As Hurricane Ian bears down on Florida, approaching Category 5 strength, the horse-centric Ocala area is in its current path. In response, World Equestrian Center—Ocala opened its doors and now is sheltering 3,000 animals—its maximum capacity—in its sturdy cement-block barns.
Almost a self-contained town, between its expansive stabling and arena complex, hotel (now also at maximum capacity with people sheltering there), veterinary hospital, restaurants and other on-site amenities, the facility best known for the many hunter/jumper and dressage shows it hosts is temporarily home to a veritable zoo ranging from horses—minis to Clydesdales, and all sizes in between—and donkeys to a tortoise named Turbo and a kangaroo named Spanky.
Rather than its regular stabling fee, WEC offered the stalls free and asked animal owners simply to pay for bedding. The climate-controlled stall blocks are built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane, which Ian was as of Wednesday midday, and have backup generators to help ensure the water supply and air conditioning don’t fail even if the power lines outside do.
Josh Dolan, founder of The Peeps Foundation miniature horse rescue, was one of the first people to move horses (along with the aforementioned kangaroo, tortoise and some mini-donkeys, all of whom reside at the rescue) into WEC from his property across the street.
“We just bought the property beside it, and we’re building a mini barn there,” Dolan said. “Currently our whole foundation is located in tent stalls, so the tent had to come down for the hurricane. I texted [WEC director of operations Vinnie Card], and he was like, ‘Sure come on,’ so we moved our first group over on Monday.”
Dolan now has 40 miniature horses safely ensconced at WEC, and he and he staff are trying to make the most of their time in the shelter.
“I told my guys, ‘Everybody’s getting clipped, and we’re going to catch up on the feet,’ ” Dolan said while taking a break from body clipping one of the tiny horses.
Pam Paulk, who has a small farm in Micanopy, just northwest of Ocala, has ridden out hurricanes in Florida before and evacuated to Georgia with her horses when Hurricane Dorian came through in 2019. She opted to take her only horse, Eddy, a 12-year-old off-track Thoroughbred that she events at the novice level, to WEC for Hurricane Ian.
“I was feeling anxiety because I’ve been through bad hurricanes; I went through Andrew in South Florida,” she said. “Since I lost my retired horse, Eddy has been alone, and he has adjusted well, but he’s here by himself. I wanted him to be with other horses to help calm him and other people that would be in and out all the time.”
Another consideration was her property. “I’ve got huge gorgeous oak trees on my property. They surround the whole perimeter of my property, and it’s within falling distance [of the barn],” she said.
She arrived with Eddy on Tuesday afternoon, but knew she had to return home herself to batten down the hatches there. She was thankful to meet Jeremy LeBlanc, an employee at WEC who offered to feed Eddy and clean his stall. LeBlanc has been texting her regular updates about how her horse is doing.
“WEC is cooking three meals today and tomorrow for all of the people who are staying there. They have gone above and beyond to help out the equine community,” she said. “To step up and offer all their stalls is wonderful.”
Aggie Blaszczyk, a Reddick, Florida-based jumper trainer who works mostly with off-track Thoroughbreds, brought four horses to shelter at WEC.
“Unfortunately I have more horses than stalls, and some flood as well, so WEC was our best option to be safe and dry,” she wrote. “I brought four horses here, and my other two, the easy old guys, went to a friend’s barn as the stalls filled up quickly here at WEC. Right now we are hand-walking everyone down the green mile and keeping the horses occupied a bit. I’m definitely relieved knowing we are here safe and in dry stalls.”
Blaszczyk is one of the many people staying in the hotel, and said she and others are thankful for everything WEC has done, beyond opening the barns, including offering the low-cost buffet meals several times daily.
The buffets set up in an expo arena are open not just to folks sheltering with their horses, but to staff from WEC, Duke Energy, the local Marion County Sheriff’s Office and other people involved in the evacuation and emergency response effort, said Card, the site’s operations director.
This is the first time WEC has been used as an emergency shelter, with an effort that began Friday and came together thanks to an “all hands on deck” approach from WEC staff, he said.
“People began reaching out directly to the horse show office, and we just started taking reservations. We started talking about it at 2 p.m. on Friday, and then we came up with a real plan. Within 24 hours, just by word of mouth, we got 3,000 reservations,” said Candace FitzGerald, WEC marketing director.
While WEC office manager Brett Waters and other administrative staff handled getting horses to stalls—which involved filling requests from owners coming from as far away as Tampa, Orlando and even Georgia—people in every department, from maintenance to hospitality to show secretaries and jump crew (instead of moving fences, they moved furniture and delivered feed and bedding) got busy as well to ensure arriving people and horses would have everything they needed to shelter comfortably.
“I’m very proud of how our staff has come together to help out the horse community and the overall community,” Card said. “It’s been all hands on deck. I can’t emphasize enough how proud I am of our staff and everything they’ve done to pull this together. They’re here at work while their families are at home, helping each other as a team.”
That appreciation is shared by those sheltering at the facility.
“Everybody is extremely thankful,” said Dolan. “I probably have talked to 30 people today, and everybody’s like, ‘I can’t believe WEC’s doing this.’ It’s hard to be scared because everything’s here, and everything’s on a backup generators. The hardest part honestly is going to be when we all leave because everything’s so nice here.”
Of course, not every horse owner in the area headed for WEC. Many decided to shelter in place and have prepped food, bedding and filled troughs ahead of the storm.
Longtime Florida horsewoman Meg Cooke, who specializes in training and resale, has lived in the state for more than 20 years and through many hurricanes, considered moving horses from her Ocala farm to WEC but ultimately decided to stay home. With the slow-moving storm likely hovering over the area for several days, she weighed the pros and cons of having them in the sturdier cement barns at WEC versus having to risk traveling there through a hurricane several times daily to care for them, as well as the stress the unfamiliar situation might cause and the difficulty in moving a particularly senior horse.
“I was watching the weather diligently, and as of 7 a.m. [Tuesday] I was definitely going to WEC, then around 9 it showed that it was shifting a little lower, and I decided to stick it out here,” she wrote. “They will be happier, and I can keep a good eye on them.”
Cooke praised WEC management for the steps they’ve taken to shelter animal and people from the approaching storm.
“WEC is being so nice and offered free stalls, and then they made meals for everyone staying there at just 10 bucks a meal,” she wrote. “They are really good people.”
Staff writer Lara Bricker contributed to this story.