Defending Our Equine Heritage

The threat of an asphalt ribbon bisecting the “Horse Capital of the World” united equine enthusiasts in a campaign to defeat a proposal aimed at running a toll road through their pastures and paddocks.
Imagine the area north from State Road 200 and 110th Avenue, west of Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club, up to State Road 326 and on through York, Fellowship and Zuber. If you’ve driven these roads, you’ve seen the beauty of old Florida: rolling hills, green pastures, live oaks draped with Spanish moss and some of the horse farms that make Marion County the “Horse Capital of the World.”

Now imagine those very roads paved over with a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) extension of the Coastal Connector extending from Brooksville. Think of the sprawl of such development: the convenience stores, the gas stations, the fast-food restaurants. Think of the noise and pollution from the vehicular traffic. Think of the damage to the aquifer. Think of all that rich Marion County grass and soil paved over, never to be seen again.

When the FDOT announced possible construction of just such a road in 2018, the Horse Farms Forever (HFF) organizers imagined just such a scenario and it scared them enough to take action.

After the 2018 announcement from the FDOT about the proposed route of the toll road, folks like Chester Weber, president of Live Oak International, and Bernard Little, president of HFF and co-owner of Horsefeathers retirement farm, knew they had to put up a fight against this toll road. They formed Horse Farms Forever, a grassroots organization that fought to preserve the Farmland Preservation Area in northwest Marion County. This area is county-designated as a protected area with significant restrictions on development; it’s designed to preserve the agriculture and horse-based economy here.

“The notion that the Florida Turnpike Authority was proposing an eight-lane turnpike through Ocala showed that we all needed to do a better job of explaining the importance of this industry, and especially within Ocala and Marion County,” explains Weber. “Horse Farms Forever has helped spread that message far and wide, and I’m thrilled to be part of the initiative.”

As a result of grassroots efforts, HFF lobbying, public outcry, other community leaders’ work, and a letter from the Marion County Board of Commissioners to then-Governor Rick Scott, the FDOT abandoned its plans to extend the Coastal Connector through Marion County. That’s not to say that another route won’t be proposed again in the future, but the immediate danger to Ocala’s horse farms has been curtailed.

The rolling hills filled with paddocks and moss-laden trees is an iconic part of Marion County. It’s not just the landscape and aesthetics, of course. Sara Fennessy, director of community affairs for HFF says, “The equine industry accounts for over 18 percent of our economy and produces approximately 21,000 jobs here in Marion County. As Marion County continues to grow, it is crucial that this area remain protected, that this sense of place remains.” Protecting the farmland also means protecting the county’s economy.

Thanks in part of the efforts of HFF and Marion County horse lovers, the alarming scenario of the toll road through our farmlands has been quieted. We caught up with some of the HFF board of directors and members for a chat.

 

Sara Fennessy
Horse Farms Forever,
Director of Community Affairs

What makes you passionate about horses?
I was practically born on the back of a horse, and was in my first horse show before I could even walk. I’m a fifth-generation horse person, my grandfather was a jockey, my other grandfather trained racehorses and my father has been an equine industry business executive my whole life. I competed hunter/jumpers throughout my youth and now have a newfound appreciation for the peace that pleasure riding my horse brings me. Horses have taught me everything—love, respect, how to work hard, patience and, most importantly, to always get back up again after you fall.

Why did you choose Ocala/Marion County as your place of residence?
One reason—the horses and the horse industry. I spent most of my childhood in Lexington, Kentucky, and fell in love with the beauty and similarities Ocala and Lexington share. Horses are a way of life here in Marion County. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Why is protecting the character and culture of horses, horse farms, and the horse industry important to you?
Protecting this way of life means everything to me. Like so many others here in Marion County, the horse industry is vital to my family’s livelihood. To lose the very thing that makes our county so unique and special would be absolutely devastating.

Why did you join Horse Farms Forever?
Joining Horse Farms Forever was a no-brainer for me. I am truly and deeply passionate to my core about Horse Farms Forever’s mission and purpose. If our horse farms disappear, so do the horses, and so does the industry. It is crucial that my generation becomes involved in protecting and preserving this way of life.

Why is the Farmland Preservation Area so vital to Ocala and Marion County?
The Farmland Preservation Area is home to some of the most iconic and storied horse farms in the world. On these farms many Kentucky Derby winners, Triple Crown Winners and National Champions begin their careers. This land in the northwest region is priceless and irreplaceable, therefore, it must be protected. The Farmland Preservation Area is the vein to the heart of our ever-thriving equine industry, which contributes billions of dollars to our economy.

What facet of the equine industry are you involved in?
The equine business world, show world, and pleasure world as well. I also have the great pleasure of working for Live Oak International, serving as their Office & Community Outreach Manager. I will always be addicted to the rush that competing gave me but I find the truest peace within myself when I am riding through the beautiful pasture lands and trails here in Marion County.

Chester Weber
Co-President,
Live Oak International

What makes you passionate about horses?
The immediate connection and rapport with a horse is an extremely special thing. Whether a racehorse surges to finish first, a show jumper goes clear or a team of four driving horses work together flawlessly, equestrians cherish their relationships with their four-legged teammates regardless of the discipline.

