High-Level Dressage Arrives In South Florida

High-Level Dressage Arrives In South Florida

The Founding Of The Palm Beach Dressage Derby Led To Today’s Adequan Global Dressage Festival

By Joshua Manning

Wellington The Magazine’s year-long Wellington History feature series includes the recollections of early pioneers who built the community we enjoy today. This month, we speak with Gisela Pferdekamper and Evelyn O’Sullivan on the start of the esteemed Palm Beach Dressage Derby, which put dressage on the map in South Florida and fueled the growth that eventually became today’s Adequan Global Dressage Festival.

Today, Wellington is known as the “equestrian capital of the world,” hosting the premier U.S. shows in the sports of polo, show jumping and dressage. However, back in the 1980s, while top polo and show jumping action had already gotten their start, high-level dressage did not yet have a home in the western communities.

That is, until the birth of the Palm Beach Dressage Derby in 1983 — an international-level dressage competition that drew dressage riders and trainers to the Wellington area and led to what has grown into the Adequan Global Dressage Festival.

A high-level, international-style dressage show in South Florida was the dream of Palm Beach Dressage Derby founders Gisela and Howald Pferdekamper, who moved to the area in the 1970s from Germany. They brought with them their Hanoverian horses and a love of the unique equestrian sport of dressage.

While high-level dressage shows were common in Europe, the same could not be said of their new home in the United States.

“When we arrived here, we went to a dressage show in Melbourne, but it was not so good,” Gisela Pferdekamper recalled. “We decided we wanted to make a show as good as it was when we went to the shows in Germany. Dressage is an equestrian sport that belonged among all the others.”

So, Pferdekamper, along with her late husband, went about staging the first event, offering generous prize money, flying in professional international dressage judges from Germany and recruiting top dressage talent to ride in the inaugural show. These included well-known riders Robert Dover and Gunnar Ostergaard. “They were the first ones to come, and it was a success from the very beginning,” she said.

However, Pferdekamper did not know that it would continue to grow and still be thriving some 40 years later. “People had no idea what dressage was. We wanted to show what the sport was all about,” she said. “We also had prize money to attract good riders to come down to Florida.”

Through the years, the Pferdekampers had many people support them in organizing the derby. Among them is Janne Rumbough. Her passion for dressage drove Rumbough to find sponsors for the first show, including Hermés, which donated the trophies, ribbons and the $5,000 prize for the Grand Prix winner.

“We were one of the first dressage shows to offer money prizes,” said Rumbough when she was interviewed for a feature story on the derby’s 25th anniversary.

The derby was originally held at the Pferdekampers’ estate in Loxahatchee’s White Fences. Eventually, it moved to a larger dressage showgrounds created by Walter and Mary Anne McPhail, owners of White Fences Equestrian Estates. There it stayed until becoming part of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington in 2013.

“At the time the derby was created, there was basically no dressage in South Florida,” Evelyn O’Sullivan recalled. “There were just a few riders, but it was basically an unknown entity except for those few. Gisela was the first one to organize an international show in Florida. She imported judges from Europe, and Klaus Fraessdorf managed the shows for her until we took it over. Many of the older riders today had their start at the derby.”

Involved since the early years, O’Sullivan took over as show manager when the McPhails purchased the Palm Beach Dressage Derby from the Pferdekampers in the late 1990s.

“The next year, Walter McPhail established White Fences Equestrian Estates, and built a showgrounds just for the derby,” O’Sullivan said. “We held the shows there until Mary Anne and I decided to retire from actively running the shows and leased the derby license to Global.”

O’Sullivan stressed the importance of the derby to the growth of the sport.

“It single handedly put dressage in Florida on the map, and it ultimately became the one international show that all the judges wanted to be invited to,” she said. “It became the talk in Europe, as I had been told by one of our European judges. It became so popular with judges that we never had a problem filling the judging panels with the cream of the crop, and we became known for having the top judges at the time.”

The arrival of the derby was the start of the local dressage journey. “It was the pioneer that paved the way for what we have in Florida today,” O’Sullivan said.

Both Pferdekamper and O’Sullivan fondly remember the fun times and camaraderie of the derby’s early years.

“What I really liked most was the rider’s barn,” Pferdekamper said. “We had a tent and dinner with the riders and judges together. That is not done anymore, and I think that was a loss. That’s what they do in Germany, but it is not done here.”

She feels that allowed the riders a unique opportunity to learn more directly from the judges, stressing that the judges were always ready to impartially judge the ride, not the rider.

“Mostly I remember the fun we had in the early years,” O’Sullivan said. “And the growing pains of starting up a whole new showgrounds. It was all worth it though, as the derby thrived, and is still an important competition today. That’s staying power, and I am grateful to have had some part in that growth.”

While O’Sullivan has moved away from the Wellington area, Pferdekamper is still deeply involved with the local equestrian scene. Nowadays it’s not for the derby or the Hanoverian horses, but rather her unique horse-themed artwork. She will be presenting her annual show featuring her own work and that of Lisa Marie Bishop on Sunday, March 3 at her home studio in Loxahatchee Groves.

The Palm Beach Dressage Derby, meanwhile, will be held as part of this year’s AGDF at Equestrian Village from Feb. 28 through March 3. Now, as back in 1983, it continues to attract the top dressage talent from across the United States and around the world.