If you go to Ocala, you can’t miss the horse farms. This town in Marion County is called the “Horse Capital of the World” and perhaps rightly so. All the back roads in this area are chock-a-block with large horse farms and beautiful pastures shaded by live oak trees in a slightly hilly terrain, a welcome change from Florida’s overall flatness. Bucko and I have driven these roads often on our way to the Gulf Coast or points further south, but only previously viewed the horses and terrain from our car windows.
This brief two-day vacation was different. After spending hours on Trip Advisor and other internet sources, I discovered – even in COVID-19 times – at least one horse farm was open to visitors. I don’t know anything about horses but, hey, why not visit the Gypsy Gold Horse Farm for a tour? This was a decision I certainly don’t regret!
The Gypsy Gold Horse Farm is home to the first Gypsy Vanner horses imported from the United Kingdom to the United States by Dennis Thompson and his late wife in the 1990s. This couple worked hard to document the genetics and origin of this new breed that was selectively bred since the end of World War II by English and Irish travelers, sometimes called “gypsys.” The Thompsons spent four years off and on visiting with various travelers and learning more about these horses. They finally purchased a few stallions and more mares and imported them to the United States. With agreement from their friends in the United Kingdom, they named this breed Gypsy Vanner horses and started a society to preserve and keep the purity of this strain.
The Gypsy Gold Horse Farm opens for two-hour tours three days a week but you must make reservations online (www.gypsygold.com). With COVID-19 restrictions in place, the morning we visited there were only eight other participants, all seated far apart during an indoor presentation, then with plenty of room to spread out during a walking tour to visit some of the farm’s residents.
The indoor presentation was a marvel of extemporaneous speaking, as founder Thompson described his history with these horses and the charms the breed embodies. I learned that mule mares (sterile crosses between donkeys and horses) are sometimes used as surrogates to give birth to purebred Gypsy Vanner horses from implanted embryos. Mules apparently make good mothers, produce lots of milk, and have strong maternal instincts despite their sterility. They are also hardier when it comes to diseases and cheaper to feed than horses. Sadly, these mule mothers get their baby taken away early, only to be implanted yet again. Looking online, I found some breeders of Gypsy Vanner horses even let potential buyers visit their farms, look over the stallions and mares, then choose their own combination which will be mated “on demand” to create an embryo to implant in a mule, a real designer horse.
Dennis also told us much more about the travelers he knows and their current status in England, where they no longer travel but still often have beautifully decorated caravans pulled by these horses for recreation and special events.
Most of all, I learned that I love Gypsy Vanner horses! After the introductory talk, we visitors were allowed to roam the farm and barns to see the horses. We were cautioned to stay away from the stallions kept alone in their pastures and prone to biting, but we were encouraged to visit with the mares and to pet them, and I was allowed to feed them the carrots I brought along, just in case.
The large live oaks and green pastures were soothing to behold, but there was another attraction. The farm has a whole collection of macaws and cockatoos calling out human words to attract attention. These birds (with wings clipped so they can’t fly away) were loose and positioned on fence posts and tree branches. I think we visitors entertained them more than the reverse.
It was wonderful to visit the Gypsy Gold Horse Farm. I would highly recommend it for people of all ages. Even if you didn’t start out as a horse lover, these beautiful horses will win you over. Check out Gypsy Vanner horses online and you will see what I mean. And if you are in the mood for a trip, check it out!
Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.