The World Equestrian Center Ocala is definitely a game changer.
January’s long-awaited official opening of the facility is ready to set a standard that is about more than just upping the equestrian ante in Florida.
“It’s going to be second to none in the world,” declared Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn. “It’s good for the entire industry that this is happening.”
Although Ocala has several showgrounds, the area tends to be better known for its thoroughbred breeding farms. That may well change when WEC gets going. The 678-acre WEC (second in size only to the Kentucky Horse Park in the U.S.) has 2,500 acres earmarked for future expansion, and more property set aside for development.
WEC, which also has a venue in Wilmington, Ohio, encompasses the vision of a dynamic family: Larry Roberts, his wife, Mary, and their son, Roby. The Roberts, who own shipping company R+L Carriers, all are passionate about horses ‒ an attribute reflected in the extensive thought and efficient design that has gone into WEC Ocala.
They gained a reputation for quality with the well-established Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club, and its residential component. Mayor Guinn noted Golden Ocala “has a $2.7 billion impact on the community every year. Think of when WEC opens what that’s going to mean to the community. It’s obviously going to be much larger.”
Roby maintains, “We’re shifting the paradigm in equestrian sports with development of a truly state-of-the-art, resort-style venue.”
A Purpose-Built Dream
The sheer size of the property and what is being built there was jaw-dropping when I took a tour last month. It’s a purpose-built dream, laid out to include everything showgoers and their mounts could want.
Highlights are hotels, including a 5-star centerpiece; a three-acre stadium, an array of rings as part of 1.5 million square feet of riding space, a chapel, shops and restaurants. There is also a residential component, World Equestrian Estates, three-acre parcels that can be combined for buyers who want larger farms.
And that’s not all.
“We have two flex buildings [250×450] with concrete floors that can be transformed for non-equestrian events such as dog shows [the Golden Retriever Club of America National Specialty event will be featured during the venue’s soft opening in October], car shows or sporting events like archery, basketball or gymnastics,” said Roby.
“Our goal is to have a mix of equestrian or non-equestrian events, so that WEC Ocala will be a more interesting venue for the whole family to visit,” noted Roby, who said a water park may be a future addition.
“Having those facilities on the grounds opens up so many other opportunities, not just the obvious thing of being able to stay right at the venue, but to really offer something for people to come and have an experience,” commented Jon Garner, Equestrian Canada’s former director of sport, who is serving WEC as an advisor on FEI matters.
“You could run five different disciplines there if you wanted to; that’s one of the beauties of the place,” he commented.
A World-Class Calendar
There has been much speculation about what kind of hunter/jumper shows WEC will be hosting. HITS has a winter series in Ocala, and Live Oak offers a week of jumper competition nearby in March, so available dates have been a big question in the minds of the equestrian community.
“We’ve filed for dates with USEF (the U.S. Equestrian Federation) and we’ll see what happens,” said Roby, noting WEC has filed for some FEI dates as well, seeking to hold “premier competitions that will [bring] people from all over the world.”
As Jon mentioned, “The hunter/jumper dates are a key piece to it, and I think once we know where they’re going to slot in, then some of the other pieces will fall in around them.”
But it’s important to remember the big picture, since WEC’s reach is far broader.
“The plan for WEC Ocala has always been to accommodate multiple disciplines and breeds, just as we do at our Ohio facility,” Roby said, observing that there is “plenty of room for different types of events,” with the ability to host several at the same time.
He noted, “WEC Ocala will be open and available for any national or international event that seeks to move to Ocala. We have already had conversations with organizers of top equestrian events and we welcome discussions with others who are interested in hosting their event at our facility.”
Dressage Riders and Eventers Welcome
Both dressage and eventing will have roles at WEC, he noted, saying “A big part of our future will be to accommodate those disciplines.”
Many eventers base themselves in Ocala for the winter, so doing something for them is an obvious target.
Meanwhile, in the East, the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida, is a draw for the biggest U.S. names in that discipline, as well as many foreign competitors.
But being in the same ring week after week means top horses aren’t always prepared for a change of scene, as when they go to Europe during the summer, where the shows often involve the U.S. selection process for the Olympics and other championship teams.
“I think it would be fantastic for our horses to see a different ring,” said U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor Debbie McDonald.
“We have a good thing, but sometimes the convenience of just staying home is not always the best. When (especially) a greener horse only sees one ring and then goes to compete in Europe, having only known one arena is not always beneficial. Horses and riders need a change of scenery.”
A Slice of Heaven for Horses
On the equine amenities side at WEC, there is open space for grazing on grass that springs from limestone-rich soil (good for the bones), in a climate that is less humid than that of more-developed Southeast Florida, home of the Winter Equestrian Festival, Global and several other show series in an area where land is at a premium.
“We have more than 200 paddocks on the property. This will allow horses to have some freedom from the stress of competition, along with a safe place to relax, stretch and play,” Roby pointed out. “We have miles of hacking trails throughout the property, so that horses can get out to stroll and relax away from the show environment.”
On the safety side, “We take biosecurity very seriously,” he said. “Our stabling features concrete block walls, which are more sanitary and easier to disinfect the individual stalls. We have metal doors that come down in between barns, in case we need to stop the spread of an infectious disease or quarantine horses in a certain barn.”
Horses will be monitored 24/7 by security cameras placed throughout the barns, as well as an on-site security team.
There are giant doors at the entrance of each barn, where each has eight 24′ fans as well as fans in each individual stall, which combine to encourage the flow of fresh air throughout the stabling. The rubber-matted main barn aisles are 12 feet wide and have a hot/cold water spigot at each end. All of the indoor arenas have a state-of-the-art air filtration system.
Hunter/jumper trainer/rider Robin Rost Brown, who is spending eight months in Ocala this year with her husband, trainer Otis Brown, thought climate-controlled indoor arenas might make showing possible during the hot Florida summers, which could add another facet to WEC’s approach.
Equine welfare is a personal matter for Roby and his wife, Jennie. They have a 16-year-old daughter, Sofia, who does the equitation, junior hunters and junior jumpers. Their equine family includes warmbloods, minis, a Gypsy vanner and donkeys.
“I tuck every one of our horses into bed every night,” said Roby, who offers them treats in an evening ritual with Sofia.
Asked about the difference between the facilities in Ocala and Ohio (where a sign over the entrance says, “Welcome Home Equestrians,” Roby explained that in Wilmington, “We renovated an existing facility…and have made a big investment in amenities, so that helps to make a great experience for what is essentially the prototype for Ocala. People say to me – `You have a nice facility’ and my response is – `It is not mine – it is ours – it belongs to you too.’ I think when people realize I mean that, it affects them in a positive way.”