returned!
HITS, or Horse Shows In The Sun, is one of the premier horse show circuits in the country with stops in New York, Virginia, California, Arizona and, of course, Ocala. Each year, riders from all over the U.S., Canada and Europe come to our quiet city to compete.
And while every sport requires some level of commitment, most of the riders at HITS have turned their lives upside down for the love of their sport—and their four-legged partners. This year, we’re highlighting some of HITS’ top junior riders, those who compete in the 17 and under age category. These riders not only compete at the top level of their sport, but they manage to balance an intensive training and showing schedule with the demands of high school. Whether they call Ocala home or have traveled miles to be here, these young athletes are making great sacrifices to become the best in a sport they love.
Like any student athlete, 16-year-old Lauren Fabiano knows a thing or two about time management and travel. But where most high school students get on a bus to drive to their meets and matches, Lauren gets on a plane and flies over 1,000 miles to compete at hers. Lauren lives in Malvern, Pennsylvania, but boards a plane every weekend in the winter to come to Ocala to train with Bob Braswell.
“I bring my books and computer and ride during the day and study at night and on the plane,” says Lauren, who is no stranger to this type of schedule. She has been training with Bob since she was 8 years old and splits her time between training with him in Florida and Kim Zindel-Buzby in Pennsylvania.
“Bob has so much to teach me, and I’ve been riding with Kim for years,” she says of her team of trainers. “They work together to advance my riding,” And their teamwork has paid off. Lauren has evolved from simply taking beginner lessons on a pony to quite a successful Equitation rider. She has won top ribbons at the Devon Horse Show, Winter Equestrian Festival, HITS Ocala and the Vermont Summer Festival, just to name a few.
“One thing led to another, local shows, ribbons, a pony, and here I am today,” she says. Her next goal? To add a top-ten finish at a National Equitation Final this year. She also has plans to compete on the college level in the future.
And Lauren is already looking forward to competing once again in Ocala.
“My time in Ocala is quick and usually spent riding, studying and, oh yes, some sleeping,” she laughs. But she explains that her family is a wonderful support system, and she keeps competition in perspective by listening to the words of her trainer.
“Bob always says, ‘You don’t have to win to be successful—just ride your best.’”
And though Lauren has made huge sacrifices to partake in the sport, she’s no stranger to team sports. Through the eighth grade, Lauren played volleyball, soccer and lacrosse. And while she doesn’t have time for all of those activities now, she has hinted at possibly joining the crew team in the future.
Photo by Lily
While you may think the daughter of a top college basketball coach would be spending her time on the court, Hasbrouck Donovan followed in her mother’s footsteps and began riding horses at the age of 4.
“My mom rode and competed in the Equitation, so she got me into it at a young age,” says 17-year-old Hasbrouck who trains with Don Stewart, Bibby Farmer Hill and Megan Edrick at Don Stewart Stables in Ocala. The farm is a 35-minute drive from Hasbrouck’s home in Gainesville, and she makes the commute to train six days a week.
“I went to St. Francis High School from ninth to 11th grade, and this year, I’m finishing my senior year with an online high school program,” explains Hasbrouck. The online format allows her to work ahead on her class work when she’s not busy competing.
“When I’m showing, I can’t get as much done, so the online format works great,” she says. And with Hasbrouck’s busy horse show schedule, she has had to become a master of time management.
“I usually start showing on Thursday, and it gets crazy after that,” she says. Hasbrouck competes in the Equitation, Junior Hunters, High Junior Jumpers and the Grand Prix classes, a schedule that keeps her in the saddle most hours of the day.
But her hard work has definitely paid off with top ribbons this summer in both the Atlanta and Culpepper Grand Prix and top ribbons in the National Equitation Finals and the Large Junior Hunter Championship at the Devon Horse Show this past May.
But while Hasbrouck’s riding schedule rivals that of top professionals in the sport, she also finds time to compete in running races, but not just your typical running races, four-mile races involving obstacles, including the Swamp Dash in November.
