Ocala Florida WEC hotel

Ocala, Florida’s World Equestrian Center put horses on center stage for tourists and
enthusiasts while giving the majestic creatures plenty of natural room to roam.

“Mr. Ed” was a talking horse that captured laughs from America’s television viewers. “Silver” was the white horse to which his rider, the Lone Ranger shouted “Hi Ho…Away!”

Twelve-year-old Elizabeth Taylor was gifted her co-star, a horse named “Pie,” after wrapping the hit film “National Velvet,” much of which was shot at Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Films about horses, such as “Casey’s Shadow,” “War Horse,” “Horse Whisperer” and “Seabiscuit” and watching the likes of Secretariat, Justify, American Pharoah with Triple Crown race titles, is about as close to horses as most people get.

The Equestrian Hotel
The Equestrian Hotel. Photo courtesy of Ethan Tweedie

“Who didn’t love Secretariat?” asked Andrea Eastman, the famed Hollywood casting director, super-agent and horse lover. “But I won’t watch racing now because I don’t think it’s a very good life for a horse…and at three years old I think they run them too early. If the horses aren’t winners, some of those beautiful animals are sent to slaughter.”

Eastman saved two horses she cares for herself – “Lucky” and “Shawnee,” – stabled in Malibu, California. “They are 22 and 23-year-old rescue horses. I was involved in saving 4,000 horses. Mine are like big dogs. It’s romantic to be in a horse-drawn carriage, but in New York and Rome, I see horses in the heat in the summer. Treat animals with respect and not like commodities.”

She is about to spoil Lucky and Shawnee by moving the horses to a ranch where they can wander wider, greener pastures near Santa Barbara, where she will continue to visit them.

Horse statue
Beautiful horses inspire affection, admiration and art. Photo courtesy of Maven Photo + Film

Pony Paparazzi

Eastman, who is about 13 hands tall, stands with her horse Lucky in a book starring horses by animal advocate and NBC “Nightly News” and “Today Show” reporter Jill Rappaport. “People We Know –Horses They Love” featured gorgeous images created by Rappaport’s artistic sister, photojournalist Linda Solomon.

Eastman and Lucky were photographed amidst the majestic acres behind the home she previously owned in Bozeman, Montana. Eastman, after decades of being a Hollywood power player, is accustomed to paparazzi.

For instance, Eastman taught the Hollywood heartthrob Richard Gere how to ride while he starred in a Civil War-era film. “He was making ‘Sommersby.’ He trusted me to find an Appaloosa horse for him. That horse lived to be about 30. During my rides on his property with Cindy Crawford, she and I were plotting about how to get Richard to marry her.”

Gere likely didn’t ride up on a white horse to propose to the supermodel, but they did elope to Las Vegas in 1991. Vegas was the setting for Robert Redford’s film “Electric Horseman,” in which the star rode a horse covered with lights through a casino.

“’Electric Horseman’ was a fun movie. I have been riding with Robert Redford,” she said. “Hollywood is very careful how they treat their horses because they must. Alex Karras obviously did not really punch that horse in ‘Blazing Saddles.’ Director Mel Brooks was the best.”

An Offer the Godfather’s Casting Director Tried to Refuse

It was not a real punch in Blazing Saddles. However, to authentically film the infamous fright scene in the movie “The Godfather,” it was, in fact, an actual butchered head of a horse head placed in the bed of a studio executive as a “wake-up call.”

The “Hollywood bigshot,” as mafia boss Vito Corleone described him, awakened in blood-soaked satin sheets, which he pulled back with a flip to find the severed head of “Khartoum,” his prized stallion. This was the “offer he could not refuse,” Corleone had foreshadowed.

But the scene was refused by horse-loving Eastman in her capacity as The Godfather’s casting director. “I begged Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola to please take the horse’s head scene out of The Godfather,” said Eastman of the screenwriter and the director. “Of course, they could not.”

The irony of the scene went deeper,” according to Eastman. “I was living out east and ended up taking Puzo and Coppola to my barn. They ended up filming the Khartoum stables scene where I boarded my horse. How ironic is that?”

The stable scenes were shot in New York. But the elaborate mansion that served as the exterior of the studio executive’s home is in Beverly Hills, California, near Eastman’s current home.

A Super Friend and Superman

Andrea Eastman
Andrea Eastman

Eastman, as a Hollywood agent, represented, among many others, actor Christoper Reeve. His most memorable roles may have been as “Superman” and in “Somewhere in Time,” shot at Mission Point Resort on Mackinac Island. The northern Michigan destination forbids cars allowing only bicycles and horses.

“I rode horses with Christopher Reeve many times. He was both a client and dear friend,” Eastman said.

Reeve was paralyzed from the neck down after being thrown from a horse in Virginia. He used a wheelchair and ventilator for the rest of his life.

“His trainer at the time of the accident was someone I introduced him to, so there was a part of me that always felt somewhat responsible,” Eastman admitted, “even though Christoper told me, when I went to see him in the hospital, the fall was caused by his hands getting caught in the double reigns, otherwise, he might not have fallen.”

