As the tumultuous year of 2020 came to a close, the first set of hoof prints made their way across a freshly dragged arena, marking the moment World Equestrian Center - Ocala, the largest indoor/outdoor equestrian facility in the United States, was officially open for business.
by Mandy Boggs, Ohio Equestrian Directory 2021 Issue
Palm trees, sandy beaches, and a new magical kingdom for equestrian enthusiasts had emerged in Ocala, Florida. Situated on 378 acres, with an additional 300 acres in reserve for future expansion, WEC Ocala offers more for the horse industry than one could have imagined, right in the heart of Marion County, said to be the Horse Capital of the World.
The original World Equestrian Center in Wilmington, Ohio, (known as Roberts Arena until 2016), has reached impressive national attention, attracting competitors from surrounding states frequently traveling to the variety of horse shows put on every year. The Ohio facility has earned the respect of many trainers as being the ‘Showplace of the Midwest’, which comes as no surprise since nearly every show has sold out in the past few years.
The World Equestrian Center was created from the Roberts family legacy, beginning with Quarter Horse shows and Quarter horse breeding, and earning well-regarded respect across the industry. Roberts Arena’s decades of AQHA competitions and events allowed the Roberts family to craft their facility to what fellow exhibitors desired, eventually making a shift to the hunter/jumper world.
In 2015, Roby Roberts began new construction of indoor arenas, new stabling, and installed new footing, along with other various expansions, resulting in the official rebranding as World Equestrian Center by 2016.
WEC Ohio has grown exponentially in the last four years, annually drawing over 70,000 people to the Ohio facility. Trainers started shaping their own equine-related businesses around WEC Ohio, buying nearby property to create their home-bases, planning their schedules around the shows held at the facility. Many booked stalls for the entire spring, summer, fall, and winter hunter-jumper show series, essentially living at WEC full time. From affordable lodging in their “Home Away from Home” options, on-site dining, the General Store, to anything else you might need either at the facility or just a short drive into the quaint town of Wilmington.
It was common to see large competition barns from Tennessee, Georgia, Michigan - even Texas, spending weeks or months with WEC Ohio as their “home base”. The shows were well run with excellent footing, prizes, entertainment, dining, shopping, and the constant curiosity of “what will Roby (Roberts) do next?” The “regulars” quickly made lasting friendships with staff and other riders and trainers, blossoming a sense of community that, for many, was a rarity when compared to other show grounds.
When news broke in 2016 that a second location, a much larger facility, was going to be developed in Ocala, Florida, many could not imagine how there could be a place bigger or better than what WEC Ohio already offered. Nestled amongst ancient live oaks and farmland, while still within an easy drive to area attractions, WEC Ocala was cultivated with every possible amenity a horse enthusiast could dream of, crafted from the passion the Roberts family had for creating a world class facility unlike any other.
WEC Ocala was designed to host international events and equestrian competitions, exceeding the style and amenities from even the most prominent sports complexes in the world. As a multidisciplinary facility that can host hunter/jumper, dressage, eventing, polo, and various breed shows, the show grounds have something for everyone, whether a competitor or spectator.
WEC Ocala isn’t just for horses. Its central location to surrounding airports and major freeways serves to connect Ocala, Tampa, Orlando, and Gainesville. The venue hosts many seminars and symposiums, as well as various recreational and sporting events, including dog shows and canine sports events - such as dock diving, flying disc, and herding and tracking. Pop culture events, trade shows, and conventions can be held at the resort, offering space for any sized gathering.
With five state-of-the-art exposition centers offering over 132,000 square feet of multi-use space, WEC Ocala is capable of handling everything from local and regional, to national events. Placed at the end of a winding pathway amongst mossy oaks and detailed landscaping, is a beautiful chapel adorned with exquisite chandeliers and an elegant stained glass window focal point.
The family-friendly atmosphere allows those visiting the grounds to stay busy and entertained, without ever going hungry. Offering quick bites or sit-down dining in one of their restaurants, including Mexican, Italian, and fine dining options with steak and seafood, to more casual fare of burgers, sandwiches, desserts, pastries, ice cream, and coffee. Having a cocktail, beer, or glass of wine after a long day certainly has its perks, especially when you never have to leave the show grounds, and spending evenings making memories with (who better than) your fellow equestrian friends.
If shopping is something you enjoy, whether just browsing, in pursuit of new tack and supplies, or you happen to be on a quest to find the perfect addition to your home décor, you will have over 13,000 square feet of vendor space to check off everything on your list. From prestigious designers, fashion, beauty, décor, and antiques, to horse care, equipment, and supplements. There is something sure to catch the eye of everyone in the family.
On-site lodging is available, and includes a luxury hotel overlooking the Grand Outdoor Arena with picturesque views, boasting a state-of-the-art fitness center and a 7,000 square foot salon and day spa which offers everything from popular services to full spa and bridal packages. An RV park offers convenience for those traveling with their motorhomes and living-quarter horse trailers, including an on-site gas station - making filling up a breeze. Nearby vacation rental homes line the streets in Golden Ocala, or you can take advantage of the limited properties available for sale adjacent to WEC Ocala, in World Equestrian Estates.
Whether utilizing the golf cart paths across the show grounds, riding your horse along the designated horse paths, or taking a stroll through the miles of hiking trails, you will constantly find yourself noticing something new, and feeling as if you are truly riding in paradise. Three thousand mature trees were planted, along with creative landscaping and winding paths, to transform the resort into a park-like setting. With 22 outdoor rings and 4 indoor arenas featuring world-class custom blended GGT-footing, you will never feel crowded. WEC Ocala also boasts polo fields and a ”designed-by-Captain Mark Phillips” cross country course, for those up for a bit more adventure.
