Photography by Vanessa Rogers
The Naples area has its share of equestrian enthusiasts, which may surprise some. It’s not the first sport that comes to mind for Southwest Florida, after all. But given the heritage of cowboys and cattle ranchers, the state’s inhabitants have a long history of riding on horseback. And competitive riding is a sport that appeals as much to women as men. Meet four local women equestrians who not only love their horses—describing them in glowing, affectionate terms—but also love engaging them in equestrian competitions. We asked these ladies about their equine fascination and what it takes to ride, show, jump and train with a four-legged partner.
Tori Polonitza: Dressage
Tori Polonitza trains horses and horse riders for a living in Bonita Springs. She grew up riding horses with her six siblings in La Jolla, California, and she knew early on the intuitive creatures would play a major role in her life. At age 14, she informed her father that she wanted to move to England once she turned 18, so she could study and work toward earning the British Horse Society Instructor Certificate. When she moved back to the States five years later with her coveted certificate, she worked at a horse farm in San Diego owned by the parents of her future husband, Barry. In 1995 they moved to Florida with their two young kids, now 25 and 26, to run a boarding and training facility. Jasmine Springs Farm specializes in dressage—Polonitza’s preferred discipline after an earlier interest in show jumping. The family worked together to develop themselves and the horses for maximum athletic performance. In 2014, Polonitza and her American-bred Hanoverian mare Seraphina ranked third in the nation with third-level freestyle dressage at the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Championships—an invitational in Lexington, Kentucky. They will continue in coming years to compete their way up the scale to the highest (ninth) level—the prestigious Grand Prix, an annual event held in different cities all over the world.
Why dressage? Dressage is all about the harmonious development of the horse as a gymnastic athlete. The feeling of the horse as it becomes more balanced, powerful and supple is amazing.
Challenges and rewards: Each horse is a puzzle. It’s such a joy to start each day trying to figure out what’s the most effective way to interact with each horse to produce the best result.
Horse-rider bonding: We are constantly having a conversation. It’s like spending time with a good friend. I had two kids and she [Jasmine, a horse in San Diego] had five foals. When I got pregnant, she got pregnant! We had a good system together.
Advice for aspiring equestrians: The best horse for an amateur is the horse that knows more than the rider. Never pair a green horse with a green rider; it’s not good for either of them.
Kim Minarich: Endurance and Competitive Trail Riding
Owning a horse was a lifelong dream for Kim Minarich, who joined her high school equestrian club to be able to take English riding lessons and participate in entry-level equitation show competition. In 1988, once her two children were away at college, she says she filled her empty nest with horses. First came Maggie Mae, a mixed breed mare whom Minarich rescued 19 years ago from an Immokalee farmer’s paddock—emaciated, starved, covered with ulcerated sores from fly bites and frightened of people. Minarich trained her as a competitive trail riding (CTR) and endurance competitor and later acquired Zahra (“white blossom, graceful mover” in Arabic, for the white “blossom” on her forehead), a registered black bay Anglo-Arab bred for endurance. Although she has been trail riding for nearly 15 years, Minarich began competing in CTR (typically 25 to 30 miles in length) and endurance races (50, 75 and 100 miles) only four years ago. She competes on average twice monthly in endurance races and CTR throughout Florida’s October through April season. She has also competed in North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee. Minarich’s love for all things equine led to her appointment as executive director of Naples Equestrian Challenge, a nonprofit that provides equine-assisted activities and therapies to children and adults with special needs.
Why CRT and endurance? I’ve never liked arena work. I’d much rather be out on a trail in the woods.
Biggest misconception about competitive riding is … that it’s not athletic and the rider just sits on the horse. Competitive riding—whether it’s dressage, jumping, barrel racing or endurance—demands good core muscles, balance, coordination and cardio fitness, all with finesse and subtlety.
Memorable moment: Maggie and I were galloping along a trail through the grasses [in Central Florida] when a buck joined us. He ran alongside us for about two miles or so, just running and leaping, having a wonderful time, and Maggie enjoyed the race.
Favorite part of competing: The partnership with my horse and camaraderie with the other competitors. I have never been involved in a sport where the competitors help each other.
Kathryn Tout: Dressage
When Kathryn Tout was just three years old and growing up in Wales in a horse-loving family, she would beg her brother to put her on her pony so she could ride around the village on her own. Her mother grew accustomed to villagers calling to let her know that her wee daughter was out riding alone. She later competed as a teenager in “eventing” in the disciplines of dressage, cross country and show jumping throughout England and Wales before moving to Naples in 1990. Over the past 15 years, though, Tout has concentrated squarely on dressage, defined by the International Equestrian Federation as “the highest expression of horse training,” and also often referred to as “horse ballet.” The Naples real estate saleswoman and Naples Equestrian Challenge Community Council member averages six competitions each year with her 16-year-old Hanoverian grey gelding Da Capo, which she imported from Germany. Her four-year-old black Oldenburg mare, Lara Croft, was also bred in Germany. Tout looks forward to competing with her this winter for Lara’s first time in Wellington, Florida. She has also set a goal to compete with the award-winning Da Capo at the highest equestrian competitive level—Grand Prix—in Kentucky in 2015.
Why dressage? I really enjoy the harmony created between horse and rider.
Favorite place to ride: The mountains in Wales.
Horse sense: Horses have a way of keeping most of us humble. It is a never-ending learning curve. Especially in dressage, we are constantly seeking perfection.
Equal-opportunity sport: Equestrian competition is one of the few competitions where men and women compete against each other.
Advice for aspiring equestrians: Set your goals and appreciate the small strides of improvement. Enjoy the journey and always put the horse’s well-being first.
Tania Di Carlo: Jumper
Tania Di Carlo got to know her future husband, Steve, a fellow competitor, at horse shows. She began riding as a child in Orange County, California, and later competing in the top-level hunter/jumper circuit. Di Carlo moved to Naples and started her own riding program in 2004. When they married in 2011, the couple joined forces under the name Benchmark Equestrian. They both competed as jumpers and hunters; the latter is less about speed and more about pace and grace. Tania now concentrates on jumping with her seven-year-old Westphalian mare, Cristella, whom she hopes will jump all the way to her first Grand Prix. A saleswoman of horse-riding equipment and apparel for four years, Di Carlo quit her travel-intensive job following the birth of her first child, son Alex, last year. She now expects to be able to show on a monthly basis, rather than every six weeks as she was doing previously. Steve typically competes a couple of times each month while also training hunting and jumping horses at Benchmark.
Favorite place to ride: Wellington, Florida. There are so many high-end horses and professional riders, you can’t help but rise to the occasion and ride your best. Plus, the footing is so great there for the horses; my horse ends up jumping fantastic in her rounds.
Women equestrians: Some women riders may have to perfect their craft even more to get along with the same horse that a man may be more apt to physically handle. A woman in this case must get the horse to be more sensitive to her [cues,] for the pure fact that there is no way she can get it done with sheer strength alone.
Advice for aspiring jumpers: Know your horse and spend the time on the flatwork. It will make your job in the show ring 10 times better.
Biggest challenge: Keeping mentally strong. Good riding comes from how well you react to what you and your horse encounter on a course; you have to consider not only the physical act of riding and timing and balance, but also the horse’s mental state and concentration.
This story first appeared in the February 2015 issue of Naples Illustrated. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.