Winter is over, and let’s face it: Some of us are itching to saddle up and head for the horizon. Whether you crave room to breathe, like so many pandemic-weary Americans, or want to settle someplace where horses are more than just livestock, consider staking your claim in one of these amazing spots. From the best horse show spots or trails to thriving youth organizations or an equine-friendly business environment, each location offers unique ways to live your best Western horse life and celebrate your love for all things horses.
Central Coast of California
Claims to Fame: Riding clubs are a California tradition. And though some might contend that the Southern Coast, Central Valley, or even Norco (the self-styled “Horsetown USA” southeast of Los Angeles) attract more horse folk, the Central Coast is teeming with riding stables. Perhaps the best known of these is the venerable Pebble Beach Equestrian Center (pebblebeach.com/equestrian-center) on the scenic Monterey Peninsula in Monterey County. Among its most popular offerings: guided trail rides and more than 27 miles of equestrian trails through the Del Monte Forest, as well as along the Pacific coastline.
When it comes to show facilities, the Salinas Sports Complex is known for hosting the popular California Rodeo Salinas (carodeo.com) and related events. Paso Robles, considered the birthplace of reined cow horse competitions, recently became home to the National Reined Cow Horse Association-affiliated Mid State Cow Horse Association, offering schooling shows and NRCHA-sanctioned shows at the Triple R Ranch (facebook.com/pasorobleshorses). In addition, the Hearst Equestrian Center at the Paso Robles Event Center (midstatefair.com), which once hosted the NRCHA Derby, is scheduled to continue the big-money reined cow horse tradition with the $70,000-added Paso Robles Spring Classic in April.
Long-distance trail and endurance riding are also big in this region, too. And of course, there are the restaurants, beaches, and proximity to California’s celebrated wine country. If you like to combine your love of riding with wine country, Cass Winery offers rides that allow you to experience the vineyards from the back of a horse. Be sure to check out the hilltop sunset ride to really take in the grandness of the entire property (cctrailrides.com).
Give Me Land, Lots of Land: Welcome to what some call the “big little farm” culture. According to realtor David Norwood, there are 16 cities on the Central Coast with enough land to support horses or larger acreage lots. These include warmer inland locations like Paso Robles, Templeton, Atascadero, Creston, and Santa Margarita; cooler inland towns like San Luis Obispo (SLO), Arroyo Grande, and Nipomo; and communities on or near the ocean (Harmony, San Simeon, Cambria, Cayucos, Morro Bay, Los Osos, Avila Beach, and Pismo Beach).
Why We Love It: “‘Horse heaven’ describes life on California's Central Coast,” says Sharon Jantzen. “Horseback riders can easily ride every day of the year. Equestrian trails meander through a variety of terrain throughout California’s Central Coast, but truly the icing on the cake is the ability to catch a beautiful beach sunset from the best vantage point—the back of a horse. It’s simply paradise.”
Claims to Fame: If you prefer to stay on the East Coast, the nation’s sixth most populous state, Pennsylvania, has a central region that offers beautiful views and is very horse friendly.
From guided battlefield tours of Gettysburg National Military Park to jaunts along the scenic Rails to Trails Central Pennsylvania route, which utilizes abandoned railroad corridors, trail riding is widely enjoyed in this region. Some treks will take you through the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains, or, if you venture to the Northeast, the famed Poconos. If you prefer to leave your horse at home to explore these territories, there are several ranches in the area that can provide you with a mount and an adventure for a fee.
And no description of central Pennsylvania would be complete without mention of the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo Center in the capital city of Harrisburg. Here, one of the biggest attractions is the Pennsylvania Farm Show (farmshow.pa.gov), billed as the nation’s largest indoor agricultural exposition under one roof. Its offerings include Western riding, barrel racing, high school rodeo, cowboy mounted shooting, versatility, and 4-H drill team demos.
Riding club culture is alive and well in central Pennsylvania, with numerous shows hosted by these groups. There’s something for everyone here, including 4-H and a Central Pennsylvania Youth Rodeo Association for the kids, as well as instruction in reining, sorting, and trail events, not to mention boarding stables galore.
Give Me Land, Lots of Land: Central Pennsylvania is rich in agricultural tradition, according to realtor Courtney Lueth. “We’re very blessed to live in a thriving area that’s still in touch with its rural roots,” she says. “There are the small farmettes that are home to one to three horses on less than 20 acres.”
Some of the horsey hotspots include: Port Matilda, the valley from Centre Hall to Spring Mills, and Bellefonte, each of which has its own flavor.
Why We Love It: For Western riders, especially those pursuing barrel racing and other speed events, there are many organizations in the area that support all ages and all levels. “The support network is phenomenal,” notes local trainer Augusta Spandler. Kids are able to join and participate with several 4-H clubs in the area, we have local youth rodeo associations, plenty of different options for shows—local or big.”
Claims to Fame: This sun-drenched community is dubbed the horse capital of the world, and for great reason. Ocala and the surrounding area are indeed an equine epicenter, boasting the country’s largest number of equines—an estimated 80,260. There are also more than 1,200 horse farms here, with a ratio of roughly one horse for every four people.
With its abundance of farmlands and forests, and its mild climate, Ocala’s recreational trails offer a perfect playground for horse and rider. Among these is the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway, which stretches 110 miles from the Gulf of Mexico to the St. Johns River and features more than 80 miles of equestrian trails suitable for all levels of rider, as well as the Ross Prairie Campground.
Another horse-friendly trail system is the Silver Springs Forest Conservation Area, which connects Indian Lake State Forest, Silver Springs State Park, the Cross Florida Greenway, and district-managed lands to the Ocala National Forest.
