By Judy Wells
Adults can indulge their equestrian fantasies and kids will find plenty of opportunities to horse around – even fingerpainting, with a pony as the canvas – with all of the horseback riding Ocala, FL offers.
Rosalita's ears twitch forward; she knows what's coming, the highlight of the trail ride, of any ride on a Paso Fino – the corto. As we turn onto a deep, sandy trail, her silver tail switches, ears perk and her tidy feet begin moving faster in the distinctive lateral four-beat gait that is the signature of her breed. It feels as if we are flying on tiptoes.
Heaven for the horse lover.
That's Ocala, the ideal destination for anyone who collected Breyer horse statuettes of their favorite breeds, drew rearing stallions when they should have been doing homework or annually pestered Santa Claus for a pony. Amid its rolling hills of limestone-rich grass is the country's – and perhaps the world's – largest concentration of horses: 45 different breeds run, jump, piaffe, pull or corto within a 50-mile radius of the town at 1,200 breeding and training stables.
Young's Paso Fino Ranch is one that welcomes visitors for farm tours or trail riding. Owner Barbara Young's visitors have ranged in age from 7 to 107, proof that the horse crazies may diminish but never disappear. She's been breeding champion Paso Finos, the mounts of the Conquistadors, on this oak-shaded parcel of Ocala turf for 25 years, during which she reared her children and saw them leave, then return to join her in the horse business.
On the Chasin' a Dream Farm, owner Chris Weiss gives touring visitors a candid and open look into the life of a Thoroughbred race horse. At the same time, Weiss, a former assistant to the president of an oil company in Manhattan, chases her own dream of breeding and raising champions.
"This is a working farm – you're part of the life of a race horse for a day," said Weiss, adding that anyone who wants to get hands-on can. Among the possibilities: Giving a leg up to the riders who arrive at 11 a.m. to work the young horses on the half-mile track next door – where two-time Horse of the Year Curlin trained.
Visitors might find themselves watching a mare introduce her new foal to a pasture, wincing as a vet tends to a horse's injury or observing a tester from the Jockey Club check weanlings for identifying markings and pull hairs from their manes for DNA testing to ensure parentage is accurate.
Weiss accommodates visitors with specific interests by arranging visits to other farms and facilities, so they can experience everything from thoroughbred breeding sheds to the sales ring.
For children, there's Casper, a miniature pony, described by Weiss as something akin to a big old dog. He's the star of birthday parties, where children brandishing finger paint use Casper as the canvas, providing everyone with a chance to pat and rub to their heart's content.
In many ways, her place on 110th Avenue could be considered Horse Central: Triple Crown winner Affirmed was foaled across the street, and Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Funny Cide trained down the road, where one also can find breeders of Clydesdales, Arabians, Quarter Horses, Paso Finos, Paints, Standardbreds and miniatures. This is Ocala, though, and there are many such streets and roads.
Another center of Thoroughbred action open to visitors is Ocala Stud, where Thoroughbreds are brought to be bred and raised, or to train on the track, recover from injuries or just rest and live like a horse for awhile. There are three separate facilities – one for mares and foals, one for yearlings and the main one for breeding, training and rehab. Action at the main facility begins early, usually around 6 a.m. Arrive after 10 a.m., and you'll find wet leg bandages drying in the breeze and the horses back in their stalls.
Ocala Breeders Sales is where potential champions are bought and sold. Best of all, it is free and open to the public. Depending on the sale, you can see famous owners such as Bobby Flay or David Cassidy and well-known trainers such as Bob Baffert evaluating and bidding on mares and foals, yearlings, 2-year-olds in training, stallions or seasoned race horses for their stables.
Ocala Horseback Riding: Off the Track
Breyer collectors might want to head for Gypsy Gold Farm, where Breyer model, The Gypsy King, lives. With flowing manes, tails and feathered feet, this gentle giant and his offspring were vanguards of the rare Gypsy Vanner breed in the United States.
If Arabians are your thing, you have a choice of Egyptian or Polish bloodlines. Visitors are welcome at Magnolia Farm Arabians, where Ken and Mary Scribner breed champion Egyptian Arabs. Call first, though, to make sure they are home and not at a show.
Horse crazy or just curious about dressage, carriage driving, racing, reining or trail riding, Ocala has the antidote. It won't cure the malady, but it will satisfy the cravings.
If you go...
Young's Paso Fino Ranch
8075 West Hwy 326
Barn tours, $11 per person; trail rides, $38
Chasin' a Dream Farm
Tours last 2 to 2.5 hours and cost $25 per person or $20 for groups of six or more.
Free tours by appointment
Gypsy Gold Farm
12501 SW 8th Ave.
Visitors who call first are welcome. Tours and demonstrations ($10 per person)are given at 10 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays or by appointment.
Magnolia Farm Arabians
7351 Magnolia Ave.
Call in advance.
As far as horseback riding in Ocala, what you see depends on when you come. For instance, January and February are the months for breeding and the birth of foals. The HITS winter horse show for hunters and jumpers fills most of January.
For more information on Ocala, lodging, other horse farms and riding opportunities, visit ocalamarion.com.