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World Equestrian Center Ocala opened free stall space for equine owners during Idalia

UF student Maggie Nelson tends to horse Trapper in the barn stall. (Luena Rodriguez-Feo Vileira/WUFT News)
UF student Maggie Nelson tends to horse Trapper in the barn stall. (Luena Rodriguez-Feo Vileira/WUFT News)

Nearly 2,000 horses across northern Florida sought refuge from the threat of Hurricane Idalia Wednesday after the World Equestrian Center opened its stalls in Ocala to equine evacuees.

The World Equestrian Center Ocala, located at 1750 NW 80th Ave, announced in a Facebook post Sunday it would provide free-of-charge evacuation space for farm animals in preparation for the storm, effective that day. Stall bookings reached full capacity Monday with 1,805 horses registered, according equine operations officer Christy Baxter. Calves, goats, donkeys, cats, dogs and peacocks were also housed in the facility.

Hurricane Idalia made landfall near Keaton Beach, 100 miles northwest of Ocala, early Wednesday morning, blowing high-end Category 3 winds over 125 mph (205 km). The system moved into Georgia with peak winds of 90 mph (150 km) before weakening to a tropical storm Wednesday afternoon.

In anticipation of Idalia, 30 counties across western and Central Florida issued evacuation orders for residents. Forecasts predicted storm surges of up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) in the state’s Big Bend region, threatening farm animals housed in non-concrete barns. Idalia is the first major storm to impact the Big Bend, where the peninsula meets the panhandle, since 1950.

University of Florida student Maggie Nelson, 21, and her mother, Jamie Nelson, 56, were among the first horse owners to arrive at the center. The pair traveled from Gainesville Monday night with their two horses, Edna and Trapper, after reserving stalls that morning.

“We knew nothing would happen to them in here,” Maggie Nelson said.

“It just gave me that peace of mind,” she added, mentioning the storm winds and rain were her main concerns.

Evacuee farm-animal owners arrived in increasing numbers through Tuesday. More stalls echoed with disgruntled neighs and whinnies.

The privately owned center opened in January 2021 and stands as the largest equestrian complex in the United States. Its 378-acre facility features five temperature-controlled indoor arenas protecting from inclement weather.

Hurricane Idalia marks the second storm the center has offered refuge for; it similarly providedfree stall usage to equine owners for Hurricane Ian in September 2022, according to press officer Candace FitzGerald.

Per booking procedures, equine owners informed the center of their anticipated arrival date and number of needed stalls via email. Throughout their stay, they were made responsible for tending to their animals and cleaning out their stalls upon discharge.

For exercise rider Luis Perez, 40, the threat of Hurricane Idalia quickly prompted him to evacuate six of his horses to the center, where he housed them during Hurricane Ian. The process of stall reservation was a quick turnaround, he said.

“I emailed [Baxter] and 10 minutes later, I got to respond with the numbers,” he said.

Camalou Farms owner and veterinary technician Stacey Emory, 55, booked stalls for eight of her horses before arriving at the center Tuesday afternoon.

“I didn’t want to leave them at home because I don’t have a concrete barn,” she said.

Emory said the process of boarding her horses was a difficult one but emphasized its importance for their safety and well-being during that time.

“It is a bit of a logistical nightmare, moving a bunch of horses around, but I wanted to do the right thing,” she said.

Barns began clearing out by Wednesday afternoon. While owners and animals returned home, Idalia trended north toward South Carolina. Marion County officials reported no significant damage from the storm as of Wednesday afternoon.

“I didn’t know the hurricane was going to turn at the last minute,” Emory said. “I would have rather been here so I didn’t have to worry about [the horses].”

Luena is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.
Jared is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.