By Debi Lander
Ocala, in central Florida, bills itself as the “Horse Capital of the World.” I always figured that title belonged to Kentucky, but I discovered I was wrong. The Ocala/Marion region leads all other counties in total number of horses and ponies in residence, with more than 70,000 acres of thoroughbred breeding and training farms.
Plus, Marion County’s 600 thoroughbred farms have produced 45 national champions, 6 Kentucky Derby winners, 6 Horses of the Year, and many Preakness Stakes and Breeders’ Cup winners. Pretty impressive, I’d say.
A drive from Jacksonville takes about two hours, passing through some lesser-populated areas of our state. Spring is the ideal time to visit because it’s the season when mares give birth to foals. A drive around Ocala takes you past miles of bucolic split-rail fencing and rolling hills, but I suggest getting a closer, behind the scenes look.
Farm Tours of Ocala takes groups on a three-hour tour exploring three horse farms in the area. Tour guide Karen Grimes will introduce you to local legends and world-class champions, as well as their trainers and caregivers. Depending on the day of the week of your visit, your tour could include watching thoroughbreds train rail side, seeing newborn foals, Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company (OBS) sales, show jumping or dressage, polo and sport horse breeding farms.
Behind the scenes tours with Gypsy Gold provides an opportunity to look at a rare breed. Owner Dennis Thompson and his late wife Cindy brought the first Gypsy Vanner horses to North America in 1996. Together, they established the Gypsy Vanner Horse Society, the world’s first registry for this selectively bred horse. Thompson offers a fascinating, in-depth tour while in telling his story and showing off the beautiful Gypsy Vanners on his farm.
Ocala Stud consists of three farms totaling 500 acres in the area. This farm is home to champion stallions used for breeding with thoroughbred mares. Artificial insemination is not allowed for this exclusive line. The main farm in Ocala boasts a state-of-the-art 5/8-mile training track complete with six-stall starting gate. Call ahead because tours are by appointment only.
For those interested in hunter/jumper competitions, HITS Post Time Farm will fit the bill. This equine event company specializes in producing world class hunter/jumper shows. From barrel racing to driving and dressage, jumping competitions and more, this venue has it all. Another notable site in Ocala/Marion County is the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion. This large setting is used for everything from rodeos to horse and livestock shows.
If you’d prefer to ride instead of sightseeing, trails and riding lessons from BG Trail Rides at the Florida Horse Park are your ticket. The multi-use Florida Horse Park is a world-class equestrian facility for international competitions that draw top-level competitors. BG Trail Rides cater to riders at every skill level, from beginners to the very experienced. Guided one-hour trail rides start daily at 10 a.m. and continue throughout the day, concluding after their sunset ride.
While driving around, look for Ocala’s mascot: life-size painted horse statues. Launched by the Marion Cultural Alliance in 2001, “Horse Fever” included 52 life-sized fiberglass horses decorated by area artists. They were displayed around town and eventually sold at an auction that raised $1.2 million for charity. Many still remain and make a fun scavenger hunt.
Visit www.OcalaMarion.com to learn more about Ocala.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander