By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Kim Burnette has always loved horses, and throughout her lifelong career as an equestrian, her mission has remained the same—to share the joy of horses with others. From collegiate equestrian coach to professional Grand Prix rider, carriage tour owner and boutique owner, Kim wears many hats and her generosity on her sleeve.
As a child, Kim discovered her love of horses through her parents. “My mom and dad had a family Quarter Horse, and that’s how I caught the bug,” she said. “I started at a local lesson program when I was 5 in my hometown in Virginia. The kids weren’t supposed to start riding until 6 years old, but I drove my parents crazy and the instructor finally let me come and join!”
With both Kim and her sister hooked on horses, her parents chose to bring the horse barn to the backyard. “They built a really cute little barn on their property for us, and we had horses and ponies at home. From then on I knew I was going to do horses—there wasn’t anything else. When I was 15, instead of a little high school job, I brought all the neighborhood kids over and taught riding lessons,” Kim laughed.
“I went to college to keep my parents happy,” Kim said, “majoring in equestrian studies at Virginia Intermont. My parents said I could ride and do everything I wanted, but I had to go to school also. At Virginia Intermont, I rode under Jimmy Cantwell—he was amazing, a great horseman that taught me so much. I’ve been really blessed.”
A Dream Career
A few years after Kim’s graduation, she returned to Virginia Intermont to fill a temporary vacancy as a coach. “My one semester turned into six years. It was a great experience because I learned a lot about the business part—structure, dealing with academics, and committees,” Kim said. “I got a really good education when I was there, and I learned about parts of life other than being on the back of a horse.”
During Kim’s time coaching at Virginia Intermont, she still juggled her own personal clients behind the scenes. “After I left, I shifted my focus to my business, showing and competing. I was very fortunate to have great clients through the years and super horses that came my way,” Kim said. “My ex-husband, Dennis Mitchell, was instrumental in my career, a big supporter, and always promoting my riding. We combined our names and that’s how we established our farm, Kimberden.”
After teaching clinics in Knoxville, Tennessee, Kim developed relationships with the local equestrian community and fell in love with the area. “We leased a farm in Knoxville for several years, then ended up buying a farm there because Knoxville was very good to us. We had fabulous clients,” Kim said. Eventually, Kim’s Knoxville farm would become known as Kimberden North, as she soon discovered the charms of Ocala.
After leasing farms each winter in Ocala, Kim and Dennis decided to take a chance and bought a place of their own. “Twenty-one years ago, we bought our current farm in Ocala,” Kim said. “Between Kimberden North and Kimberden South, we could show year-round across the country.” Between teaching pony riders, Juniors and Amateurs, and showing both hunters and in the Grand Prix, Kim found her own Cinderella story through her horse, Jappaloe.
An older horse imported from Europe, Jappaloe was “the glass slipper that fit,” Kim said. “He opened a lot of doors for me, and we got to do many great Grand Prix. With Jappaloe, I was invited to compete in Europe one summer. I’ve had many super horses, all of which hold a special place in my heart and at our farm—their portraits can be found throughout the farm and offices. But he was the horse of a lifetime.”
Expanding Kimberden South
Kim says that success comes by surrounding yourself with successful people, and without her “divide and conquer” team, she believes Kimberden wouldn’t be what it is today. Caroline Searcy, who rode with Kim and Dennis throughout her Junior years, now takes the role of Kimberden’s pro rider. Caroline has also become instrumental in horse sales and training clients at the shows. As Kim approaches a decade of staying in Ocala full time after selling her farm in Knoxville, she often looks back at her journey in the sunshine state.
Today, Kimberden serves as home base for Kim and her husband, Chad Oar. “We have a lot going on here,” Kim said. “Our clients are here and show in Ocala year-round. We are home to the University of Florida IHSA Equestrian Team. We have two Interscholastic Equestrian Association teams here, including Trinity Catholic High School. The large lesson program is home to 35 school horses. As if that wasn’t already enough, we also own a horse-drawn carriage business that gives tours off the farm year-round and tours through downtown Ocala over the holidays. I recently opened a boutique where our visitors come to shop, Horse Country Trading Company.”
With so much going on, Kim finds it hard to sit still. “I may be in the ring watching a lesson, schooling a horse, talking to new clients or purchasing new inventory for the store. It’s something new every day,” she said. “But it’s so rewarding to see how many lives I’ve touched. I get calls from my pony riders who have grown up, and I remember that’s why I do this. I’m the mastermind behind this crazy world I’ve created!”
Though Kim didn’t expect Kimberden to expand to become such a bustling place, she has embraced every opportunity to grow. “Nine years ago, a couple of folks from the University of Florida came to me looking for a facility to call home. My plan was to try it for a year, but they’ve been here ever since! We adore the team and love having them as part of the Kimberden family,” Kim said.
“We acquired our carriage business from our neighbor, Mary, who unfortunately passed away,” Kim said. “There was a fabulous young lady, Kimie Carp, who worked for Mary and mentioned that she was unsure of the future of the carriage business. We immediately jumped into action, purchased all of the horses, carriages and equipment, and brought Kimie along with us. Kimie has become such an instrumental part of my life—she’s our carriage driver, our office manager and truly my right hand. Everyone that meets her falls in love with her personality and contagious laugh.”
For Kim, operating the carriage tours and boutique gives her the opportunity to introduce more people to horses. “We get families, older couples and people from other countries who have never been around horses,” Kim said. “They have an admiration and respect for what we do, and it makes us realize how we take it for granted sometimes. Horses have been good to me, so I love giving back to other people.”
Helping Animals and Planning Ahead
Kim’s love for animals doesn’t stop with horses. Since Kim was a young girl, she has always had a soft spot for animals in need, and would bring stray animals home to nurse back to health.
After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf and left thousands of animals homeless, injured and in need of help, Kim stepped up to form the Animal SOS Rescue Fund. “I’ve always been a big animal lover and involved with charity, but starting the rescue fund is one of the best things we’ve done,” she said. “We host fundraisers for the Humane Society of Marion County on our farm as well.”
With no such thing as free time, Kim takes any spare moment to enjoy her blessings and plan for the future. With the World Equestrian Center constructed just two miles from Kimberden, Kim is excited to see the growth coming to Ocala and the tourism opportunities that lie ahead. With a smile on her face, Kim says, “It’s an exciting time to live in Ocala, Florida!
“The great thing about working with horses is that I’ve never felt like I’m just heading down one road,” Kim explained. “This world gives us lots of opportunities to do a lot of different things. I feel blessed that I’ve been able to take advantage of this and see the big picture. I love what I do. I’m surrounded by horses, dogs and great people on this beautiful farm with lots of sunshine. It’s a good life.” Her motto is “Live the life you love,” and that she certainly does.
For more information, visit www.kimberden.com
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com