As a child, I remember going to the racetrack with my parents and being amazed by the power and speed that one animal could produce. As both an athlete and co-president of the Live Oak International Horse Show, you could say that horses are in my blood.

Why did you choose Ocala/Marion County as your place of residence?
I was born and raised in Ocala. When I graduated from Cornell University, I had a vision of creating my own equestrian business and Ocala was the logical home for me. Between perfect temperatures, expansive fields and soil rich and full of calcium, Marion County is a heaven for horses.

Why is protecting the character and culture of horses, horse farms and the horse industry important to you?
The mission of Horse Farms Forever is so badly needed. Ocala provides the ideal environment for a horse to be happy and healthy. Protecting the land that horses thrive on is important to me. The large number of farms here is a special thing and provides jobs and economic activity. Horses are a daily source of relief and form of therapy for me personally.

 

 

Why is the Farmland Preservation Area so vital to Ocala and Marion County?
Farmland and green spaces are what make Ocala and Marion County unique. The beauty and impeccable conditions for horses are what make this area so attractive for visitors and equestrians.

What facet of the equine industry are you involved in?
I am the 16-time United States Equestrian Federation National Four-In-Hand Champion. Additionally, I am the co-president of the Live Oak International Horse Show, the largest spectator event in Ocala. I travel the world competing with my team of horses and representing Team USA, but my horses and I love to come home and enjoy beautiful Ocala.

Why did you join Horse Farms Forever?
Our family joined Horse Farms Forever as soon as it started to help with its mission of preserving farmland for horses, for the environment and for my children. I want my two boys to grow up with the same ability to explore the outdoors and enjoy the serenity that comes with the vast outdoors in Ocala.

Nick and Jaqui de Meric
Owners, de Meric
Thoroughbred Sales and Eclipse Training Facility

What makes you passionate about horses?
My passion for horses has been lifelong, starting as young as I can remember, says Nick. I can’t really explain my love of the animal in rational terms of logic or reason; it was always something innate in me. On the occasions I’ve worked in other fields I never felt as fulfilled as I do in their company and always drifted back to one horse-related activity or other.

Why did you choose Ocala/Marion County as your place of residence?
Thirty-eight years ago, Jaqui and I fell in love with the area, with its rolling hills, majestic oaks and wildlife rich waterways. Ocala was really the ultimate winter training ground for thoroughbreds in the northern hemisphere, with the space, facilities, infrastructure, back up services and climate that could not be bettered anywhere else.

Why is protecting the character and culture of horses, horse farms and the horse industry important to you?
We have all seen too many ill-planned subdivisions and shopping complexes ingesting fine farmland when other locations stand empty and unused. Our horse farms are a state treasure. It is important we form strong relationships with local bodies and have a voice in the decisions made that directly affect them, such as the proposed coastal connector route that ran through the heart of the Farmland Preservation Area.

Why did you join Horse Farms Forever?
The health of our local environment, as well as the wider one, are subjects near to my heart. I believe HFF provides an opportunity to contribute to the environmental legacy we bequeath coming generations in some small way.

Why is the Farmland Preservation Area so vital to Ocala and Marion County?
Marion County is horse country and Ocala rightly claims to be the “Horse Capital of the World.” To make this claim we need a healthy industry and the farms to support it. Though by no means covering all Marion County horse farms, the Farmland Preservation Area nonetheless includes a significant swath of land that has been dedicated to raising and training horses for decades.

What facet of the equine industry are you involved in?
Our business is centered on training young thoroughbreds and preparing them for the racetrack and for 2-year-old sales. We also accommodate layups from the track, some needing R&R and some post-op care and rehabilitation. We buy yearlings and weanlings at
auction and resell some of them, while others will race for their owners.

Gary & Pauline Hartogh
Freedom Oaks Farm

What makes you passionate about horses?
My love affair with horses began the minute I started riding as a little girl, says Pauline. Even after I retired from show jumping, Gary and I continued to have a connection to horses.

Why did you choose Ocala/Marion County as your place of residence?
After traveling the world for both careers and leisure, we imagined living in the country with a couple of horses. In Marion County, we discovered lush, rolling countryside and majestic live oaks covered in Spanish moss. It was the perfect setting for the best part of all—it was horse country. Now, every window of the house overlooks beautiful countryside with horses wandering freely. It’s nourishment for my soul.

Why is protecting the character and culture of horses, horse farms and the horse industry important to you?
We came to Marion County because of the beauty and character of the countryside and the ability to carve out a wonderful life. With the enormous growth expected in the area by the World Equestrian Center opening in 2021, it’s important that development planning is handled sensibly to continue preserving and protecting the green space in Marion County for the horses and our future generations. I would like to think that anyone roaming our equine farmlands a century from now will find it as pristine, expansive and beautiful as we enjoy now.

Why did you join Horse Farms Forever?
As farm owners, naturally we appreciated Horse Farms Forever’s mission to preserve the magnificent horse country and natural pastureland of Marion County. However, it surprised me when I met people in town who have never visited a horse farm in the area and learned some haven’t even been on a horse. Horse Farms Forever strives to protect the economic stability of horse farms while still supporting levelheaded growth for all of us.

