The three young horses formed a semi-circle around me, leaning against the fence separating us. A bay colt pressed his whiskers into my ear, tickling me until I giggled.
Another examined my hair with his soft lips. The third, a beauty with an extravagant forelock, extended his muzzle toward my cheek and blew a grass-scented kiss.
It was all part of the fun with Farm Tours of Ocala, an adventure that promises visitors it will get them “behind the gates.”
Marion County, known as the Horse Capital of the World, has more horses in residence than any other county in the United States. Anchored by Thoroughbred breeding and training farms, its horse industry is represented by virtually every breed of horse, including the American Quarter Horse, Paso Fino, Arabian and Warmbloods.
But it’s usually an insider’s world, with its secrets -- and much of its magic -- hidden from the public.
Karen Grimes, owner and operator of Farm Tours of Ocala, is decidedly an insider. She’s galloped race horses, broken horses and trained horses. She’s competed in dressage, over fences and cross country. She’s worked for a top equine veterinarian, lived in Ocala for years, and knows everyone who’s anyone in the horse industry.
And she’ll share it, and insights into this horse capital, with you.
My tour started at the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owner's Association, where my husband and I met Karen and the four other tour-goers. Soon we were exploring country roads, winding past lavish farms, each more opulent than the next, while Karen gave us the scoop on their history.
Our first stop was at a Thoroughbred training track. Our van rolled down a seemingly endless lane fringed with oak trees and board fences. Karen explained that the barns on each side are operated by different trainers who share the track -- and that they are a sort of prep school for racehorses, where young horses learn their trade, get fit, and begin to show if they have what it takes to succeed.
At Gayle Woods Training, we met a jockey who posed for pictures with his mount, a wiry lightweight whose smile was the biggest part of his body.
After that, we watched a groom take a reluctant colt swimming, coaxing him into the water so he could increase the horse's fitness without pounding his legs.
Part of the fun was standing on a "vibration plate," a machine that jiggled and wiggled under our feet, used to increase circulation in the horses’ legs.
I felt we’d just started when we were off to the track itself, where horses thundered by, only feet from where we stood. Some cantered slowly, necks arched, riders balanced like poetry above their backs, while others tested their speed, breezing by in an economy of motion.
Our next visit was to Hennessey Arabian, a farm famous for its fine steeds. Even the youngest foal boasted the chiseled features and dished profile of the breed.
But the Farm was as much about joy as it was beauty. We laughed at newborn foals frolicking in the sweet-smelling field, scratched their withers and fed carrots to their mothers.
The extravagant barns were ours to explore, and we chanced on a mare getting an ultrasound. The vet allowed us to watch, and the news was good; she was pregnant. One field was brimming with heavy-bellied mares, almost ready to foal, while another -- my favorite -- boasted a crowd of yearlings, all curiosity and soft whiskers.
Even the dogs had it good there, napping on the buttery couches in the air-conditioned tackroom.
At Journeyman Stud, we met only stallions, including some of Florida’s most famous sires. The crème de la crème of Thoroughbreds, these fat, pampered creatures lounged in roomy stalls between visits to the breeding shed and romps in the paddock.
There was more, much more, too much to record. Besides, you should experience it for yourself.
If you go, your tour may not be exactly the same as mine. But it will include at least three stops, ranging from a state-of-the-art equine rehabilitation facility to Ocala Breeder’s Sales, a dressage barn, the same experiences I enjoyed and more. It depends on the day of week and time of year that you visit. For instance, December is a month in which you’re unlikely to see newborn foals. Further, precisely what happens at each stop is not scripted -- like the ultrasound at the Arabian farm, or its joyous result.
Whatever your adventure includes, it will be a day you’ll always remember, different from anything else you’ve ever done, even if you’re a horse person. And it’s bound to leave you smiling.
Because, as Winston Churchill said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
Photos by Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA