By unanimous appointment of the Marion County School Board, Dr. Diane Gullett stood out above 46 other candidates in the Spring of 2020 for the top educator spot in Marion County. With 30 years of public education experience, Gullett leads day-to-day operations for the district’s 43,000 students and 7,000 employees. That is no small undertaking
So, when Gullet came to Marion County, she was serious about learning about this community and about how she could help lead her staff to be the most effective for all Marion County students. The Ocala Metro Chamber and Economic Partnership (CEP) was the ideal organization to reach out to, as the catalyst for the business community, for Gullett to learn more. Gullett asked the CEP to pull together key players within each of the main industries in this area. The intention was to discuss how pathways could be created to encourage students to learn about local career opportunities, and to find ways to provide them access to these careers.
One of those industries that is of great importance here in Marion County is the equine industry, as Marion County owns the title of “horse capital” and the title fits, as there are more horses here per square mile than anywhere else in the world. In 2015, a study, commissioned by the CEP, showed the economic impact of the equine industry to be over $2.6 billion in Marion County alone. An industry that has this much impact and offers so many jobs in a variety of areas is very important.
Whether young people choose to go straight into the equine industry jobs or go to college and hold a job at a farm or equine-related business to help support themselves while in college, the equine industry has lots to offer. We have half-jokingly coined an expression about how many opportunities there really are, from “mucking to media” and everything in between.
But it isn’t a joke anymore. With the opening of World Equestrian Center, the recent acquisition and total makeover of Horse Shows in the Sun (HITS), the Florida Horse Park venue, the upcoming new Ocala Jockey Club venture, all the feed and tack stores and other products and services, plus hundreds of farms and the many media opportunities, there is no end of jobs for all ages.
As the CEP’s Equine Initiative director, I was asked to pull together a group of key equine experts and top equestrians from all breeds and disciplines. Gullett’s goal was a discussion between herself, her staff and educators within the school system and the main farm owners, key equine-related business owners and equestrians. This initial meeting was to find out what was most needed within the industry and how the school system could assist with that.
The overall consensus among the group was how few young people have a chance to ever be around horses, even here in the horse capital. Everyone agreed that young people would probably take an interest in working in the equine industry, if there were opportunities to learn about it. The average is actually only 1 in 28 children who ever have a chance to meet a horse or have any interaction with one. Horse ownership is not an inexpensive undertaking and the average household cannot afford to own horses. Many young people think that horses are only for the very wealthy and elite, but once around horses, they are enamored and cannot wait to learn more. Everyone in the equine industry agreed that they wanted to make the equine industry more accessible to all.
Some years back, North Marion High School teachers started a very successful equine program, and it has become very popular, providing students opportunities to learn all about horse handling, feeding and care, plus preparing horses for the sales experience and even selling horses through the consigning process. This was very successful and these programs are still growing and flourishing at North Marion. Unfortunately, as wonderful as this program is, it is only one high school and the equine industry needs more opportunities like the North Marion program all over the county, plus opportunities for younger children also in the elementary and middle schools.
Since that first meeting, I grabbed the reins and decided to run with it (forgive the pun). Over the past two years, I have met with several staff members within the school system. My first meetings were with Marguerite Talbot, chief academics officer. Talbot had lots of great questions and wanted to learn more about how access to horses could be available to all age groups and how these great goals could be achieved. More meetings and discussions were held and Benjamin Whitehouse, director of student pathways and assessment, played a key role. We discussed ideas and suggested ways to turn this possibility into reality. Even the CEP’s Equine Advocacy group discussed pathways at their quarterly meetings. It was always on the agenda for updates as we moved forward at the gallop.
The meetings and discussions were very productive, and the educators and the CEP team worked together to bring forth a plan to make sure all students had opportunities to learn about this multibillion-dollar industry and about the horses and people who make it possible. A Memorandum of Understanding between the Foundation for CEP and the School Board was drawn up and agreed upon.
On March 28, myself and CEP Chief Experience Officer VP Tamara Fleischhaker were present at the School Board meeting with Debbie and Jorge Garcia-Bengochea, from Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses, and Magic herself, the “hero horse,” was also in the auditorium for this memorable moment. I believe that may be the first time a horse has ever been in the School Board auditorium. Whitehouse and I presented to the board all that we had worked on and we both spoke in favor of the equine education programs and all the benefits it would create for students. I also spoke about the 501c3 Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses and how important their role would be, by bringing their miniature therapy horses into all of the elementary schools. Encouraging literacy by presenting children with a book about a horse, who then arrives on scene is unforgettable and that experience alone can incite a desire for better reading skills and to learn more about horses.The School Board unanimously voted in favor of the Memorandum of Understanding between the two organizations. They then took a wonderful team photo with Magic.
This is a huge milestone in “The Horse Capital” and a legacy for all involved. Had North Marion High School not had such a wonderful staff and such huge success with its equine program, this might never have been considered. Had the new school superintendent not had such foresight, we might not be where we are today. Had all the key players in the equine industry not come together so well as a group and provided a united front for the needs the industry has, these exciting milestones might never have been met. It takes a village. Had Pyranha, Inc. the finest fly spray company, not jumped in and sponsored the CEP’s Equine Initiative, I do not believe this would have come so far and I do not think equine education and experiences would have become a very real option for all ages and also for generations to come.
The Equine Industry Expo, presented by Quantum Fiber, at the Ocala Downtown Market on March 29, showcased the equine industry perfectly. Having top champion horses and even well-loved backyard pasture pets, plus top equestrians and equine professionals, all in one place at one time, is an incredible experience and was enjoyed by all ages. It is events like the Expo that really show how much all generations love the opportunity to touch horses, meet them face-to-face and learn more.
Congratulations to all involved with the future of equine education, creating wonderful opportunities for students and opening doors that had otherwise been shut. In the “Horse Capital,” which is growing exponentially every day, where there are so many equine industry opportunities, everyone should have a chance to learn about horses – and now this has been made possible.