L to R: Bibby Farmer-Hill, Betty Oare, Dana Waters and Jennifer Alfano. Not pictured: Robin Swinderman
There’s a reason why the HITS Ocala Winter Circuit draws exhibitors from all across the country and Canada. No other hunter/jumper circuit on the East Coast offers riders as much opportunity as HITS—from the young “short stirrup” riders on up to the sport’s most elite competitors. Not to mention the quality of both riders and horses is second to none, and the prize money has grown dramatically over the years.
When the event began last month, it marked the 30th anniversary of the popular show series. The 2011 HITS Ocala Winter Circuit has an estimated $50 million economic impact on Ocala and the surrounding area, but that figure may rise as the circuit has seen a 10-percent increase in entries this year.
Approximately 5,400 individuals (including exhibitors, trainers, grooms and support staff), and 1,800 to 2,400 horses will participate in the event every week. Behind these impressive numbers are real people and real horses, some of whom have been competing here for years.
Ocala Style met up with five remarkable HITS women to learn their personal stories and discover why this competition is one of their favorite stops on the circuit. Their dedication proved both amazing and inspiring.
Top of the Class
When Jennifer Alfano competes in the hunter divisions at HITS this year, she will do so as the highest money-earning hunter rider of 2010.
Recent winner of the President’s Distinguished Service Award from the United States Hunter Jumper Association (USHJA) for the second year in a row, Jennifer also earned the 2010 Rider Recognition Award, which is presented to the individual who has won the most money as a hunter rider. With numerous victories in top level Hunter Derbies across the country, Jennifer has earned $401,124 since 2006.
A champion at every prominent horse show in the U.S., she is recognized as the only hunter rider to have three First Year Green United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Horse of the Year awards (1996, 1997 and 2001), riding her horses Kansas, Big Bad Wolf and G.G. Valentine to those honors.
Raised in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Jennifer has been riding since the age of two and was a top junior rider, qualifying for the prestigious Maclay Finals and placing well at the USET Finals. In 1991, she began working for SBS Farms, one of the country’s top show barns, which operates out of The Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center in Buffalo, New York. Today, as head trainer and rider for SBS Farms, Jennifer, 42, competes as a professional, and at HITS, she’ll be riding primarily for that farm. She also has a few outside horses to show.
For a horse-crazy kid who always hoped to make a career with horses, Jennifer is living her dream, but she admits it’s taken more time and effort than most people realize. Still, she feels “incredibly lucky.”
Currently at the top of her string is “Jersey Boy,” a nine-year-old Warmbloodowned by SBS Farms that Jennifer has been riding for four years.
“Jersey Boy was extremely green when I started riding him, and now he’s one of the country’s top hunters,” she remarks. “What’s special is being able to win on a horse I’ve brought along. I’m lucky in that I’ve had the opportunity to have horses like that.”
As a professional, Jennifer trains both horses and riders. On a typical day, she’ll ride up to 10 horses. One might think that’s exercise enough, but during weeks she’s not showing, Jennifer also works out five or six days a week. She’s found that staying as physically strong as possible helps her body handle the inevitable wear-and-tear that comes from constant riding.
On an average day at HITS, where she’s been showing for nearly 20 years, she will be coaching riders in addition to competing on a number of horses herself. She’s in the saddle before dawn and showing all day.
“We pretty much see the sun rise and set while we’re working,” she adds. “I’ve always loved the area. It’s really horse country. Some of the country’s top hunters come out of Ocala. HITS has grown immensely since it outgrew the old show grounds and it gets better each year.”
As competitive as she is, there’s really no time in Jennifer Alfano’s life for any other interest or hobby.
“It’s pretty much all horses,” she says with a smile. “This job is all-consuming.”
An Eye For Talent
Showing is not just about winning. Just ask local trainer Bibby Farmer-Hill, whose greatest satisfaction comes from watching one of her students—human or equine—fully grasp a concept.
“I adore teaching. For me, the satisfaction of training is greater than riding,” says Bibby, who has been involved with horses for five decades. “Having a student fully understand an idea and learn is exciting for me.”