“I work out with a trainer and take part in boot camp workouts, too,” she adds
And of course she says, “I also like to go to Gator basketball games.”
KC van Aarem
KC van Aarem is a familiar face in the Jumper ring and has been making a name for herself over the years in the Children’s Jumpers and Low Junior Jumpers classes on her horses “Mastermind” and “High Five.”
“I began riding when I was 8 years old when my mom and I took mother-daughter lessons. From then on, it was all I ever wanted to do,” says KC, who aspires to one day ride at the Grand Prix level.
Today, KC has far evolved from her group lesson experience of years ago. She trains with Aaron Vale and Dale Mills in Ocala and has added a laundry list of accomplishments to her résumé over the past year, including 9th- and 12th-place finishes in the Low Junior Jumper Finals at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show and placing first in the first leg of the Low Junior Jumpers class at the Washington International Horse Show in Washington, D.C. this past October.
This year, she’ll compete in the Medium Junior Jumpers class with the intention of moving up to High Junior Jumpers by the end of the circuit. But Mastermind and High Five are not the only horses you’ll see her riding.
“I ride anywhere from six to 11 horses a day, so I usually ride for about eight hours every day,” this busy 16 year old says. And while her riding schedule is intense, KC’s day doesn’t end when the show is over.
She attends Florida Virtual School, a homeschooling program, as a 10th-grade student.
“I do homework from 6-7am, then ride and show beginning around 8am. When the show’s over, I’ll finish schoolwork from 7-10pm,” she says, describing her typical day. And as if KC doesn’t have enough on her plate, she also intends to graduate college with a business degree and start an organization that focuses on raising money for cancer research. With all KC does in a day—and plans to do in the future—it’s hard to think she has time for much else. Yet, she does find time to enjoy some downtime in Ocala.
“When I’m not riding, I like to go to the movies and get yogurt from Mochi. My favorite restaurants here are Kotobuki, Ipanema and El Toreo,” she says. “And I also enjoy pony-rollerblading (a game of her own invention), tennis and cooking.”
Photo by J.L. Parker 2011
For Ashton Alexander, riding at HITS is like competing in her backyard. The 15-year-old student of Don Stewart Stables lives in Ocala and has been riding since she was 4 years old. Becoming involved in what she calls her “passion” was an obvious choice considering her parents’ equine involvement.
“My mom rode, and my dad was involved with racehorses,” she says.
Ashton was a highly successful pony rider and has made the transition to horses quite smoothly. This year, she will continue to work with ponies as well as compete in the Equitation and Junior Hunter classes.
While most 15 year olds may work a part-time job, this ninth-grader is at Don’s farm from 9am to 5pm daily riding horses.
“I do my school work Monday through Thursday. It’s not always easy balancing it all, but I have a tutor to help me,” Ashton says, noting that even though her busy schedule would be difficult for anyone, riding horses is all she’s ever wanted to do and she wouldn’t trade a second of it.
“If I hadn’t gotten into riding, I have no clue what I would be doing,” she laughs. Her schedule becomes more hectic during the winter HITS circuit, as she’ll fit in early morning lessons before competing begins at 8am. But, you’ll rarely see Ashton without a smile on her face.
“I love every minute I spend riding,” she says. While college is a few years away for her, Ashton’s goal is to earn a riding scholarship so she can continue her education both in and outside of the equestrian world.
On the rare occasions when she’s not riding, you can find Ashton hanging out with friends at Tony’s Sushi or The Melting Pot.
Photo by Sportfot
It’s no accident that Michael Hughes got involved in horseback riding at age 3. Not only do both of his parents ride, but they also run a professional training facility, Drumnacross Farm, consisting of a 100-acre farm in Goshen, NY and a 15-acre farm in Ocala.
Michael arrives in Ocala for HITS right after Christmas and stays until the beginning of April. With his constant travel, Michael will receive training from his father, Eamonn Hughes, Bob Braswell of Ocala and Missy Clark of Vermont at different times throughout the year.
