Acres of green rolling hills lead to pastures of horses grazing near or under large sprawling oak trees enclosed by long stretches of wooden fences. Beyond the fences, horse barns appear adjacent to spacious country estates.
This view is synonymous with Central Florida’s Ocala community.
Ocala is horse country, Florida horse country. A drive through the acclaimed “horse capital of the world” will quickly help you understand what drives this region. More than 700 horse farms dot the Marion County landscape ranging from a small two-acre farm to the largest spread of 4,500 acres. Some say it’s the nutrient-rich Florida limestone soil that creates healthier grass for stronger horses while others believe its Ocala’s equestrian history and close-knit tradition that has created a legacy of winners.
But this is mostly a “behind the gates” industry, and not easily accessible to the public. Due to its nature as a complex and multi-faceted industry, I needed the help of a local expert by the name of Karen Grimes, owner of Farm Tours of Ocala.
Karen, a well-known local horse gal and accepted “insider” has an abiding love of horses that began as a young child. She worked throughout the industry starting as a rider, then as a competitor, also as a veterinary technician and even as a realtor. But when the bottom fell out of the real estate market a few years ago, Grimes capitalized on her personal reputation and knowledge of the industry by forming a tour business where she takes visitors onto Ocala’s local horse farms and “inside the barns.”
Guests climb into the Farm Tours of Ocala van driven by Grimes and tour comfortably through horse country, stopping at three farms that capture the fascinating allure behind the equestrian industry. This is a rare glimpse of the massive seven billion dollar horse business that includes thoroughbred racehorses, sophisticated equine breeding farms and an eventing facility, highlighting the “sporting” side of the business.
On my recent visit I took the tour and was immersed in all things equine. Here’s how it went:
We met at Ocala’s Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association, which houses an impressive collection of racing souvenirs and a museum of Ocala’s equestrian history.
Gayle Woods Training and Sales
Our first stop is Gayle Woods Training and Sales, a well-known conditioning farm for two-year olds. Owner Gayle Woods, a renowned veteran trainer, shares her story and personalizes the big business of thoroughbreds and the practices behind caring for and training the majestic and powerful animals.
Ocala horse track
We follow the Woods visit with a trip to an impressive, nearby private one-mile horse track where horses are being exercised and trained. Local horse tracks are where Ocala’s equestrian culture of trainers, exercisers, groomers and jockeys come together and share their passion, hard work and love of the business.
In addition to the working culture, wealthy owners also mingle at the tracks, including heirs to great fortunes, celebrities, sports figures and superstars. Grimes ticks off the names of stables and families in the area: The Live Oak Plantation, owned by Charlotte and son Chester Weber of the Campbell Soup fortune, the Kinsman farm owned by the Steinbrenner family, the Firestone Farm, the Wrigley Family farm and the Longwood Farm, owned by the Watkins family, who amassed their wealth from microwave popcorn.
Grimes continues the tour, revealing yet another facet of the industry. The stud business showcases the stallions and provides insight into the world of horse breeding. A visit to the Journeyman Stud Farm portrays the science of matching lineages in order to breed winners. Breeding season arrives in January and continues until early summer, so that the mare’s gestation period of 11 months yields one-year-olds on January 1st of the following year. Because this sport organizes races by age group, it’s advantageous to be “older” than the competition.
Grimes proudly shares the fact that Ocala has served as the breeding and training ground for some of the best and strongest racehorses anywhere. And Ocala has a legacy of winners. The local horse industry boasts 47 national champions, six Kentucky Derby winners and 23 Breeders’ Cup winners. The visit to Journeyman is followed by a softer side of the business, with a view and meet-up with the female mares, their foals and yearlings in a nearby pasture.
The young foals, some still on wobbly knees, are a joy to watch as they quickly learn to stand, walk and then gallop across the pastures. They join their year-old siblings and their mothers for picture-perfect grazing that warms hearts all around.
Grimes wraps up the tour with a trip to Longwood Farm, the winter home of the U.S. Olympic Three Day Eventing team. Olympic Eventing consists of Dressage, Cross Country and Show Jumping. Grimes explained that the three phases exhibit the horse and rider in partnership and grace (dressage), stamina and athleticism (cross country riding) and show jumping (combined strenuosity, balance and precision).
Rider at Longwood Farm
Time to Ride
The Canyons Zip Line horse ride
After the tour with Karen, it was time to get on a horse and ride. My yearning was accommodated with a visit to The Canyons Zip Line & Canopy Tours. While the primary draw is a chance to zip on a highly secured wire rail system through an abandoned Florida limestone quarry, it’s also an ideal place for horseback riding. With more than 100 acres of stunning Florida country, we were ready to be treated to an exceptional ride. There we met our guides, who were experienced, gracious horsewomen anxious to help even the most novice riders. We were transported to a riding stable and assisted onto our gentle horses. Once mounted on our four legged friends, we rode, relishing the beauty of Ocala and its Central Florida outdoors. Immersed into the fresh country air, we enjoyed lake views and stunning canyons while admiring wildflowers, birds, and wildlife, all the time shaded by massive oak trees and native plants.
Zip Line Tours is one of the most popular activities in the area. Zip lines stretch far across the canyons and you can also experience rappelling through the huge area led by skilled guides who brief participants on preparation and safety procedures. Zip liners shriek and yelp with joy as they sail high in the air above the stunning scenery, over the chiseled cliffs and across the scenic lakes below. Photographs are taken of the participants to capture the memories and are available for purchase.
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