By Michelle Bearden
It’s called the Florida Horse Park, a 500-acre jewel in Marion County’s Ocala, right in the heart of Central Florida.
But don’t let the name fool you. It’s much more than that.
What began as a center for equestrian events and pleasure horse rides along pristine, oak-lined trails has evolved into a go-to location for outdoor athletes, animal enthusiasts, campers and history buffs. There’s truly something for everyone here.
Yes, the biggest draw that brings in the bulk of the visitors is the continuous run of local, national and international horse shows in every discipline. But the park’s packed calendar – with nearly 250 events planned per year -- also includes a diverse range of sports and hobbies, such as obstacle course competitions, 5-K runs, all-breed dog shows, equine education clinics, rally car racing, youth soccer championships and Civil War reenactments
Explorers and adventure seekers, take note. The park is home to a dozen trailheads that connect to the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, a lush, 110-mile corridor from the Gulf of Mexico to St. John’s River. What used to be one of the nation’s largest uncompleted public works projects has been transformed into a recreational paradise where visitors can experience the beauty of Florida’s fauna and native flora in a natural environment by foot, bicycle or horse.
Park staffer Jennifer Barrett said, “We have the space and an incredible setting. Once we got the funding, the vision and the leadership to take us to the next step, it’s taken off.”
Indeed, the park was nothing but a wide open field on state land before its transformation. Ranchers leased some of the property for cattle grazing.
In 1996, seeing an opportunity to capitalize on Ocala’s growing reputation as “the horse capital of the world,” a state statute created the Florida Agriculture Center & Horse Park. Backers of the project had big ambitions for the land, but not the finances to make it happen.
Progress on the park’s development sputtered and stalled in the early years. Its main caretaker was Partners of the Park, a group of dedicated volunteers who pitch in by hosting events to raise funds for upkeep of the grounds and to purchase equipment.
“We’ve donated about $500,000 over eight years,” said member Charlie Hicks. “We saw the potential here and didn’t want it to fail. But truth be told, its reputation wasn’t so hot back then.”
That changed in 2010, when the park got its first substantial grant through the Office of Tourism and Economic Development for the construction of a new development center. A year later, the park started to take shape, with a new welcome center, concessions, storage and restroom facilities.
That was just the beginning. With an infusion of state funding, Florida Horse Park in now a major player in the equine and hospitality market.
“Before, it was like a fading flashlight,” Hicks said, “and now there’s a big beam illuminating the place. You know it’s special because people are coming not just from Florida, but all over the country.” POP is still a big contributor, now turning over 50 percent of the money it raises directly to the park, and using the other half on expenditures determined by the volunteers.
Among park additions: Five new stabling structures; 160 permanent and 144 temporary stalls; show-quality jumps with rails, gates, planks and walls; more than 300 acres of manicured grass fields; and several grass arenas.
But the jewel in the park’s crown, without a doubt, is the 79,500 square-foot covered arena, completed in 2014. The expansive structure, the size of a football field, hosted the Southern Junior Rodeo Association as its inaugural event – and the bookings haven’t slowed since.
“It’s been a marketing coup,” said Shawn Doherty, the park’s executive director. “The arena put us at a different level. We have so much more to offer now. Word-of-mouth keeps it booked on a steady basis.”
Statistics kept by park staff attest to that. In a few short years, Ocala area visitors have increased from 30,000 to 300,000, Doherty said, and the park’s overall economic impact is expected to reach $24 in its overall lifetime impact
And with the additional funding, there’s more to come. Sewage and water improvements are in the works, as well as additional bathrooms, barns, an upgraded concession area, mezzanine, show office and a second entrance off SR 475A.
Pat Ciaccio said the Florida Horse Park is a “premier location” for equine competitions. It was her family’s second trip back to the park for the Southern Junior Rodeo Association, which includes members from Florida and Georgia. They stayed on the property in their RV.
“We were the first group to book the new arena here, and it was phenomenal,” she said. “Now we’re back again and it’s even better. The central location, the beautiful setting and the amenities are everything you would want for your event.”
Doherty said the park is one of Florida’s best-kept secrets. He would prefer it not be that way. The price is right for the budget-conscious and families, who can visit for free (some of the event sponsors charge their own fees to attend). And given its location in the middle of the Cross Florida Greenway, it provides accessibility to some of Florida’s most beautiful habitat.
“People need to know about this place,” he said. “And we expect that’s what will happen as we keep making improvements. We want this to be a destination, not a drive-by site. Because it’s a little piece of paradise.”
When you go…
Florida Horse Park
11008 County Rd. 475, Ocala, Fla., 34480
Worth Your While: Whether it’s a day trip or overnight stay to the Florida Horse Park, make the 12-minute trip to Latinos Y Mas, 2030 S. Pine Ave., Ocala. The longtime family-owned, Latin-fusion restaurant (closed on Sundays) serves up some of the best homemade salsa north of the border and generous meal portions at an affordable price. No need to dress up – they keep it casual here, along with live music and an outdoor patio.
Mexican-food lovers won’t be disappointed in the fresh, made-from-scratch fare (try the sizzling fajitas platter or grilled fish tacos). For a Cuban experience, try the Havana Mojito Grilled Pork Chops, which come with sweet plantains and perfectly seasoned black beans and rice, Calorie-watching diners have options in offerings such as the lentil and kale salad or the generous Latinos 2030, a Spanish-style salad with cheeses, ham, fresh veggies and olives.
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