About 40 spectators sat rapt Thursday morning as four horses pulled a carriage across the ridiculously green course at Little Everglades Ranch.
All was quiet except for the sounds of recorded violin music and the occasional click of a camera.
The carriage's driver, a woman in a large brown hat, steered as two grooms sat ramrod straight in the back.
"She did a real nice job," said Joanne Rittenhouse, who had driven with her husband, Joe, from Mt. Dora for the opening day of the Little Everglades Combined Driving Event.
"It's hard for a woman to handle that many horses," Rittenhouse said. "She's got to have some gracefully big hands to hold all those reins."
The driving event is the first horse competition at the ranch north of Dade City since owners Sharon and Bob Blanchard pulled the plug on the Steeplechase in September. Organizers canceled that event for 2010, and possibly beyond, after determining they could not line up sufficient sponsorship money.
The Combined Driving Event, a four-day competition that includes dressage, obstacles and a marathon course, costs around $50,000 to host, compared to Steeplechase's $1 million bill. The Blanchards started planning this competition about three years ago.
"There's no purse money, trophies are minimal — it's just a lot easier to do," said Sharon Blanchard.
In the audience Thursday morning, friends and retired fox hunters Mary Ann Skinner and Candy Linville watched as another carriage trotted into view.
Both were regulars at Steeplechase and were eager to see the horses at the new event.
"I think the beauty of this is you can observe them for a long time," Skinner said.
She and her friend noted that the crowd Thursday was much more reserved than those who came to Steeplechase.
"It was just a party group," Linville said. "These people are horse people."
Across the field at the stables, drivers, grooms and their crews washed and brushed their horses.
"It's a beautiful facility," said Misdee Wrigley-Miller, a driver from Lexington, Ky., as she pulled in from the dressage event.
Some drivers had tables and chairs set outside their stables. Many were staying in RVs parked atop a hill at the ranch.
"Driving people are usually quite social," said Derek Beckhoven, a groom from Akron, S.C.
The group hangs out at night, he said. During the day, competitors are friendly, even helpful.
A lack of prize money helps with the sportsmanship.
The event is a qualifier for the World Equestrian Games this fall in Kentucky. But the only real prizes offered this weekend were ribbons, said competitor Jennifer Matheson.
"If it's a good ribbon, it's a $3 ribbon," she said. "We're all doing this, trying to get better."
She took a bite out of a carrot and offered the rest to her stallion Deniloo.
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 435-7312.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: Misdee Wrigley-Miller is one of the participants at this week's Little Everglades International Combined Driving Event. Her name was misspelled in the original version of this article.