Between riding an average of 10 hours a day and competing in multiple classes at a show, it’s no wonder Michael has seen so much success this past year. He won three Equitation classes at the prestigious Devon Horse Show, the team gold medal at the FEI Young Rider Championships and, as he puts it, “finally” winning the Low JR/AO Classic and Championship on his horse “Red Hot” at the Washington International Horse Showthis past fall.
At HITS this winter, Michael will be showing in the Hunter, Jumper and Equitation classes with his sights set on the Grand Prix.
To achieve this level of success, he’s had to dedicate most of his time to riding and training.
“We generally get up way before it gets light out to exercise all the horses before the show starts,” he says, describing a typical week at HITS. Early in the week, he’ll split his time between showing and riding the horses back at the farm. But as the weekend approaches, Michael spends from sunup to sundown showing.
“It gets really crazy because I’ll have multiple rides in the classes, so it’s a scheduling nightmare,” he says. “And somewhere in there I have to get my schoolwork done. I’ll usually spend all day Monday and most of Tuesday doing that.”
Michael is a 10th-grade studentat Keystone High School, which is an online program.
“Because it’s an online program, it doesn’t matter where I am when I’m taking classes,” he explains.
As far as his future riding goals, he sets high standards for himself.
“I’d like to win an Equitation final and move into the Grand Prix,” he says, noting that he focuses all of his time and energy on his riding. Though, he does find time to sneak out once in a while to the downtown area with friends, and he’s a regular at his favorite restaurant Horse & Hound.
“They know me there,” he smiles. “I get the same thing every time: tomato dill soup and wings!”
Photo by Sportfot
For 18-year-old Meg O’Mara, who, because of her December birthday rides as a 17 year old for 2012, the past year has been nothing short of outstanding. Aboard her horse “Sinatra IV,” Meg has numerous awards in the Junior Jumpers, including winning the team and individual gold medals in the Junior Jumper Championships at the 2011 Pennsylvania National Horse Show. In 2011, Meg and Sinatra IV advanced to the Grand Prix level with Florida wins in Jacksonville and Venice, California.
As if Meg’s success in the Jumper ring weren’t enough, her success in the Hunter ring is equally impressive. With her horse “Walk The Line,” she’s earned championship honors at both the National Horse Show and the Washington International Horse Show this past fall.
Meg’s riding career began at the age of 4 when she accompanied her older sisters for weekly riding lessons. Her passion for the sport, along with her keen talent, led her to Don Stewart Stables where she currently trains.
Like many top junior riders in the sport, the time commitment and dedication is an integral part of Meg’s life. She lives in New Jersey, while Don’s farm is based in Ocala.
“I constantly go down to exercise my horses,” she says, which is a long way to travel to stay in shape. And while Meg finds the time to commute to Florida to train, as well as several other states throughout the year to compete, she also balances the workload of a senior in high school.
She’s opted for a homeschooling program through the University of Miami, which allows her to formulate her own system for completing assignments. As Monday is her only day off from riding, Meg devotes the whole day to her schoolwork.
“I’ll do my schoolwork Mondays and Tuesdays after I ride. Sometimes I have to get up early and work before I ride, but I usually get it all done before I start showing for the week,” she says.
At Meg’s high level of competing, her future hopes of competing at the Grand Prix level and representing the United States at international competitions seem very achievable.
Even with such a packed schedule, Meg loves to eat out with friends during her downtime.
“Tony’s Sushi never gets old,” she says. “I’ve been there three times in the past five days!”
Photo by Parker/Russell – The Book LLC 2011
Most kids get involved with horses through their parents’ interest. But this was not the case for 16-year-oldGeoffrey Hesslink, who began riding in 2004 at the age of 9.
“My parents were not involved in horses at all, but I’ve loved horses since I was little and always wanted to ride,” he says. After exploring other sports and competing successfully as a swimmer, he finally got the chance to realize his childhood dream of riding a horse.
Geoffrey began taking lessons at a local barn. And, as is often the case, his riding evolved into a full-time sport and time commitment for both him and his family.
