Preserving the open space and agricultural character of Dade City's hilly outskirts, three Texas horse people are establishing a 30-acre equestrian center on land neighbors feared would go to developers.
Lauren DeNeve, 29, with her parents Richard and Barbara, purchased two parcels on St. Joe Road in August from the Redmond family for $14,000 per acre. The property, rolling hills previously populated by cattle, changed owners for the first time in more than 100 years with the sale.
"It's the prettiest piece of land I've ever been on," said real estate agent Pat German, "and it absolutely raises area property values."
Lauren and her boyfriend, Mike Soule, a building contractor, cleared the St. Joe Road pastures. Close to 1 mile of fence and cross fencing went up and an eight-stall pole barn is under construction.
Soule also refurbished the property's 1945 Florida Cracker homestead. Meanwhile, Richard and Barbara DeNeve met with local contractors in December to custom build their home on the property's northwest corner.
"It's starting to look like a real farm," Lauren said.
Soon, it will be a working equestrian training center.
With seven head of thoroughbred and warm-blood crossbreeds, the DeNeves plan to build facilities so they can conduct clinics and private lessons in the equestrian disciplines of cross country, dressage and stadium jumping.
Lauren expects that boarding and training fees, along with her medical practice, will cover farm expenses. She recently earned her nurse practitioner master's degree at the University of South Florida. At the same time, she's an accomplished scavenger who just found 50 100-pound stall mats on Craigslist.
"You can't run a horse operation without a credit card and sponsorships," Lauren said. "We hope to expand our visibility to attract endorsements."
In a sport dominated by international billionaires, Lauren trained at U.S. Olympic levels of performance-horse competitions. Since getting on her first horse in Houston at age 5, she came to understand that affording her pursuit on the equestrian circuit would depend on education and hard work.
She moved her tack from Texas to Florida after graduating from Texas A&M University in 2006 and began building a client base at Brown Dog Farm in Plant City while working as a nurse at the Veterans Affairs hospital and studying for her master's.
Her reputation grew for correcting naughty horse habits with "patience and come-to-Jesus meetings."
"My first obligation is to keep the horses sound and sane," she said. "But gone are the days when I'd jump up on an unknown horse."
She has suffered her share of injuries over the past 15 years. She shattered her left collarbone and wrist in a fall, broke her left ankle when a cross country horse spun out from underneath her, and received a facial fracture between the eyes when a mount reared up. She still has to monitor three spinal herniated discs from the cumulative rigors of riding.
Despite the hazards, she feels like she's realizing a dream. The farm is named Stoney Hills in honor of Stoney, a gray homeschooled thoroughbred gelding that carried Lauren to the North American Young Riders championships in 2001.
"Stoney taught me to be a proactive, rather than a reactive, rider," she said.
Mother Nature provides a beautiful landscape for Stoney Hills' activities. The rolling topography builds a horse's and rider's leg strength and endurance. Behind paddocks, an elevated flat expanse is roped off for a future dressage ring and a drainage ditch will convert to a natural water jump for cross country training.
"We need to keep the huge live oak limbs pruned," Lauren said. "Gopher turtles dig holes in the pastures, and eradicating the poisonous soda apple bushes is a constant challenge."
She's realistic about the struggles of farming and horsemanship. She recruits farmhands from the USF equestrian club and has lured a top veterinarian and farrier to make routine trips from Ocala.
"My goal is no boarders, unless they're in training," she said. "We're designed to access up to 18-wheeler ship-ins. But 10 active horses on the grounds are enough. I ride one or two per day and never want to get so big that I stop enjoying them."