Although she didn’t grow up in a “horsey” family, Bibby has been obsessed with the four-legged animals for as long as she can remember. She began riding at age six and did some showing, but found her niche once she started training in her late teens.
Not surprisingly, horses brought Bibby to Ocala. Her daughter, Kelley, was a successful junior rider with prominent area trainer Don Stewart. At that time, Bibby was training in West Palm Beach, but she heeded Kelley’s urging and in 1991 moved to Marion County, where she began working for Stewart. She’s been one of the trainers at Don Stewart Stables ever since.
She specializes in junior riders (age 17 and under) and ponies, but her expertise is about far more than teaching someone to become a better rider.
“Our students rely on us to help put them in the right classes and divisions so they can be successful. It’s not just about winning, but about enjoying what they’re doing,” explains Bibby, adding that this is one of the best aspects of HITS. “I can always find a place for every student to participate and that’s really important. You want everyone to have a good time, so you need lots of classes on the venue. HITS definitely offers this.”
Not every student has his/her own horse. Some will lease a horse or pony to ride while competing at HITS. Don Stewart Stables will take an average of 50 mounts to the show. Farmer has a hand in selecting and buying horses and ponies, and relishes that aspect of her job.
“A large and very satisfying part of our business is finding horses or ponies for riders, and not just our students,” she notes. “You want to have a good match so the rider can be successful. Don and I work well together at finding horses. We have riders from all over the country come to try horses.”
HITS brings a flurry of activity to Don Stewart Stables, and Bibby especially appreciates the opportunity to see many out-of-state friends who come to Ocala for the competition.
Show days are long, starting before dawn when Bibby and Don meet with their first students for pre-show lessons. Since the stable has riders at many different levels, there are students competing throughout the day, so Bibby’s work extends until well after dark. What with her continuing duties at the farm, she doesn’t have a day off during HITS, but you won’t hear her complain.
“I just love it when HITS comes to town. There’s more excitement in the air here at the farm,” Bibby says with heartfelt enthusiasm. “I am so fortunate to have a job I enjoy so much.”
A Balancing Act
Horses dominate virtually every waking moment of Robin Swinderman’s day. From her full-time job as office manager for official HITS show veterinarian Dr. Robert Barber, DVM, to training her own horses and competing in hunter classes at national shows, Robin’s life is filled with horses and that’s just how she likes it.
Born in Miami, Robin had already been riding for years when her family moved to Ocala when she was 10.
“My parents took me to a pony ride at the mall in Miami when I was about four,” Robin recalls. “After that I was pretty much hooked. I got my first pony when I was five, a white pony named ‘Misty’ they bought out of the local paper for $300. I rode her for about five years and she taught me a lot.”
Robin has been showing at HITS since she was 13, starting out in pony hunter classes. After graduating from Vanguard High School in 1987, Robin attended Stetson University, where she majored in accounting.
“I worked in a CPA office for three months after graduating, but I couldn’t stand being in an office without windows and not seeing my horses,” she admits.
She found the perfect mix of horses and numbers working at Christina Schlusemeyer’s Quiet Hill Farm in Ocala for 10 years—“I still do her books,” Robin adds—and in her current position with Dr. Barber.
Robin owns a 36-acre farm in Morriston, but her work with Dr. Barber takes her on the road for much of the spring, summer and fall, traveling to shows in Virginia, Vermont, Maryland and Pennsylvania before returning to Ocala for the winter. When traveling, she takes one horse with her to show, and while her job usually allows her to ride most mornings before work, her schedule at HITS often makes that very difficult.
Balancing work, riding and showing is a challenge, but Robin makes it all come together with dedication and careful scheduling. That devotion has lead to plenty of success showing as an amateur owner in the hunter divisions.
At last year’s HITS Ocala, she and “INXS,” her seven-year-old Trakehner gelding, were circuit champions in the Amateur Owner Hunter 36+ division. INXS was also circuit champion of the 2010 Vermont Summer Festival in the Amateur Owner Hunters 35 & Over, and won The Adirondack Green Mountain Challenge trophy. The latter was for having the most points of any horse in any division from the two weeks of the Skidmore Saratoga Classic Horse Show and the first two weeks of the Vermont Summer Festival, the largest “AA” show in New England.
