Each year, thousands of riders from across the country and around the world converge on Post Time Farm for one of show jumping’s biggest competitions. HITS Ocala certainly has plenty of international appeal, but some of its best riders hail from right here in the heart of horse country. Just before their season started, Ocala Style talked to four of Marion County’s top competitors and trainers about what it takes to be the best and how they made it to the top.
‘Horses Have Been Good To Me’
Aaron Vale, Grand Prix rider
It’s a cold, overcast morning in December, and Aaron Vale has attracted a crowd inside his ring at Post Time Farm. Seemingly all at once, he’s instructing several students on horseback, talking to visitors watching nearby, deciding with his business manager whether to buy a new prospect, and trying not to step on the trio of dogs that insist on milling about his feet.
“Take him all the way through it,” he encourages one student approaching a jump. “There you go! Excellent.”
This is just another day at the office for Vale, and he couldn’t be happier.
“I never really thought of doing anything else,” the Texas native says as he raises the jump a little higher. “I guess it was natural for me. My mother rode the day before I was born and held me on a horse the day after. The only thing I liked as a kid was football, and I was short and slow, so that really wasn’t an option.”
So much the better for show jumping. Today, Vale, 41, is one of the sport’s premier riders. He’s won over 150 Grand Prix competitions during his 29-year career and millions of dollars in prize money. He’s a two-time winner of the prestigious President’s Cup at the Washington International Horse Show as well as a winner of the $100,000 Grand Prix of Ocala. The latter is the final competition of HITS Ocala, which Vale will compete in again this year. He considers his greatest accomplishment, though, simply having workdays just like this one.
“You get to do something you love for a living,” says Vale, who moved permanently to Ocala three years ago. “It’s just coming out here and working with the young horses and hoping to find the next one. And you couldn’t find a better horse place to live.”
Perhaps more so than any other sport, equestrians’ careers hinge on having the right teammate at the right time, and Vale admits that at show jumping’s top level, the horse is what makes all the difference.
“There are a lot of really good riders in our sport, so for the international competition and the really big shows, the horse is what separates,” he explains. “You can’t put a good rider on a bad horse and compete. It’s like putting Jimmy Johnson in a Volkswagen at the Daytona 500. No matter how good he drives, the Volkswagen’s not keeping up.”
Vale has had his fair share of great mounts over the years, though he admits he can’t pick a favorite. He regularly exercises eight to 10 horses a day and is currently looking for one or two “Olympic-caliber” horses.
“My goal was always to do that, but now it’s more of a focus,” Vale says of his Olympic ambitions.
One of the more recent additions to Vale’s barn came last November when 49 neglected Thoroughbreds were rescued locally by the Horse Protection Association of Florida. Vale took on three of them.
“Horses have been good to me,” he explains, looking out over the busy ring. “So when you hear about something like that, I’m willing to do what I can. I’d like to save them all.”
Just then, he gets an idea for another exercise for his students, but he needs a longe. He manages to slip away from the action long enough to head back to the barn, his three loyal canines in close pursuit.
‘Competing Is An Adrenalin Rush’
Kelly Moore, Hunter/Jumper
A self-proclaimed adrenalin junkie, Kelly Moore has kayaked the Milford Sound and hiked the Hollyford Trek in New Zealand. She’s conquered Long’s Peak in Colorado and even has aspirations to someday scale Mount Kilimanjaro.
Asked how she enjoys spending her time, Kelly is quick to say that she loves to spend it outdoors. That includes kayaking, hiking, scuba diving, and, of course, riding her horses. Originally from the rolling hills of Kansas, Kelly grew up surrounded by cattle and horses.
“My family are ranchers,” the lifelong equestrian says. “It’s always been a part of my life.”
Kelly competed on the equestrian team while studying at Midwestern State University. She jokes that back then not a lot of students had horses on campus. A Florida resident for nine years, Kelly made the move to Ocala to be a part of our area’s horse country. Her Precious Acres farm is home.
“I love the live oaks with Spanish moss,” she says with a smile. “Ocala is filled with wide open spaces and beautiful topography. I should have moved here sooner.”
Kelly also adds that the level of equestrian services Ocala has to offer is also a huge selling point, especially for someone who owns seven horses and competes on a regular basis. Her Appendix Quarter Horses mean the world to her. As a world-class hunter/jumper Kelly explains that a rider and horse have to maintain a constant vigilance with one another.
“Competing is an adrenalin rush,” she says. “You and your horse have to work together as a team and respect one another.”
