Horses make for nearly 30 percent of farms in Florida, and every single county in the state encompasses a horse farm. What’s more, Ocala/Marion County, dubbed the “Horse Capital of the World,” boasts more horses than any other county in the entire United States.
And what those horses do runs the gamut.
A rider and her horse cool off in Palma Sola Bay in Bradenton.
Jumpers spit dirt from their hooves as they cut corners and make impossible leaps over enormous fences. Race horses battle to grab the lead, necks extended, nostrils wide, digging for an extra inch. Event horses brave ditches, water, and jump obstacles that could double as small houses. Bucking broncos, trail horses, and reining horses all aim to do their jobs, whether it’s launching a cowboy into space, ambling through oaks draped with Spanish moss, or sliding to breath-taking stops. And the list doesn’t stop there.
Here are some of the ways you can enjoy horses in the Sunshine State, whether you want to admire them, bet on them, or saddle up and take a ride yourself.
Polo is something like hockey on horseback, a fast, dangerous, and exciting game. It’s a social occasion as well as a sport. You can dress up or down, but bring a hat and sunglasses, as well as a picnic or fixings for a tailgate party. Make sure to join the traditional “divot stomping” at half time, where spectators take to the field to repair torn up turf.
- International Polo Club Palm Beach: The 16-week, winter polo season runs from early January to late April, attracting polo enthusiasts from over 20 countries and 49 states. The U.S. Open Polo Championship caps off the 2016 season at the Polo Club Palm Beach. Slated for March 29 through April 19, it’s considered the most prestigious polo tournament in the world.
- Sarasota Polo Club: Sarasota’s Polo Club invites you to enjoy the thrill of the “fastest game on four feet,” as well as half-time entertainment and pony and Clydesdale wagon rides. You can even bring your best friend; your dog is welcome on a leash.
A polo player at the Villages.
- The Villages Polo Club: Enjoy polo every Friday and Sunday from early October to late November on the lush grounds of The Villages retirement community. Many of the spectators arrive via golf cart, yet manage to find room for a tailgate celebration.
As all-American as apple pie, rodeo is a rough-and-tumble showcase of cowboy and cowgirl skills. The craziest of the events is bull riding, where competitors try to stay aboard bucking bulls -- agile creatures that can weigh in at more than a ton -- for eight agonizingly-long seconds. Other sports you’re likely to see at a rodeo include saddle and bareback bronc riding, steer wrestling, barrel racing, roping and more. Here’s a list of Florida rodeos from Rodeoz, in every corner of the state.
Show jumping is a straightforward, spectator-friendly sport; at its essence, the horse-and-rider combination that leaves all the rails up and goes the fastest wins. At its top levels, it boasts big fences, big money, and big thrills.
The author with a very big fence at HITS Ocala.
A jumper at HITS.
Show hunters are judged on rhythm, smoothness, form and pace, as well as nuances such as the horse’s expression; they’re a study in tradition and perfection.
Florida hosts two must-see winter shows series, where you can watch world-class equestrians and horses compete in both disciplines.
The HITS show grounds.
HITS -- Horse Shows in the Sun -- in Ocala, boasts 10 consecutive shows with over $3 million in prize money, culminating each March with the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix. Grand Prix events take place 2 p.m. every Thursday and Sunday; you can grab lunch from the HITS Restaurant Pavilion and picnic while watching some of the world's best show jumping.
A handsome Grand Prix jumper at HITS Ocala.
At 12-weeks long, the Winter Equestrian Festival in Palm Beach is the largest, longest-running circuit in horse sport, with major competitions showcased in the International arena daily and on Saturday nights. Though more than 5,000 horses with a net value of well over half a billion dollars compete there, it’s more than a horse show: it also offers shopping, dining, pony rides, petting zoos, entertainment and live music.
Think of ballet on horseback, of ultimate harmony between horse and rider, and you’ll have dressage about right.
This centuries-old discipline was once used to increase the maneuverability and obedience of cavalry mounts, and some of its advanced movements were specifically taught as battle techniques. Today, competitive dressage is recognized as one of three equestrian Olympic disciplines, and at its upper levels, demonstrates the horse performing complex, beautiful movements with almost no visible help from its rider. Special classes like the musical freestyle are spectator favorites.
Eventing and Horse Trials
In this sport, which has its roots in the cavalry, a single horse and rider combination tackle the three disciplines of dressage, cross-country, and show jumping. The heart of the competition is the cross country, where at the upper levels, mind-boggling drops, ditches and tables are galloped at speed.
In the cross country phase of eventing, the fences are solid, like this one Paul Tjaden is jumping aboard 'Intense.'
You’ll need to walk out on course to see the cross country action, so wear comfortable shoes. Make sure to stay off of the track when a horse is coming, and pay attention to warnings from fence judges to clear the way.
Venues that offer events include:
- Three Lakes Horse Trials, Groveland
- Rocking Horse Ranch, Altoona
- Florida Horse Park, Ocala
- Red Hills, Tallahassee
Want to get up close and personal with equine athletes and their handlers? Farm Tours of Ocala will get you behind the gates of some of the country’s most prestigious working farms.
The Grand Oaks Resort in Wiersdale.
Explore the stunning grounds of the Grand Oaks Resort in Weirsdale on a carriage ride. Make sure to save time to explore the Carriage Museum afterward; it’s home to one of the world’s largest private collections of carriages and equine artifacts.
Horse Country Carriage Company & Tours, situated the heart of Ocala’s horse country, promises to take you on a carriage ride brimming with facts and nostalgia.
- Gulfstream Park, Hallandale Beach: Dedicated to providing world-class Thoroughbred racing and gaming entertainment, the park features poker, a casino, simulcasts, dining and more.
- Hialeah Park Race Track, Hialeah: Lush landscaping and gardens define this historic, sprawling track, which features live Quarter Horse racing from late December to late February. It also offers a casino, simulcasts, poker, and entertainment of all sorts.
- Tampa Bay Downs, Tampa: This track boasts live Thoroughbred racing from late November until early March, as well as simulcasts, poker, golf and dining.
- Sunshine Raceway, Dade City: It’s a mere $3 donation to come in the gates on race day at this not-for-profit track, which features harness racing with Trottingbreds. There’s no wagering, but it’s a sure bet you’ll have fun.
If you have a yen to climb into the saddle yourself, you have an abundance of options.
There's np better way to explore Florida's trails than aboard the back of a horse.
Makin' Tracks Trail Rides in Ocala will take you for ride through the forest or even let you go camping or swimming with your horse. Forever Florida in St. Cloud offers a ride through history, down trails originally used for riding by Native Americans. If you opt for their Rawhide Roundup, you’ll learn to herd cattle aboard your mount, including keeping the herd tight, running down strays and cutting out selected animals.
Horseback riding on Amelia Island.
You can even horseback-ride on the beach. Two-bit Stables in Cape San Blas, Beach Tours on Horseback in Fort Pierce, and Kelly Seahorse Ranch in Amelia Island are but three places that offer this unique experience.
Photos by Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA