The Voice

Jump to content

This Week

Horsetopia

Some of the top competitive horses in the world call Seminole County their home, along with some national-level coaches who are keeping the county's equestrian community thriving during a slow economy.

Some of the top competitive horses in the world call Seminole County their home, along with some national-level coaches who are keeping the county's equestrian community thriving during a slow economy.

Isaac Babcock

Share »

Seminole County's horse history predates the Civil War, but will horses be a part of the county's future? Some local equestrians are hoping to keep the county deeply seated in the saddle.

As of 2006, during the last equine census in Florida, half a million horses were registered statewide. But then the state was hit with a recession that slowed the economy.

In Seminole County, one local equestrian said that despite the economy, horses aren't going anywhere, and business is holding strong.

"I'd definitely say the horse population is up these days," Seminole County Horse Association Founder Betsy Labelle said. "We may not be up in backyard horses, but we're up in world-class horses. And we have some of the best coaches in the world."

And the equestrian community is hardly sitting on its haunches while riding out the recession.

Horse enthusiast Linda Wiggins has taken horsing around into the 21st century, going online and diversifying her equestrian supply business to grab customers more distant than Seminole County's rural backyard.

"I'm seeing some new faces in my store that I hadn't seen before," Wiggins said, optimistic about the strength of the local equestrian community. "I'm not losing customers. I'm seeing new ones."

But just behind her longtime Oviedo business, The Tack Shack, there used to flourish one of the biggest equestrian facilities in the state. It's a plot of land that recently became a rallying point for horse enthusiasts hoping for a resurrection.

For decades, the Winter Miles racing facility brought thousands of racers and spectators into the northeast corner of Oviedo every winter to practice, compete and prepare for larger competition up north. More than 200 racing horses would call the complex's barn home for half of the year.

But after its heyday in the 1970s and '80s, the industry slowed to a halt, and the horses - and the money - went elsewhere.

Now equestrian sport in the area collects only a small percentage of the estimated $2.2 billion in revenue generated throughout the state on a yearly basis.

Wiggins was part of a fight in 2006 to rebuild the equestrian facility at the former site of the Winter Miles facility. By that time, the buildings on the property were collapsing and the tracks had been overgrown.

Though negotiations with Oviedo failed to produce a resurrected horse park, Wiggins said that the economy may be partly to blame.

"It's on the back burner right now until the economy changes," she said.

Though she understands the current economic climate, she said that Seminole County needs a central location for equestrians to call home, like Clarcona Horseman's Park in Orange County.

But in the meantime, for recreational riders, Seminole County may be more accessible to horses than ever.

"We've got plenty of access to trails," Seminole County Commission Chairman Bob Dallari said. "We may have more access now than ever before."

Running concurrently with the county's massive trail expansion over the course of the last decade, a system of horse trails has made it easier for riders to travel by horseback, especially in the central and eastern parts of the county, where most of the county's horses are located.

He said that the county's 4-H program is one of the best in the state, helping children by teaching them how to work with horses.

"4-H really keeps kids on the ball and helps them out in the long run," Dallari said.

Wiggins said that with the community staying strong, it should be able to ride out the slow economy just fine.

"There's been a lot of belt tightening lately because of the economy, but I think we're doing pretty well," she said.