DADE CITY — Among the stables, race tracks and dirt roads, a beautifully manicured patch of grass sits waiting for equine competitors from all over the world.
These tender grounds are designed to test the relationship between horse and driver at the second annual Little Everglades Combined Driving Event, a horse and carriage competition that is bringing Pasco County into the spotlight of horse sport culture.
"This is a first-class horse sport facility," said Chester Weber, owner of Live Oak ranch in Ocala. "You look around and you can see that a lot of hard work went into this place. It's not that common that two years into an event you have people coming from all over the world to be at it."
Weber is a widely known driver who won a silver medal with team USA at the World Equestrian Games. He hosts one of the biggest combined driving events of the year at Live Oak, the final stop of the "triple crown" of Florida's combined driving series. The event at Little Everglades is the second stop, and although it is only in its second year, it is becoming widely recognized for its facility.
"I have been all over the world, but I have never seen a dressage field where the cut is this even and the footing is this good for the horses," said renowned dressage judge Franz Vetter of Germany. "The course that will be used over the weekend is a wonderful course. It is going to be difficult without being dangerous to the horse."
Dressage is a form of showing off a horse's ability to communicate with the carriage driver. Horses are driven around the finely cared for field and are judged based on their movement and ability to listen to the driver's commands. The drivers must dress in accordance with the style of their carriage.
"If a carriage has a lot of wood on it, then it is considered to be more country and the attire would have to match, such as a cowboy hat and something more casual," event organizer Susan Gilliland said. "You won't see a guy in a top hat riding a wooden carriage."
Today the event will transform into a cross country style marathon horse and carriage race. On Sunday, stripped down carriages made of lightweight metal will be used by riders who must navigate a challenging obstacle course involving everything from hills to water.
"You really have to know your horse to compete in this," Gilliland said. "You don't have leg aids like when you ride a horse, so you are much more dependent on your voice. All you have is your hands and your voice. Also you need to know your horse's limitations, so it's a little different than most horse sports."
Gilliland transformed the course for this year's event by adding a man-made hill that will test the animal's endurance. The course is considered to be one of the most spectator-friendly courses around while offering a level of intensity to please anyone who attends.
Marco Freund is a 14-year-old champion driver from Germany who traveled to Dade City for the event. He said he made the journey to compete in premier horse sport competitions.
"The setup here is really nice and there is no competition in Europe that has a dressage field like that," Freund said Friday. "I had a chance to walk the obstacle course today and I was really scared at first because the horses I'll be driving are horses I've only driven twice before. Hopefully, the weather cooperates and it's not too hard to get through the obstacles."