When you think of horses—whether it be breeding and raising or racing and showing them—there are a few locations that come to mind. One that should definitely be on that list—and certainly close to the top—is Ocala/Marion.
Horses have been a part of Florida for decades, with the first thoroughbred horse farm established back in 1943. Over the years, the region has opened many more farms and produced many award-winning Florida-bred and Florida-raised horses, many of which have competed in and won the Kentucky Derby; one even took home the Triple Crown.
Now, Ocala/Marion is home to more than 600 horse farms spread over 70,000 acres of rolling meadows and proudly holds the title of “horse capital of the world,” a claim that only a select few destinations can make.
“The reasons that has come to fruition is because of all the events that have come here,” says Loretta Shaffer, executive director of the Ocala/Marion County Visitors and Convention Bureau. “It’s really all the disciplines that set us apart, that diversity of breeds that come here.”
The region has certainly hosted a multitude of events. It was the training site for the U.S. national equestrian team and the Southern Regional Pacific Extravaganza. One of the biggest events, held at Post Time Farm, is H.I.T.S or Horse Shows in the Sun, a dressage/jumper event that has been going on since 1982. It draws visitors from all over the world, such as Canada, Mexico and Europe, bringing thousands of international competitors to Ocala every year. Other events held in the area include the Florida Outlaws, endurance rides, barrel races, jumper shows, parades and rodeos, just to name a few.
What allows Ocala/Marion to host all of these diverse events? A wide range of high-quality equestrian venues. One of the largest facilities, owned by the county and the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, is the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion, which has been an icon since 1945. Sports planners are constantly attracted to this venue thanks to its affordability and impeccable upkeep.
Florida Horse Park is another top sports venue in Ocala/Marion. The 500-acre facility draws many world-class events that bring top competitors globally to the park. And the region continues to invest in the future of the park. In fact, some $2 million has been given to the park in order to build on its current success, according to Shaffer.
A relatively new venue is BG Farms, known mostly for hosting Arabian national horse shows, as well as having full horse boarding and care for visitors. The covered pavilion and large mansion on site make it a great place not only for major competitions, but also for smaller equine retreats.
An organization that has a major presence and influence in the equestrian industry is the Ocala Breeder’s Sales (OBS) Company. Its venue features a covered arena, three outdoor arenas and over 400 stalls. It is a perfect sports facility for large horse shows and races, as well as equine-related event opportunities.
With the wide variety of top-of-the-line equestrian facilities in Ocala/Marion, it can be difficult for planners and organizers to pick the right one for their needs. But the team at the convention and visitors bureau offers a helping hand throughout the planning process.
“We’re a one-stop shop for meeting planners,” Shaffer says. The bureau handles everything from rental and hotel rates and matching groups with the best venues, to sending RFPs to attractions so guests get to do everything they want when they visit. “
We really set up the itinerary and roll out the red carpet,” says Shaffer. “That is a free service that we offer, it’s what we’re here to do to make sure they have the best experience possible in Marion County.”
This top service, combined with quality venues and a diverse mix of events, really sets Ocala/Marion apart and significantly helps boost the local economy. And while there are many other attractions that attract tourists, the equine industry has become an important part of the community, and this is a message the region wants to promote. Recently, the CVB rebranded Marion County, and a new horse head logo now appears on the website that is meant to not only differentiate the area from competitors, but also show how it has stayed true to its evolution through the equestrian community.
This growth and new brand development could not be possible without the passion, dedication and support of the local community, businesses and the facilities. The equestrian industry continues to grow in Ocala/Marion and the community, as a whole, has been incredibly inclusive and willing to take the county to the next level, Shaffer says.
“It really is a hidden jewel,” she continues. “It’s a very authentic community, the folks here are so friendly, and it’s really exciting to see them growing and being receptive to growing.”
Ocala/Marion County has advanced through the years, becoming a top destination for major equestrian events and raising the bar when it comes to service, dedication and heart. So whether you are looking to host a thrilling horse race, or want to showcase a horse’s strength and poise in jumping events, or create a show-stopping barrel race competition, then Ocala/Marion is the ideal equestrian destination.
For more information on holding an equine—or any sports event—in Ocala/Marion, check out the website or call 800-356-2252 to speak with a member of the bureau team.
−By Vanessa Day