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This Unexpected Retreat Might Be the R&R You Didn’t Know You Needed

Two friends discover the magic of hanging with horses in Florida’s horse country.

Anxious and annoyed after missing my first exit—why had I decided driving the 109 miles from Tampa International Airport to The Equestrian Hotel in Ocala was a better idea than flying to Gainesville Regional Airport less than 45 miles from Ocala?—I soldiered on, determined to make the best of a weekend away that I was already beginning to regret.

“You’re going where?” my husband had asked when I told him of my plans to check out the equestrian-themed resort in the middle of a state he had fled long ago.

“Oh, I didn’t realize you were so into horses,” said a close friend, who only nodded when I went on to explain that, in fact, I wasn’t that into horses. I had nothing against the animals but no real connection either.

Still, I was intrigued by The Equestrian Hotel—this opulent resort in a part of Florida I’d never even heard of before learning of the hotel’s existence. When my sister-in-law, a former horse owner who lives in southern Florida, turned down my invitation because of another commitment, I called my friend Christa in St. Petersburg and convinced her to join me at the horse hotel for the weekend. “It’ll take you less than two hours to get here, and I’ll have a bottle of wine waiting,” I promised.

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The plan was to catch up over good food and drinks and have a front-row seat to the Grand Prix and the Premier Equitation Cup Championship, a part of the winter show series the World Equestrian Center hosted. Horses from all over the world would be competing, and even though neither of us knew a thing about horse competition, I figured watching jumps and hurdles would at least be entertaining.

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Horse Country

I arrived at the positively sprawling resort and center— the largest equestrian complex in the country—a day ahead of Christa, which gave me a chance to get a lay of the land. Although it was tempting to stay in the 500-square-foot room with its giant claw-foot bathtub in the bathroom that was, no joke, the size of my kitchen back in Brooklyn, I wandered the grounds as trainers and competitors led horses from the barns to the indoor and outdoor arenas. I admired the riding gear in one of the many retail shops within the resort, and I dipped my toes in the outdoor pool before bellying up to the bar at the Yellow Pony Pub for a burger and a whiskey.

What I really wanted to do, however, was hang out with the horses. A tumultuous horseback riding adventure in Ecuador nearly 15 years ago had put the fear of god in me, so I wasn’t overly disappointed in the fact that the resort was strictly for world-class equestrian sport—not for casual vacationers interested in a leisurely horseback riding session.

With an amateur horseback ride through Marion County off the table, I looked forward to (hopefully) petting some of the regal stallions and admiring their gorgeous, impeccably groomed manes.

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Energy Sensing

Not long after Christa arrived, we headed to one of the many barns on the property. We shyly walked up and down the rows of stables, both of us longing to reach out and stroke a big, silky cheek or pat a handsome, toffee-colored head. Unsure of the protocol—surely it would be irresponsible to reach out and touch one of the strange beauties—we left the barn disappointed that we hadn’t even dared to ask one of the many people wandering around if we could pet one of the horses.

Several hours later, after a late lunch and a couple of cold beers, we returned to the barn.

Once again, at first, we just wandered around and looked, snapping pictures here and there of equines that caught our eye. Fewer people were around this time, and though many of the stalls were partially opened, leaving a number of horses to beckon us with their long necks, we continued to act with caution, resisting the urge to reach out and make a tactile connection.

Finally, just as we were about to give up—both Christa and I exclaiming over how nice it felt just to take in the horses’ majestic beauty—we met a young rider named Nicole. She was feeding a horse she had ridden earlier that day and informed us that Pal was a sweet boy and enjoyed being pet—and fed carrots.

“He can be a little feisty,” said Nicole when Christa asked about a whinnying horse with a chocolate brown coat and eager eyes a few stalls down from Pal. By this point, we had grown comfortable enough that we weren’t worried about losing any fingers, but we were careful not to get too close to Mr. Feisty Pants, who may just have been jealous over the attention we were giving his silver-maned neighbor. We got the hang of things quickly—cooing sweetly to the friendly horses moving their faces towards us, asking to be caressed and attended to, and were prudent as we approached the more enthusiastic horses, letting them give us a sniff before deciding if they too wanted a gentle pet.

Equine Therapy Lite?

The Equestrian Hotel doesn’t currently offer equine therapy, though they’re looking into it as the resort expands to add a new hotel and prepares to welcome more guests.

Sandra Kakacek, a licensed clinical professional counselor with expertise in equine-assisted psychotherapy, says equine therapy is for all ages and for individuals, couples, families, and groups “who want to remediate mental health issues, gain knowledge about self and others, and for wellness.”

But outside the traditional therapy, which essentially has its roots in pet ownership in past eras, Kakacek, who wasn’t surprised to hear about our peaceful (and dare I say, stress-reducing?) experience with the horses, says, “Spending time with horses is a delightful experience.”

“Watching the herd behaviors, noticing what they look at, how they soothe each other (rubbing and nicking sides), as well as what sparks them to whinny, call to others, as well chase one another, seems to help all people in some way, based on what they need,” Kakacek says.

Dr. Larry Wexler, World Equestrian Center’s on-site veterinarian, says in his work with the animals, he uses a combination of tactile, auditory, and emotional techniques to build a relationship. “Horses have the keen ability to sense energy and create symbiotic relationships by reflecting the personalities of those around them. These symbioses can create a calmness or serenity in both humans and horses.” Christa and I hadn’t spent much time with the horses, yet this calmness and serenity had descended upon us. We left the barn feeling lighter, happier, and edified.

The stress of the previous day’s drive (not to mention the looming drive back) and everything else in this life I find myself fretting over melted away as we engaged with the animals. Earlier in the day, Christa had expressed agitation over a big, complicated work issue, and she reported a deep feeling of contentment as we left the barn.

We may not have received equine therapy in its official capacity, but I believe we felt some of the effects anyway. Molly Murphy, executive director of Equine-Assisted Therapies of South Florida, told me it’s possible for a stressed or anxious person to experience a sense of calmness simply by being around horses. “Many of our volunteers say that the horses have given them a sense of purpose,” says Murphy. And after my weekend at the World Equestrian Center, this resonates.