Have a hankerin' to play cowboy or cowgirl?
By Joann Guidry - Thursday, April 26, 2012
Have a hankerin’ to play cowboy or cowgirl? Then you might want to mosey on down the trail to Happy Acres Ranch, a dude ranch just 10 miles south of Ocala in nearby Dunnellon. And even at the risk of getting a little bowlegged, you just might want to dust off your cowboy hat and stay a spell.
Standing in the middle of the sandy riding arena, wearing blue jeans tucked into burgundy cowboy boots, Ocala resident Barbara Sewbaluck is listening intently to Happy Acres Ranch instructor Jill Santonastaso. First, Barbara is introduced to “Smooth,” a pretty chestnut and white paint quarter horse. Barbara listens intently as Jill explains the basics of mounting a horse, expertly demonstrating how to put her left foot in the stirrup and swing up slowly into the saddle. Now it’s Barbara’s turn. With a deep breath and the help of a mounting block, Barbara is up in the saddle and sitting on Smooth. A wide smile spreads across her face. For Barbara, this is a big day. It’s the first time that she’s ever been on a horse.
“I always liked horses and always wanted to learn to ride,” says Barbara, 65, a fit and active woman. “But the opportunity never came around. I’m so glad we found this place so close by.”
Watching from the viewing stand is Barbara’s husband Al, 64, who unfortunately has a sore hip from a biking accident and can’t ride. But joining Barbara in the arena are her sons, Ryan, 30, who lives in Orlando, and Will, 34, who lives in Paris, France. Like their mother, neither has ever been on a horse. But with Will visiting, the family has been seeking out adventurous activities. Going to a dude ranch and riding a horse met with everyone’s approval.
Now Ryan and Will, like Barbara, are soon up on horses as well. More grins. The trio is given basic steering instructions, learning quickly that horses are not automatic drive but rather more like a stick shift. Jill patiently explains how a rider can use both the reins and their legs to get the horses to move and turn. Twenty minutes and a game of follow-the-leader later, everyone feels comfortable enough to take a beginner’s trail ride. Jill mounts up and leads them out of the arena.
Thirty minutes later, everyone returns safe, sound, smiling and wearing trail dust like a merit badge.
“That was great,” says Will with Ryan nodding in agreement. “Being up on a horse gives you a whole different perspective of your surroundings. I think I’ll look into taking riding lessons when I get back to Paris.”
“I’ll definitely be back for more lessons and riding,” says Barbara, smile as wide as ever.
And seeing how much fun everyone had, Al adds, “And next time we come, I’ll give it a try, too.”
When Jim Moore and his wife Ailene bought their 40-acre Dunnellon ranch in 2005, it was as a weekend getaway place from their West Palm Beach home. Jim, a longtime successful home builder, had been riding horses off and on throughout his life. But the thought of going into the dude ranch business had never crossed his mind.
“Then, of course, the housing market went bust,” says Jim, who with his bushy, champagne-colored handlebar mustachehas that movie cowboy look. “As work slowed down, I started thinking about other businesses to go in to. Then, someone suggested I turn our place into a dude ranch. I wasn’t so sure that’s what I wanted to do.”
But after hosting an Ocala/Marion County Chamber of Commerce barbeque where the guests enjoyed not only good food but square dancing, horseback riding and taking hay rides, Jim began to get referrals. That was in late 2007, and Happy Acres Ranch was soon officially transitioned into a dude ranch.
“It was one of those things that just sorta became one thing leading to another,” says Jim. “Next thing we knew, we had all kinds of people coming out to learn how to ride and to trail ride. I meet so many interesting people from all over the world. And it’s always a whole lot of fun.”
Visitors to Happy Acres Ranch range from people like the Sewbalucks, who have no horse experience, and experienced riders, who for some reason no longer own a horse, to those who bring their own horses to stay on the ranch and ride the nearby trails. The ranch is also popular for events like family reunions, birthday and anniversary parties, and company retreats. There is also a youth summer camp every July and even an annual Easter egg hunt.
“We do get a lot of people who have no horse background but would like to learn to ride,” says Jim. “For those people, we have good calm horses, experienced instructors and easy trails right on our property. If someone has a good experience the first time they try riding, it makes all the difference in the world. They enjoy it, and then it’s something they want to do again.”