Eastman’s Own Fall

It wasn’t only Eastman’s heart that was broken when she endured a riding accident of her own. “I got blue ribbons for riding horses in the ring as a child. As a young woman, I took an extended trip to Europe. On a beautiful day on a trip to Interlachen, Switzerland, I noticed they had horses to rent,” recalled Eastman, who could not resist the opportunity to climb aboard again.

“I had not ridden in a long time, but, like a moron, I told them I was an expert rider. Then I did everything wrong. The horse ran away with me and I fell off, split my head open and broke my back. I was flown home.”

The accident caused her to lose touch with the new love of her life: Pablo, a Spaniard she was scheduled to reconnect with in Paris. But, as in “An Affair to Remember,” Eastman never showed up.

Circling Back to The Godfather

The aforementioned studio executive muscled in The Godfather due to a grudge over a girl who had been keeping singer Johnny Fontaine from a prominent role in a major motion picture. Despite denials, conventional wisdom is Fontaine’s character was based on Frank Sinatra.

When actor Ray Liotta portrayed Old Blue Eyes in a “Rat Pack” biopic for HBO, Sinatra’s daughter Tina had a plastic horse’s head delivered to Liotta on set as a gag.

But the late Liotta would learn, while working in Mexico, to adore horses when he played an aggrieved outlaw in the mini-series “Texas Rising,” as he told interviewer Larry King.

“I’d never ridden horses and I became obsessed with riding horses. I never had a hobby – this might be my new hobby. I just love everything about them,” Liotta told King. “Horses are unbelievable. Smart. Loyal. Moody. When you see the horse’s ears or how he licks his lips, you tune into who the animal is.”

World Equestrian Center

Saturday Grand Prix.
Saturday Grand Prix. Photo courtesy of Maven Photo + Film

Tuning into horses is what the Sunshine State’s hot new attraction: the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, Florida’s “Horse Capital of the World,” is all about. It is pageantry and ponies…stallions and stagecraft…mares and magic.

“You’ve done Disney – now come to the Disney of ‘horse land.’ It is a different Florida experience than most people are used to,” said Leah Tong, director of marketing and brand for the 378-acre destination starring majestic, inspiring horses that compete in dressage, jumping, eventing and a variety of other breed and discipline shows.

“World Equestrian Center is so welcoming. You do not need an in-depth knowledge of the sport,” said Tong. “Saturday nights we have Grand Prix events in the Grand Arena through 40 weeks of competitions and it doesn’t take you long to cheer for the exciting sport of jumping. You quickly understand what is going on and it is family fun.”

Where else can one immerse themselves, up close and personal, with horses and stay on property with them. The fanciful, themed destination also offers seven restaurants, dozens of retailers, and vacation amenities.

I suggested sipping a mint julep, in the Kentucky Derby tradition, by the pool at the WEC’s signature Equestrian Hotel. Or, its’ new, pet-friendly Riding Academy Hotel, Tong said was suitable.

“The horses you see in the Derby and the other Triple Crown races likely have a connection to Ocala. We breed a huge number of the U.S.’s thoroughbred horses. Ocala and Marion counties, in Central Florida between Orlando and Gainesville, have a horse population of 75,000.”

Up Close and Personal Starring Horses

WEC’s events are visible from some rooms in the Equestrian Hotel
WEC’s Equestrian Hotel. Photo by Harrison Shiels

The horses that train and show at World Equestrian Center have plenty of natural acres to live and relax. So why shouldn’t visitors? That is a sure bet with spa treatments and meandering, shaded walking trails. Plus a creative annual schedule that includes a food and wine festival; Oktoberfest; and Winter Wonderland festivities.

But it’s the Summer Games that have Tong’s attention: the Florida native was press officer for the U.S. Equestrian Teams at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. “So many equine athletes and riders you’re going to see at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games and Paralympics trained and competed here this spring,” she revealed.

Tong grew up riding and competing hunter/jumpers and has an affection for the powerful, playful animals.

“When I was young, my trainer had a horse who loved to escape like Houdini. He used his lips to open the stall door. We found him at the feed stall eating hay. He needed a snack,” she smiled.

Tong also described her respect for the speed and soul of horses. “It is almost indescribable to feel the connection with a horse – to trust the animal and have the animal trust you – whether you’re jumping over fences or dressage, which is essentially dancing with the horse. If you have ever climbed on the back of a horse, you will have such an appreciation for how special that is.”

World Equestrian Center is a special experience. The getaway is a colorful, glamorous, Royal Ascot-style “Taj Mahal to horses” blended with the authenticity of rural barns, stately stables and split-rail fences bordering rolling pastures.

Read more of Michael Patrick’s work at The Travel Tattler and contact him at [email protected] Order his book Travel Tattler – Less Than Torrid Tales at https://amzn.to/3Qm9FjN

Michael Patrick Shiels

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