HORSES IN THE SUN
“The way to heaven is on horseback.”
Florida and horses came together when the Spanish Conquistadors landed near Augustine. The descendants of the horses these soldiers and explorers rode are Cracker horses found throughout North and Central Florida. Today’s Florida horses range from pets to racing champions, a testament to the soil, vegetation and environment of the Sunshine State. Horses, according to many, have a spiritual magnetism that beneficially affects us.
HORSE CAPITAL OF THE WORLD
Central Florida’s Ocala and Marion County, www.ocalacc.com, claim the distinction as “Horse Capital of the World.” Home to more than 200 farms and training centers devoted to breeding, training and showing breeds such as the Thoroughbred, Paso Fino, Missouri Fox trotter, Arabian, Morgan, miniature horse, quarter horse, hunter/jumper, and the gentle giant draft horses. Between 45 and 50 different breeds are represented in the area, with nearly 29,000 employed in the county's Thoroughbred. Central Florida Thoroughbreds consistently finish first in 20 percent of the foremost stakes races in the U.S. and are counted among Triple Crown, Breeders' Cup, Belmont Stakes, Preakness and Kentucky Derby winners.
The "Horse Shows in the Sun" is one of the largest hunter/jumper events in the United States. This five-week spring competition held at the grounds on U.S. 27, northwest of Ocala, brings the area an estimated $30 million with more than 2,000 horses participating.
Just up the road near Gainesville is Paynes Prairie, www.floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie, providing a rich array of habitats for wildlife, including alligators, bison, wild horses and over 270 species of birds. The Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail stretches 16 miles through the park for walking, cycling and horseback riding
A work in progress, the R.O. Ranch Equestrian Park in Mayo, Florida envisions a natural and cultural setting that will showcase the beauty and simplicity of North Central Florida. Set in the Florida Cracker style of the 1920s, visitors will experience original Florida with cracker cows grazing, the smell of flowering magnolias, the sounds of rustling cabbage palms, a horseback ride down one of the many trails inspiring the visitor to reflect on past and present-day living.
Located in the Red Hills bioregion of lush landscapes and rolling hills, Tallahassee is a near-perfect place for equestrian pursuits where horse farms are plentiful. A signature Tallahassee event, the annual Red Hills Horse Trails, www.rhht.org, is an international qualifying competition on the road to the Olympics. Trails Include Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park, Maclay Gardens State Park and the Lake Overstreet trails.
Dixie Plantation is located in Greenville, the Florida city where singer Ray Charles spent a good bit of his childhood. A quail hunting preserve, Dixie raises and trains bird dogs, primarily English Pointers. Because of the comfortable gaits, stamina, and ability to keep up with the bird dogs, Tennessee Walking Horses are the breed of choice for field trials. Dixie’s Livingston family owned the champion Tennessee walking horse Midnight Sun, siring more champions than any other walking horse in history. Dixie maintains a herd of walking horses and many are direct descendants of Midnight Sun. www.dixieplantation.org.
Florida’s equestrian heritage precedes the creation of America, connecting Old and New World love of horses from riding to racing and breeding. This is a growing tradition, and when you look around, you’ll find that riding and event opportunities are almost everywhere in Florida.
Editor's Note: Natural North Florida is a wonderful website providing even more useful and detailed information: www.naturalnorthflorida.com.