Join the horsey set at The Equestrian Hotel in Ocala

Embrace all things equine at this horse-themed resort in Florida.

When it comes to Florida, most people think of theme parks with costumed characters, lush palm trees, citrus groves and beaches filled with sun-worshipers and water sports enthusiasts. But there’s so much more to the Sunshine State, including a new $800-million-dollar resort in the small central Florida town of Ocala that is putting equestrian travel on the map.

Long known as horse country, with nearly 1,000 thoroughbred farms and training centers, Ocala and surrounding Marion County was officially named Horse Capital of the World in 2007, one of only five cities permitted to use that title based on annual revenue produced by the horse industry. The industry there employs roughly 40,000 people, generates more than $2.5 billion in annual revenue and has produced dozens of national champions, including six Kentucky Derby winners and two Triple Crown winners.

In 2020, Ralph “Larry” and Mary Roberts, trucking magnates who parlayed their portfolio into their passion for all things equine, built the 380-acre World Equestrian Center.

Credit: Ethan Tweedie

Credit: Ethan Tweedie

Ten miles west of Ocala, it appears to rise out of the horizon like a mirage, a horse lover’s dream featuring massive indoor and outdoor arenas, paddocks and stables. The 128,000-square-foot Grand Arena is the hub for equine events, including hunter/jumper, dressage, barrel racing, reining and Western riding competitions, as well as various breed shows. The facility features covered grandstands, two 30x60 LED Jumbotrons and alfresco dining options serving tacos, pizza, burgers, ice cream and more.

And now all those spectators, trainers and competitors who flock here for shows have a luxe place to stay thanks to the Roberts’ new venture, The Equestrian Hotel, which opened last year.

From the moment you walk into the lobby — with its soaring 20-foot ceilings, marble floors, dozens of glimmering Swarovski crystal chandeliers, grand piano, plush leather and animal-print inspired chairs and sofas, oversized stone fireplace and all-white walls covered with oil paintings of dogs — you know you’ve entered a world of luxury and elegance.

Credit: Ethan Tweedie

Credit: Ethan Tweedie

The 248-room hotel spans five floors and features décor inspired by neoclassical French architecture and an equestrian theme apparent in the animal-inspired carpeting, horse lamps, fox hunt memorabilia and equestrian artwork.

The spacious, white-walled guest rooms are appointed with black furnishings, haberdashery-inspired upholstery and charming little touches like drawer pulls with bridle bit and stirrup hardware, lamps with bases that resemble trophies, throw pillows with leather saddle trim and Riders at Rest door hangers. The oversized marble bathrooms ooze luxury, especially those select rooms that have claw-foot tubs. Half of the rooms overlook the World Equestrian Center’s Grand Arena, giving guests in these rooms front-row seats to all the competitive action.

For a fine dining experience, Stirrups, overseen by Chef Ryker Brown, is a classic Southern-inspired steakhouse. Serving prime steaks and chops along with Florida seafood and regional specialties such as black-eyed pea salad, shrimp and grits, and fried chicken, the stunning dining room, with its gas fireplace, white décor and white leather chairs, oil paintings and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Grand Arena is almost as delicious as the food.

Credit: JAMES LASALLE

Credit: JAMES LASALLE

The 6,000-bottle wine program is headed up by Roland Micu, who, at the age of 28, became one of the youngest master sommeliers in the world. Stirrups also serves breakfast and a weekend brunch, along with alfresco VIP viewing and dining experiences on the patio on select evening competitions.

Other dining options include Yellow Pony Pub & Garden, a saloon-style gastropub with saddle barstools and a garden patio, and Emma’s Patisserie, a classic French bakery that serves a full menu of coffee drinks, macarons and a wide selection of European-inspired confections.

Hotel amenities include a fitness center, a zero-entry heated pool including a poolside bar and kid’s splash pad, a topiary garden and Calluna Spa, a 7,000-square-foot salon and spa with a full menu of body treatments and services.

Credit: Meagan Gumpert

Credit: Meagan Gumpert

And for the shoppers, there are plenty of high-end specialty shops throughout the complex, complementing the aspirational lifestyle of the world of equestrian.

Within the hotel, The Debonair Collection features unique goods from all over the world inspired by the owners’ travels, including custom home scents (which are used throughout the hotel and guest rooms), leather goods, feather bow ties, hand-forged knives and jewelry.

Lugano Diamonds creates exquisite, one-of-a kind custom jewelry, and Mr. Pickles & Sailor Bear Toy Shoppe appeals to the kid in all of us.

Other shops selling equestrian clothing, accessories and home goods are located throughout the World Equestrian Center complex.

Whether it’s your first foray into equestrian pursuits or you’re a seasoned horse enthusiast, The Equestrian Hotel at the World Equestrian Center is an equine wonderland that defies preconceived notions of the Sunshine State.


IF YOU GO

Ocala, Florida, is a 365-mile drive south of Atlanta via I-75. Or fly direct to Orlando and drive 80 miles northwest via I-75.

World Equestrian Center. 2022 Fall Show Series featuring USEF Hunter/Jumper competition Dec. 7-18. 2023 Winter Spectacular Show Series featuring USEF Hunter/Jumper competition Jan. 4-March 26. All events are free. 1750 NW 809th Ave., Ocala, Florida. 352-414-7900, www.worldequestriancenter.com.

The Equestrian Hotel. $313-$3,500 per night. Stirrups, entrees $33-$110. 8510 NW 17th Lane, Ocala, Florida. 352-414-7900 or 866-478-9267, www.equestrianhotel.com.