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Ocala's stables make Florida area popular with breeders and lovers of horses

By Judy Wells
Sunday, February 21, 2010; F07

Buddy waited patiently, his huge brown eyes glued to the plastic packet in my hand. The lady with the dog had fed him one cookie, and so had I, but the clever Clydesdale knew that Mrs. Pastures Cookies for Horses are packaged in threes. He had another treat coming.

Buddy has had many treats since being saved from an abusive situation seven years ago by the general manager of the Hilton Ocala. He has lived in the paddock behind the nine-story hotel ever since, giving carriage rides to guests and tickling youngsters' hands as they feed him the cookies, available for free at the front desk.

Like countless other horses, Buddy has found life in Florida's horse country to be about as good as it gets. Humans like it, too, especially horse-crazy little girls and boys. Also grown-up ones like me.

The gently rolling grassy hills shaded by moss-hung oaks don't look like classic Florida vacation surroundings, but for avid equestrians or casual horse lovers, they are heaven on earth. The world's largest concentration of horseflesh -- 45 breeds in 1,200 breeding and training stables on 70,000 acres -- can be found within a 50-mile radius of Ocala in Marion County, a Rhode Island-size expanse of central Florida. Lexington, Ky., may have a few more thoroughbreds than Ocala's 35,300, but when other breeds are factored in, Ocala's claim to be the "Horse Capital of the World" holds. At a population of 57,000, horses don't quite outnumber people (more than 330,000) in Ocala and its county, but they are the dominating influence.

Take the January day I visited. As I fed Buddy at 9:30 that morning, 500 of the expected 3,500 to 4,000 horses expected for this month's ongoing HITS (Horse Shows in the Sun) hunter/jumper show at Post Time Farm were already arriving for practice.

At the Ocala Breeders' Sales complex, visitors were examining 168 thoroughbreds, eyeing them in the walking paddock or bidding on them in the auction room in the first of eight annual sales. Access is free to all, but taking home a thoroughbred that day cost anywhere from $1,000 to $105,000, so watch where you wave.

The busiest part of the day was already over at Ocala Stud, a combination mating service, maternity ward, nursery, grammar and high school plus rehab facility for thoroughbreds. The 180 2-year-olds in training had finished their workouts and lessons on the 3/4 -mile oval by 9:30 and were being cooled down, washed, walked and returned to stalls, pastures or individual paddocks.

"Morning is the primary visiting time," said farm manager Bob Noble. "It's a swirl of activity, like a well-choreographed routine."

Yearling colts were grazing in one field, fillies in another. Stallions were taking it easy in the barn, as were the other racehorses stabled here for remedial work, medical treatment or just a vacation from the stresses of training and competing.

Visitors are welcome here, too. Drive in, stop by the office and then see up close and personal what it takes to breed, raise and race a thoroughbred. Keep in mind that this is a working farm, not a showplace. Barns and tack are immaculately clean, but don't expect fancy brass plates or paved, landscaped paths.

Later in the morning, carriage wheels were rolling as I drove up to the Florida Carriage Museum and Resort, a 400-acre complex in Weirsdale, just south of Ocala. A girl was driving a pony, a man in a larger cart was working with a Gypsy Vanner, and in a large ring, the Canadian equestrian four-in-hand team was training for competition at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky this fall.

I could have spent half a day with the 165 European and American carriages exhibited here, ranging from the ornate 1850 Armbruster dress chariot once owned by Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph to a tiny 1785 Venetian sediola, one of only 11 in the world. But I also wanted to see the horses.

Of the 100 in 10 barns on the property, 18 are permanent residents. The owners of the visiting horses often fill pages of international Who's Whos, and many stay in cottages scattered about the "Bed and Barn." I didn't have time to take in the resort, the carriage rides, the riding and driving lessons or the fitness classes, so I gave Nicolette, the Poitou donkey, and her best friend, Gracie, a miniature horse, a pat, admired Gordon, the black Friesian on whom the model horses in the museum are based, and drove on to my next stop.

The working day was over for the Gypsy Vanners at Gypsy Gold Farm by the time I arrived. (Note to self: Get a GPS unit.) The gentle giants weren't doing much of anything except munching hay and getting it caught in their long tresses. Elsewhere, quarter horses, Arabians, Morgans, Paso Finos and Andalusians were being put through their paces.

Horse lovers will itch to put a leg over a steed. Several stables offer trail rides, including one on smooth-gaited Paso Finos. Most make use of the Cross Florida Greenway Land Bridge over Interstate 75, the nation's only equestrian overpass across a six-lane highway.

In downtown Ocala, I found ample outlets for foodies and shoppers. La Cuisine has a Florida Trend Golden Spoon award, Stella's Modern Pantry satisfies your sweet tooth, carnivores love Mark's Prime, and Pi on Broadway is known for its tapas, pizza and beer. The Paddock Room is an Ocala institution for all gifts horsey. In the eclectic collection at the Appleton Museum of Art, I admired equestrian-themed works, from romantic portraits of Arabians to staid British hunting scenes and a beautifully glazed Tang dynasty horse. And around town, 36 life-size, painted fiberglass horse statues are constant reminders of the area's claim to fame.

But the true draw here remains the real thing. As Winston Churchill said, "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."

Wells, a freelance travel writer in Jacksonville, Fla., blogs at http://www.travelonthelevel.blogspot.com.

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