After eight or nine times of rescheduling our interview appointment, I finally jumped in the truck with Marianne Pack for the two hours it would take for her to drive up and back to Wellington, Florida. She was going to pick up a horse that had shown that day at the Winter Equestrian Festival. Keep in mind, that in order to start the trip, I met her at a local schooling show grounds where she had just schooled eight kids until her daughter and business partner, Erica Garcia returned from Wellington and took over those duties. It is this tireless pace that has resulted in the massive success that is Competition Farm in Southwest Ranches, Florida.
These days the Competition Farm home base is an immaculate new twenty stall barn surrounded by strategically laid out paddocks and a jump arena built around a gorgeous shade tree. In the sunny South Florida, leaving that tree in the middle of an arena is a genius move made by a woman who has decades of experience in creating a happy, loving, and comfortable atmosphere for young horse lovers. No less important is Marianne and Erica’s combined knowledge and capability to produce winners at local and national levels.
I have been lucky enough to know Marianne and her family for thirty years and I have proudly watched the steady climb to where they are now. Don’t be fooled by the shiny monogrammed tack boxes and clean polo wraps that protectively adorn the legs of each pampered beast in residence. Marianne is and always will be a cowgirl in her heart.
“When I started in this business and especially with my initial summer camps, I wanted kids to have the same kind of experience and fun I had with horses as a kid…which was mostly riding barefoot and bareback.” She laughs as she acknowledges the horror THAT would elicit in some of this newer generation of protective parents and less daring children. Wistfully, she remembers that first generation of camp kids as a bunch that would argue over who would win the right to school the orneriest or flightiest of the school ponies.
Marianne started working in and around barns very early in her life. It was a realized dream when she and her husband purchased and opened the original Competition Farm. They had boarders, show horses, and a resident trainer under whom Marianne showed successfully in Amateur classes. When that trainer left unexpectedly for personal reasons, he encouraged Marianne to take over the position he was vacating.
“I will never forget him saying to me. ‘You got this, Marianne. You can do it, I know you can.’ I realize now what a gift he gave me”, she acknowledges. “The camps started because I had three young children of my own. I went to buy a pony for my son, Tommy, at a local horse camp. Not to be critical, but I was kind of shocked by the fact people dropped their kids off for the day there. I knew I could do much better and it was a way for me to be with my own kids all day. Horse camp at Competition Farm was born.”
At the height of Marianne’s horse camp business, she would have 25 to 50 kids per day. That was made possible by a string of about 50 horses, ponies and “honies” (that either too large pony or too small horse that fits just about everyone). Because the original Competition Farm was only a couple of blocks from my farm, I would watch in amazement as a seemingly endless string of equines in all shapes and sizes would carry an equally amazing number of kids of all sizes and ages past our farm two or three times a day all summer long and then again on school holidays.
Marianne smiles fondly as she remembers that beloved herd. “Gosh, I loved my first set of camp horses. They were saints. The last few have just been retired to an old student of mine’s farm in Ocala.”
At the same time as she started the camps, Marianne and her eventual assistant Barbara Koster created a lesson and local show program. Little Erica began her impressive show career as well. As Erica got older and progressively more competitive and successful, the entire show program intensified. One of Erica’s best friends moved away to Chicago and started riding with Alex Jayne of Our Day Farm. Erica begged her parents for lessons when the Jayne family came to Florida for WEF.
“Alex did a lot of good things for us. Thankfully, he lived by the unspoken rule ‘trainers help other trainers’ kids’. We bought some really nice horses for Erica through Alex and she had a great time showing with Alex periodically as a youth and amateur. She and Alex’s daughter, Maggie remain great friends today as they’ve both moved on in their professional lives” Marianne says.
After twenty five years of running a well-respected business in the same area, it is a frequent occurrence for Marianne to get recognized excitedly by some passing adult as the woman who provided them with the happiest of their childhood memories. It also happens that the kids she taught now bring their own children back to Competition Farm to share in the wonder they remember from their time there. One of those “kids” from the past is Bari Mitchell McCann.
Bari reminisces. “I started riding with Marianne when I was 11, now I’m a 34 year old nurse with two kids of my own. Growing up, I spent every possible day at Competition Farm. I learned more than how to ride. I learned team work, independence, confidence and how to work hard. I made sure I stayed out of trouble in fear of not being able to go to the barn and ride, and mostly fear of disappointing Marianne. She got my parents to buy Paradise, the best pony I could have ever owned. She convinced many a parent to buy their kids that first pony. Nothing is better than buying your child a horse. Now that I’m a parent, I see the importance of what it teaches. Children need a place to get away from stress and peer pressure. The barn gave me a place where I felt like I belonged, where I was useful. Eventually getting to be a camp counselor was the greatest honor”.
Bari stays well connected to the place she loved so deeply. “Still, after 20 years, I look up to Marianne, seek her advice. She is my biggest role model and inspiration. If you ask any camp kid from any generation, everyone had fun with her or wanted to be her. She made us all feel special.”
Beth Pott Rehberg is another adult who grew up under Marianne’s wing and remembers it with absolute fondness. “Marianne was able to create an atmosphere of independence, safety, responsibility, and kindness at her barn. I’ve tried to weave that in to who I am today. Even though I’m grown up and live hundreds of miles away, I try to make it to “the barn” a few times a year to recapture some of the magic that I was blessed enough to experience in my childhood.”
The obvious love Marianne and Erica have for this business and their clients is evident in the details of camp at Competition Farm. The playfulness interspersed with the serious hard work is brought to light in a quote from Marianne that one of her students shared with me. “If you’re going to be dumb, you better be tough.” The barefoot bareback cowgirl is still in there providing a fantastic foundation to riding and life to those who luck out enough to find her. There isn’t one student I talked to that didn’t fully believe, Competition Farm is the BEST HORSE CAMP!!