Experience Horse Country Up-Close and Hands-On
Want to get behind the fences in the Horse Capital of the World™? While Ocala/Marion County is widely hailed as an international hub for breeding, nurturing and training equine champions — our area boasts six Kentucky Derby Winners and 20 Breeders’ Cup Champions — we also offer visitors the opportunity for more up-close experiences. Here’s a primer on how to spend a rewarding day, or days, in horse country.
Mount up and ride
This one’s obvious, right? Ocala/Marion County has several operators that offer guided trail rides, allowing you to enjoy the fun and freedom of horseback riding while taking in the stunning natural beauty of the area.
Cactus Jack’s Trail Rides, located 10 miles due south of Historic Downtown Ocala, offers guided horseback riding for individuals, families and groups of up to 30 people — 365 days a year — through picturesque Cross Florida Greenway State Park. Most of Cactus Jack’s 48 horses are rescues, and are rotated to provide them sufficient rest.
Makin’ Tracks Trail Rides is based in Ft. McCoy on the western edge of the Ocala National Forest. This outfitter is unique in that its tour menu includes a three-hour river ride that puts you on a horse while it swims. It’s exciting, refreshing and you can dive into the water from the horse’s haunches. They don’t mind a bit.
Trail rides at The Canyons Zip Line & Canopy Tours, an adventure center seven miles north of downtown Ocala, distinguish themselves with elevation changes of 100 feet or more not found elsewhere in Florida. You also get to ride down into Big Cliff Canyon and Sky High Canyon, experiencing some of the most remarkable lake, woodside, and cliff top views you’ve ever seen.
Trot over to the Florida Horse Park
A fitting attraction for the Horse Capital of the World™, this 500-acre jewel offers everything equestrian, and then some. The facility presents more than 250 events a year, from all manner of equine competitions and shows to rodeos and car shows. The park is home to a dozen trailheads that connect to the Cross Florida Greenway. Book a horse ride at nearby Cactus Jack’s, or hike or bike through a vast expanse of Sunshine State fauna. Florida Horse Park is centrally located, just 10 miles south of downtown Ocala.
Take a carriage tour
Based at Kimberden farm — a beautiful, 55-acre hunter & jumper training facility amid Ocala’s finest farms and estates — Horse Country Carriage Co. provides guided tours in quaint, comfortable carriages. Your horse-loving driver/guide will fill your head with info and history, and you can interact with the many horses that greet you along the fence lines. Groups of 10 or more enjoy lunch on the farm’s beautiful patio, which overlooks the riding area. After the tour, feel free to hang around and watch riders train their horses and practice their skills. While you’re there, be sure to feed carrots or peppermint treats to the farm’s horses — they’re always hungry, and always friendly!
Take a farm tour — it’s golden
Gypsy Gold Farm is home to the distinctly beautiful Gypsy Vanner horse, a black-and-white breed brought to Ocala by Dennis and Cindy Thompson after encountering one on a trip to England in 1995. Dennis leads two-hour tours on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 10 a.m. He’ll explain the history of the breed, from its discovery in Great Britain to its growth here in America. During a walking tour of the farm, you’ll meet beautiful stallions, mares and foals, as well as other animals. Bring your own carrots to offer up a treat, and be sure to take a selfie with a Gypsy Vanner horse. Gypsy Gold is 23 miles south of downtown Ocala.
In case it rains …
Florida’s famous downpours usually don’t last long, but if you encounter one of those rainy days, you can still have a fun and informative equine experience. Just five miles west of downtown, across the street from Ocala International Airport, you’ll find the Florida Thoroughbred Museum & Gallery — easily identified by the bright, multi-colored horse sculpture near its entrance. Learn about the history and promotion of the thoroughbred and Ocala/Marion County’s status as the Horse Capital of the World™. Behold the trophy won by Florida’s first Kentucky Derby winner, Needles (1956), and the Affirmed Collection that honors the 1978 Triple Crown winner. The facility also features an extensive gallery of original art. Admission is free, although a donation to the Florida Thoroughbred Charities horse retirement farm is always encouraged.
There’s nothing quite like a terrific meal and drinks on a rainy day. Out on wide-open Route 27, eight miles northwest of downtown Ocala, you’ll find the equine-themed Horse & Hound. Situated in a lovely, steep-roofed house with lots of rich wood furnishings, the restaurant has the feel of a real English pub. Even the food makes you feel like you’re across the pond, with a delicious menu of prime rib, fish & chips, braised lamb and other hearty British and American cuisine.