The Ocala Horse Trials are run at the Florida Horse Park in Ocala, Florida (Area III) and in 2019 will host six events: the Winter I and II Horse Trials, Summer I and II Horse Trials, the Fall Horse Trials, and Ocala International Three-Day Festival of Eventing. Each event will offer some combination of Beginner Novice through Intermediate horse trials and Advanced combined test, and the International Three-Day Festival of Eventing will also offer CCI2*-L and CCI3*-L divisions.
The Ocala Horse Trials started in January 2008. Shelley Page (then Spielman) was brought on board after Darren Chiacchia and Tom Warriner got seriously involved at the Florida Horse Park. The Florida Horse Park had really struggled to get off the ground and get moving, and the Board of Directors was really ready to make things happen. Shelley's incredible resume was able to provide the experience required to "get the ball rolling."
At the inaugural horse trials, they ran 227 entries with Novice being the largest division. At this time, there was a large need for more horse trials in Florida. David O'Connor was initially brought in as course designer, and then Mark Phillips took over when David's schedule got too busy. They ran the first Florida International CCI2*/CCI* Three-Day Event in April 2008 with 30 entries in the CCI2* and 54 entries in the CCI*.
The licenses for the Ocala Horse Trials and Ocala International Three-Day have bounced around a few times since 2008. Shelley ran the shows from 2008-2009 and established the valuable events that became vital to Area III and the Ocala community. Peter Gray and Jon Holling took over the license in 2009 and coined the business "EquiVentures LLC." The moniker was Peter's idea: he wanted to combine the words equine and adventure, and thus the business was formed.
Jon and Peter had taken the licenses over in a rush during the summer of 2010 because it seemed apparent that nobody else was going to step up and run the events, and the Organizing Committee at the Florida Horse Park had disbanded. It was a bit of a turning point - the events were so important to the Ocala area, and at this time the only events in Florida were Ocala Horse Trials, Rocking Horse, and Red Hills - so it was obviously very necessary to continue running them. With so many eventing professionals in the area owning land, they wanted to ensure the events continued so they could have viable businesses. Peter stressed that they were always behind the Florida Horse Park, and thought that the Park should have been running the events, but that when it was clear the Horse Park was unable to provide sufficient staff, they were happy to step in and help the Park succeed.
After taking over the licenses, they quickly realized that the inventory on the jumps was depleted and/or oversized, so they hurriedly got the Ocala eventing community to put together a couple of fundraisers in order to get jumps built in time for the International Event in April. Jon Holling said that they ran the event with the motto: "Event for competitors run by competitors," and that motto still runs true to today.
Peter Gray was more of the detail-oriented type, and handled the hiring of the officials and detailed work. Jon joked that when everybody got t-shirts (volunteers, course designer, organizer, etc.), his should say "Fire Chief" because he was always running around filling in the gaps and putting out fires. Jon and Peter both stressed that the events were to be very rider friendly, and that was easy for them to do because they were riders themselves. One thing Peter and Jon did very well was providing prize money, at both the International Event and the Horse Trials. Peter remarked that there were some riders that would leave their checks and say they want the money to go back into the event.
I asked Jon for a funny story or anecdote, and he shared this story. "The first year running the International (2010), [Peter and I] asked the course designer to design the tracks a bit more straightforward, when in fact, he had wanted them a bit more challenging. When the competitors, licensed officials, and Rider Representative walked the course before the event, they determined it was too easy. The Rider Representative requested that certain questions be a bit harder, especially at the bank complex for the CCI2*, and so it got tweaked. The Rider Representative happened to be the first horse out of the start box for the course and fell off at the bank complex and smacked his head. The course designer was the first one on the scene - he had been sitting at the bank complex to watch how it rode - and said, "Are you okay??" and the rider looked up at him and said, 'I think the course is too hard.'"
In April of 2014, the licenses were transferred to Richard Trayford. Richard had approached Jon Holling about helping with the event. Jon's business was ramping up between coaching and riding, and he was running out of time to run the event. At the same time, Peter Gray was offered the job of being the Chair of the Canadian Eventing Committee, so it was a very good time for Richard to step in and take over EquiVentures. JJ Johnson offered to help as co-organizer, and became the method behind the "madness."
Richard and his wife Daisy, having come from the UK, had a completely different perspective on the sport of eventing. They noticed that the show jumping in the US seemed to be more technical than the show jumping overseas, but that the cross-country courses weren't as technical. Richard's goal was to increase the difficulty on the cross-country courses to match more of what was seen overseas and make them true to the levels, which would in turn make the riders better and safer. Richard invited quite a few upper level riders to dinner and they discussed making Ocala the "Center of Excellence for the sport of Eventing." Richard was able to take what Jon and Peter had built, and with the improving economy on his side, make it bigger and better.
He did an awesome job of trying to get spectators into the events, and was innovative in his thinking. I'll never forget in February of 2018, the competitors showed up and there was a carnival on site with a ferris wheel. The competition went completely fine, and none of the horses even noticed, but boy was there a lot of grumbling in the ship-in area! Richard hired a new course designer to try and get a fresh perspective, and international designer Hugh Lochore designed successfully at the site for a few years. We will always thank Richard for the time and effort he put into the sport of eventing during his tenure at the helm of EquiVenture's LLC. When he took over the licenses, he only wanted to do it for five years, so in 2018, he approached the Florida Horse Park.
The summer of 2018 brought around the current licenses and saw the Florida Horse Park taking the licenses back. The 2019 Ocala International CCI2*-L/CCI3*-L will be the first time the Florida Horse Park has run the event themselves in ten years. There have been massive steps to ramp up the level of competition, with new water complex going in, hiring Jay Hambly back as the Course Designer, and the Inaugural Gasoline + Gallop MoParty car show in conjunction with the event. There have been quite a few sponsors stepping up, and the Florida Horse Park hopes to be able to offer sizable prize money at this event in the future. With the addition of EQTV live streaming the event, it should spread awareness and increase visibility.
The Florida Horse Park is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that sits on 500 acres in Ocala, Florida. We have 320 permanent stalls, four brand new Martin Collins Clopf Fiber all-weather arenas (subterranean irrigated with the innovative Damman Risohorse Irrigation System), and 350 acres for cross-country. Our cross-country course has two water complexes and jumps ranging from Introductory level all the way through Intermediate with hopes of putting in an Advanced course in the near future. The course is aerated and irrigated using K-Lines to prep for events in order to ensure the best footing possible. The cross-country itself is quite flat, so we've had to get creative with terrain. We have a large pit called "The Dunes" that enables us to ask terrain-related questions, and the new water complex was designed with large mounds on the corners as well. We just finished building a brand new Modified course, and we're in the process of replacing all of our old inventory of Preliminary and Intermediate fences. Our course builders, Mark McCleerey and Tommy Neneman, are vital aspects in producing quality events.
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