All work and no play makes Ocala a pretty dull place to be. Taking a personal day every now and again can keep you fresh and on your A-game in the tack. Here are five ideas, some horsey and some not, for fun ways to spend your day off.
Hit the Beach
Galloping along a sun-drenched beach with the sparkling surf lapping at your horse’s feet … that’s the stuff of equestrian fantasy, especially this time of the year.
Amelia Island is about two-and-a-half hours northeast of Ocala, close-ish to Jacksonville, and it’s horse (and dog!) friendly. There’s beachside trailer parking at Peter’s Point Park (600 Peters Point Road / Fernandina Beach, FL 32034), and this time of the year you’ll have the place pretty much to yourself. With 13 miles of sandy seashore to explore, this is a true bucket-list experience.
Call the Little Talbot Island ranger station at (904) 251-2320 prior to visiting for more information.
Spend an Afternoon at HITS
There were several eventers in the crowd at last Sunday’s $50,000 HITS Grand Prix, and the exciting turn-and-burn jump-off had us all on the edges of our seats. There’s plenty to learn from our show jumping brethren.
In its 38th year running, HITS Ocala is a prime winter destination for hunter-jumper snowbirds, with 10 weeks of National and Premier-rated hunters, 5* and 6* jumpers and two USHJA International Hunter Derbies. The circuit culminates each March with the Great American $1 Million Grand Prix.
The venue, Post Time Farm (13710 US Highway 27 / Ocala, FL 34482), has some of the prettiest arenas in the country, shaded by live oaks dripping with Spanish moss. Peruse the tack vendors, admire the swanky stall setups, and on your way out be sure to stop by infamous watering hole The Beach for a cold one.
For more information and a calendar of upcoming Grand Prix classes, visit the HITS Ocala website here.
Other equestrian events to check out: combined driving at Live Oak International on March 7-10 (there’s a $100,000 Longines FEI World Cup Jumping Qualifier Grand Prix on Sunday as well) and an Ocala Breeders’ Sale (the next one runs Jan. 29 – 30).
Speaking of racing, there are more than 600 Thoroughbred farms in the Ocala/Marion County area, and several offer tours — click here for a directory.
Swim with Manatees
Ocala isn’t just a winter destination for eventers! More than 400 manatees migrate to nearby Crystal River, about an hour from Ocala, during the winter months to escape the cold waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
A number of Crystal River outfitters offer visitors an opportunity to get up close and personal with these gentle creatures, as this is one of the only places in Florida where you’re legally permitted to swim with manatees in their natural habitat. Many will rent you a kayak, wet suit and snorkel/mask, give you a map, and send you on your way to explore the area’s turquoise blue water for a few hours, or you can opt for a guided tour.
Keep your eyes peeled for manatees, particularly near designated protected springs, and feel free to hop on in as the springs flow at a constant 72 degrees year-round. The area is also great for birdwatching, and when we went last week we even had a close encounter with a dolphin!
You’re clearly predisposed to seeking out adrenaline rushes, so skydiving should be right up your alley. Several eventers, including EN’s own Jenni Autry (see photo above), have taken the leap at Skydive DeLand and returned with rave reviews.
Located about an hour and 15 minutes from Ocala, Skydive DeLand (1600 Flightline Boulevard / DeLand, FL 32724) is a full-service drop zone open every day of the year and offers personalized experiences for jumpers of all skill levels. Novices are in good hands going tandem, and training programs are offered if you get the itch to take it to the next level. I mean, don’t you need another expensive sport in your life?
Visit the website here.
Unwind on the Trail
A long, slow trail ride is a great way to unwind, and fortunately for equestrians Ocala is laced with bridle paths. Ocala National Forest has an impressive trail system, including the LAM (Lake/Alachua/Marion) Trail which stretches for 34 miles and is marked with yellow blazes. The Swim Pond horse trailer parking area serves as the main trailhead for all equestrian trails in the Forest. It is between Moss Bluff and Umatilla, just east of Doe Lake — see directions here.
You’ve noticed that land bridge running across I-75 on your way to the Florida Horse Park? That’s part of the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, a 110-mile nature park that crosses central Florida from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. John’s River, a destination for trail riders. Park at the Land Bridge Trailhead (11100 SW 16th Avenue / Ocala, FL 34476), which has paved parking for horse trailers, restroom facilities, a picnic area and water. Florida Horse Park also adjoins the Greenway.
Over the weekend we took the horses out for a long stroll in Goethe State Forest, which features 126 miles of multi-use trails. There are several different trailer friendly trailheads to access the Forest — find a map here.
Have an Ocala day-off suggestion? Share in the comments!