In a Fast-Growing City, the Pursuit of Greatness
The largest equestrian complex in the United States is doing big things in a rural part of Florida.
ON a warm afternoon in early April, traveling on the backroads of a quiet Central Florida city, where open fields sprout wild flowers and mini ranches boast horses, goats, emus, and a few zebras, there is plenty of space– and even more opportunity.
This is Ocala — located in Marion County, 65 miles northwest of Orlando and just south of Gainesville — named officially in 2007 as the “Horse Capital of the World,” a title not simply given, but earned. Countless championship horses were bred, born and raised here, going back to 1956 when the first Florida-bred horse, Needles, won the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah and Affirmed, also have deep roots to the area, solidifying the county’s long and lasting legacy in equestrian events, competitions, and legendary horses.
Now, there’s a few reasons why a place like Marion County produces robust animals and a thriving equestrian industry. One reason lies in the soil, specifically limestone, an important mineral for whole-body health and strong bones. In this specific area of Florida, the land is rich with it, similar to the Bluegrass region of Kentucky– the heart and soul of Thoroughbred breeding in North America.
But there’s more to Marion County than soil; there’s community. For decades Ocala has been a home to not only championship horses but to a booming equine industry, hosting nationally recognized equestrian events and facilities such as Horses In the Sun (HITS), the Live Oak Combined Driving Event, the Sunshine State Games Equestrian Classic, and others.
More recently, in 2021, a new complex, the World Equestrian Center (WEC) opened its gates – opening up opportunities – to local and international equine professionals and horse owners, setting up Ocala as a top contender in shows like hunter/jumper, dressage, eventing, polo and various breed programs. Sporting events, expositions, and canine events also take place at the 300-acre facility where 15 outdoor rings and five climate-controlled indoor arenas provide ample space for competition and conventions.
The drive to the facility is typical for these parts of Florida where nondescript backroads — bordered with plots of undeveloped land, roaming cattle, and ranch homes sitting quietly by — paint a picture of an unassuming, peaceful life. But after taking a few left and right turns, there lies, just ahead, a large construction site before the facility’s main entrance, and in the near distance, an expansive and rather lavish, white hotel, which by design, sets a powerful tone for a place in obvious pursuit of greatness. To be sure, there is nothing ordinary about the World Equestrian Center on NW 80th Avenue. It is, in fact, extraordinary.
Prior to building the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, the late trucking magnate Ralph L. ‘Larry’ Roberts Sr. and his family created the World Equestrian Center Wilmington (formerly known as Roberts Arena) in addition to the Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club, a 1300 acre luxury golf and equestrian community. With his roots in the Ocala region well situated, Mr. Roberts embarked on a journey to build a world-class, multi-indoor and outdoor venue with cutting edge amenities, including the The Equestrian Hotel, a 248-room resort offering luxury shopping, fine dining, and more
But those are just words. In order to fully experience the site, you need to visit and walk the grounds, either during an event or on a quieter day like today. In fact, without the sights and sounds of live horse shows or crowds milling about, the facility feels curiously like a museum or national landmark. Maybe it’s the flag entrance and towering warhorse sculpture of ‘Staff Sergeant Reckless’ that greets you at the 128,000 square-foot Grand Outdoor Arena, creating a sense of awe and wonder and power.
Perhaps it’s the large LED walls on either side or the extravagant views just beyond. Maybe it’s the Indoor Florida Show Arenas or Jumper Village to the north and Hunter Land to the west. Or could it be The Equestrian Hotel’s grand lobby with its 20-foot ceilings, crystal chandeliers, and Italian porcelain throughout, invoking a feeling of greatness and splendor.
Maybe it’s all of these things and something else not yet mentioned — the presence of God.
Throughout the facility, stretching over the grounds, and woven into the infrastructure itself, are messages of the eternal and divine. In every corner of the complex, you’ll find baskets of hand-carved wood crosses available for visitors to take home, creating the impression that the Roberts family has a bigger mission in mind – hearts and souls. There’s also a large outdoor cross standing tall and sturdy in an impeccable green-grass lawn behind the hotel. And, then, there’s the stone chapel.
The Chapel, located on a site chosen by Mary Roberts, features stained glass windows, Swarovski crystal chandeliers and pointed arches, where every detail of architectural design demonstrates a meticulous level of care and reverence to the heavens. Visitors – whether equestrians, spectators or locals – will find doors that are always open.
Larger Visions for Ocala
Despite opening its facility during the height of the COVID pandemic in 2021, the WEC is now a focal point for equestrian sporting events and horse shows in Florida, a state undergoing substantial population growth with an increase between 2021 and 2022 of 1.9% to 22,244,823, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. Ocala is going – and growing - right along with the trend.
According to the Director of Equestrian Operations at WEC, Christina Baxter, Ocala is one of the fastest growing areas in the country, emerging as a place that will continue to prosper for years to come.
To meet the region’s needs, WEC is quickly expanding not only in size, but in scope, appealing to equestrian athletes, professionals and retirees looking for more space and opportunity to grow.
On the southeast corner of the venue, a 400 room hotel along with an event center, including restaurants and meeting space, is under construction and two additional arenas on the west side of the property are now complete, with plans for more development on the way, Baxter says.
Of course, the facility offers more than equestrian sports and shows, although horses are the number one priority. “WEC hosts many other events such as volleyball tournaments, car and boat shows, dog shows and different industry expos,” Baxter said. “We provide the space and amenities needed for large events and meetings.”
While Ocala is growing – and fast – finding space and real estate isn’t yet a problem, unlike the higher-density regions of South Florida, making this part of the state attractive to horse professionals seeking a quieter life with high-quality equestrian facilities and community support. “WEC has built a brand where it welcomes the best equestrian athletes in the world to compete,” she said. “But it’s also a place of community for local residents and horse lovers as well.”
Indeed, growth, as most Floridians will tell you, is inevitable, and as the state’s population continues to rise, the horse community will grow along with it. The World Equestrian Center, without a doubt, is planning on it.
THE NEIGHBORLY | FLORIDA | PALM BEACH is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free subscriber. Or you can even buy me a cup of coffee and receive extra monthly perks.
For more information about the World Equestrian Center, visit their website.
Beautifully written and love the photography. Thank you for such an in-depth and informative article about the amazing World Equestrian Center and Ocala’s love of horses.