When you say “Florida”, most people think of sun, sand and surf. But there’s another side of Florida, one with quiet country lanes, beautiful nature parks, great rows of live oaks — and horses. It’s called Marion Country, or more specifically, Ocala. And if you love horses and nature, it’s the place to be.
Ocala was the second stop on my Baby Boomer Road Trip with my colleague Maarten Heilbron. And it was a dramatic change from St. Augustine, our first destination. We drove from that city’s quaint streets and historic sites into the open farmland of Florida’s interior, passing through country that began to look a lot like Kentucky. Horses grazed in broad pastures lined with neat fencing, and Spanish moss hung from the trees along the roadside, a picture of the old South.
The comparison to Kentucky is apt: after the Bluegrass State, Florida is the second-biggest horse centre in the nation, and one of the biggest in the world. Legendary thoroughbreds like Triple Crown winner Affirmed, Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm and Always Dreaming, winner of last year’s Derby, were either bred here or got their first training at the horse farms that line the back roads of Ocala.
But while the thoroughbred is king in Ocala, there’s lots of other horse-play going on in Marion County. It’s a major centre for show jumping and other pursuits of the horsey set, like dressage. Add in some quarter horses and several other breeds and you have a place dedicated to the noble horse.
So while we were visiting Ocala, we wanted to get out and see some horses. Happily, our hosts had arranged a visit to horse country — in fact, a visit to Horse Country Carriage Company, a local farm that puts developing show jumpers — both human and equine — though their paces. It also gives carriage tours to see the local farms, with some up-close encounters along the way.
We arrived bright and early to find our host, Kimie Carp, about to harness up a huge fellow called Tiny Prince Charming. A minute or two later, we were off on a jaunt down the country road out front. That’s not to say we were flying down the road: Prince Charming has one speed — slow.
Along the way, Kimie filled us in on the local scene, including the super-rich farm owners who have made Ocala their second homes — names like the Vanderbilts, George Steinbrenner and Frank Stronach, the Canadian industrialist who became a giant in the racing world. Then there were the celebrities who’ve come calling, including John Travolta, who dropped in for brunch on his private plane and ended up buying a house here.
She also filled us in on the amazing scale of the horse industry in the area. There are 1,200 horse farms in Marion County, and the action will soon get even hotter with the opening of the new World Equestrian Center South. The huge centre will have 1,400 stalls and 17 outdoor arenas — a place capable of hosting the biggest equestrian events.
The countryside was beautiful as we clopped along, with the morning sun shining through the Spanish moss. And the ride was made even more pleasant by a few horses that came up to greet us as we passed. We stopped to pet a couple of youngsters who peered at us curiously over the fence.
Back at the farm, we got better acquainted with some of Horse Country Carriage’s resident steeds, who peered out of their stalls as we walked through the stable (photo at top). They were even more interested when Kimie brought out some carrots and we handed out treats to those who wanted them.
Our visit ended with a few minutes spent watching some young equestrians polishing their skills in Horse Country Carriage’s training ring.
But the next day, we decided to take in some high-octane action nearby at HITS, a big-league show jumping series that holds events around the country. Horses and riders from Canada, the U.S. and some Latin American countries showed their impressive skills — and their beautiful horses.
A visit to Ocala is a horse lover’s dream even the local restaurants are filled with people in the riding breeches. But even if you don’t follow racing or show jumping, it’s a lovely part of the country, and one few people get to see. It’s well worth a visit if you’re headed that way, or if you want to spend a few days in the old South.
Maarten and I were guests of VISIT FLORIDA and its partners, including the Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau. While in Ocala, we stayed at the Comfort Suites Dunnellon, located close to the local horse farms and state parks