By Erika Webb
A 148-acre ranch with 80 paddocks, 18 barns and over 500 stalls sounds like a pretty good place for a horse rescue operation.
That's what Dawn Schmertmann figured when she discovered Spring Garden Ranch in DeLeon Springs. Actually, it turned out to be a perfect match.
North America's largest Standardbred training facility appealed to the U.S. Trotting Association-licensed trainer's love of the breed -- she was in the Standardbred industry for 12 years in Ohio -- and its plentitude of shelter and pastureland held unlimited promise for Riding Star Ranch, a non-profit she started in Punta Gorda.
Riding Star Ranch offers equine-assisted educational and therapeutic programs to those who would not otherwise have the opportunity to experience the physical and emotional benefits horses can provide, its website states.
The organization also takes in unwanted, neglected and abused equines and rehabilitates them "with loving care and compassion," Ms. Schmertmann said.
Its mission is to achieve a mutually beneficial experience for both the horse and the rider. Riding Star seeks to educate the public in the proper, gentle care and management of horses while offering a safe haven for equines in need.
Typically, once the Trotters head for cooler pastures in the spring, the restaurant closes and Spring Garden Ranch is deserted for the long, hot summer.
Locals look forward to October when there is movement there again, and biscuits and gravy.
This summer will be different.
Ms. Schmertmann and her partner Doug Canter are scrambling -- eggs on Saturday and Sunday, and in general, as they prepare the grounds for everything they have planned at the ranch.
"I was actively looking for a new facility when I came across this facility," Ms. Schmertmann said. "I thought, '600 stalls ... are you kidding?'"
The restaurant will be open Fridays from 5-9 p.m. for Steak Night. Saturdays the restaurant will be open from 8 a.m.-11 p.m. for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There will be live country music at night.
Sunday brunch will be from 8 a.m.-2 p.m.
The horses are arriving daily.
"This will be our main facility," Ms. Schmertmann said. "In Punta Gorda, we have a five-acre facility. We needed to expand."
Among the 20-plus horses now being cared for at the ranch are Skyy -- or Doura Dewdrop, a Clydesdale that's great grandfather was a Budweiser hitch horse, and two Belgian draft horses recently rescued from Georgia.
Marketing and Event Coordinator Kami Martin said the ranch is equipped for every event imaginable.
"It's perfect for so many things -- corporate parties, weddings, any type of gathering," Ms. Martin said. "We have a great pool, restrooms, a place to cook out or we can cater."
She envisions the ideal children's birthday party with pony rides and swimming.
Riding Star Ranch specializes in Standardbred racehorses, but accepts all breeds, and always has a variety of horses for adoption.
Spring Garden Ranch assistant general manager Sandy Weiss is pleased with the changes taking place. She's worked at the ranch for 15 years in just about every capacity. She said owners Wayne and Judy Heller came up with the idea for Ms. Schmertmann and Mr. Canter to take over the restaurant after seeing what they'd accomplished in just two months of being at the ranch.
"Dawn is a U.S.T.A trainer and she really likes to deal with the Standardbreds, which fits perfectly with this package," Ms. Weiss said. "She'll be finding them, training them and moving them on. Race horses are under a lot of heavy training and stress. Like any athlete, their careers aren't that long."
But, Ms. Weiss said, the horses come with benefits. She said most of the time it only takes about 30 minutes to break them for pleasure riding, and after being driven four miles a day, six days in a row with two tractors, a water truck and sometimes a road grader on the track, they are not easily spooked.
Ms. Weiss said through Riding Star, Ms. Schmertmann helps many community organizations and causes including the Wounded Warrior Project and the Boys and Girls Club.
"Since she's been here she's rotated horses so she actually does what she says, and that's what I wanted to see," Ms. Weiss said. "I didn't want to see someone who just takes them and feeds them. They've got to be rotated so more can be rescued."
"She knows the ins and outs of the business so it was a perfect fit," Ms. Weiss added.
Ms. Schmertmann said Riding Star is primarily funded through corporate sponsorships, public support and grants. She sees a lot of fundraising potential in her new location.
"The proceeds from the restaurant will go to help the horses, and on Saturdays our adoption horses will be featured," she said. "These old barns ... they're on the National Historic Registry, and among the oldest in Volusia County, so I'm going to look into getting an ECHO grant."
Volunteers are what Ms. Schmertmann needs most right now. She said there is something for everyone when it comes to what needs to be done at the ranch.
"High school kids who need volunteer hours for Bright Futures scholarships can come out and help with the horses. We need help with landscaping ... everything," she said. "Central Florida Horse Lovers is our core volunteer group. It's free to join and we have ranch orientation the fourth Sunday of every month at 1 p.m."
Riding Star also offers membership. For $150 monthly, members get unlimited riding privileges and help support a rescue horse.
"That's less than it costs to own a horse," she said.
An area within the open block framework of old stables near the barns is being cleared out. Under the reaching live oak branches there is a cool oasis to escape the summer heat and interact with the horses in nearby stalls. There is enough filtered sunlight for a garden.
"There will be waterfalls, paths and flowers here," Ms. Schmertmann said.
"And carriage rides from the restaurant to here for dessert and wine," Ms. Martin added. "It will be a perfect place for tea parties and gatherings."
For more information, call (386) 848-7953 or visit RidingStarRanch.org.