Olympic Stars Train at World Equestrian Center: Ocala’s New “Horse Capital” Tourist Destination

WEC’s Equestrian Hotel offers views of horses in action

WEC’s Equestrian Hotel offers views of horses in action. Photo by: Ethan Tweedie

The Sunshine State has a hot new attraction: the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida’s “Horse Capital of the World.” It is pageantry and ponies…stallions and stagecraft…mares and magic.

“You’ve done Disney – now come to the Disney of ‘horse land.’ It is a different Florida experience than most people are used to,” said Leah Tong, director of marketing and brand for the 378-acre destination starring majestic, inspiring horses which compete in dressage, jumping, eventing, and a variety of other breed and discipline shows.

“World Equestrian Center is so welcoming. You do not need an in-depth knowledge of the sport,” said Tong. “Saturday nights we have Grand Prix events in the Grand Arena through 40 weeks of competitions and it doesn’t take you long to cheer for the exciting sport of jumping. You quickly understand what’s going on and it is family fun.

Where else can one immerse themselves, up close and personal, with horses – and stay on-property with them. The fanciful, themed destination also offers seven restaurants, dozens of retailers, and vacation amenities. I suggested sipping a mint julep, in the Kentucky Derby tradition, by the pool at the WEC’s signature Equestrian Hotel or its’ new, pet-friendly Riding Academy Hotel, Tong said was suitable.

“The horses you see in the Derby and the other Triple Crown races likely have a connection to Ocala. We breed a huge number of the U.S.’s thoroughbred horses. Ocala and Marion counties, in Central Florida between Orlando and Gainesville, have a horse population of 75,000.”

The horses that train and show at World Equestrian Center have plenty of natural acres to live and relax – so why shouldn’t visitors? That is a sure bet with spa treatments, meandering, shaded walking trails and a creative annual schedule which includes a food and wine festival; Oktoberfest; and Winter Wonderland festivities.

But it is the Summer Games that have Tong’s attention: the Florida native was press officer for the U.S. Equestrian Teams at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. “So many of the equine athletes and riders you’re going to see at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games and Paralympics trained and competed here this spring,” she revealed.

Tong grew up riding and competing hunter/jumpers and has an affection for the powerful, playful animals.

“When I was young, my trainer had a horse who loved to escape like Houdini. He used his lips to open the stall door. We found him at the feed stall eating hay. He needed a snack,” she smiled.

Tong also described her respect for speed and soul of horses. “It is almost indescribable to feel the connection with a horse – to trust the animal and have the animal trust you – whether you’re jumping over fences or dressage, which is essentially dancing with the horse. If you have ever climbed on the back of a horse, you will have such an appreciation for how special that is.”

World Equestrian Center is a special experience. The getaway is a colorful, glamorous, Royal Ascot-style “Taj Mahal to horses” blended with the authenticity of rural barns, stately stables and split-rail fences bordering rolling pastures.

Contact Michael Patrick Shiels at MShiels@aol.com  His new book: Travel Tattler – Not So Torrid Tales, may be purchased via Amazon.com

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