By Jennifer M. Keeler for ELCR

For 25 years, the Weber family has opened their private farm to host top equestrian competition in Ocala, Fla.

Driving onto the grounds of the stunning Live Oak Stud, it would be easy for visitors to believe they have been transported to a magical equine paradise. Across nearly 4,700 pristine acres, horses frolic in green pastures behind miles of black board fence as Spanish moss hangs elegantly from towering live oak trees. Since 1969, Live Oak Stud has been owned and loved by the Weber family who established a legendary Thoroughbred breeding and training operation over the rolling fields, as well as diversifying their farming operation to include sport horses, beef cattle, select crops, and a model composting facility.  But early each spring, this exquisite private farm opens its gates to the world to conduct one of North America’s elite equestrian competitions.

Photo by Jennifer M. Keeler

Photo by Jennifer M. Keeler

The Conservation Trust for Florida invited ELCR to visit Live Oak International, held February 25-28 in Ocala, Fla. as part of their Protecting Horse Country initiative, and ELCR Executive Director Holley Groshek was impressed with how Live Oak serves as a shining example of an increasingly rare private farm that also serves as a public competition venue. “The continued loss of private farms to development or restricting access to horses is having an increasing impact on competitions across the country as more and more horsemen lose their favorite places to show,” said Groshek. “We were so impressed with how the Webers ‘think outside the box’ and their approach in hosting this incredible event on their family’s property not only helps sustain the farm and preserve the agricultural land use, but it also benefits the entire community.”

Over the last 25 years, Live Oak International has grown in both size and reputation from a small regional driving show into what is now a Longines FEI World Cup qualifier for show jumping and host to U.S. National Championships for combined driving. “There certainly are logistical challenges in having hundreds of exhibitors coming onto your own backyard,” noted Chester Weber, a multiple medal-winning driver at the FEI World Equestrian Games and 13-time U.S. National Champion, who organizes Live Oak International with his sister, Juliet Reid, herself an accomplished show jumping rider. “But we’re a family of horsemen and women, and our vision for Live Oak is for it to be much more than just a regular horse show – it’s about excellence in equestrian sport.”

Live Oak International 2016 booth

From left, Holley Groshek, Executive Director, ELCR; Busy Kislig-Shires Byerly, Assistant Executive Director, Conservation Trust for Florida; and Jamie Cohen, University of Florida/IFAS Extension, at their shared exhibit space in the Vendor Village.

Weber explained that in addition to hosting international competition, the annual event has become part of an overall sustainability plan for Live Oak Stud. “It’s hard for big farms to sustain themselves, but from our experience I think it’s a possibility for a private farm to put on an event that can be revenue-positive and part of a viable business model for that operation,” he noted. “While I can’t say that the elite competition that we choose to put on is a wildly profitable event, it has sustained itself and contributed back to the farm for a quarter century now, as well as raising a lot of money for the community and local charities.”

It’s the connection to the Ocala community that makes Live Oak International even more special. The event is heavily promoted throughout central Florida, and the lavish competition grounds pulse with a festival atmosphere. The crowds show their appreciation, turning out in record numbers almost every year to enjoy a family-friendly outing in the countryside. “In a time when horses are moving further and further away from our communities, people don’t have as much opportunity to see, touch and experience horses or gain an appreciation for how much they benefit our lives and communities,” said Groshek. “Not only do venues like Live Oak help the community have that experience, but they also help keep our equine heritage, culture and industry alive.”

Weber agreed and noted that private farms can also consider hosting non-equine events such as music festivals or, in Live Oak’s case, a wildly popular 5K run, which was reported to have one of the largest turnouts in the state and raised $50,000 for charity. As an added bonus, every one of the hundreds of participants was exposed to the beauty of a working horse farm, and many even chose to stay to watch the equestrian competition. “As an organizer, I feel like spectators and sponsors are as much our customers as the competitors,” Weber explained. “I believe it sets Live Oak apart from other horse shows, and it’s a model that works for us in drawing in the public, which is then exposed to horses, farming and equestrian sport.”

Chester (Photo by Jennifer M. Keeler)

Chester Weber competing with his four-in-hand at the 2016 Live Oak International. Photo by Jennifer M. Keeler

Even with the show’s resounding success, Weber is especially proud of how Live Oak’s best management practices for the farm carry over to the competition itself. “The section of the farm where we hold the event is basically a cow field, even though recently we’ve added some permanent infrastructure,” he said. “It’s an amazing green-to-green story to see how each year the grounds start out as a cow field, get built up with temporary barns, amenities, and rings, host a spectacular event for thousands of fans, then almost all of it gets taken down and it quickly returns to green fields. It’s remarkable but we are proof that it can be done.”

Thanks to the Weber family’s innovation and generosity in sharing their farm with the world, Live Oak Stud will remain open and accessible for equestrians and the public to enjoy the tradition and experience of horse sport, hopefully for generations to come. “When I first came to Ocala, there were still a lot of dirt roads around here, and I’ve seen a number of big farms like ours that have been divided into mini-farms or succumbed to development. A development even backs up to our farm now,” said Weber. “But Live Oak is in a trust, and we’ve made Live Oak International an integral part of the sustainability plan to help keep it safe for the future. As a family we all share in horse interests and are doing everything we can to preserve the legacy of this land.”