Luckily for Kelly, she knows horses. As a matter of fact, Kelly raises all her show horses herself.
“I may not always ride the same horse in competition,” she says, “but my family did raise each of them, and the show lineage we have now goes back to my grandmother who had the original stallions and mares.”
Kelly has been competing at the world championship level for 16 years and even has a world championship and a reserved world championship title under her belt, not to mention many division championships and several top-10 placements.
And she comes from a long line of such women.
“My grandmother, my mom, and I were all bitten by the bug,” she says. “Horses are in our blood.”
As a matter of fact, Kelly’s 73-year-old mom still competes and will be at this year’s HITS Ocala, competing alongside her daughter.
“She lives in Kansas, but when she’s here in Ocala, we ride with the same trainer,” she says. “She really inspires me to excel.”
‘The Best Of The Best’
Sergio Campos, Grand Prix rider
The only obvious sign that Harthill Farm is home to one of show jumping’s top Grand Prix riders is a small Purina poster by the tack room door that shows Sergio Campos charging over a HITS jump with his horse, a portrait of athleticism and grace.
Aside from this, the barn’s sole focus is the horses.
“The great horses have to be gifted, like any athlete, but the training is very important,” the 34-year-old rider explains, walking down the barn’s center aisle. “You can take the horse north or south depending on how you train them.”
Campos has been around horses all of his life, beginning at his family’s ranch in Campo Grande, Brazil. Both he and his two brothers rode jumpers as youngsters.
“At one point, we all competed at the same level, and they always beat me—every time,” Campos says with a laugh.
The young rider excelled quickly and was a serious contender for Brazil’s Olympic equestrian team in 1996. He dabbled in nearly every equine discipline along the way, from exercising Thoroughbreds at the racetrack to riding Quarter Horses in roping, steer wrestling, and team penning events. In fact, when he came to the U.S. in 1999, Campos was more cowboy than equestrian.
“I did the PRCA [Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association] and PBR [Professional Bull Riders] circuit for about three years,” he says. “I qualified for the PBR finals, but I broke my jaw in the last event before the finals so I didn’t make it.”
The accident prompted Campos to return to his first love of jumping, and he began training full-time at Longwood Equestrian Center in Orlando.
“I always loved Ocala, though,” Campos adds. “Last year, I decided it was better for me to be here to focus on training horses.”
Campos rides six days a week in order to stay at the top level of competition. He’s up by 6am and on his first horse by 8am, and like his competitor and friend Aaron Vale, he is visited by numerous owners and riders throughout the week. He returns to Brazil as often as he can—one brother is now a rancher and stock contractor there, and the other runs the family’s car dealership—but he says it’s difficult to be away from his horses for long.
“If I’m not at a show, I like to be at the farm here training the young horses. You have to keep bringing the young horses along because they don’t last forever,” he says. “My ultimate goal is an Olympic medal. That’s something I’m going to pursue until it happens.”
Campos sold his great horse Shakira do Jacare, on which he won over a dozen Gran Prix competitions, to a student in 2008, but he has a promising five-year-old Oldenburg in training that he thinks could be his next top athlete. Meanwhile, Campos stays in touch with peers around the world to find new prospects. He’s particularly looking forward to this year’s HITS competition, where some of the most talented horses competing today will all be in one place.
“You’re going to have as tough of a competition as can be, right here in Ocala,” Campos says. “You’re going to see the best of the best.”
‘A Huge Impact On Our Area’
Don Stewart, Owner of Don Stewart Stables
Growing up in North Carolina, Don Stewart was in awe of horses at an early age.
“I started taking lessons and riding every day when I was in about the second grade,” he says. “There was a farm down the road from our house. For me it was like a year-round summer camp.”
With his home state lacking in much Thoroughbred activity, Don became familiar instead with hunting and jumping, which he eventually mastered. Once in college he became even more dedicated to horses and began training, teaching, and competing, and he hasn’t looked back since.
He was named the lead hunter rider at Devon and at the National Horse Show—when those were the only two competitions naming lead rider.
“Being a successful rider at the national level takes a lot of hard work and dedication,” Don says. “It’s not for the faint of heart. Like any other sport, you have to put your heart and soul into it and it can be very time-consuming.”
A strong desire to maintain a career in the horse industry led Don and his wife, Nancy, to open Don Stewart Stables, a world-class horse training facility that shows more than 60 horses at any given time.
“People come from all over the country to train here,” Don says proudly. “It’s an awesome facility, if I do say so myself.”
Situated on a sprawling 67-acre farm, Don’s training facilities house some of the best and most challenging hunter/jumper equipment.
