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Stephens is architect of equestrian festival

Guts, talent and razor-sharp smarts.

That's what it takes to power a 1,200-pound horse and its rider over a dozen or more fences and water obstacles that can be 6 feet tall and 16 feet wide.

The course designer's job is to create a competition in the world-class arena of show jumping that challenges the horse and rider without putting them in danger.

Floridian Steve Stephens belongs to that elite group that designs courses for international grand prix show jumping and the Olympics. But unlike other professional designers, Stephens builds the obstacles as well. His shop is a short distance from the Sunshine Skyway bridge in Palmetto.

Stephens also is the manager of the Winter Equestrian Festival, the annual $2.3-million Florida hunter-jumper show circuit. The event is the longest-running and largest of its kind in the United States.

It just concluded six weeks in West Palm Beach and opens today for the three-week finale at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa. The festival's 25th season will end April 5 with one of the premier show jumping events in the United States, the $100,000 American Invitational at Houlihan's Stadium.

Stephens made all the wooden poles, walls, gates and elements of the obstacles used in the festival's courses. After each major show or series, he lugs all of them home to be cleaned, repaired and repainted.

It took nine semitrailers to haul the equipment last week from West Palm Beach to Palmetto. For the Tampa festival, a small crew of workers had only a week to make everything like new again for today's opening.

"We call it hell week," Stephens said. "It's like picking up the parts of a 747 that crashed in your front yard."

Jumps and obstacles crafted by Stephens are in great demand, and he supplies them to about 20 big shows a year in the United States and Europe.

He doesn't just fabricate poles and the standards that hold them in place. His obstacles can be formidable-looking aqueducts _ bridges with bricklike parts that fall if a hoof grazes them and colorful standards with fanciful horse heads and eagles. Or they may be hand-painted with huge exotic flowers as part of a theme complete with shrubs and pottery.

"The course designer is responsible for the integrity and quality of the sport, and Steve's courses are very creative and very athletic," said Gina Johnson, vice president of business development for Stadium Jumping, the company that manages and produces grand prix shows from New Hampshire to Florida, including the Winter Equestrian Festival.

"You can't be wishy-washy on a Steve Stephens course," Johnson said. "You have to pick your options and go for it."

Festival-goers will see Stephens' work as a course designer at the American Invitational.

"As for his jumps," Johnson said, "they're fabulous. They're visually beautiful with interesting designs and make tremendous use of color. Steve is very much an artist and a little bit of a mad scientist."

Gene Mische, president and founder of Stadium Jumping and chairman of the festival, has worked with Stephens for some 30 years.

"Steve has a flair for the way a course should look and be presented," Mische said. "And he has an understanding of all the safety factors."

A native of Bradenton, Stephens, 47, has more than an average knowledge of show jumping. He was a top grand prix show-jump rider before he took on show management and course designing and building.

"Steve is probably one of the best horsemen our nation has ever produced," Johnson said. "He has a gift. He's able to get inside the horse's head. He's able to think like the horse.

"If he decided to become a rider again, I have no doubt he could ride with the (United States equestrian) team."

Stephens won't say he has retired from competitive riding.

"I still have my boots," he said. "I'd like to ride again, but I'm just too busy. And honestly, even if a special horse came along, I'd rather that Debbie (his wife) rode it. She's the rider in the family. It's her life."

Debbie Stephens has been a leading rider and a popular and respected figure in the equestrian world for a number of years. She won the American Invitational four years ago and will compete in Tampa this week.

Stephens' course plans are a closely guarded secret. Even Debbie never sees a layout until she enters the show ring with the other riders for the first time.

It's not unusual for grand prix riders to try their hand at course design, but few have reached Stephens' level of achievement.

"Steve made a great contribution to the sport through his riding," Mische said, "and it certainly has gained a talent on the ground. He's one of the leading designers."