Why is the Farmland Preservation Area so vital to Ocala and Marion County?
With 90 people relocating to Florida each day it’s important to approach growth in a sensitive manner. There are so many examples of poorly developed areas in Florida. It would be sad for Marion County to go the same way and lose the unique farmlands and natural beauty of the area.

What facet of the equine industry are you involved in?
Our current Ocala farm was already home to 25 senior horses who had spent a lifetime competing in various disciplines and, in their retirement, were enjoying the beautiful pastures that drew us to the area. We created Freedom Oaks Farm, a premier horse retirement sanctuary serving the hunter/jumper and show jumping world. We are happy to offer our beautiful farm to benevolent horse owners for their retired champions. It’s our way of giving back.

George Isaacs
Bridlewood Farm

What makes you passionate about horses?
I’m originally from Lexington, Kentucky and grew up seeing the large thoroughbred farms there and going to Keeneland [racetrack] with my family. I started working on a thoroughbred farm when I was 17 and knew right away I had found my calling.

Why did you choose Ocala/Marion County as your place of residence?
I moved to Ocala in 1989 to help manage Bridlewood Farm…which has raised and cultivated many thoroughbred champions. When I first drove onto Bridlewood for my interview in 1989, I sensed I had found my home. I love working outside around good horses, so the stewardship of the Appleton family [the original founders], and now John and Leslie Malone, allows us to raise quality equine athletes.

Why is protecting the character and culture of horses, horse farms and the horse industry important to you?
I think anyone who lives in Marion County or visitors traveling through, quickly realize it’s the horse farms and wide-open rural areas that make Ocala the special place that it is. The equine industry has a $2.7 billion economic benefit to Ocala annually. One in four horses here is a thoroughbred. There are 23,000 jobs created in the thoroughbred industry here, most of them locally. No farms, no horses—no horses, no industry! It’s vital that we protect our farms to protect our industry and also protect the beauty and character that makes Ocala the community it is.

 

Why did you join Horse Farms Forever?
I joined Horse Farms Forever initially to help original founder Bernie Little champion the fight against the proposed Coastal Connector toll road. Since this issue seems to be resolved, I believe the biggest issue going forward is how we control the population growth and development in this community without destroying the wide-open spaces.

Why is the Farmland Preservation Area so vital to Ocala and Marion County?
We have to treat the Farmland Preservation Area like protected territory that cannot be developed or encroached on. Our thoroughbred business is dependent on our land holdings so it’s literally the “lifeblood” of our operation.

What facet of the equine industry are you involved in?
I’ve been involved in managing valuable thoroughbred athletes since Noah and the ark. There is nothing more gratifying to me than to see a horse that we have bred, foaled, raised, broken and trained here go on and reach the winner’s circle. That is what gets all of us who work with these regal animals out of bed early each morning.

Tom Ventura
Ocala Breeders’
Sales Company

Ventura joined Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company (OBS) in 1999 and has been president since 2012, working his way up from director of sales and general manager. OBS is a cooperative that is made up of a sales division, feed division and pari-mutuel facility. Over the past 10 years, the sales division has sold more than 25,000 horses for more than $1.2 billion. In 2019, the OBS board of directors voted to become a founding corporate member of Horse Farms Forever.

What makes OBS members passionate about horses?
OBS was founded in 1974 by a group of local horsemen who needed a sales venue that could showcase the thoroughbreds that were bred, raised or trained in Florida. The company is a cooperative, with 82 individual shareholders who have a passion for horses. For many shareholders, they began in the business because of their love of the horse and the equestrian lifestyle.

Why would members choose Ocala/Marion County as their place of residence?
In the 1950s and 1960s, horse breeders were attracted to the area because of the weather and mineral-rich land. Even though the local Florida-bred horses had more modest pedigrees, they were outrunning the horses raised elsewhere that had more prestigious pedigrees. Those early founders of OBS had a vision for a sales facility that could let local horseman conduct business close to home, to sell their horses in Ocala.

Why is protecting the character and culture of horses, horse farms, and the horse industry important to OBS members?
Many of the OBS shareholders live and work on their own horse farms in Marion County. Horses are their livelihood and lifeblood. Protecting the character and culture that horses and horse farms bring to the area is a natural instinct for the group. Without farms and farmland, there is no horse business.

Why did OBS join Horse Farms Forever?
The OBS board recognized the need in the community for a lead
organization that would educate the community about the importance of horses and horse farms. They realized the need for a group that would be watchful of government and the protection of rural lands.

Why is the Farmland Preservation Area so vital to Ocala and Marion County?
The Farmland Preservation Area covers almost one-fourth of Marion County. To keep the pastures that are synonymous with horse farms, we must be vigilant that development does not infringe on this precious rural land. OBS attracts an international group of buyers to its sales. The rolling pastures filled with mares and foals is an image that resonates with visitors. Many are surprised that there is a part of Florida like Marion County, with open spaces and beautiful places.

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