Photo: Equestrian Hotel

Florida's Equestrian Hotel Is Like Disney World For Horse Lovers

Epic Stays
by Gabe Bergado Mar 23, 2023

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Every morning during a recent visit to the Equestrian Hotel in Ocala, Florida, I’d wake up to horses jumping outside my window. I was lucky enough to be in one of the rooms that overlooks the Grand Arena, a 128,000-square-foot field where some of the best riders in the world compete against one another. Being able to watch the incredible sport from the comfort of my plush, king-sized bed while eating a sticky bun from the cafe downstairs was just one of the magical things about my stay at the property.

“No horse showgrounds have the luxury hotel, restaurants, and amenities that we have,” Justin Garner, director of hospitality, told me during a golf cart tour of the massive complex. “And there aren’t hotels that have a horse park in the middle of it.”

the equestrian hotel from the outside at night

Photo: MAVEN photo + film

Opened in June 2021, the Equestrian Hotel sits in the middle of a 380-acre estate known as the World Equestrian Center. As you drive in, it’s typical to see horses cross the road and riders practicing in landscaped rings as you pass by the many facilities housed on the property. But the real stunner is where I got to lay my head down for a couple of nights: the 248-room, full-service hotel. Walking into the grand lobby, it’s easy to be gobsmacked by the crystal chandeliers that hang from the 20-foot high ceilings. But then you’re soon charmed by the hotel’s character defined by portraits of animals, posh Italian porcelain, and more wildlife-themed details such as horse lamps and zebra print couches.

lobby at the equestrian hotel

Photo: Ethan Tweedie

The hotel rooms are stylish yet straightforward. Of course, there’s an ode to horses with a portrait or two of the animal in most of the rooms. But nothing feels over the top – I loved the marble flooring and bathroom design, which was simultaneously simple and elegant. There’s a variety of room offerings at the hotel: the standard king has the lowest price point, with rates starting at $369 a night (however, there are staycation deals that give a better rate for staying at least two nights). The most lux abodes are the one bedroom suites, which have a separate living room area that features custom furniture and a queen-size pullout couch. A room with a view of the arena will add on about $40 to $50 to the rate, which I definitely think is worth the little extra.

king bed room at the equestrian hotel

Photo: Ethan Tweedie

There are also more affordable lodging options in the center. At one corner of the grounds near the general store and laundromat, there are RV slips featuring a cement pad with water, sewer, and power (30/50 amp) hook ups starting at $75 a night. Additionally, Home Away From Home rental units that have three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and full kitchens start at $300 a night — more reasonable for a family that’s bringing kids along for an equestrian experience weekend. Also currently under construction is another hotel on the grounds that’ll be somewhere in between the hotel and the HAFM options.

Dining at the Equestrian Hotel

emmas patisserie at the equestrian hotel

Photo: Ethan Tweedie

On the ground floor of the Equestrian Hotel, there’s Emma Patisserie, which whips up French macarons and so many different pastries. Everything I had there was delicious: the ham-and-cheese breakfast sandwich on a croissant, a key lime meringue tartlet, and classic glazed donut. Even the takeaway salad was enjoyable when I needed a veggie moment. It did get a very long line on the weekend mornings, so breakfasters beware when budgeting time.

There’s the Yellow Pony Pub and Garden connected to the lobby, where you’re instantly transported into a peak pub experience. Keeping in line with the equestrian theme, there were saddles turned into bar stools. I had dinner here on my first night, where I treated myself to a warm pretzel bigger than my face and the fish and chips, which were probably some of the thickest filets I’ve ever seen for the seafood classic. The pie of the week was a coconut cream pie, which I took upstairs to have dessert in bed while watching TV.

yellow pony bar at the equestrian hotel

Photo: Ethan Tweedie

While eating dinner, two young mothers who sat next to me struck up a conversation (there was an initial comedic mix up of them asking if I was a “rider” but I heard “writer” so I said yes, but I quickly realized the misunderstanding when they asked what events I’d be in). They had driven up from Georgia with their teen daughters and their horses. It was their second time visiting the Equestrian Center and they loved it because their kids could live their equestrian wildest dreams and they could partake in the luxuries such as the on-site spa. One of the moms said coming here was like “Walt Disney World for horse girls.”