Robin and INXS are teaming up again at HITS this year and she’s proud of how far the horse has come.
“When I bought INXS he was five and had never shown over fences,” says Robin, who rides with local trainers Bob Braswell, Christina Schlusemeyer and Shachine Belle. “I love training. My favorite thing is bringing along young horses and training them, then selling them and seeing someone else have success with them.”
To date, her most successful horse is Storyteller, a Trakehner stallion she trained that earned multiple championships at numerous major national shows. Robin has high hopes INXS will be equally successful.
Show ring accolades are always exciting, but developing a horse’s raw talent is Robin Swinderman’s greatest joy.
“I ride because I enjoy it,” she says simply, “not because it’s my job, and I wouldn’t be anything without my team and the support of my parents.”
A Family Affair
Horses are more than a hobby. They’re a lifestyle, especially for Dana Waters.
“I’m so blessed that horses are my life,” she says. “They’re beautiful animals and I’m with my husband and daughter. It’s an amazing life!”
Dana was introduced to horses in elementary school by her mother, Gaenor (“GiGi”) Chapman, also an avid horsewoman.
“My first pony was an unbroken Shetland. I fell off that pony more than I fell off of all the horses put together in my life so far,” laughs Dana. “Thank goodness he was close to the ground!”
Dana, 50, who rides jumpers and shows as an amateur, has come a long way since that first challenging mount. She regularly competes at the national level and in 1991 was National Champion Amateur Owner Jumper, riding a Thoroughbred gelding named No Sweat.
While hunter classes are much more subjective, jumping classes are judged strictly on faults and time.
As Dana puts it, “Hunters are judged on style and beauty similar to figure skating, while jumpers are judged on speed and the least number of faults, similar to ice hockey. If you jump clean and fast, you can win.”
Husband Chuck Waters of Waterworks Farm is a prominent local trainer who runs a successful selling operation, which means the Waters family always has a variety of horses at hand. This has definitely been a boon for daughter Hayley, 14, now a freshman at Trinity Catholic High School, who rode in her first lead line class at one year of age.
“She’s had lots of horses, which has made her a good rider at a young age. Her father has kept horses for her each step along the way and it’s been great for her,” says Dana. “Local trainers Don Stewart and Christina Schlusemeyer have also helped her.”
In 2008, Hayley was National Champion Green Large Pony Hunter and is now riding jumpers, competing in the same division as her mother. Just because mother and daughter have a great relationship outside the ring doesn’t mean Hayley is about to cut her mom any slack.
“I really didn’t want to show against her. She’s very competitive. In a recent show, she beat me by 10 seconds,” says Dana. “The truth is, it’s just you and your horse against the jumps, but it’s pretty exciting riding against each other.”
Dana has been showing at HITS for more than 20 years, but in 1997 she and Chuck decided to move to Marion County. Now the Waters family lives at their farm in Sparr from October through June, and spends July through September at their original Waterworks Farm in their home state of Pennsylvania.
“The best thing HITS ever did was make us want to live in Ocala. We came here because of HITS,” she notes. “We used to rent stalls. One year when we were coming back, I told my husband, ‘If you can see yourself living here later in life, we should buy a place.’ There’s so much to do here if you’re into horses.”
Becoming a “local” has only increased Dana’s appreciation for HITS.
“HITS has always tried to cater to all the exhibitors, not just the most elite. The amateurs and juniors all have good money classes to ride in and that makes a big difference when you’re trying to pay the bills for the horse show,” she says. “The competition here has grown and the level is so much higher in the last 20 years. If you do well at HITS, you can show anywhere in the country and be competitive. If you win here, you can win anywhere.”
Riding fashions and equipment preferences have changed over the years, but for Virginia-based horsewoman Betty Oare, the passion for competition has never faded.
