Authentic Florida Visits Ocala.
Anyone who has driven Interstate 75 north of Orlando has probably noticed the change of landscape that occurs near Ocala. Green rolling hills begin to rise from the flatlands. Long stretches of white wooden fences crisscross acres of pastures. Horses graze near or under large sprawling oak trees. Beyond the fences, and through the trees, you can see horse barns and sprawling country estates.
This is horse country - Florida horse country. Acclaimed as the “horse capital of the world” the area is home to more than 700 horse farms ranging from a small two-acre farm to the largest spread of 4,500 acres. The local horse industry boasts 47 national champions, six Kentucky Derby winners and 23 Breeders’ Cup winners. Some say it’s the nutrient-rich Florida limestone soil that creates healthier grass for stronger horses while others believe its Ocala’s dedicated equestrian history and close-knit tradition that has created a legacy of winners.
But this “behind the gates” industry is not easily accessible to the public. It is a complex and multi-faceted industry, but the work is conducted almost exclusively on private estates. So, how can you get an “insider” look? Just ask Karen Grimes, a local expert and owner of Farm Tours of Ocala.
Grimes is well-known among locals and an accepted “insider” in the community. She has worked throughout the industry starting as a rider, then as a competitor, and also as a veterinary technician. She even worked as a realtor specializing in equestrian properties until the bottom fell out of the real estate market a few years ago. That’s when she got the idea for the tour business that would take visitors "inside the barns" at some of Ocala’s best known horse farms.
The tour experience is fun, fascinating and educational. Guests meet 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. It’s worth a look either before or after the tour. When it’s time to go guests climb aboard the Farm Tours of Ocala van. Grimes drives and narrates as the tour travels the backroads of horse country, stopping at three farms that capture the allure of the equestrian industry. It’s a rare glimpse of the massive seven billion dollar horse business that includes close-up looks at thoroughbred racehorses, sophisticated equine breeding farms and a facility that specializes in Eventing – the sporting side of the business that combines dressage, cross-country riding and show jumping into what might be called the triathlon of horse competition. It’s also an Olympic sport.
First stop is Gayle Woods Training and Sales, a well-known conditioning farm for two-year olds. The owner, Gayle Woods, a renowned veteran trainer, shares her story and personalizes the big business of thoroughbreds and the practices of caring for and training the majestic and powerful animals.
Next stop is a trip to an impressive, private one-mile horse track where horses are being exercised and trained. These local horse tracks are more than exercise facilities though. Tracks are gathering places for Ocala’s equestrian culture of trainers, exercisers, groomers and jockeys who come together and share their passion, hard work and love of the business. And it is also a place where owners and celebrities mingle to see the progress of their prize horses or to enjoy private events. Grimes will tick off the names of stables and families in the area including heirs to great fortunes, celebrities, sports figures and superstars.
The tour continues with a visit to the Journeyman Stud Farm, where another facet of the industry is revealed. The stud business showcases stallions, and provides insight into the complex world of horse breeding. Guests are exposed to the science of matching lineages in order to breed winners. Grimes proudly shares the fact that Ocala has served as the breeding and training ground for some of the best and strongest racehorses anywhere.
The visit to Journeyman is followed by a look at the softer side of the business, with a close meet-up with the female mares, their foals and yearlings in the nearby pasture.
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, where horse and rider perform a series of specific moves together showcasing partnership and grace, Cross Country, which tests stamina and athleticism on a course, and Show Jumping to test the athleticism, balance and precision of horse and rider on a course within a stadium setting.
Time to Ride
After the tour you may be inclined to get on a horse and ride. One unique choice is 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, the Canyons is also an ideal place for horseback riding. With more than 100 acres of stunning Florida country, it is an exceptional ride. Experienced, gracious guides assist riders onto gentle horses and lead you through the beauty of Ocala and its Central Florida outdoors. Fresh country air, lake views, stunning canyons, wildflowers, birds, and wildlife were everywhere as we rode, often shaded by massive oak trees and native plants.
For the adventurous, zip lines stretch far across the canyons and zip liners shriek and yelp with joy as they sail high in the air above the stunning scenery and over the chiseled cliffs and scenic lakes below. Skilled guides lead participants on preparation and safety procedures while providing rappelling instruction and equipment. Souvenir photographs are taken of the participants to capture the memories and are available for purchase at the end of the adventure.
There are plenty of choices in the Ocala area. For something different and special try the Seven Sisters Inn in Ocala's historic district, within a short walking distance to downtown. Seven Sisters is owned and operated by Maria and Bob Schmidt, who epitomize gracious and personable hospitality. They will make you feel like you never left home.
Their Inn is beautifully appointed and each suite has an international theme. You can enjoy the gilded treasures of the Egyptian Suite, the restful, Zen-inspired Beijing Suite, the sunset gold and red Spanish Madrid Suite, the colorful and spicy Moroccan Suite or an intimate boudoir in the Paris Suite.
Breakfast is served downstairs each day. If you are interested in some quiet time alone, there is immense privacy, but if you want to be regaled with charming stories, activity tips or even local history – including the Inn’s paranormal history, just ask Bob and Maria. They are wonderful guides to Ocala living.
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