Fox Lea Farm in Venice runs 42 horse shows a year. Here, world-champion Debbie Stephens competes at one of the farm’s hunter-jumper shows in September.

Laurie Birnbach zipped through Fox Lea Farm on her green golf cart one Sunday afternoon in October, making sure the farm’s hunter-jumper show was running smoothly. It was one of 42 shows the 46-acre farm hosts every year. A retired national sales executive for Coca-Cola and a competitive rider, Birnbach willingly confesses she’s one of the horse-obsessed and has had so many broken bones from falling that she’s paid for a good chunk of her surgeon’s home. At the moment, she owns five horses. Don’t ask what it costs, she adds. “It’s an all-consuming passion, a lifestyle,” she says. “It’s 365 days a year.”

Birnbach is now the director of business development for Fox Lea. She says business is booming. Kim Aldrich-Farrell, whose family owns Fox Lea, started the eight-week Venice Equestrian Tour four years ago, and since then Fox Lea has become a desirable place to compete during Florida’s busy winter season of shows. The Venice tour brings in 375 horses a week, along with their owners, trainers, grooms, families and thousands of spectators. Trainers and riders say the show is helping to put the region on the map as a hunter-jumper destination.

Birnbach says Fox Lea’s year-round economic impact is estimated at $100 million. It’s one the region’s biggest sport tourism venues. (Nathan Benderson Park and Ed Smith Stadium are the other two.) And she thinks the impact will grow. More horse people are moving to the region, buying primary and second homes to take advantage of the facilities and winter circuits, according to Birnbach. There are now seven show barns in Sarasota and Manatee, and another expansive facility on its way. Called TerraNova, it will be part of a residential development in Myakka and eventually is expected to host big competitions.

Part of the Venice tour’s appeal is its laid-back vibe. Far from being a social affair of conspicuous consumption where people fly in on private jets and pay interior decorators $10,000 to design their ringside tables while
they nibble on lamb chops and sip champagne, Fox Lea gives the horsey set a chance to take a break at a well-run show in a region that offers beaches, good restaurants, museums and nightlife.

Debbie Stephens

Horse show photographer Julia Borysewicz, who travels the country in her Airstream trailer, has been to all the big shows and likes the Venice show. “People come to Sarasota from Wellington to get away,” she says. “There are top riders, but it’s also a great place to bring young horses and riders. It’s family-oriented. It’s amazing you can get to culture and great food within minutes of the horse show. Fox Lea has become a horse show vacation.”

Roberto “Nino” Daza is a top international rider based in Palm Beach, accustomed to riding horses worth
millions. He travels the U.S. and internationally to compete and has represented his country, Bolivia, in the World Cup. He travels with his wife and two children as he competes, and the schedule is disruptive and grueling. The Fox Lea winter circuit is a welcome respite from the pressure.

“We rent a house by the beach and go boating and see dolphins,” he says. The competition may not be as fierce, but it’s a great place to prepare his horses and improve. “The management at Fox Lea is amazing,” he says. “For me and for a lot of riders, we first want good customer service. You want to see someone greeting you, and they know everyone by name. These big venues don’t know who you are. This is not a cheap sport, and Fox Lea is so friendly, and I don’t have to spend so much money.”

Spectators to the Venice Equestrian Tour are welcome. Just bring sunscreen and maybe a hat to watch big beautiful horses up close—often just several feet away—as they go through the jump course. The shows run Wednesday through Sunday, starting in the morning and lasting until evening. Admission to the Venice Equestrian Tour is $5; admission to the big Friday night Grand Prix shows, “Show Jumping Under the Stars,” is $10. Admission proceeds go to charity.

Venice Equestrian Tour at Fox Lea Farm: January-March 2020, Venice, 800 N. Auburn Road, (941) 786-8018, foxleafarm.com

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