Ocala to Tokyo: The Horse Capital Steps Up to Help an Equestrian in Need

By Louisa Barton

Have you seen the recent Nike TV commercial? In this commercial, people are actually competing over jumps on hobby horses (stick horses). It REALLY is a thing. Apparently, folks are trying stick horse activities worldwide and loving it.  There are even dressage tests designed specifically to be taken on hobby horses. Who knew? People have renamed equestrian activities like the Steeplechase, now known as ‘the Peoplechase’! I had no idea just how much fun it could be, until we held the first and now hopefully annual Hobby Horse Equestrian Games, presented by Miller & Sons, at the Florida Horse Park. 

Jason Reynolds, executive director of the Florida Horse Park, and the CEP’s Equine Initiative, presented by Pyranha Inc., teamed up with some great sponsors and the Van Der Walt family and their disabled daughter’s trainer Trisha Bell. Their daughter, Cayla Van Der Walt, a disabled dressage rider, found out recently that although she qualified for the Paralympics, finances were going to be unexpectedly tight to make the trip all the way to Tokyo with her horse Daturo II.

The Van Der Walt family, who now own farms in Ocala and call this area their home, needed this community to jump in and help. The Horse Capital really pulled together to help make this happen for the Van Der Walt team and the outcome of this event and the fund raising was a huge success.


However, this was not the only positive outcome of the Hobby Horse Equestrian Games. We also discovered what a wonderful way this could be to enable us to teach equestrian sports to non-equestrians and young children from the safety of a stick horse. With folks like five-star 3-Day Eventer Daniela Moguel and her students competing against the likes of Honey, the Miniature Service Horse and some ecstatically excited young children, over the jumps and on the flat, we all enjoyed the day. Medals and prizes were awarded to the winners, and the kids were proud to show off their winnings. 

We concluded the event with some very informative polo lessons, courtesy of the Ocala Polo Club, who donated their time, efforts and their imitation polo horse. We wrapped it all up with a polo match on stick horses and raised a lot of money to get Cayla, her horse and her trainer to the Paralympics. 

Since, the Ocala Metro Chamber’s (CEP) Equine Initiative was created back in 2016 to spur our community on into a better understanding of and engagement with the equine industry, equine awareness events have been organized and have been hugely successful. As we move forward to try to actively engage and educate our young people in this multi-billion dollar industry, I hope we can repeat these types of events as a fund-raising effort to help meet the needs of the equine industry, while also promoting a better understanding of horse sports. 


This stick horse event served a number of purposes, and I believe all who attended felt the benefits and the desire to make this an annual event. Kayla Stephens, who represented Miller & Sons Plumbing so well that day, talked about developing this event by adding a variety of different classes for several more horse sports. Perhaps, we could bring in experts from each discipline and add an eventing cross country course, barrel racing, pole bending and reining, all on stick horses, plus a grand finale breed parade. It can only get bigger and better in the years to come. We started off with just a short-term goal of helping an Ocala equestrian with a need. Now it seems, we may have birthed a whole new way to share and allow folks to experience the horse world in a safe, fun and non-intimidating atmosphere.

We are so proud of our Ocala equestrians who made their way to compete in Tokyo. There are so many other great stories with connections to the Horse Capital, but for now, as I write this, Cayla is half-way to Tokyo with her horse and is currently quarantined in Germany. By the time you read this, she will have also competed in the Paralympics and be on her way home. 

Let’s hope we can put this event together again in the years to come and make it bigger and better each year. What an incredible way to increase equine awareness and make it into a fun and educational equine event for all ages. I hope you will all join us at the Florida Horse Park in 2022. We will have your stick horse mounts groomed, tacked and ready for you to compete!    

Louisa Barton is the Equine Initiative Director at the Ocala Metro Chamber and Economic Partnership, Showcase Properties of Central Florida Farm Realtor and host of the Horse Talk Show on the Sky 97.3, Audacy.com and Equus Television

Photos courtesy of Louisa Barton

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