The Happy Acres Ranch riding stable currently includes 15 horses to suit all level of riders, from beginners to the experienced. Moore built two concrete block barns that provide 19 stalls; there are another 11 stalls available and six run-in sheds on the property, which has grown to nearly 50 acres. In addition to two lighted riding arenas and several turnout paddocks, there are 50 miles worth of wooded trails adjacent to the ranch. For the more adventurous, arrangements can be made to trailer horses to any ofthe nearby Cross Florida Greenway trailheads, which affords miles of trails that wind through beautiful forests.
“We’ll drop riders off at one trailhead and then pick them up a couple of hours later at another trailhead on the Greenway,” says Jim. “It’s a great way to enjoy riding.”
A unique aspect of Happy Acres Ranch is that it offers lodging for a night, three-day weekend and even a month or more at a time. Jim calls the overnight lodging “guest cottages,” but that description really doesn’t adequately suit the facilities. Both Lonesome Dove and Happy Trails Lodge are actually houses; Lonesome Dove was originally on adjacent property that Jim later bought.
Lonesome Dove is a three-bedroom, two-bath, two-car garage house that sits on a hill overlooking the ranch. It is fully and beautifully furnished, including full kitchen, laundry room, fireplace, satellite TV and Wi-Fi access. The house faces east and west, affording sunrise and sunset views from screened-in porches. With the same amenities, Happy Trails Lodge is located in the compound area of the ranch.
Also available for guests who want to stay awhile are the stage coach camper, which sleeps four adults and two children, and a new loft apartment in one of the concrete block barns. For those with their own recreation vehicles, there are four RV hook-ups on the ranch.
“Over the years, we began getting more and more people who were looking for a place to stay overnight or for a few days,” says Jim, who is planning to build another lodge soon. “They can ride as much as they want, go sightseeing, and we’re close to many good restaurants if they don’t want to cook. When people stay with us, they become part of the family.”
Happy Acres Ranch is also becoming a snowbird destination, or more specifically, snowbirds with horses. This past winter, both Lonesome Dove and the Happy Trails Lodge were booked from January through early April by horseback riders escaping the cold of their native states.
After visiting from upstate New York for a week last winter and having such a good time, Andrea Scott knew she’d be back. Indeed, and this year, she brought her husband Oliver, another couple, their horse trainer and six horses. The Olivers and their friends stayed in Lonesome Dove; the trainer bunked down in the barn loft apartment with the horses stabled below. They arrived in early January stayed until the second week in April.
“I just fell in love with the ranch and Ocala on my first visit last year,” says Andrea, who with her husband owns Wild Side Ranch LLC in western New York, where they raise buffalo. “I never thought I’d be a snowbird. But the great weather, being able to be here on the ranch and ride all these great trails, definitely changed my mind.”
On the other end of the ranch, Bob and Lorraine Heyworth from Cottontown, Tennessee, are straightening up the tack compartment in their four-horse trailer. It’s the second year in a row that they’ve come down to Happy Acres Ranch, hauling their two spotted saddle horses with them to ride. Joining them this year are friends Landon and June Simpson, who brought their Tennessee walking horses. While the horses are being boarded at Happy Acres, the two couples had to make other lodging arrangements for their month-long stay.
“We waited too long to make our reservations, and Jim was all booked up,” says Lorraine. “We’re renting a house at Rainbow River, but we’ve already made our reservations for next year at Happy Acres. We don’t want to be shut out again. We love riding the great trails here, and our visit is even better when we can stay on the ranch, too.”
It’s just that type of response and feedback that Jim, who was initially reluctant to become a dude rancher, likes to hear.
“Running a dude ranch is a lot of hard work,” says Jim, who frequently goes on trail rides with guests. “But I really enjoy horses and riding, so it’s nice to share that with people. We do our best to see to it that everyone has a good time.”
Just call it the “happy trails” experience.
Sundays by appointment after 3:30pm
$40 per hour, minimum two rider
10 percent discount for trail rides with
four or more riders
50 miles of adjacent trails/also
trailering to Cross Florida Greenway
For 6 years old & up
$45 per hour/group prices available
IF YOU GO
Happy Acres Ranch
10051 SW 125th Terr.
(352) 489-8550 (Office)
(352) 427-8870 (Cell)
Call for availability & rates.