Now 69, Betty remains highly active in the hunter world. In 2010, she competed in at least 24 shows and also judged several competitions. She serves on the board of several horse shows, something she feels allows her to give back to the industry. This year she plans to compete a little less to allow more time for judging, which she truly enjoys.
“I probably got my passion for horses from my dad,” Betty muses. “He was in the horse business and back then you did everything: hunters, jump horses, racehorses, fox hunters, steeplechasers, whatever. My love has always been hunters, although I rode a few jumpers way back.”
Growing up in Tryon, North Carolina, Betty honed her riding skills on the farm, exploring trails and galloping over the fox hunting fields. She didn’t compete in her first “A” show until her early teens, although she rode in her first lead line class at age five.
“I rode bareback because we only had one saddle,” Betty recalls. “My brother Bucky rode in the saddle and won the class. I was second.”
Betty and her husband, Ernie, a racehorse trainer and former show and steeplechase rider, have lived in Warrenton, Virginia, for 40 years. Betty competed on the hunter circuit as a professional for her father for many years and also earned her judging license, but went back to riding as an amateur to have more time to raise her family.
“To be as successful as possible as a pro, it really has to be 24/7,” she notes. “I had two sons and was also active in my church and other community things.”
Inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame in 2008 and into the Virginia Horse Shows Association Hall of Fame in 2009, Betty has certainly made an impact on the sport she loves. She’s ridden multiple horses to Horse of the Year awards and received lifetime achievement and sportsmanship awards as a hunter rider from the World Hunter Rider Association. She also received the USEF Pegasus Medal of Honor.
Looking back, Betty reflects on how much has changed in the sport, down to the style of clothing.
“We have comfortable stretch riding breeches now, instead of the wool flared breeches. Today, you see a lot of boots with zippers, but I still like the old traditional type without zippers,” she says. “We all grew up wearing hunting caps and my mother was well before her time because she sewed a tight elastic strap to my cap and made me wear it. Now you hardly ever see anyone in the hunting field without a safety helmet. Our silk top hats are sitting on the shelf because they don’t offer any protection.”
“Tack and equipment have evolved as well,” she continues. “For example, in the past some appointment classes didn’t allow saddle pads, but now they do. Saddles themselves tend to be flatter with less knee roll, and running martingales are no longer seen in the hunter show ring.”
Although Betty still frequently rides in a Pelham bridle with double reins while hunting, many hunt riders prefer snaffles with a single rein.
Betty has been showing at HITS in Ocala for at least a dozen years and will be showing three or four horses this year, mostly competing in the amateur owner hunter division over 3’3” or 3’6” fences. She and her husband own a small house near the show grounds, and live in Ocala from mid-January through mid-March.
“I still get excited to see a horse jump a fancy jump, and I still enjoy competing as much as ever,” Betty says. “I always try to do the best job I can. If I get beat, that’s part of the game. I mostly ride against myself, but it’s still fun to have a nice round on a good horse that gives you a great effort. After all, that’s what makes us all keep doing this.”
Save The Dates
HITS, which stands for “Horse Shows in the Sun,” puts on some of the richest horse shows in America. Check out the HITS Ocala Winter Circuit in person. Competition began January 19 and will end March 20. Classes start at 8am and run until 4pm or later.
Remaining competition dates:
Sundays feature the always-exciting Grand Prix classes with some of the sport’s best jumpers. HITS Ocala is offering 14 qualifying Grand Prix classes for the Pfizer $1 Million Grand Prix to be held the weekend of September 10–11 at HITS-on-the-Hudson in Saugerties, New York. HITS is also offering the first-ever $500,000 Diamond Mills 3’ 3” Hunter Prix Final at HITS on the Hudson. The Devoucoux Qualifiers in Ocala are qualifying events for this historic hunter class.
Other events include the World of the Horse on February 27 and the Purina Mills Kids Day on March 13.
Admission is free every show day except Sundays when admission is $5 per person. Children under 12 admitted free.
HITS Post Time Farm
13710 US Highway 27 / (12 miles from 1-75) / (352) 620-2275
For more event information, visit hitsshows.com and click on “Ocala.”