Equestrian professional Debbie Stephens caught the horse bug as a little girl and hasn’t been out of the saddle since. For the last 37 years, Stephens, now 69, has held onto the outdoor Ladies’ High Jump record after clearing a 7-foot 8-inch solid wall with her mount, Rocky Raccoon, at the Kings Mills Charity Horse Show in Cincinnati in 1983. For followers of the hunter-jumper sport, Stephens’ track record constitutes the highest level of competition. She has represented the U.S. at numerous team competitions, traveling the world from Rome to Cuba with her string of horses.
“That was a special night,” says Stephens. “Rocky was your typical thoroughbred. He was so brave, no jump ever seemed big enough for him.”
Stephens now owns and runs the Centennial Equestrian Farm in Parrish with her husband, Steve, a famous Olympic course designer (he designed the jump course at the Beijing Olympics) and member of the Show Jumping Hall of Fame. Centennial is a 30-acre farm with a 32-stall main barn for show horses, which spend their weeks relaxing and recovering before heading off to the next weekend show, and four additional barns for retired horses and brood mares.
Stephens, who still competes internationally at the highest level, is also an in-demand world-class trainer. At Centennial, she incorporates the latest technology, such as a horse treadmill and a Magna Wave machine, a huge device that uses electromagnetic energy to a stimulate a horse’s tissues, organs and bones.
“I fell in love with horses and showing because you have to become a team,” Stephens says. “It can be thrilling, dangerous and unpredictable. It’s almost impossible to be perfect, but you and the horse share this trust that makes anything seem possible.”
Stephens understands the danger firsthand. Ten years ago, Stephens’ horse stopped at a water jump and she flew over her horse and hit her head when she landed in the water obstacle. Her husband ran into the ring and pulled her out. She was partially paralyzed and unable to speak. It took months of intensive therapy for her to regain movement and to get on a horse again.
She never thought of staying out of the saddle. “I will only stop when I feel that I am not a true partner for my horse,” she says. “The falls are an occupational hazard.’”
Stephens has made the most of her farm’s proximity to Florida’s winter showing circuits but never stays away from home for more than three weeks at a time. The “west coast is the best coast,” she says. “The east coast of Florida reminds me of New York City a little bit. On the west coast, we still have the affluent community along with amazing quality-of-life attributes, but the people are more welcoming and friendlier. I can bring my horses back here, where they can just be horses and get out in a field instead of being cooped up in a stall. I am also lucky we have such an amazing show at Fox Lea Farm in Venice, so close to home.”