DADE CITY — Jill DeSilva didn't miss a beat when a teenage cowgirl asked her to build a zebra-striped bridle.
"Do you want that in lavender or dark purple?" DeSilva said.
When she opened A Bit of Both Tack Shop in Dade City last November, DeSilva's business plan was to combine her experience in retail sales with a reputation for quality leather restorations. In a sagging equine market she understood the gamble. Yet the diverse local horse community is keeping her busy and improving her odds for success.
"I'm meeting my quota," DeSilva said. "Work has been steady from horsemen who know that when times are tight the best option is to get valuable tack fixed."
A Bit of Both draws from all different equine disciplines. Western trail riders, barrel racers, ropers and cutters may be looking for bling while the English fox hunting, show jumping and dressage enthusiasts are persistent in tradition. Each has specific equipment needs.
"What they all have in common is broken and worn out leathers, buckles, irons and blankets," DeSilva said. "And as the state and county fairs are coming, I'm expecting the 4H people to stop in."
DeSilva, 42, is a Massachusetts native whose horse trader grandfather put her on her first horse at 18 months old. The family tradition is maintaining its course.
She arrived in Florida 20 years ago to race trotting ponies with her husband, Ronnie DeSilva, now a horse trainer at Newsome Farm. These days she and their two daughters Allison, 20, and Laura, 18, are the only active female drivers at the race meets every Sunday at Sunshine Raceway.
The DeSilvas feed and train six trottingbreds and five pleasure horses at their family farm in Dade City. Each horse consumes an average of one hay bale and a 50 pound bag of sweet feed per week. Along with supplements, routine vet visits, worming, and shoeing, their monthly costs come close to $2,000. So they know first-hand the value of repairing and reusing equine equipment.
Dr. Chet Taylor has known Jill DeSilva since she worked as a veterinary tech at his Dade City Animal Hospital. He believes that there will always be horses needed for service and pleasure.
"There's a world of opportunity around here for reconditioning tack," something that's becoming a lost art, he said. "Jill knows everybody and has a knack for bending over backwards for clients."
Registered nurse Lea Thomas, a veteran Dade City horsewoman and former member of the U.S. Equestrian Team, takes her gear to DeSilva's shop. Thomas still rides in her 30-year-old first jumping saddle.
"Our tack is like a precious piece of furniture," Thomas said. "It's broken in and you'd rather re-upholster than replace it."
DeSilva has 30 saddles on consignment at her freestanding 2,000-square-foot store at 14449 Seventh St. She stocks the basics from blankets, saddle pads, girths, bridles and halters to a wide range of grooming supplies. The former art gallery space also showcases memorabilia, equine art, jewelry, boots and clothing.
Word of mouth has spread quickly among the area's many horse organizations including Sunshine Raceway, Southcreek Fox Hounds, Sheriff's Posse, Cowboys for Christ and the District Six Barrel Racing Association.
When Little Everglades Ranch hosts the Southeast Conference Olympic trials for driving competition this month, and Ride for Hospice conducts its annual fundraiser March 31 at Diamond B Ranch in Trilby, Jill DeSilva will be on the sidelines.