“People ride and train throughout the day here at the farm,” Don says. “Kids show up for lessons after school. It can get pretty hectic at times, but I love it.”
Every winter that schedule becomes all the more hectic with the arrival of HITS.
“We’ve been involved with HITS since they moved to Ocala,” Don says. “We show an average of 40 to 50 horses per week at HITS. The show has a huge impact on our area financially and it’s an event we look forward to every year.”
Of course when HITS comes to a close, Don’s dizzying schedule continues. In addition to training horses and riders, buying and selling horses is big business at Don Stewart Stables. Don averages nearly 150 sales a year. And he’s had plenty of big-name horses pass through his paddocks. Without A Doubt, Heartstrings, Quality Time, Confidential, and Western Prospect are just a few of the champion horses trained at Don’s farm.
“We deal mostly in warmbloods,” Don says. “They’re a quiet, tolerant breed.”
According to Don, that’s the perfect demeanor for a successful hunter/jumper horse.
As for the caliber of his on-staff trainers, their credentials speak for themselves. Trainer Megan Edrick is a former gold medal recipient at the National Young Riders Jumper Competition.
“We excel in what we do,” Don says. “And because of that we’ve had national champions for the last 25 years.”
Headed To HITS?
Your complete schedule’s right here.
Every year the HITS Winter Circuit brings thousands of national and international equestrian competitors to Marion County. The eight-week hunter/jumper horse show circuit runs from January through March and kicks off the first qualifying grand prix events on the road to the Pfizer $1 Million Grand Prix to be held September 12 in Saugerties, New York. Below is a detailed schedule of events for the remaining HITS events! So grab the keys, get the family in the car, and don’t miss out on one of Marion County’s biggest events!
Ocala Winter Classic:
Thursday, Feb. 11 – $25,000 HITS Grand Prix
Sunday, Feb. 14 – $10,000 Devoucoux 3’3” Hunter Derby, $10,000 U-Dump Junior Jumper Classic High, $10,000 U-Dump A-O Jumper Classic High, $50,000 EMO Grand Prix, presented by Pfizer Animal Health.
Ocala Winter Festival:
Thursday, Feb. 18 – $25,000 HITS Grand Prix
Sunday, Feb. 21 – $10,000 Devoucoux 3’3” Hunter Derby, $10,000 U-Dump Junior Jumper Classic High, $10,000 U-Dump A-O Jumper Classic High, $50,000 Charles Owen Grand Prix, presented by Pfizer Animal Health.
Thursday, Feb. 25 – $25,000 HITS Grand Prix
Saturday, Feb. 27 – $15,000 M&S Children’s/Adult Jumper Classic class
Sunday, Feb. 28 – $10,000 Junior Hunter Classic, $10,000 Devoucoux 3’3” Hunter Derby, $10,000 U-Dump Junior Jumper Classic High, $10,000 U-Dump A-O Jumper Classic High, $75,000 Strongid C2 X Grand Prix, presented by Pfizer Animal Health. World of the Horse.
Thursday, March 4 – $25,000 HITS Grand Prix
Saturday, March 6 – $5,000 Children’s Hunter Classic class
Sunday, March 7 – $10,000 Devoucoux Hunter Derby, $10,000 U-Dump Junior Jumper Classic High, $10,000 U-Dump A-O Jumper Classic High, $50,000 Ring Power Grand Prix, presented by Pfizer Animal Health.
Ocala Winter Finals:
Thursday, March 11 – $25,000 HITS Grand Prix
Saturday, March 13 – $10,000 Chronicle of the Horse/ USHJA International Hunter Derby, $5,000 Pony Commotion
Sunday, March 14 – $10,000 U-Dump Junior Jumper Classic High, $10,000 U-Dump JR/ A-O Jumper Classic High, $50,000 Purina Mills Grand Prix, presented by Pfizer Animal Health. Purina Mills Kids Day.
Ocala Winter Celebration:
Thursday, March 18 – $25,000 HITS Grand Prix
Saturday, March 20 – $5,000 Adult Hunter Classic, $25,000 U-Dump JR/A-O Jumper Classic High
Sunday, March 21 – $100,000 Deluca Toyota Tundra Grand Prix, presented by Great American, $25,000 Team Barber Child/Adult Jumper Classic
Cost: No admission charge Wednesday through Saturday. Sunday admission is $5 per person, children under 12 are free.
Directions: I-75 to exit 354 for Hwy. 27 North. Travel 12 miles. Post Time Farm show grounds on the left.