“My dad is my biggest supporter,” he says, describing his father’s time sacrifices for Geoffrey’s sport. But that’s not always easy. Geoffrey lives in Vermont while his trainers at Don Stewart Stables are based here in Ocala.
Geoffrey’s initial experience with Don Stewart Stables came when he purchased his first pony through them. He began training with the team shortly after.
“I had the fortunate opportunity to visit Ocala the following year and began training with them. They are amazing teachers,” he says of Don, Bibby and Megan.
And their effect on Geoffrey is obvious with his long list of accomplishments, including winning the Grand Junior Hunter Championship in Atlanta this past summer, top ribbons at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show and winning the 15-year-old Equitation Championship at the Capital Challenge Horse Show in Maryland this past October.
Learning to manage schoolwork while competing at the top level of his sport is something this high school sophomore takes seriously.
“In the past, I would bring my schoolwork with me, and last year, I was enrolled in the school on the HITS grounds,” he says. This year, he is taking online classes, which give him more flexibility and allow him to focus more time on training.
With his intense time commitment to both school and riding, Geoffrey likes to relax by hanging out with friends after the show. He also enjoys music, art and cooking in his spare time. And, like his fellow barn mate Ashton, he finds Tony’s Sushi and The Melting Pot to be his top picks for dinner in Ocala.
After HITS, Geoffrey will continue to travel to shows along the East Coast, including those in Pennsylvania, Raleigh, Virginia and New York, just to name a few.
So… What Am I Watching?
OK, so you’ve made the drive down Highway 27 to the HITS show grounds. You find the spectator parking lot. Everywhere you look you see horses and riders. Now what?
Here is a quick guide to help the “non-horsey” person maneuver through the grounds.
If You See…
Arenas Filled With Tall, Bright, Colorful Jumps: You’ve made it to the jumper rings. Jumpers must jump a course of fences with tight turns and intricate, complex combinations. The jumps are set high, and the goal is to be the fastest horse to negotiate the course without knocking any down. Jumper classes are exciting to watch and often draw a crowd.
Arenas With Eight to 10 Wooden Fences Decorated With Flowers: You’ve arrived at the hunter rings. Hunters demonstrate athleticism and beauty. These horses also negotiate a course of jumps and are judged by their style of jumping. Their manes and tails are braided to show off their beauty and elegance.
Arenas With A Few Plain Jumps: These are the warm-up arenas. Riders will take their horses over a few “practice jumps” to get them prepared to step into the arena. The jumps start out very small and gradually get bigger to let the horse know how high they will be jumping in the show arena.
Giant Striped Tents: These are where the horses are housed while at the show. Many of these horses come from all over the country and will live in these tents throughout the circuit.
Various Small Tents & Trailers: Get your wallet out! This is the vendor area. Here is where riders will come to purchase supplies for the horses as well as riding attire and equipment. But you’ll also find a wealth of jewelry, clothing, toys, pet products and much more! Across the track, you’ll also see a large building. This is where the HITS restaurant is located, complete with sandwich, omelet and smoothie stations.
If You’re An Out-Of-Towner
If you haven’t ventured beyond Post Time Farm and your hotel, then you don’t know what you’re missing! For a complete guide of things to do in Ocala, including zip lining, go-kart driving and some of the area’s best restaurants, shops and boutiques, check out the HITS horse show program.
What’s At Stake?
Riders in Ocala will compete in qualifying classes throughout the circuit for a chance to compete for over $1 million in Saugerties, New York, this September. The weekend of September 7-9, 2012 will host the richest weekend in show jumping with a $1 million Grand Prix, a $500,000 3’3” Hunter Prix and, new this year, a $250,000 3’ Hunter Prix.
If You Go
HITS Post Time Farm
13710 US Highway 27
Competition runs for nine weeks from January 19 to March 18. Competition begins on Wednesday and runs through Sunday each week from 8am-4pm.
The Grand Prix events take place every Thursday and Sunday afternoon with spectator seating available at every ring.
Check the HITS website for a complete listing of special events, including World of the Horse Exhibition and Kid’s Day.