The hotel’s sociable community continued the next night when I stopped by the Yellow Pony for a martini. As a bartender was making my drink, a single father who came all the way down from Toronto to bring his daughter for competitions started chatting with me. He highlighted the equestrian networking opportunities at the center and within a few minutes I was introduced to someone who handed me a business card for a certified equine massage therapist.

My second night at the Equestrian, I dined at Stirrups, the upscale Southern steakhouse. I started with the crab cakes per my waitress Sarah’s suggestion, and was glad I listened. Once again, I was shook by the amount of crab meat in the dish – they were perhaps the most caked up crab cakes I have ever had. My ribeye main was absolutely exquisite, so tender and flavorful that I was still thinking about it on my plane ride back home a few days later. Also notable was the supporting cast of veggies next to my meat, which were cooked perfectly and a nice break every couple of bites. Closing out the meal was the Florida Citrus, an extremely whimsical treat that takes three days to make and put a smile on my face when it was placed on my table: a white chocolate shell is fashioned to look like a lemon and when you crack it open, you’ll find lemon mousse with a grapefruit gel at the center. Joined by a smoked old fashioned made with Maker’s Mark 46 Bourbon, it was an excellent Friday evening.

Experiences and activities at the Equestrian Hotel

pool at the equestrian hotel

Photo: Ethan Tweedie

While staying in bed all day is great, there was plenty to keep me busy outside of my room. As someone who lives in New York City, it was so restorative to soak up some sun at the pool. There were some families with kids playing in the water, but the pool is large enough where it never felt like I was bothered by the youngins splashing around. The name of the seasonal pool bar gave me a solid chuckle: Horse to Water.

calluna spa at the equestrian hotel

Photo: MAVEN photo + film

The Calluna Spa on the hotel’s second floor is perfect for pampering (human pampering, for clarification). The staff was extremely friendly and my massage therapist paid attention to everything from my head to my toes for a blissful 50-minutes. If you’re not a massage person, Calluna has a slew of other skincare treatments, hair styling, pedicures, and more, along with shelves of high-end beauty products and racks of silky pajamas with animal prints.

Equestrian hotel event

Photo: Andrew Ryback Photography

On a Saturday evening, I indulged in the Grand Prix Dining Experience. It was a three-course meal with an attentive catering staff, but most of my attention was on the sport that was happening a few yards away. While it was mesmerizing watching the show jumping from my hotel window, being on the Equestrian’s balcony spectating horses leaping into the air while cutting into some halibut was next level. And these were some of the best in the game, competing for a grand prize of $100,000. You could feel the tension in the air as horses galloped through the course and the audience watched on, waiting to see if the rider would clear every jump and breaking out into a roar of applause whenever they did.

the grand arena at the equestrian hotel

Photo: Ethan Tweedie

Granted, seats at the dining experience don’t come cheap. But people are able to sit in the stands on the three other sides of the arena for free and can grab a slice from Viola & Dot’s Italian Kitchen or some ice cream from Miss Tilly’s Lollipops, a wonderland of chocolates, confections, coffee, and other goodies. And there are plenty of events throughout the season, which you can also livestream from home.

As Garner framed it during my tour, the huge complex, from the dining to the rooms to the experiences, was made to show off the sport. I was in awe of how much there was to do beyond hanging at the hotel. In addition to the Grand Arena, there’s a slew of both indoor and outdoor arenas where other competitions are held. Vendors selling clothes, equestrian equipment, and decor are sprinkled throughout the center. There’s a couple of expo centers that have held various conventions since opening, a stunning chapel that’s now starting to get more buzz as a wedding ceremony venue, another large stadium that concerts have been held at, and more. The entire center felt like its own very equestrian-centric resort that’ll have any horse lover jumping for joy.

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