Wellington’s equestrian community has become a powerful economic engine for Palm Beach County.
Wellington was once renowned for having the world’s largest strawberry patch. Now it is home to a thriving equestrian community with a $280 million economic impact on Palm Beach County. With 57 miles of trails and two sporting venues, the upscale village of 66,000 averages one horse for every three residents. No other place on Earth can claim such a high concentration of sport horses, which is why it has become rightly known as the “Equestrian Capital of the World.”
The town’s status as an equestrian mecca developed organically as equestrian show venues in places such as Fort Lauderdale closed and investors focused on Wellington instead. According to the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, Bill Ylvisaker brought polo to Wellington and the first equestrian festival was born in 1979. As a result, this agricultural town has had to grow to accommodate the needs and the growth of all equestrian sports. Enter the infrastructure of stables, competitive venues, schools, and communities to support the horsemen and women.
“The marketplace drove this,” says former polo player and equestrian activist Victor Connor. “It was never a case of the village council saying, ‘We should do this.’ The village made the south end of town the equestrian preserve and zoned it for that. Then competitors, veterinarians, grooms, blacksmiths, and trainers came next, finding perfect weather, easy international access, and entertainment there too.”
Among those who have galloped to town are big-name polo players like Adolfo Cambiaso, Facundo Pieres, and Hilario Ulloa. Each year, world-renowned athletes vie for prize money and pride in events like the Global Dressage Festival and the Gauntlet of Polo. And for the first time, athletes from eight countries came to Wellington to play in the largest international polo event, the XII FIP World Polo Championship.
Beyond the potential purses and associated accolades, competitors come to Wellington for the attractive lifestyle. Wellington is 15 miles from the beach, surrounded by good restaurants and shopping, and an hour away from the vibrant city life of Miami. The weather is excellent, and the vibe is laid-back. It’s easy to see why celebrities and politicians have decamped to Wellington too. Among the luminaries are Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, BET cofounder Sheila Johnson, and former polo player and actor Sylvester Stallone.
“Because Wellington equestrian culture has attracted families not only seasonally but year-round, there’s a local business benefit to this,” says Michela Green, executive director of the Wellington Chamber of Commerce.
“All of us understand the important role each of us plays [in] making Wellington the Winter Equestrian Capital of the World. This didn’t happen without a lot of hard work.”
Part of that work began when the Village of Wellington set aside 9,000 acres specifically for an equestrian preserve. It has been part of the village’s comprehensive plan since 2000, and a source of occasional frustration for residents who remember the days of smaller horse shows that were in town for shorter periods of time.
“The perception of this preserve area for many people is that it is supposed to be about the preservation of land, when in reality it is really about creating the environment that has made Wellington a place where the best athletes from all over the world want to come and compete,” says Michael O’Dell, a member of the Village of Wellington’s equestrian preserve committee. “These equestrians are at the showgrounds eight to 10 hours a day for seven days a week. This isn’t recreation for them—it’s their job. But sometimes you get tension when changes like this occur.”
If nothing else, O’Dell says, the village does what it can to balance the needs and wants of the equestrian venues and the wider community. For some of the town’s visionaries, that has meant demonstrating that equestrian sports and a wonderful lifestyle can go hand in hand.
The once-sleepy town of Wellington seemed to change overnight into a world-renowned equestrian lifestyle center. In 2006, an investment team bought the 200-acre Palm Beach International Equestrian Center (PBIEC) and lured the community in with incentives like free admission and family-friendly entertainment. Ten years later, the same investment group added the International Polo Club to their portfolio to continue the equestrian industry’s growth.
Now called Wellington International, the former PBIEC facility is undergoing a large-scale upgrade, to include enhanced shopping, dining, and special events. Meanwhile, the International Polo Club, now owned by the United States Polo Association (USPA), will become the USPA National Polo Center – Wellington (NPC).
In Spring 2023, NPC will host the epic three month Gauntlet of Polo, which brings over 20 polo teams to the area to compete.
Given the impact of equestrian sports on the town, venues like these will no doubt augment the sport’s appeal and the county’s bottom line, especially with sponsorships from brands like U.S. Polo Assn., The Palm Beaches, Cessna, and more in the mix. According to a study commissioned by the Palm Beach County Sports Commission, the 2022 equestrian season was responsible for over 200,000 overnight stays in hotels or rental properties and 30,000 more stays with friends or relatives who reside in the area.
The report found that the average group coming to WEF and properties like NPC spends just over $40,000 in horse-related expenses, as well. These events occur over several months of the year and generate big revenue for the county annually.
“As the largest equestrian sports competition in the world, this event is special,” says George Linley, executive director of the Palm Beach County Sports Commission.
“There is no other [annual] sporting event that generates more economic and tourism benefits in Palm Beach County.”
When Michela Green first started working with the Wellington Chamber of Commerce 18 years ago, she says the town was full of empty storefronts. That’s no longer the case, she notes, and it’s a testament to the equestrian community. Yet, Wellington hasn’t been the only beneficiary; the global equestrian community as a whole has gained from the town’s growth and change too.
“We get the very best athletes and horses in the world competing here in Wellington,” Connor says. “Depending on where you live, you can be on a plane at 7 a.m. and then on your horse down here by 10 or 11 a.m. You can stay here and do equestrian all weekend, leave on a Sunday night, and then be back to doing whatever you normally do during the week.”
Thanks to the tireless work of Wellington’s visionaries, the village is just as vibrant— and accessible—as ever.