The Grand Arena is the centerpiece of the resort, showcasing 145,000 square feet of space and more than 600,000 square feet of pavers surrounding the arena for events and gatherings. With covered grandstand seating, 30’ x 60’ Jumbotrons, al fresco VIP dining, and climate-controlled areas for added comfort, no detail was forgotten.
In addition, the four 262’ x 550’ indoor arenas also offer climate-controlled indoor space during inclement weather, and were designed as replicas of the highly praised “Sanctuary” indoor at WEC Ohio. Jumper Village sits on the north side of the resort, while Hunter Land can be found on the west side, both boasting numerous outdoor show rings, warm-up areas, and covered spaces - allowing spectators, horses, and their grooms a way to stay out of the sun and weather while waiting ringside. The WEC Stadium (located in Hunter Land) has a large grass show ring with covered grandstand seating for featured competition and exciting classes.
Back at the barn, when it comes to the comfort, care, and security for your horses and equipment, the Roberts created everything one could want when dreaming of the perfect show stable. With over 2,000 permanent stalls, the heated and air-conditioned concrete barns feature large aisleways to increase airflow, and spacious 12x12 and 12x14 stalls, each with individual fans and comfort stall mattresses. The aisles feature horse-friendly surfaces, ample wash stalls with hot and cold water, and locking 12x14 tack rooms included with each group of stalls to keep your equipment safe and secure. 24/7 security presence and over 800 cameras monitor the grounds, stabling area, and on-site trailer parking, with well-lit arenas, lunging, and schooling areas. More than 250 turnout paddocks near the barns can be rented, allowing your horses the ability to enjoy the sunshine and graze during their time out of the show ring.
All events follow strict COVID-19 protocols set by national horse federations, as well as CDC, local, state, and federal advisories, with dedicated staff going above and beyond daily cleaning and sanitizing to keep everyone safe during the pandemic. Stabling is sterilized, from the stalls to all surface areas during week-to-week turnover, with the barns designed for easy and efficient cleaning.
Commercial-size washers and dryers offer plenty of space for your clothes, saddle pads, and even horse blankets, in the WEC laundromat. Pet boarding and grooming services can keep your pets clean, especially after those rainy Florida days - or give them the love and attention they need if you want to sneak away for a trip to the beach for a few days. A full service, 41,000 square-foot Veterinary Hospital will keep your pets and horses healthy while you are away from home. Offering both a Small Animal Hospital with everything from X-rays, CT, and MRI equipment, to a fully-staffed Equine Hospital that can handle lameness, illness, routine care, and rehabilitation; with a therapy pool, aqua equine treadmill, salt therapy room, vibration therapy, dedicated surgical/treatment areas, and an equine ambulance on the show grounds.
WEC Ocala kicked off their opening with the “Winter Spectacular” - 12-weeks of hunter/jumper shows running from January 2021 to March 2021, with over $4 million in prize money and free stalls for all competitors. Due to mileage rule restrictions from the US Equestrian Federation, the Roberts went a different route by offering exhibitor-friendly, affordable competition at a world-class facility, without sacrificing safety or equine welfare. The “Winter Spectacular” did not run as a USEF-sanctioned event; however, the sold-out show serves as a testament of gratitude to the Roberts family for offering their continued support and generosity of the sport. They have created a world-class facility, always putting their customers’ best interest at the forefront of their business model.
Partnering with The National Snaffle Bit Association (NSBA), most notable for being part of Quarter Horse shows, the Roberts had a long-standing history with the association, forming an exciting opportunity to welcome the hunter/jumper community to their family of sanctioned shows. The NSBA stands by their mission to grow the horse show community while benefiting horses, owners, breeders, and exhibitors. The new Hunter/Jumper division will develop following similar rules, guidelines, and standards as the US Equestrian Federation and the FEI Federation, to ensure a seamless transition for those that would like other opportunities to show at WEC Ocala year-round.
All Safe Sport requirements from the United States Center for Safe Sport will be followed, including Safe Sport Suspensions and bans. Suspensions imposed by any international or national U.S.-based equestrian governing body for anti-doping violations will also be enforced. The NSBA also conducts equine drug testing at every horse show to ensure horses and riders are competing safely and fairly. The facility was built with the utmost welfare of the horse in mind, from the footing, stabling, and layout, to having at least 12 EMTs on the grounds daily to ensure rider safety at a moments’ notice.
Moving forward, the US Equestrian Federation and WEC Ocala have been working together on plans to allow WEC Ocala the ability to host USEF-sanctioned events in the future, keeping the best interest of the sport as a collaborative effort.
The 2021 show season kicked off with NSBA shows, the Hunter/Jumper “Winter Spectacular” series, and the Dressage at Ocala winter series. In addition, “A Sudden Impulse NSBA Show & Futurity”, named after Mrs. Roberts’ stallion, “A Sudden Impulse”, has claimed dates in April and September, with added prize money of $360,000.
Various non-equine events fill the schedule through 2021, with something for every interest. And when the time comes that your family is trying to decide where to spend your next family vacation, you will likely have no trouble convincing them to join you at World Equestrian Center Ocala, a magical paradise that has forever altered the way we experience equestrian events.