Ocala’s training and show facilities are no slouch, either. In the spotlight this year is the new, more than 300-acre, state-of-the-art World Equestrian Center (worldequestriancenter.com). Sporting 22 outdoor rings and four climate-controlled indoor arenas, the WEC Ocala is billed as the nation’s largest multidisciplinary equestrian complex, and it is indeed massive. “In terms of Western shows, we hosted the Tom Powers Triple Futurity in December as part of our ‘soft’ opening, and we’re announcing our new WEC-owned A Sudden Impulse Futurity and NSBA show,” says Roby Roberts. “We’ll be hosting a myriad of shows in 2021 and hope to attract more Western shows to the venue.”
Give Me Land, Lots of Land: Centrally located in the Sunshine State, Ocala is a diverse community that, besides horses, boasts award-winning dining, unusually affordable housing and cultural, and countless recreational opportunities. Individually operated farms vs. planned communities are the norm, with realtor Christopher Desino describing the current horse farm market as more exciting than it’s ever been. “With the opening of the WEC, interest in Ocala has never been higher. It now feels as if we have a new city opening up in the county, and it’s 100% dedicated to horses and enjoying horse sports at the highest level and caliber in the world.”
Why We Love It: Abundant sunshine and mild weather make Ocala that rare region where horses can be trained year-round, with many large equine events taking place in the winter months. But there’s more to this area than just the weather. Ocala is known for their rolling hills, and huge grandaddy oaks. It’s truly paradise.
Claims to Fame: Located in rural Texas an hour southwest of Fort Worth, is Stephenville. Also known as the cowboy capital of the world. This more than 21,000-strong community prides itself on being an escape from the big city, with a rich Western heritage and a beautiful riverside setting.
Agriculture is king here, but it’s the rodeo tradition that reigns supreme. Stephenville is said to be home to more professional rodeo cowboys and cowgirls than anywhere else in the world.
It’s also home to several key competition facilities. For top-notch riding events, the Lone Star Arena (lonestararena.com) is one of the places to be. With its two indoor show arenas, 344 stalls, and many amenities, it’s a suitable showcase for the Cowboy Capital PRCA Rodeo, the highlight of Stephenville’s autumn Rodeo Heritage Week.
Give Me Land, Lots of Land: “The real estate market for horse-friendly properties around here is very competitive,” says realtor and NFR barrel racer Molly Powell. “Inventory is limited, and the prices are going up quickly. Horse properties here are very lucrative, because the overall investment for what you get is so much less here than other places.”
Why We Love It: Stephenville is located right in the middle of the horse action for Texas. In less than four hours you can be just about anywhere you want to be that offers major events, including the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity, the NRCHA World’s Greatest Horseman and World Championship Show, the APHA World Championships, and The Cowgirl Gathering—all of which take place at the Will Rogers Memorial Center in nearby Fort Worth.
And just a quick 15-minute drive away from the Will Rogers Memorial Center is the historic Fort Worth Stockyards, which is filled with Western heritage, along with great food and shopping.
Other key factors: the quality of the land and the climate, with sandy ground, good coastal pastures, and weather that’s agreeable most of the year.
Claims to Fame: It’s no secret Arizona is a go-to spot for Western riding enthusiasts. The weather makes it the perfect destination for year-round riding and horse shows, and the scenery is like nothing else you’ve seen. When you drive down Rio Verde Drive in Scottsdale, you’re surrounded by trucks and trailers on the go and you’re constantly passing some of the top performance barns in the country, each facility more impressive than the last.
Nearby is world-renowned equestrian facility WestWorld (westworldaz.com), which hosts some of the country’s top breed show events including the Scottsdale Arabian Horse Show, which also happens to be the world’s largest Arabian horse show. When you walk the barn aisles of this show you’ll be in awe of the stall decorations and time spent preparing for this prestigious event. It’s also home to the Cactus Classic, a reining event that includes The Run for a Million qualifier where you might even see the team behind The Last Cowboy and Yellowstone filming the best reining horse-and-rider combos in the country.
Just 54 miles northwest of downtown Phoenix is Wickenburg, a high-desert former boomtown that has emerged as the team roping capital of the world. And for good reason: This modest rural gem boasts a number of competitive roping arenas, like Rancho Rio (ranchorioaz.com), with daily action from fall through spring.
If you prefer to spend your time outside of the show pen, the area’s picturesque canyons, arroyos, and other unique landscapes make for memorable trail rides. In particular, Tonto National Forest is a great spot to ride if you want to get a glimpse of the 500 or so Salt River wild horses that have been living on the river reservation since before the national forest was created in the early 1900s.
Give Me Land, Lots of Land: According to Wickenburg realtor Cindy Logan, the market is hot with the most popular property size being between five to 10 acres.
Scottsdale realtor Sara Tierney agrees saying that the amount of horse activities availably in the valley are almost never ending, making it a great place to call home. “Arizona has become a mecca for horse owners because you can ride, compete, and enjoy your horses year-round,” Tierney shares. “There are a variety of professionals within the valley and we’re lucky to have everything from incredible scenic areas to trail ride to some of the most amazing state-of-the-art facilities to compete in.”
Why We Love It: The tolerable winters make riding all year a possibility and the ability to disconnect from the grid are big bonuses. There’s plenty of things to do in the saddle that’ll keep you busy, and there’s also a lot to experience and enjoy outside of the saddle.
If you’re adventurous and enjoy mountain biking or hiking trails you might not have ridden or prefer taking a stroll downtown shopping for turquoise and enjoying the Western art and culture, there’s something for every horse lover in Arizona.