By Saundra Amrhein
As you approach the rural central Florida city of Ocala, it’s easy to see why this is known as the “Horse Capital of the World.”
For miles, brown and white board fences enclose squares of green pastures. Well-built barns abound. And the sleek, muscular animals themselves graze in fields against a blue horizon backdrop. Marion County is home to more than 600 Thoroughbred farms and is one of a handful of Thoroughbred centers in the world.
At the heart of it all – in the southwest corner of the county – is the 500-acre Florida Horse Park, an official training site for the U.S. Equestrian Team and host of nationally recognized three-day events and international and Olympic-level equine sports competitions including dressage, polo and versatility challenges.
One brisk morning, executive director Shawn Doherty drove his pickup truck across the vast property, which on event days is filled with trailers, temporary stalls and barns, horses and riders, and a vendor village offering everything from saddles to food.
The various fields, Doherty said, are used for a variety of events, including stadium jumping, dressage and cross-country competitions. The topography in this corner of the county is superior, preventing slippage when the ground is wet.
“We’re on a bedrock of limestone,” he said. “It’s really good for the horses. In high rains, this is probably the only place you can still have events going on.”
At the park – which is officially called the Florida Agriculture Center and Horse Park – the unfolding of a larger vision is taking place with hopes of elevating this center even higher in international equine events.
Driving through the serene, flat property, Doherty said the possibilities with the arena will be endless – western events; trotting, harness and driving events; rodeos; horse shows; dog shows; concerts; conventions and even weddings. The park, created in 1996 by an act of the Legislature, already has hosted hundreds of events in addition to the international competitions, including RV shows, dog coursing events and camping and club meetings. A runner’s group was planning a 5K obstacle mud run later, Doherty said.
Another big draw, Doherty said, aiming his truck for one of the trails winding through a canopy of trees, is the camping opportunity for families who take their horses onto the connecting trails of the Florida Greenway.
“They take these trails and can go for miles and miles,” he said. “You never have to get on the hard road.”
But the biggest pull of all to the area for many families is the chance to learn with Olympic-level trainers and to participate in some of the world’s biggest equine competitions.
Kym McCleerey and her husband decided to move their two children and two horses from Pennsylvania several years ago to help give daughter Samantha more year-round opportunities.
“A lot of pros come down here with their students for the winter,” McCleerey said. But Samantha was still in high school, and they didn’t want to send her by herself. Now living in the heart of Horse Country, Samantha, 18, has access to her trainers and competitions all year, with the option to travel to events up north during the summer, McCleerey said.
What’s more, the coveted competitions are practically in their back yard at the Florida Horse Park. The events at the park have become a family affair. McCleerey and her husband are busy, too, during competitions, volunteering in some capacity, usually as cross-country jump judges.
“The Horse Park,” she said, “is fabulous.”
If you go…
Florida Horse Park
11008 South Highway 475
Photos by Lauren Tjaden for VISIT FLORIDA