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Trot Over to Ocala...

Where horses, farms, springs and forests are the mane attractions.

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Many of Ocala's scenic horse farms are marked by miles of fences and a canopy of large oaks.
© FlaUSA.com
Just 90 minutes north of Tampa and Orlando is the heart of Florida's horse country – Ocala. Rolling hills with ancient oaks provide a canopy on sleepy back roads that is the perfect backdrop to the expansive and beautiful horse farms that make you feel like you're in Kentucky bluegrass country.

The whole town revolves around the horse business – evident even in the sights that are seen around town. Horse Fever, a public art project that displayed 51 artist-inspired full-size horses around town until their auction, raised over $800,000 for animal-related charities. Four of the artsy horses will be displayed permanently on Ocala's downtown square and many will remain in the area.

There are about 1,000 farms (approximately 600 Thoroughbred farms) within a 50-mile radius, and they attract many visitors a year. Ocala is also home to Silver Springs – the attraction made famous with its glass-bottom boats.

A Thoroughbred History

Ocala has made its mark in the horse racing industry. In the 1940s, only about a dozen horses a year were bred there for shows or racing. Today, an astounding 3,500 to 5,000 race horse are born there each year – that's about 10 percent of the nation's total – but enough for Ocala to bill itself as the Horse Capital of the World.

Needles, winner of the 1956 Kentucky Derby, was the first legend born and raised in the hills of Ocala. Affirmed, who in 1978 was the last Triple Crown winner, is an Ocala native. And, Gate Dancer, winner of the 1984 Preakness, was another that began a successful future there. This heritage of great horses has helped to make Ocala the center of Florida's horse industry.

Thoroughbreds are not the only horses to call Ocala home. Rugged Lark, a 21-year-old retired quarter horse, resides at Bo-Bett Farm where he receives visitors and fan mail. Why such a fuss over a horse? He isn't just any horse. He was named Superhorse twice and after he retired to stud, he sired two Superhorses.

Tours

Most of Ocala's farms are working farms that do not open their doors for tours, but Ocala Carriage & Tours offers horse-drawn trolley or carriage tours of area horse farms. Group and tour packages are available and reservations are necessary.

Horseback Riding

If all of this talk about horses has you in the mood for a ride, you'll want to stop by Ocala Foxtrotter. It is the kind of horse farm you would recall from "National Velvet" – 90-acres of rolling hills, miles of white fence, and beautiful horses.

Although trail riding is available daily, each Saturday, city slickers and cowboys alike arrive to saddle up for a two-hour trail ride that leads into the adjacent Greenway, a protected slice of Florida forest. Midway into the ride and after a brief rest stop at a rustic log cabin, riders cross I-75 via the nation's only equine-designed overpass. Upon returning to the ranch, everyone enjoys an afternoon barbecue with live entertainment.

Ocala National Forest

Nearby, the Ocala National Forest draws more visitors than any other national forest in the Sunshine State. Recreational opportunities abound in the peaceful, scenic surroundings of one of Florida's last remaining traces of forested land.

Several campgrounds are located in the forest, but Salt Springs, Alexander Springs, and Juniper Springs are the most developed and offer the most recreational opportunities including hiking, biking, fishing, picnicing, snorkeling, scuba diving, canoeing, and much more.

One of the newest hiking experiences in the forest is the two-mile Lake George Trail that originates at the Silver Glen Springs Recreation Area. As it meanders around the shoreline of Lake George, it offers views of wildlife, plants and trees. It ends at a picturesque scene of a rustic old pier and boat house.

The Paisley Woods Bicycle Trail is 22 miles long (there is a shorter loop that can be accessed at the halfway point) and stretches from the Alexander Springs Recreation Area on the north to Clearwater Lake on the south. The area is home to many rare and endangered species and wildlife encounters are possible – including deer and black bears.

If you're into camping, but prefer something not so far off the beaten path, there are two nice campgrounds convenient to I-75. Ocala RV Camp Resort is just off Exit 350 (Hwy. 200) and Ocala Ranch RV Park off Exit 341 (County Road 484).

Museums and More

Not far from the Silver Springs attraction is a surprising find — The Appleton Museum of Art. Originally built to display the extensive art collection of Arthur I. Appleton, the museum has expanded to include traveling exhibits, educational programs and local cultural events. While closed the month of August for remodeling, the museum will reopen by September 4. Short after that, the "Diana, Princess of Wales: Dresses for a Cause" exhibit will be placed on display from October 14 through December 30, 2007.

If cars spark your interest and you're looking for something a little different, then try Don Garlits Museum Of Drag Racing and Museum of Classic Cars. Located in a can't-miss location just off I-75 at Exit 341 (County Road 484), your admission includes both museums.

Imagine being carried back in to the time of horse-drawn carriages. The Florida Carriage Museum features one of the most comprehensive collections of antique carriages in the world — over 150 of them — housed in four climate-controlled galleries. The museum is set within the 400-plus acre Grand Oaks Resort in nearby Weirsdale which offers cottage accommodations for you and barns for your horse. Of course, you donn't have to bring a horse to enjoy the beautiful rolling grounds.

Bottom Line

Whether you're on vacation or looking for a weekend retreat, quit horsing around... trot on over to Ocala! Enjoy the scenic farms, sparkling Silver Springs, the nearby Ocala National Forest and more!

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