Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Clay Gets a Perfect Ride out of Annual Horse Show

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Clay Gets a Perfect Ride out of Annual Horse Show

Article excerpt

They weigh as much as 1,600 pounds, not including the additional weight of a partner on their back, yet leap gracefully over obstacles 5 feet high and 6 feet wide.

Obese tandem ballet dancers? A traveling circus featuring riders on trained hippopotami?

No. It's the North Florida Hunter-Jumper Association's annual horse show at the Clay County Fairgrounds. The event, which is free except for a $5 parking fee, began Jan. 13 and will conclude with a $30,000 Grand Prix on Feb. 6.

Organizers have assembled the largest group of equestrians in the event's seven-year history, featuring expert jumpers from throughout North America, said Tony Weight, president of the Jacksonville-based organization.

"We have riders from 20 different states and Canada this year," Weight said. "We have people from as far west as Ohio and Michigan and all up and down the Eastern Seaboard."

Huge tents have been set up at the fairgrounds just west of Green Cove Springs, where hundreds of participants and some 500 horses are competing this month, Weight said.

"We estimate that there's 1,500 people in the county every day associated with the horse shows," he said. "For every horse, there's an average of three people, including groomers and others who work for the stables."

With that many show people and animals involved, there is practically non-stop activity going on under the big tents.

"We have four rings going at full speed all the time with riders and their horses jumping fences," said Weight, adding that the Olympic sport has great spectator appeal and draws world-class competitors.

The North Florida Hunter-Jumper Association's annual winter series has become so popular that organizers had to turn applicants away this year.

"We are completely sold out," said Mary Williams, the association's marketing director. "This is our biggest attendance ever."

Olympic and world-class-level competitors and their crews, she said, are coming from the cold climes of places like Canada, Connecticut and Michigan, and from warmer regions in the South, such as Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

And some of them have competed in previous North Florida Hunter-Jumper Association events at the county fairgrounds.

"People are coming back here," Williams said.

Next year, the association will be better prepared to handle even more participants, Weight said.

"We only had enough stalls for 500-odd horses this year," he said. "We have to reorganize the show and add a fifth ring next year. We didn't anticipate the demand this year."

In addition to the riders and their assistants, most of whom stay at the Holiday Inn, Best Western, Comfort Inn and other motels in Orange Park, the show attracts hundreds of spectators from throughout North Florida. …

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